Child-Led Research: Questioning Knowledge
2. What Is Child-Led Research?
From Kellett’s definition, child-led research has two central components: the extensive role of children and young people across the different phases of the research process and the less controlling role of adults. Thus child-led research has the potential to disrupt typical versions of generational orders and hierarchies in research, where adults are more likely to have the management power of research design, fieldwork and dissemination, with children and young people at best assisting them. Considering Kellett’s two components, projects undertaken by children and young people using other labels (such as co-design, co-production, participatory action research, and social research) can be seen as very similar in process if not discourse—this shows the expansion of this sort of participatory research activity. In all these forms, the premise is that children and young people must have substantial control throughout the research stages and adults are supporting, rather than managing or undertaking, the research.Research that children design, carry out and disseminate themselves with adult support rather than adult management.
Kellett suggests that there is a fundamental difference between adult-led and child-led research and that they should be assessed differently. She implies that they can have equal merit, if such assessments were developed particularly for child-led research. Hammersley (2017), writing over ten years later, comes to a different conclusion. He also sees children’s activities as fundamentally different from adult research but child-led activities are not social research:One of the great imponderables is whether child-led research can continue to grow within existing adult research parameters or whether we need to begin to consider a new paradigm to accommodate it. What is clear is that research by children is fundamentally different from adult research about children and we cannot use the same norms of reference nor the same terms of measurement and assessment. The time to begin that deliberation process is now before we are overtaken by a wave of child-led research which we are ill-prepared for and have not properly considered how to receive it, measure it or value it.
Hammersley thus questions the knowledge and skills of children and young people as social researchers and their ability to take on the responsibilities required of research, both analytical and ethical.Indeed, I question whether participatory inquiry, especially when it is child-led, is a research method at all … In methodological terms, I think it is important to recognise that social research is a specialised activity that demands knowledge and skills that a very small proportion of adults—and hardly any children—have, and ones that cannot by acquired quickly. … Research involves responsibilities, both as regards seeking to ensure the validity of the findings and respecting ethical considerations—and researchers must be in control of research decisions if they are to live up to those responsibilities …
Spyrou’s answer, then, is to widen the definition of social research to include children and young people’s activities. He goes on to show how the involvement of children and young people, and their own perspectives, can test and widen ideas and assumptions of adult researchers—potentially to make everyone’s research more rigorous. Thus, between Kellett, Hammersley and Spyrou we have different options to consider child-led research: for Kellett, child-led research is research but needs to be assessed differently than adult-led research; to Hammersley, it is a participative inquiry but not social research; and, for Spyrou, child-led research could be research if the goals of research were expanded. This article will return to these options in the conclusion, to consider in light of the study’s findings.Indeed, if the goal of research is not exhausted by the need for validity, reliability, rigour and so on, but also encompasses the need for participation, political engagement and social change, then one can envision a place for research produced by children in the larger world of research.
Following this view, social theory is essential to social research, as it interacts with practice to lead to particular understandings of the social world. Such theorisation, however, is arguably not a neutral interpretation of empirical data but embedded in all the practices of social research—from the questions to be asked, to the research design, to the analysis and outcomes—with social and political implications. Standpoint feminism, for example, has played a leading role in recognising the power of producing knowledge. May writes about its contribution:We aim, with our training and experiences of doing research in mind, together with the perspectives that guide our thinking, to understand the social world. This requires the development, application, testing and even falsification of social theory.
To date, adults and particular adults (funders, academics, peer reviewers, etc.) have largely defined what is scientific knowledge and what is social research (Hordijk and Baud 2006; Cahill 2007; Schäfer and Yarwood 2008). Child-led research is a potential challenge to this, particularly for the potential for children and young people to be producers of knowledge, which is ‘scientific’ and can help explain and understand the social world. We will explore this potential below, through examples of child-led research.If a certain type of knowledge predominates in a society, this is not necessarily because it is scientific, but due to the power that certain groups have to define what is right or wrong, or true or false.
3. Examples of Child-Led Research: The Empirical Study’s Methodology
- How the research is carried out: the centrality and importance of the young researchers’ experiences
- How adults are involved: adult and organisational control, facilitation and support
- How the research has impact: who decides on knowledge exchange
4. How the Research Is Carried Out: The Centrality and Importance of Young Researchers’ Experiences
Thus, young researchers would both improve the content of the research—learning of issues that otherwise would not have been known—and the quality of the research—the young researchers would learn in detail about how children are affected. Common across the study participants was the view that, assisted by improved recruitment and communication with peers as compared to adult researchers, the young researchers would gather better data and thus generate better knowledge.We discovered issues that were covered or hidden, and we brought them into the light and exposed them to the public. We explained in detail the things that affect children.(Amal, aged 16, Lebanon)
In the analysis phase, the young researchers reported exploring the issues from their personal perspectives, using their individual experiences to understand the topics under examination and presenting new insights. The young researchers thus included their own personal experiences as part of the research data. Further, these experiences were used as a resource for analysis. The young researchers perceived such use of their personal experiences as a considerable strength and central to what makes child-led research.When we write about ourselves this becomes like an eye witness, because it happens to us.(Malik, aged 14, Jordan)
Kamira was thus open and able to perceive both the similarities with and differences from his own experiences, in undertaking and reporting on the research. This is a similar finding to other child-led research, where young researchers are often highly sensitive to claims that they are ‘unrepresentative’ and prioritise research methods that reach out to a range of other children and young people to ensure they have a breadth of perspectives (Ansell et al. 2012; Tisdall 2015; McMellon and Mitchell 2017). Young researchers can be very aware of the potential criticisms of their own bias.Before, I thought that my problems were only my problems but, when I interviewed other children, I learned that we shared similar problems and others suffered more than me and they had another kind of problems.(Kamira, aged 16, Jordan)
