Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Challenges of Researching with Children

by Elsbeth Robson

I’m a social geographer who researches mostly in Africa. I’ve been doing research with children since I undertook my PhD fieldwork in a village in Northern Nigeria in the early 1990s. 

Child traders and headloaders in a periodic rural market in Hausaland, Northern Nigeria c1993.

That involved spending a lot of time in the village and the markets nearby observing what children were doing in public space and the important work they do running errands and as traders. Hausa children are well known for selling cooked food for adult married women observing Muslim seclusion (purdah). We also asked them to tell us all their activities the previous day to collect 24hour recall data to look at children's time use (Robson 2004).

After getting my PhD, once I was a lecturer at Keele University I was able to do some work in Zimbabwe - thanks to a British Council link with the University of Zimbabwe). I turned to look at the work of young caregivers – children with responsibilities caring for a sick or elderly adult at home. Interviews with caregiving children and also interviews with adult key informants (in the health service, NGOs supporting children, hospices and the like) were the main data collection approaches (Robson et al 2006).

A decade later in Malawi I was part of teams undertaking three ESRC-DFID funded projects on (i) children, transport and mobility (available here); (ii) impacts of AIDS on food security for youth (available here) and (iii) youth and mobile phones. Each of these research projects involved researching directly with children and young people using a range of qualitative, quantitative and/or participatory methods.

Secondary school pupil receiving certificate and souvenir photograph after training workshop for young researchers – were ‘educational benefits’ enough justification for her to miss several days of schoolwork which she’d have to catch up in her own time?

All these projects threw up different ethical challenges for researching with children and young people not just in Malawi, but also in Lesotho, Ghana and South Africa where research was conducted as part of the multi-country studies. 

Young researchers in their school uniforms hard at work collating results of their research on transport and mobility with other young people in their high density low income urban community within the city of Blantyre in Southern Malawi – should they be paid for their work?

Local youth band preparing to play at end-of-project community village meeting – was providing feedback on research findings, entertainment & refreshments (purchased from village small businesspeople) giving back enough?

We had to ask ourselves some hard questions, like:

  • Was it justifiable to interview recently bereaved children who cried when questioned?
  • Where interviews were incomplete because a child was too emotionally upset to continue, should we re-visit in order to try and complete the interview?
  • Should young people miss school in order to take part in training to be young researchers?
  • Is it contravening child labour legislation to employ children to undertake peer research with other young people?
  • If we paid young people to work as researchers should it be in cash or kind? How much?
  • How should families and young people in poor communities who take part in participatory research be recompensed for their time? Grocery packs? Refreshments? Copies of the data? Photos of themselves? A party?

These are all real ethical encounters I have faced in working with young people in research in various sub-Saharan African countries. Encountering ethical dilemmas in fieldwork with children can be difficult for researchers wherever in the world they work. Unexpected situations and challenges arise however much we think we are prepared and willing to ‘do the right thing’. All aspects of research raises ethical questions - even writing this blog raised ethical questions about whether to include photos of people without their permission and whether to use their names, or identify specific places, on the captions.

Now there is a new online resource to help researchers . As part of the Ethical Research Involving children (ERIC) project we came together with nearly 400 members of the international research and NGO communities including UNICEF to contribute case studies and publications from our own research experiences to guide others towards ethical research involving children. The ERIC website is intended to be an online space to share stories, experiences and learning about ethical issues and concerns that shape research involving children and young people around the world. Take a look and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Overcoming Anglocentrism? Researching overseas

By Kirstie O'Neill (@KirstieJONeill)

What do we do as researchers?  I’m a post-doctoral research associate in the University of Hull’s Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences and I’m a social scientist.  This generally involves speaking to people as part of ‘doing’ research, although there are lots of research methods in social sciences which don’t involve directly speaking to people.  Here I’m writing about my experiences of ‘doing’ research outside of the UK, from a current project in Germany and some of my PhD research in Italy.  In particular, I’m thinking about how social scientists speak to people in other countries when they aren’t necessarily fluent in those languages.  

I never thought my A-level German would be of much use beyond school, but almost 18 years later I found myself refreshing my memory so that I could go to Germany to do a research project.  Part of that preparation involved a mountain biking holiday with my husband to the Black Forest where I found that I could remember more than ‘hello’ and could even hold a basic conversation, much to my surprise.

On returning from this, I swotted up so that I felt a bit more comfortable about living in Germany for almost a month to conduct interviews with green building businesses and policy makers in Germany, from Freiburg-im-Breisgau to Berlin, and Dresden to Cologne.  

