Access to Justice for Youth in the Public Sphere

Naomi Nichols
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education
McGill University, Canada

In 2017, I published an article in Social & Legal Studies called: “The Social Organization of Access to Justice for Youth in ‘Unsafe’ Urban Neighbourhoods.” The article was produced as part of a larger project[1], spanning Canada’s two largest urban centres (Toronto, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec) and examining young people’s experiences of relational and procedural fairness across a range of public sector contexts: schooling, neighbourhood policing, child protection, social housing, social assistance and so forth. The project itself was comprised of two distinctive studies. The studies differed in terms of the specific research methods we used and the areas of research focus, which young people articulated. They were linked by the use of participatory institutional ethnographic research strategies and a shared focus on young people’s experiences of procedural and relational fairness on the frontlines of the public sector.

The first study[2] focused on school and community safety (Nichols, 2016, 2017, 2018; Nichols & Braimoh, 2016). The study’s central lines of inquiry emerged from the experiences and knowledge of young people who live in designated “vulnerable” or “priority” neighbourhoods[3] and/or who attend school in Safe Schools or Section 23 Programs[4] in closed custody corrections facilities in and around Toronto. By virtue of where they live, their experiences in school, and/or their involvement with the youth criminal justice system, the young people who participated in the first study were institutionally coded as “at-risk.”

After two and a half years of research in Ontario, I undertook a second project[5] in Montreal, Quebec, anchoring data collection in the experiences and knowledge of English-speaking youth, from across a range of Montreal neighbourhoods ( In the second phase of the project, we deliberately sought to engage with young people who, as a result of their interactions with interconnected youth justice, educational, mental health, actuarial, and municipal governance discourses, practices, frameworks and metrics come to be coded by the State and by people who work in public sector and community-based organizations in a range of different ways – e.g., as entitled, at-risk, high-achieving, school drop-out, racialized, homeless, immigrant, anxious, learning disabled, gender-non-conforming, and all the intersections of those terms you might imagine.

Across the two studies, young people’s stories and insights grounded investigations of educational, social, housing, policing, labour market, and criminal-legal policies, which background and give shape to young people’s lives.  The Social & Legal Studies article, grounded in data from the first study, focuses on young people’s experiences of relational fairness with the police in their neighbourhoods, and the reverberation of these relations in other aspects of their lives (e.g., in schools).

I use a feminist sociological approach (Institutional Ethnography), developed by Canadian Sociologist, Dorothy E. Smith (Smith, 1987, 1993, 1999, 2005) (1987; 1990; 1999; 2005) to conduct the research. As such, I do not offer young people’s stories of their experiences as my research findings. Rather, young people’s stories about their interactions with the police in their neighbourhood ground my analysis of the dispersal of justice in large urban centres as social relations that are shaped by and constitutive of race, gender and class. The Social & Legal Studies article shows how young people’s experiences of diminished relational fairness in their encounters with the police reduces the degree to which they expect full and equal access to other juridical and administrative public institutions and processes. Furthermore, the article demonstrates how these institutionally-mediated relations reflect and produce young people’s racialized, gendered and class-based identities.

What I have found most interesting (and depressing) about this project is the ways the same institutional processes, which are implicated in one young person’s experiences of surveillance, criminalization and exclusion are producing another young person’s experiences of safety, protection and inclusion. Because I am a professor in in a Faculty of Education, much of the work I have done to illuminate these interconnected social relations has been in relation to educational policy and educational interventions. At times, I have used my own experiences advocating for my own white, middle class children to show just how the same institutional policies and processes which are implicated in the severing of one young person’s relation with education (for example) can produce another child’s continued attachments to this same institution. The difference in outcomes is not based on a differential institutional savvy or resilience or some other individualized explanation; rather, the differences reveal just how the organizational structures, which comprise the public education system, support and protect the interests of those who have historically held privileges in these institutional environments.

Because public sector interventions have been designed by and normed against a particular segment of the population and then applied universally, they produce social relations that reflect and maintain historically situated patterns of privilege, oppression, invisibility, surveillance, suffering and entitlement. My aim is for the research to crack open the assumptions of neutrality and objectivity upon which the public sector operates and continues to defend its legitimacy.

The two projects comprise the basis of a forthcoming book through the University of Toronto Press: Investigations of the Public Sphere: Participatory institutional ethnographies of state interventions from the standpoints of youth.

Naomi Elizabeth Nichols is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University, Canada.  Naomi is the author of ‘Producing youth “Out of Sync:” Revealing the intersectional social relations of educational inequality’ (2017) Journal of Youth Studies, and ‘The social organization of access to justice for youth in “unsafe” urban neighbourhoods’ (2017) Social & Legal Studies, the latter of which is available for free for a limited time (correct as of 17.09.2018) at the link above.

Naomi’s research has expressly sought to engender social inclusion through equitable reforms to practice, policy, organizations and institutions. Naomi uses institutional ethnography to identify disjunctures (gaps or cracks) that emerge where the ordinary conditions of young people’s lives are out of sync with the institutional and social systems meant to mediate their participation in society. In particular, Naomi examines empirically how these gaps are produced by intersecting institutional policies, discourses, processes, and practices through interviews and observations, policy and textual analysis in the various settings where young people interface with community and public services. 



Nichols, N. (2016). Investigating the social relations of human service provision: Institutional ethnography and activism. Journal of Comparative Social Work, 11(1).

Nichols, N. (2017). ‘Technologies of evidence: An institutional ethnography from the standpoints of ‘youth-at-risk.’ Critical Social Policy, 37(4), 604–624.

Nichols, N. (2018). Producing youth ‘Out of sync:’ the intersectional social relations of educational inequality. Journal of Youth Studies, 21(1), 111–128.

Nichols, N., & Braimoh, J. (2016). Community Safety, Housing Precariousness and Processes of Exclusion: An Institutional Ethnography from the Standpoints of Youth in an ‘Unsafe’ Urban Neighbourhood. Critical Sociology, 44(1), 157–172.

Smith, D. E. (1987). The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. UPNE.

Smith, D. E. (1993). Texts, Facts, and Femininity: Exploring the Relations of Ruling. New York, NY: Routledge.

Smith, D. E. (1999). Writing the Social: Critique, Theory, and Investigations. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Toronto, ON: AltaMira Press.



[1] 2014-2019, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grants program

[2] Conducted with Professors Alison Griffith and Uzo Anucha, both from York University in Toronto, Ontario.

[3] Neighbourhood improvement areas are established using a modified version of a tool ( for assessing social and health disparities across the city.

[4] Students in Section 23 Programs are “clients” of an agency funded by the Ministry of Child and Youth Services. Section 23 Programs are found in hospitals, groups homes, children’s mental health centres, and – of import for this study – in open and closed custody correctional institutions.

[5] Conducted with with Professor Jessica Ruglis at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.


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