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2.4 Research with children

Until recently, studies focusing on children had them as objects of research, rather than participants in it (Barker & Weller, 2003, Darbyshire et al, 2005, Mayall, 2000).  Perhaps due to the lower societal status of children, their developing vocabulary and language skills and the different ways adults perceive children (compared with other adults) (Punch, 2002), explorations of children's lives were undertaken very much from the outside looking in.  With the rights of the child gaining increased importance (the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, 1989; the Children’s Acts, 1989 & 2004), it became increasingly obvious that children should and could provide their own discourse on their needs, aspirations and expectations.

The first thing to recognise is that 'child' is a term spanning a range of individuals with differing needs and capabilities.  A toddler and teenager may both be classed as children, but behave and communicate differently and occupy their own niches within society.  As a consequence, applying to them the same procedures and practices we would bring to bear when undertaking research involving adults merits some rethinking.  As Punch op cit and Thomas & O'Kane (1998) recognised, whilst issues of methodology, ethical considerations, validity and reliability, developing rapport and the research context all apply to research with both children and adults, there are subtle differences in the way a researcher of child-centred issues ought to approach each of these fields.  The most significant factor that needs to be addressed when working with children, even more so than with adults, is the power imbalance between researcher and subject/respondent.  Not only is there an innate power differential due to age difference and adults as authority figures, but a researcher clearly is at an elevated level of power with respect to a respondent by dint of controlling the line of research.

Methods and methodologies have to be carefully chosen which provide appropriate mechanisms through which children are able to communicate their views and opinions in ways which rely less on adult interpretation.  Barker and Weller op cit advocate the use of child-centred research methods which help to address issues of power relations by providing channels of communication through which children feel comfortable communicating, like drawing, photography, stories or song.  Concrete activities which involve handling things rather than 'just talking' provide the scaffolding to enable children to discuss complex and abstract issues and helps to ameliorate some of the ethical concerns with adults having to perform a significant role in interpreting meaning from children's feedback. (Thomas & O'Kane, op cit).  Where interviews are used, focus or group interviews can help reduce the apparent power of the interviewer as a simply of the greater number of interviewees. Context and setting are important too; classrooms often have connotations for children as places in which they are required to 'give the right answer' and so respondents may try to provide the answer they think the interviewer wants to hear, rather than what they actually think.

Providing children with the tools with which to articulate their thoughts is only one aspect of the research process to be considered however.  Some advocate redressing the power imbalance yet further by elevating children from mere respondents, to that of participants given the opportunity to contribute to the research at different levels (Clarke 2004, Fargas-Malet et al 2010, Thomas & O'Kane, op cit).  This may be at any time from during the initial stages of formulating the research questions, through to the final analysis and dissemination of the findings.  Although a laudable ideal, Mahon et al (1996) caution that the appropriateness of involving children is not always apparent and will depend on the research topic and the degree of skill and responsibility demanded of the researcher.  Given the degree of preparation required of the researcher, it may not always be practicable (or desirable?) for such a high level of participation; the scope of my study here for example, with a single researcher engaged in a small-scale study cannot devote the resources into supporting child participants across the whole range of the research process.  It remains important however, that the researcher acknowledges the degree to which s/he holds sway over what data are included/excluded in the findings presented to the public and that the analysis of those data may be coloured by their standpoint.  It is also important to keep in mind that though we might seek to address the ethical concerns of enabling opportunities for child voice to be heard, asking for such a high degree of involvement may tip the ethical scales in another direction by placing unfair demands on the children's time.