This article articulates the value of ethnographic research into poverty and particularly into the issue of student hardship. The question is asked whether ‘poverty line’ models of research, which claim to establish objective and accurate measures of financial adversity, actually help in understanding the problem of student hardship. Similar questions are asked about discourses that use the language of participation and social exclusion.
Consideration is given to the value of listening to young people talk about their experiences of studying and living without sufficient means. I refer here not only to the ethics of including ‘the subjects’ of research in the knowledge-making activity, but also to the value of the ethnographic material that is produced. This offers insights into the particular social problem which it is critical to understand in order to respond effectively. It is also material that is not available through more traditional forms of research. While the focus in this article is on university students and financial hardship, it is also arguing more generally in favour of giving priority to interpretivist tradition in research about contemporary social problems.