Studying the Social Worlds of Children: Sociological Readings

By Frances Chaput Waksler | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

The Least-Adult Role in Studying Children

Nancy Mandell

Commentary

In this article Mandell describes some of the practical problems that she encountered in her sociological study of children. By adopting the kind of perspective described in the preceding two chapters (Waksler and Mackay), she achieved new insights into what she calls ‘children’s ways’, but to achieve those insights she had to recognize and resolve problems that can be attributed to the stringent demands of the perspective she chose.

The method she used to conduct her study, participant observation, involves observation of those studied by directly participating in their actions with them. Participant observation seems to be most readily undertaken when the sociological observer can blend in with those being studied, engaging in actions with them in such a way that the sociologist’s presence as other is not intrusive. As Mandell clearly demonstrates, an adult engaging in participant observation of children, especially of young children, is open to questioning both by children and by other adults. A first response to her choice of method might well be: ‘That’s impossible. An adult cannot pass for a child.’ Indeed that may be the case, but one can, as Mandell demonstrates, be accepted by children as part of their ongoing activities in many of the ways that children would accept another child. (A similar issue arose for Elliot Liebow (1967), a white sociologist studying black streetcorner men. Liebow did not pass for black, but he was sufficiently accepted by the men to study their actions by participating with them.)

It should be noted that Mandell is describing processes involved in studying children, not necessarily in working with or teaching them. The understanding that she provides is clearly of use to those working with children but the strategy she uses of least-adult is a researcher’s role; its use as a teacher’s role is both questionable and undocumented.

From Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 16 No. 4, January 1988 pp. 433-467, copyright 1988 by Sage Publications, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications, Inc. and the author.

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