This paper discusses practical and methodological issues arising from a case study exploring the hopes, aspirations and learning identities of three groups of students undertaking low-level broad vocational programmes in two English general further education colleges. Working within a social justice theoretical framework the paper outlines the participative approach which was adopted as part of the research process from the initial development of interview questions to the early data analysis. It explores the advantages and limitations of the approach in the context of the broader methodology and the social justice theoretical framework arguing that, despite the intention to collaborate with the participants, the ultimate control over the study was vested in the researcher, raising questions around the nature and extent of empowerment through the medium of research. The paper draws two key conclusions. In social justice terms, the young people’s contribution was limited by their lack of previous experience of any type of research and, to some extent, by difficulty with the written word. Despite this, the participative approach was effective in demonstrating value and respect for the young participants and provided an opportunity for them to make their voices heard from beyond the model of disadvantage and disengagement in which government policy seeks to confine them. Further, in purely methodological terms, the approach provided insights which could not have been obtained by ‘researching on’, suggesting that it provides a useful means of exploring the lives and identities of marginalised youth.