Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Research with Children: Ethical Mind-Fields

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Research with Children: Ethical Mind-Fields

Article excerpt

Introduction

The ethical issues involved in research with young children have been preoccupying me as I complete my doctoral studies. Research that involves children always contains assumptions about the nature of the child and of childhood in general. These views of children can affect every aspect of the research undertaken with them, particularly ethical concerns. In the `new sociology of childhood' a reconceptualised view of the child is proposed, one that sees children not as passive participants incapable of representing their own views but `as social actors in their own right in contexts where, traditionally, they have been denied those rights of participation and their voices have remained unheard' (Christensen & James, 2000, p. 2). Working from this position has profound implications for researchers who work with children, particularly in relation to how power relations are conceived and experienced. In this article I relate how my own changing views of children have impacted on my current research and discuss ethical issues in the use of power during data collection. Other ethical issues such as the complexities of consent when young children are involved and issues of confidentiality, although of equal importance, are beyond the scope of this article.

Researcher relationships and power

After months of preparation, I arrived at that point in my doctoral studies where I could actually start `doing' research with young children. My research proposal and ethical clearance had been approved. The research site was an art gallery and my focus was how young children of four and five years are inducted into art gallery practices. I planned to collect taped conversations as children observed artwork and engaged with each other and myself and teachers at the gallery. I would also collect photographs and drawings, but have not discussed these here. I imagined that I had a clear view of my ethical responsibilities and that I knew how to `ethically' collect the data. Taking an critical interpretive case study approach, I aimed to do my research with rather than on children, to listen carefully to children's perspectives and perceptions in order to understand how they engaged in the practices of the art gallery.

For the purpose of this paper I have selected an extract from many hours and days of data collection on which to base my discussion in order to illustrate how power is negotiated and enacted continuously in our research practices rather than inherent in the researcher-participant relationship.

The transcript involves two five-year-old children, Mary and Jake (not their real names), their teacher, Elsie and me. I will refer to the children by name, to Elsie as `Teacher' and to myself as `Researcher'. We were in the art gallery and we had just arrived at a rest area where there was a touch screen computer positioned in front of a couch. Jake immediately sat down and started touching the images on the screen. The images were of items to be found in the gallery.

Jake: Another computer! (We had encountered the first computer in the lobby of the gallery and Jake had spent some time interacting with it.)

Researcher: Another computer.

Mary: Oohh! Ohh! Ohh!

Researcher: What does this one tell you?

Jake: Oh, look!

Researcher: That one works better, doesn't it? This one is so neat.

Jake: Hey, what's that noise? (The speaker on the computer tells the viewer about the image when the image is touched. Jake keeps touching different things and the narrative starts and stops.)

Researcher: (It's) actually moving (meaning the pictures on the screen).

Mary: Yeah.

My intentions were to interfere as little as possible with the children's activity so that I could see what sense they were making of the experience. However, I was also a participant and wanted children to see me as a legitimate member of the group. …

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