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Language and Listening

In this research based article, Samadrita Das analyses the use of survey methods to listen to children. She highlights the importance of ethics of listening while researching children's experiences of exclusion in school settings, in a broader context of historical and social exclusion.

Editors' Note: The photograph is taken by the author herself at her fieldwork site in Purulia, West Bengal. The painting on the school walls is traditional Santhal art, created by school children with the assistance of volunteers from Kolkata.

The New Sociology of Childhood that developed in the 1980s-1990s was significant in terms of a shift from a psychological to a more social shift in understanding the lives of children( Prout,2011). The paradigmatic shift of children as participants, unlike the mere status of a subject that was generally accorded to them, was also catalytic towards a methodological shift in engaging with children with a more nuanced, interdisciplinary, and non-binary approach. In a similar strain or argument I discuss that though this strand of childhood studies attempted to break both the disciplinary boundaries as well as the gaze towards children, there was also a certain emphasis on agency in the lives of children, which might have been misplaced at the time (Dar &Cox, 2011).

I hereby discuss that childhoods in the Global South especially, that of ethnic minority groups experience their lives as well as social processes distinctly differently, whereby the language spoken technically and metaphorically are different. The problem is further compounded with a colonial gaze that we engage with them hereby trying to understand their language, sometimes unable to engage completely with their lives. Similarly, the lives of children in tribal communities, are enmeshed with the identity and lives of larger community where the voices of children as individuals could be difficult to determine and represent. I would also like to draw a certain caution here, whereby I do not want to appear deterministic as well as essentializing their experiences, but rather being critical of methods and methodologies in listening to children, citing my fieldwork in a particular excerpt. In this particular work, I discuss the lives of tribal children from the Santhal Community of Purulia district in West Bengal, India. Using a survey method to understand the experience of exclusion in school settings, I engage strongly with listening as a method in reference to a more complicated and problematized understanding of language, and especially language expressed by children. I engage largely with the question of what are the research methods that have not worked with children and why?

Survey and Surveying

“Obaba, Interview nebe”

(Oh my God, She is going to take our interviews)

These were the general words that I was greeted with when I wanted to tell the children in schools that I want to have an interview with them as a part of my research. I have tried to understand how exactly can I read these expressions, as a sound of dread, as an impediment, or merely as an emphatic expression. The age of the children ranged between 10-12 years, and sometimes in retrospect, I have wondered should I have used a different word or terminology to explain it better. In a similar strain, I have also wondered whether quantitative research was the best way to approach the issue. There have been allegations against the positivist framework as having a more ‘quarantine’ approach, especially with children as respondents (Scott,2000). Even in his enumerated criticisms against quantitative methods, Scott still does not account for cultural differences as an important factor. I would like to suggest, that I do not argue that that culture is deterministic of their lives, but it lends complexity to their being and representation.

The geographies of childhood, represent an important category in attempting to listen to children as respondents and not as mere subjects. The site that I describe here is one of the most remote districts of India, which is fraught with civil strife over the years, and has been able to witness a semblance of relative peace only over the last few years. The Santhal children who are enrolled in these schools have a different script and language compared to Bengali that is largely used in the schools. In a process of interaction with the children I learned that the tribal are people of few words, unlike the people from other areas especially urban centers, they do not engage in a lot of conversations especially with people outside the community. Thus their language of communication goes beyond that of verbal and as a researcher one has to understand several nonverbal cues to listen to them and listen to them with intent.

One might note that survey research as a method to collect data would have certain issues, especially against authentically listening to the children’s voices, and ensure that these voices would not be misrepresented. I would like to note that this would be an issue faced by multiple researchers across similar contexts, where an overemphasis on an agency and participatory method would be in discordance with a social structure, that does not allow children to think on those lines. Thus we can further deconstruct the idea of agency in terms of each of the societies that we attempt to conduct the study in. In societies where children have rarely been accorded agency or even the space to think for and about themselves, one wonders how when someone asks, “How did you feel about this ?” brings about a new dimension to their understanding. One would curiously stare at you with an inquisitive pair of eyes, whereby no one has ever asked them, how they have felt. The novelty of paradigm would also need to account for cultural variations regarding the same. The questions of what do you think, how did it make you feel and the likes evoke a sense of curiosity but do not lead to a lot of answers. In the next section, I describe how silence was an important language that I both encountered as well as comprehended in the later part of my fieldwork.

Listening to Silence

“Tomaar ki kokhono mone hoyeche ora tomaake pochondo korena?”

(Have you ever felt that they do not like you ?)

Stares at the ceiling. Stares at me. Stares at the benches


The ‘Culture of Silence’ (Freire, 1985) brings about an interesting tenet in the lens of anti-oppressive theory, elaborating on silence as a signifier of a form of oppression within the larger education system. A similar critique of voice and voicelessness can be found in the tenets of postcolonial theories and that of feminist critiques when Spivak (2003) mentions in her seminal work that the subaltern cannot speak. Thus if one was to listen to the silence, one would indeed ask, how would one do so? To listen would also be to understand what the other person intends and also means or even implies. It was indeed striking to note how does one engage and listen to the voices of children, who have been obscurely pushed to the last benches of classrooms and possibly never spoken to or heard.

