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.

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