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Sandpit dilemmas: challenges of researching young children

Mackenzie, Gaye (2005) Sandpit dilemmas: challenges of researching young children. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In the past twenty years there has been a movement against the tradition of positivist, scientific research that treats children as the 'object' of research. This movement has been led by the sociology of childhood literature but also has supporters in disciplines such as developmental psychology and early childhood studies. Research within this new paradigm often seeks to gain the perspectives and lived experiences of children, giving them a voice through naturalistic methodologies such as ethnography and informal interviews. However, giving children a 'voice' has not been purely an academic endeavour. Supported by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) which stipulates that States should assure that children have the right to express their views in all matters affecting them, there is a push at all levels of government for children to be given a chance to express their views on issues that concern them. In Australia and overseas, the consulting of children on issues that concern them has become more commonplace. Thus in both research and policy development, methodologies which enable adults to get closer to the world of the child and to hear their views are being explored.

This thesis explores some of the issues involved in this form of qualitative research with children. It does so through combining theoretical exposition and systematic reflection with the author's own empirical research which sought to gain an understanding of young children's views of 'difference' through an ethnographic methodology.

Part One provides the theoretical base for the thesis, by exploring how 'the child' and childhood have been conceptualised within western thought. Drawing on the sociology of childhood, it also probes a number of the implications of this tradition and examines how it has shaped research on children both in terms of the methods that have been employed and the topics that have been of interest.

Both chapters in Part Two focus on the empirical component of the study. The first is an extended methodology chapter which explores not only the method employed and the research setting but also some of the challenges that the author faced in the field and a discussion of issues such as ethics and the status of the researcher. Using logs of the children?s activities and the author's field journal, the next chapter explores how the initial research question altered and the issues that came to the fore during the research.

Part Three reconsiders a number of the theoretical issues raised in Part One in light of the fieldwork discussed in Part Two. It asks how certain ethnographic studies, claiming affiliation with the sociology of childhood, nevertheless ended up with depictions of children not far from the positivistic studies their authors had critiqued. It argues that this can be explained by the persistence of a 'problem centred' adultcentric frame which privileges understanding of a particular issue (e.g. the development of racism in children) over the actual experiences of individual children. Given the renewed interest in consulting children this proposition has practical as well as theoretical significance as it reveals how easy it is for slippage to occur and the importance of preventing it.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): Harris, Patricia
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