In the interviews I would sit with them for a long time, speak slowly, and also exchange a lot more information to make them comfortable, there would also be long pauses and silence between exchanges. I think I can categorically look at the silence in terms of both time and space. If I think of time as linear, then I could say, that there was a distinct difference between the initial silence with which they would begin the interview and the silences with which they left. The initial silence as I could listen to was that was of being unsure, they probably were told by their teachers some of them to just come, in such spaces, it would be hard to mark one’s choice as voluntary or involuntary, but most of them when they left their silences also was compounded with a smile. Thus when the children would come in, I would sit with them, tell them about myself, ask them about themselves, and probably engage in a set of generic questions about their life and experience. There have been moments when a child sitting across me would listen to the question with all intent and go silent for a minute to try and answer, one would recount these long pauses and not guess what they implied.

I was learning and beginning to understand their silence, a slight smile would mean okay, a twitch would mean a no. Or when they sat in silence, sometimes they did not know what to say that other times they did not know whether we spoke the same language. I leaned with a few other participants that they view themselves as different, excluded, and unliked by a majority of the peers, hence they engage lesser and lesser and majorly within their own communities. There have been days when I have wondered whether their silence meant a resignation or a sense of resilience or merely just as it was ‘silence’. It helped me also re-look at the ethos and ethics of research that I was handed over as a researcher even before I entered into the field of research, whereby the notion of informed consent was more like a one-time consent, but there was more about it that I learned on the field.

The Ethics of listening

The role of the researcher is also fraught with several ethical concerns, which increases once the community and people belong to marginalized sections of the population. This was also instrumental in me asking, how does one ensure informed consent from children, also divorcing it from possible forms of coercion. I believe the process of listening to their silences does play an important role in this. Some of the children did not seem extremely comforted in the beginning they would be hesitant, quiet, and appeared timid. Informed consent at that point acted merely as a procedure, but as I went on with the interviews I asked them repeatedly if they were comfortable and wanted to proceed. There were exactly six instances where the children in the middle of the interview did tell me this was not a comfortable experience for them, and they did not wish to proceed further. I was happy to have them go back to their classrooms, spaces, and events they were more familiar and comfortable with.

As a researcher when I have looked at my half-done questionnaires, there have been moments I have felt a tad sad, at the same point also joyous that my participant was not a part of something they did not want to choose. Thus I argue that the ethics of informed consent especially working with children is a more complex process, especially in institutional settings where they are asked to do things instead of being asked whether they would like to do them. The practice would also tell me that the participation of children in processes of research, was indeed never linear and they could be well deconstructed and tailored according to the locations and concerns that one engages with.

The works of Prout(2004), Qvortrup(2003) and in recent time of such as Balagopalan (2014), engages with the question of children from the South as well as aspects of marginalization. I categorically look at the nuances of a field that is fraught with multiple fault lines thus engaging with a more nuanced understanding of both geography and positionality of research, researcher and the researched, simultaneously engaging with methodologies of working with children. I also relook at my positionality as a quantitative researcher in such contexts which are indeed fraught with multiple crevasses and identities. I believe an ethnographic approach could have possibly helped me listen to them better, and possibly read into their words and silences over time. There are still doubts about whether I could have ever become a participant observer in their lifeworld in an authentic manner, but maybe there would have been different insights into the process altogether.



Balagopalan, S. (2014). Inhabiting'childhood': children, labour and schooling in postcolonial India. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Ben-Rafael E, Sharot S.(1991). Discrimination. In Ethnicity, religion and class in Israeli society. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Dar, A., & Cox, P. (2011). Re-exploring childhood studies. Childhoods Today: An Online Journal for Childhood Studies, 5(2), 1-8.

Freire, P. (1985) The politics of education: Culture power and liberation. Macmillan. London.

Prout, A. (2004). The future of childhood. Routledge. London

Prout, A. (2011). Taking a step away from modernity: Reconsidering the new sociology of childhood. Global studies of childhood, 1(1), 4-14.

Scott, J. (2000) Children as Respondents: The Challenge for Quantitative Methods. In: Christensen, P. and James, A., Eds., Research with Children: Perspectives and Practices, Falmer Press, London.

Spivak, G. C. (2003). Can the subaltern speak?. Die Philosophin, 14(27), 42-58.

Spyrou, S. (2011). The limits of children’s voices: From authenticity to critical, reflexive representation. Childhood, 18(2), 151-165.

Qvortrup, J. (1993). Societal position of childhood: The international project childhood as a social phenomenon. Childhood, 1(2), 119-124.


Samadrita Das is a Ph.D student from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is interested in issues of marginalization, subaltern theories, childhood studies and spatial geographies.


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