Admittedly, many Germans speak impeccable English but I still had cause to use my German in navigating everyday life in Germany (in particular, buying cakes!).

My grant for this work in Germany (from the British Academy) included a small budget for translation in the field, but as has been written elsewhere, doing research through someone else’s ‘voice’ comes with its own issues.  In particular, social science research which involves in-depth and detailed conversations in other languages can potentially cause problems, from causing offence to asking the wrong questions or not getting the ‘right’ data.  Working with interpreters who are specialists in languages but who are not necessarily familiar with your area of work and related technical or specific terminology (in my case relating to green building in Germany and local food in Italy, see below) can be quite challenging, and trying to make sure you find out what you need to but being reliant on someone else’s interpretation of what you actually mean can be interesting!  In Italy in particular, the translator would have quite long bursts of conversation with the interviewees and then only feedback a sentence or two to me, like a Monty Python sketch – interviews can be such dynamic interactions that if you’re not following it all you risk missing vital opportunities to ask questions. 

Community apple festival, Abruzzo
As well as visiting Germany for research earlier this year, my PhD research involved fieldwork in a remote part of Italy, the Abruzzo region – stunningly beautiful but with very few English speaking people around.  I was lucky to have funding to take lessons in Italian and I love learning the language (I try to continue this post-PhD), but there is a difference between taking classes in the UK and trying to have detailed and specific conversations with specialists in their field.  Italy was quite different to Germany as only one interviewee wanted to speak in English – transcribing interviews in Italian and then translating to English was tough, but did really advance my language skills and vocabulary of Italian words.  In hindsight the extra few months I was allocated for this aspect of my PhD research wasn’t really enough since I started from scratch learning Italian! 

Certificate for local food producers
in the Majella National Park, Abruzzo
 This part of my PhD research was the bit which most worried me, and right from starting the PhD I was concerned about how I would set this up, whether people would respond to requests for interviews and whether I would be able to speak to them and understand them (quite apart from a month away from home without internet access and with patchy mobile phone coverage for a UK mobile).  It took quite a bit of setting up and a very early flight from Manchester airport, but the people I interviewed were incredible, and welcomed me openly – they were very interested in my research and were happy to tell me their experiences of local food systems in their part of Italy.  My PhD research was looking at local food systems and the contribution they can potentially make to rural development – quite different issues came up in Italy compared to my UK study area of East Yorkshire.  The photos below illustrate some of the differences in landscape and therefore the potential for different types of farming and food production. 

Bales in Yorkshire Wolds, East Yorkshire
View from agriturismo, Abruzzo
Oilseed rape field, East Yorkshire

Campo Imperatore, Abruzzo


How and why did I choose to visit these particular places?  With my PhD research in Italy it had already been decided that the Abruzzo region would be the case study region, based on a long standing relationship between the University of Hull and a group of local food producers running a cooperative called Parco Produce (Produce from the (National) Park).  The area also has a LEADER rural development programme (funded by the EU) like my case study region of East Yorkshire in the UK.  For Germany, this idea came out of research interviews with green building businesses in the UK who repeatedly stated how advanced Germany is in many areas of green building (interestingly, many Germans stated how advanced the UK is in terms of straw bale building!).  Germany is a pretty big country, so I started to research on the internet which areas would be good to visit - Freiburg was fairly obvious as it promotes itself as a leader in green building, but I also found interesting clusters around Cologne and the Rhineland more generally.  I also visited some of the national organisations based in Berlin and Stuttgart.  There was plenty more I could've done in Germany but I only had funding for three weeks in Germany which limited my possibilities...another time perhaps!

I was surprised when I went to Italy 4 years ago how different it was to where I was used to living – I stayed around the Sulmona area (think The American with George Clooney), which is mountainous with dispersed rural populations.  I was definitely recognisable as ‘not local’ but everyone was really friendly, and wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing.  Germany was a different experience as I mostly stayed in towns and cities which were, on the whole, more impersonal and apart from meeting up with interviewees and colleagues from German Universities I didn’t really get to meet ‘local’ German people.  I travelled to and from Germany without flying (bus, boat, train, tram etc.) and this was where I met more people.  ‘Doing’ research outside the UK is a great opportunity to complement knowledges and experiences of the places we’re used to with those we’re not used to – it’s definitely not a jolly but can be really good fun!  I’ve previously written a blog post about the German research ( and there’s one in the pipeline on my PhD research too...

