Contextualising Children's Voices
In this piece, Ambika Kapoor writes in detail about her research methods while conducting her doctoral fieldwork with children in Chhattisgarh, India.
Editors' Note: These drawings of children filling and carrying water were made by the participants during an activity where they were asked to draw 'things I do in a day', as contributed by the author.
Children’s voices and interactions are important, but it is also important to consider that not all children and childhoods are the same (James et al., 1998). To suggest that they speak in one voice would risk socially excluding children. In my doctoral work, I explore children’s everyday lives in an Adivasi community in India. Based in a village in Chhattisgarh, I aim to understand how Pahari Korwa children engage with hardships and risks in their everyday lives. The research unpacks and explores the relational and interdependent nature of children’s agency, illustrating how the agency is not possessed by individuals but enabled through their embodied interactions with the physical spaces they occupied, material objects they interacted with, and people they encountered.
Within childhood studies, moving from doing research 'on' children to research 'with' children (Alderson 2001; Kellett 2010) has opened avenues for engagement in discussions about attending to the different ways of listening to children. I approached my fieldwork through broad research questions, e.g. – "What are children’s everyday routines and practices?" Having broad questions for research allowed me to explore children’s perspectives on issues that they considered relevant and important. It helped open a space for knowledge production without solely reflecting the agendas and concerns I had as an adult.
Paying attention and listening carefully to children’s voices was important for my research as the indigenous community being researched was categorised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) under the Indian Constitution. Having being considered socially and economically marginalised, there was a greater risk of their voices being lost in research. Using ethnography as an approach to explore children’s lives, I carefully selected methods including – observations, conversations, drawings, and photographs – that were socio-culturally appropriate for listening to the voices of the Pahari Korwa children. As I began the research, I explored different methods and their suitability for the context of my study. Finally, I selected the ones that were most suitable for the research participants. The context was a crucial aspect of the research, as to have a critical and reflexive approach to listening to children, it was important to understand the context in which their voices were being produced (Spyrou, 2011). The lives of the Adivasis in that region were also impacted by issues of increased poverty, unequal access to resources, displacement, lack of employment, migration, and land alienation. To better understand the context, I also focussed on the interconnectedness between their everyday lives to the wider social, economic, and political landscape (Morrow, 2008; Abebe, 2009).
A post-colonial lens and a reflexive approach helped me overcome the need to identify true and authentic voices of children and instead take into account the multiple contexts in which these voices were being produced. I reflected on the process of research through which these voices were being produced. I was attentive to the situations and spaces in the village where the children expressed themselves differently. For instance, the children’s interactions in the school, in the presence of a teacher, were different from their interactions in the company of their peers away from the adult gaze.
The following paragraph is a fieldnote from my research:
'As I was leaving the village and walking to the bus stand to take the bus home, Heera said she would accompany me to the bus stop. Though children were mostly eager to come to the bus station, they had lately stopped coming, reasoning that their parents disapproved. This time, as I expressed my concern about her parent’s reactions, she replied, explaining that earlier, as it was hot and she did not feel like coming, she made an excuse.'
This interaction captures the complexity of children’s voices. As a researcher, I was attentive to the different, contradictory, and multi-layered voices being produced by children. These were being created contextually and served as a reminder that there was no singular truth and I was (re)presenting their lives and context through these multiple voices. Therefore, I had to constantly pay attention, as children’s conversations would depend on the spaces they interacted with, situations and people they were surrounded by, and the time of the day. I was listening to these voices through their languages, bodies, gestures, expressions, and silences.
Incidents such as these also encouraged me to engage with the power-asymmetries between adults and children and in assessing the role of power in producing different kinds of knowledge and ‘truth’ (Christensen, 2004). By acknowledging and considering the power relations in the field, that children had with each other and concerning the researcher also helped me think of more effective ways of listening to children and ways of representing their perspectives.
To overcome this dilemma of authentic voice, along with observations and conversations, I included visual methods – drawings – as creative ways for representing voice. Through using drawings with children to understand their everyday routines, I was able to get their unique perspectives and insights. Initially, the children were shy and not confident of their drawings. As the fieldwork progressed, their interest grew. In one activity, I asked the children to illustrate ‘four things I do daily’. Four girls and a boy were sitting in a group while drawing. The boy, on his sheet, drew a picture of a girl carrying water from the well. He possibly copied the other girls around him or drew a girl as he had mostly seen girls fetch water. The drawings and children’s discussions around these helped develop a more complex understanding of gender roles in the village.
Spending extensive time in the field helped me explore children’s perspectives on different issues, and a diverse range of responses helped me develop a complex understanding. I paid attention to their immediate social worlds and how their everyday lives were being shaped and re-shaped through globalisation, political and economic conditions (Katz, 2004; Boyden, 1997). In my work, I was mindful to not only focus on their particular voice but multiple and contradictory voice(s). Though as a researcher, I also maintained the humility to recognise that I was not always able to understand and interpret all voices.
Abebe, T. 2009. Multiple methods, complex dilemmas: negotiating socio-ethical spaces in participatory research with disadvantaged children. Children’s Geographies. 7(4), pp.51-465.
Alderson, P. 2001. Research by children. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 4(2), pp.139-153.
Boyden, J. 1997. Childhood and the policy makers: A comparative perspective on the Globalization of Childhood. In: James, A. and Prout, A. Constructing and reconstructing childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of Childhood. London: Falmer Press.
Christensen, P. 2004. Children’s participation in ethnographic research: issues of power and representation. Children and Society. 18, pp.165-176.
James, A., Jenks, C. and Prout, A. 1998. Theorising childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Katz, C. 2004. Growing up global: Economic restructuring and children’s everyday lives. Minneapolis: Minnesota Press.
Kellett, M. 2010. Rethinking children and research: Attitudes in contemporary society. London: Continuum.
Morrow, V. 2008 Ethical dilemmas in research with children and young people about their social environments. Children’s Geographies. 6(1), pp.49-61.
Spyrou, S. 2011. The limits of children’s voices: From authenticity to critical, reflexive representation. Childhood. 18(2), pp.151-65.
Ambika Kapoor is pursuing her PhD at the University of Leeds, UK. Her research explores children's experiences with agency in an indigenous community in Chhattisgarh, India. Her areas of interest include ethnography, childhood geographies, relationality and issues of social justice.