Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Development of an Ethical Methodology for Post-Bushfire Research with Children

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Development of an Ethical Methodology for Post-Bushfire Research with Children

Article excerpt

Introduction and plan of paper

In February 2009 there were catastrophic bushfires across the State ofVictoria, Australia. One hundred and seventy-three lives were lost leaving 16 children orphaned and many more injured and traumatised by their experiences. Over 450,000 ha were burnt including 40 townships. More than 350,000 buildings were destroyed including 2,059 homes.

It is well established that natural disasters have a serious impact on mental health and social func- tioning, with a particular focus in the literature on post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and sub- stance abuse (Norris et al., 2002). However, posi- tive recovery is possible and in fact many recover well from the experience. This is obviously influ- enced by level of exposure to the disaster event and loss, as well as disruption to personal, social and community elements of daily life (Norris et al., 2002). More evidence is needed on how responses to these events change over time and the differen- tial impact of bushfires on different groups within the community. Some population groups includ- ing children and adolescents, may be at a higher risk because of the impact of trauma on their sense of safety and security and on their ongoing development and social relationships (McDermott, Lee, Judd, & Gibbon, 2005; McFarlane, 1987).

There has been a tendency for researchers and practitioners to overlook the needs and experi- ences of children and young people in relation to disasters (Peek, 2008). In this paper, we report on our exploration of ways to involve children and young people, guided by theory and formal con- sultations with experts. We start by comparing how different theoretical frameworks of childhood inform the problem of finding out the needs of children and young people. Then, because of the public health dictum of first do no harm we show how we consulted with experts, not with the aim of going straight to the question of how to con- duct research with children, but starting with the prior question of if we should interview children about their experiences in the first place. Finally, we set out the results of our combined theorising and consultation to propose our methodology for talking to children and young people about the worst bushfires in Melbourne, Australia in a way that we argue is ethical, does no harm, and gives effect to the rights of the child (CRC). By first providing a detailed description of the process we used in developing considered post-bushfire research methods we aim to promote reflective, theoretically based methodological development. By then describing the outcomes of this process, we present an ethical approach to engaging chil- dren in post-disaster research.

Theoretical frameworks

This study is informed by the sociology of child- hood, a theoretical construct which emerged following critical reflection from within soci- ology that its theories and methods ignored a sizeable and important population, namely chil- dren. This led to an appreciation that children are not merely adult possessions but have rights and responsibilities as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989). This is often referred to as the citizen child framework approach. More specifi- cally, Morrow (2003) argues that:

* childhood is a social construction, not a biological fact, and thus varies over time as well as within and across societies;

* childhood is a variable of social analysis;

* children's social relationships and cultures are worthy of study in their own right, indepen- dent of the perspectives and concerns of adults;

* children are, and must be seen as, active in the construction and determination of their own lives, the lives of those around them, and of the societies in which they live.

The sociology of childhood therefore con- trasts with alternative perspectives as follows:

* The developing child framework sees children as existing principally within the sphere of influ- ence of family or adults and adult institutions. …

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