Photo/Stories from the field: Adults in child research

Adults in child research

In our research we spent a lot of time researching children at home.  As I wrote earlier, with a few families, our intention to have privacy for research was not possible and in some cases the family members did not honour our repeated calls for privacy. That put us in in an ethical quandary. But, since we observed children being comfortable in the presence of their siblings and/or parents, at least in the beginning of our research, we were fine with the arrangement. In the process, we have seen few parents turned into co-interviewers asking children questions (not with our complete approval though) and, at other times, they encouraged children to respond to us. Over time, however, we were troubled by the presence of family members and the extended conversations that they make on children’s responses, although such information was useful and supplementary to our data.

Therefore, understanding the micro-geography of spatiality (Elwood and Martin, 2000) and its resulting effects on producing power relationships in the field are essential to infer meaningful analysis of the data that we have in hand. On that basis, here, I provide some snippets on the roles that adults haven taken in child research in Hyderabad and its possible implications.

In our third visit, we were sitting on the rooftop terrace with Sujatha. It started drizzling at that time so we went inside her house. Her house was nothing but a 12 x 8 foot single room. Her mother arranged the bed. She removed things scattered all around in order to make some space for us to sit on the bed. We sat on the bed. After a while Sujatha started lying on the bed so her mother warned her to sit straight. Given the age of our children that we research with, it is not surprising that children easily get bored or finding difficulty to sit still after a while. So we weren’t concerned when Sujatha started showing some signs of discomfort in sitting and talking to us in the same position. Indeed, we told her mom, ‘that’s fine with us’, when she cautioned Sujatha, but her mom insisted Sujatha once again to sit and answer properly. Perhaps, her mother might have deemed that such gesture is culturally inappropriate and disrespectful to adults (us).

Similarly, on few occasions, we have seen children being coerced to respond albeit their non-interest or daunted by parents even in our presence. For instance, while doing time-use exercise, Ashwin said he doesn’t know how to draw a bicycle. We said fine. But, his mother who was in an earshot said to Ashwin: ‘try, you can draw’. He wasn’t sure yet. She then went on to show a bicycle toy kept in a toy shelf to give him an idea to draw. Ashwin was still hesitant and he doesn’t seem to be confident; instead, he preferred to write down the name ‘bicycle’ on the chart. His mother became a bit intimidating this time. She said once again ‘try, you can do it’. We politely told her that it’s fine even if he doesn’t draw anything since we were not there to judge or evaluate his drawing skills.

Likewise, when we were discussing about Mona’s time use, Mona looked very sombre and dull, so she didn’t speak loud enough on that day. Her mom every now and then told her to raise her voice despite our advice not to do so. At some point, as Mona’s voice becomes lifeless, her mother told her to speak loudly in stern voice. Mona started crying. That was unwarranted. Then, we told her mother to let Mona speak the way she wants to speak. It took a while for Mona to get back to normalcy and we allowed her enough time to speak to us.

On such situations, our role as researchers has changed into mediator or arbitrator between adults and children.

In general, we encouraged parents to carry on their work that they were doing before we arrive. We gently tell them not to be bothered about us while we were conducting session with children. Yet, many of the parents showed so much of curiosity and interest in knowing what we do with their children. For some parents, it turned out be to ‘knowing about your child’ sessions.

But, the presence of others, especially adults, was not always an encouraging environment for us. At times, we realised that the constant interaction of few parents were an impediment to the flow of our conversation with our research child. We had difficulty in managing multiple voices particularly if the adult voice was authoritative, dominant or accusatory in tone. So, as a tactic, we deliberately pay less attention to the parent in order to give enough space to the child. Just in case if the parent was persistent to talk to us, then, as a last resort, we would split our attention on the child and others.

But, it doesn’t mean that children were always at the receiving end. We have noticed on number of occasions children being assertive and asking parents to let them talk, or, children just discreetly ignore the comments/suggestions of parents and continue talking/doing what they are interested in, or, children change their position in the presence of adults so as to avoid the ramifications of their actions, or, children challenge/negotiate the claims of adults, or, children become defiant when they were shamed publicly by adults.

Most literature on ethics talks about confidentiality after data collection but what happens in a situation or cultural context where the process of conducting research itself becomes public? Also, to what extent the researcher can intervene in the personal lives of parent and children? Our interventions for the research sake are temporary in nature, but what about our claim of naturalistic enquiry – should we just allow things to happen in order to capture the cultural differences or to intervene with our foreign ethical framework and, what if adults got hurt or not happy with our intervention? To be honest, I do not know the answer. But, as Christensen and Prout (2002) put forth individual reflections alone are not enough for finding solutions and we need institutional mechanisms to counter such dilemmas and complexities in the research process. So, the new issues need to be analysed and addressed.

Any thoughts?