5. How Adults Are Involved: Adult and Organisational Control, Facilitation and/or Support
6. How the Research Has Impact: Who Decides on Knowledge Exchange?
In this reflection, Hanadi expressed frustration because she thought that her contribution to the research, especially the appealing quote she wrote by herself, did not “touch people’s hearts” as she expected. However, Hanadi did not know that this quote was used several times in international forums and conferences and reproduced in blogs and newspapers. This situation reflects one of the criticisms of children and young people’s participation, which is the lack of feedback from organisations and adults who engage in dialogue with them (e.g., Alderson 2001; Davis 2009; Skelton 2008; Tisdall 2014; Sharpe 2015).When we were writing the report, I did not expect too many things but [I hoped] at least to do something that can touch people’s hearts, their feelings. I wrote a quote and felt this quote touched me, and I was sure that it could touch other people. I expected that this small paragraph would touch people, but I do not believe it made a change in our lives…(Hanadi, aged 16, Lebanon)
Abhoy’s explanation places himself and his associates as the key actors in this plan and expresses both a sense of achievement (we have done many things) but that more was needed and planned. The young researchers were able to take such knowledge exchange activities forward because both adult facilitators and the organisation provided the community contacts so that the young researchers could tap into decision makers, often local ones, and have clear commitments and plans for change. The prior and background work of the adults and supporting organisation assisted the young researchers to take forward their knowledge exchange strategy, but the young researchers felt ownership of the strategy and it was for them to carry out.We are halfway; we have done many things to make a change with our research, but we need to do more. I thought that our work finished with the report writing, but then we wanted to do more and more. People need to know about our findings and the government needs to change many things.(Abhoy, aged 14, Bangladesh)
This emphasis on impact is challenging. While it precludes young researchers investigating topics that are not central to children and young people’s interests, it draws attention to the power over knowledge exchange: that we need to consider as much how the knowledge is used as how it is generated in child-led research.Children and young people lead their own research process (designing the questionnaires, collecting information, analysing the results, and writing and disseminating their report). In this process, children and young people can be assisted by an adult facilitator, but this adult only helps the young researchers and doesn’t manage or direct the research project. Child-led research is always connected to children’s and young people’s interests and their motivation to make a difference.
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This article generally uses the phrase “children and young people”, following young people’s typical preference to be referred to as the latter in the UK. Broadly, “children and young people” refers to children up to the age of 18, following the definition within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
For example, Article 12(1) of the UNCRC states: “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child”.
The peer review process was suitably testing, in asking whether we could group these activities together as they were not all subject to the ‘strict ethical considerations and processes that researchers comply with’. We agree that this is an important and complex issue that continues to challenge us. It is a subject mentioned but not central to the empirical study, so we cannot conclusively address. Further the comment is not so much about the ethics of child-led research, but of research undertaken by different adult-based institutions. We would reflect that it merits more investigation and discussion. For example, academic ethical regulation has considerable flaws and particularly in regard to children and children’s rights (Morrow 2009; Farrell 2005; Alderson and Morrow 2011). There is much to learn from the experience of non-academic organisations, who have worked long and in-depth to consider child protection and safeguarding, social media and knowledge exchange, which has much to inform academic institutions (Tisdall et al. 2009). We do not inherently perceive academic ethical regulation as superior to other organisations’ processes but rather perceive respective strengths and weaknesses. A host of debates should be held about ethical regulation, frameworks and practices, which far more fully engage in learning from children and young people’s own experiences and fundamental principles of safeguarding, respect and wellbeing, which require both empirical and conceptual attention.
World Vision is a development, humanitarian and advocacy organisation dedicated to working with children, families and communities to overcome poverty, humanitarian disasters and injustice (World Vision 2013).
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Cuevas-Parra, P.; Tisdall, E.K.M. Child-Led Research: Questioning Knowledge. Soc. Sci. 2019, 8, 44. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8020044
Cuevas-Parra P, Tisdall EKM. Child-Led Research: Questioning Knowledge. Social Sciences. 2019; 8(2):44. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8020044Chicago/Turabian Style
Cuevas-Parra, Patricio, and E. Kay M. Tisdall. 2019. "Child-Led Research: Questioning Knowledge" Social Sciences 8, no. 2: 44. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8020044