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Seeing the wood for the trees in Neolithic Orkney

by Michelle Farrell (@DrM_Farrell)

As I mentioned in my first GEES-ology blog post, palynology can be applied, along with a whole host of other scientific techniques, to help answer archaeological questions. One of my main research interests lies in understanding how people interacted with their environments during prehistoric times – not just the ways in which human activities may have impacted upon the environment, but also the effects that environmental conditions may have had on the development of human culture and society. I am particularly interested in how these human-environment relationships may have differed in areas that are currently perceived to be marginal for human settlement, and especially in island environments where finite natural resources would have been available.

To date, my research in this field has focused on the islands of Orkney, situated about 10 km off the northern coast of Scotland. This apparently open, hyper-oceanic environment would presumably have provided quite marginal conditions for human settlement, yet Neolithic communities flourished and the islands contain some of the most spectacular remains of this period in north-west Europe. The importance of these monuments is reflected by the designation of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, which includes the settlement of Skara Brae, the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, and the ceremonial sites of the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.

One of the houses at the Neolithic village of Skara Brae,
occupied between about 3200 and 2500 BC
The Stones of Stenness in west Mainland

Berriedale Wood in northern Hoy: Britain's most northerly natural woodland,
and the only patch of native woodland surviving in Orkney today
It has generally been argued that the Neolithic structures of Orkney have survived so well because they were built in stone - the use of stone for construction seems to have been rare elsewhere in Britain at this time. Orkney today is largely treeless – in fact the only natural woodland to be found on the islands is that at Berriedale in northern Hoy, which actually represents the most northerly natural woodland in the British Isles. There is a long-held assumption that Orkney has been devoid of substantial woodland throughout much of the Holocene (the period of time since the end of the last ice age, approximately 11,500 years ago, to the present day). Was the use of stone for construction in Neolithic Orkney therefore an environmental necessity?

Yesnaby in west Mainland serves to demonstrate why the islanders
might have preferred to use flagstone for construction even if plenty of
timber was available! The flagstone easily breaks off along the
bedding planes in perfect, evenly sized slabs ready for building.
Palynological investigations carried out in the 1960s and 70s suggest that Orkney did once have quite extensive tree cover, although high percentages of birch and hazel pollen have led this to be dismissed as ‘scrub’ or ‘shrubland’ rather than true woodland. These studies have often been used to provide context for the Orcadian archaeological record, the story being that the islands were covered with birch-hazel ‘scrub’ during the earlier part of the Holocene, which was then almost entirely cleared for agriculture around 5500 years ago. This apparently forced the islanders to the readily available Orcadian flagstone for their construction materials.

Many of these early palaeoecological studies were hampered by poor dating of the sequences investigated, and when I plotted the dates of woodland decline from previous reliably dated studies, along with dates from new cores that I worked on for my PhD research, it became clear that the timing of woodland decline in Orkney differed between locations. At several sites woodland loss occurred in multiple stages, with fragments of woodland persisting into the Bronze Age in places. So it seems that woodland was present in parts of Orkney throughout the whole of the Neolithic period – but how valuable a resource would it have been to the islanders?

The tendency to dismiss prehistoric Orcadian woodland as ‘scrub’ has led to the assumption that it would not have been particularly valued as a resource by the inhabitants of the islands. Whilst it is true that the woodland was probably largely made up of species such as birch and hazel, even birch-hazel canopied woodland can be a useful and rich resource. In the North Atlantic region, environmental archaeologists have identified the management of birch woodland as one of the most pressing issues in the Norse and medieval periods. The uses of birch wood range from domestic fuel to the production of charcoal for iron smelting, and there is palynological evidence from Greenland that birch woodland was being sustainably managed, indicating the importance of the resource to the human population. In Iceland, woodland was managed by coppicing and access to woodland was controlled by the more powerful members of society. Coppice management of woodland has been practised in Europe since the Mesolithic period (c. 9000-4000 BC), with evidence provided by artefacts such as fish traps found in Ireland and Denmark. There seems to be no reason why the birch-hazel woodland of Orkney should not have been similarly valued for the range of resources that it would have provided. In fact, there may have been greater diversity in some areas, with the possibility that species such as oak and pine also grew on Orkney, and this would only have increased the range of possible uses and value of the resource. More on this in a future blog post!
Remains of one of the wooden structures at Braes of Ha'Breck: the large
post holes which would have held the timber uprights are clearly visible
The final question to be answered is whether the woodland of prehistoric Orkney would have been capable of providing timbers that were substantial enough for construction. Until recently, the only early Neolithic settlement known in Orkney was that at Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, which was built in stone at a time when early Neolithic houses elsewhere in Scotland were constructed from timber, thereby apparently supporting the suggestion that the predominance of stone architecture in Neolithic Orkney was a consequence of a lack of timber resources. In recent years early Neolithic buildings have been discovered at several other locations in the islands, with a wide range of architectural styles now recognised from this period. The remains of wooden structures at Wideford in west Mainland and the Braes of Ha’Breck on the island of Wyre clearly demonstrate that timber resources were exploited during the earlier part of the Orcadian Neolithic. Whilst it is probable that at least some of this timber was derived from driftwood, recent palynological evidence has shown that local woodland could have provided a more reliable resource. The archaeological evidence from Braes of Ha’Breck suggests that whilst in some cases timber buildings were directly replaced with stone structures, others may have been contemporary with them. Although stone buildings appear to have been predominant in the later phases of occupation at this site, large structural timbers continued to be used within them. A small domestic quarry on the site appears to have been exploited for its stone during the early Neolithic, when buildings were being constructed from wood, and was apparently filled in and no longer used during the later Neolithic, at a time when it has been suggested that people were turning to flagstone as a substitute for timber. This was also a period of rapid social change, and the combination of palynological and archaeological evidence suggests that the shift from timber to stone construction in the mid 4th millennium BC in Orkney can no longer be explained simply as a consequence of a lack of timber resources. Rather than being an environmental necessity, it more likely reflects underlying social and cultural changes. 

This blog post is based on the following article, which can be accessed here:

Farrell, M., Bunting, M.J., Thomas, A. and Lee, D. (in press) Neolithic settlement at the woodland’s edge: palynological data and timber architecture in Orkney, Scotland. Journal of Archaeological Science (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.05.042.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Sustainability exchange

By Dr Lindsey Atkinson (@LJA_1)

In August/September the University of Hull welcomed two visitors from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.  Desleen and Hestelle had travelled on an Erasmus Mundus scholarship to spend some time looking at how universities in the UK and other parts of Europe were integrating sustainability into their activities.
The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is located in Belville, a suburb of Cape Town and has recently been awarded the African Green Campus of the Year Award (2012).  Desleen works in Services and Operations within UWC and is their green team leader.  Hestelle is the manager of the UWC Nature Reserve and takes a lead on environmental education and nature conservation.  They met with many people from around the University including our Environment Manager, Grounds and Gardens Manager and academic staff to discuss approaches to sustainability in Higher Education.  We found contrasts (not just in climate!) but also some common themes.  Both universities are taking measures to improve energy efficiency, sustainable purchasing, recycling etc but we have some different resources available to us.
UWC is privileged to have its own designated nature reserve:  the Cape Flats Nature Reserve which consists of 33 ha of critically endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos and endangered Cape Flats Dune Strandveld.  It has a number of endangered species (Red Data Book species) and is managed to minimise invasive species.  In addition there is a nursery for indigenous plants, an Environmental Education Centre and the reserve is also used for research.  Have a look at the Cape Flats Nature reserve website for more information and some great photos.
An autumn day at
Thwaite Gardens
We can’t boast a nature reserve but we do have a botanic garden consisting of approximately 10ha with ornamental gardens, a lake and some mixed temperate woodland. Unfortunately the day Des and Hestelle visited it was a very autumnal, cold and damp day!  Known as Thwaite Gardens, the site is listed as a Grade II Garden of Special Historic Interest by English Heritage and contains an exotic collection of trees representing North America, Europe, the Mediterranean and China. There is also a collection of native hawthorns and greenhouse displays of desert plants and ferns maintained by the Friends of Thwaite Gardens.  Biodiversity in the gardens has been enhanced with cultivation of a meadow area and provision of bird and bat boxes. The main campus grounds are also managed with biodiversity in mind working to a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) which links in to the local area BAP. Although there are many contrasts between UWC’s nature reserve and our botanic garden, both are oases for wildlife in urban areas and both are used in education (and both have problems with invasive species!).
Thwaite Gardens on a sunnier spring day

An interpretation board
overlooking the lake
We also discussed the importance of effective communication in rolling out a sustainability programme to staff and students.  We looked at ways of raising awareness, for instance, in both universities we include a talk about sustainability in our induction programme for new staff.  Des and Hestelle particularly liked our interpretation boards which highlight habitats and species that can be found on campus and describe how we are managing the grounds for biodiversity.  While they may have left the UK with lots of ideas I think we also learnt a lot from what they are doing at UWC.  Oh, and they are thinking of starting a blog....