Researching within the legal domain: Young people’s voice and participation

In this piece, Chandni Basu reflects on what it means to connect with and engage young people in the context of research in the juvenile justice system, and implications of researchers' practices and reflexivity on children's inclusion in knowledge generation.

While working with young people, what becomes important is our ways of engaging with them. ‘Our’ refers to both academic researchers and practitioners, mostly adults, working with young people in their professional capacities. It brings us to methodological concerns when connecting with young people from a research perspective. In Childhood Research this remains a central point of contention with respect to methods and tools of research. Understanding of these is not only significant for researchers; practitioners could also inculcate these towards more error-free associations with young people. Here we discuss engaging with young people from the research perspective. This is to acknowledge that more is to be learnt from practice work with young people beyond research activities.

In my doctoral study (2017) I dealt with incidents of sexual offences involving young people both as victims and perpetrators within the juvenile justice system in India. The study was located in West Bengal. A major contention in the study concerned the situatedness of young people in the research process. Working within the jurisprudence of the juvenile justice system translated to research decisions about interviewing young people and locating legal minors within the process of legal documentation.[1] It was linked with the presence of young people’s voice in research and hence the position of children and childhood in scientific knowledge generation especially with respect to the interaction between Childhood Research and Law.

In terms of practice or intervention, (re)search predetermines the role and position of the researcher in relation to human agency as a central tenet of investigation and analysis. This highlights the situated presence of the researcher within her social location. It poses reflexivity as an important aspect to cognize in the research process as a resultant feature of such a presence. To elaborate, Buch and Staller (2007) situate the researcher as an ‘instrument of knowing’ within the ‘natural setting’ of research through her conscious presence. This puts into perspective subjective perceptions, emotions, and reflective interpretations of the researcher as significant aspects to be noted during the research process.

In my study, on one hand, reflexivity featured in relation to advocacy for children. On the other hand, it featured in relation to the representational implications of the researcher’s self and her social context. What became important for me to take into account during the research process was to steer clear from the image of the native informant or that of the completely detached objective researcher. Here, my identity as a female born and raised in a middle-class Hindu Bengali family based in Kolkata became relevant for the study along with my research location in Germany for academic purposes. This was related to the contention of the insider-outsider paradox which I constantly encountered throughout the data collection phase. It is important to specify that the research location in West Bengal was decided upon as a matter of convenience of language rather than in the mode of auto-ethnography. The aspects of ‘situatedness’ and ‘reflexivity’ further came together during the data collection process in terms of rapport building and getting access within the legal mechanism.

The relevance of my study as an endeavour within Childhood Research remained in terms of forwarding the prerogatives of academic knowledge generation in this domain. This also relates to the positionality and acceptance of Sociology of Childhood within the broader academic discipline of Sociology. Childhood Research challenges the understanding of research as a predominantly adult interaction-based activity. The inclusion of young people as research partners not only recognizes them as equal partners in the research process, it also forwards their status as equal members in the larger society. This puts forth the inherent power and potential of young people to impact their lifeworlds and societies going beyond the mainstream understanding of children as passive subjects to be studied. It simultaneously positions the adult researcher as a children’s advocate within the academic space. In terms of academic knowledge generation, the inclusion of children in research creates the path for ‘the child’ in science. In this sense, young people are envisaged as active agents of knowledge generation rather than as passive objects of study.

A major contention in my study related to the cognizance of children’s voices and participation in the research process. In this sense, the legal scenario of the study not only determined the research setting, it became an important character in the story. This meant that the inclusion of children’s voices and participation could not be taken as a predetermined factor in the study. On the contrary, the legal scenario decided against it. It raised a paradoxical situation to be addressed at the beginning of the data collection phase. Should legal minors be included in the study as interview partners? This question became a fulcrum point of decision making at the beginning of the data collection phase. I was denied access to interact with legal minors within the juvenile justice system. This meant I had to justify the present study as an endeavour within the domain of Childhood Research.

I was denied access to interact with apprehended legal minors due to reasons of legal confidentiality of cases of sexual offences especially involving legal minors. However, I was allowed to visit the Observation Home where apprehended legal minors were sent to stay by the juvenile justice board (inclusive of the social worker and the magistrate). In all the twenty six disposed of case records that I was permitted to study all the apprehended were male children.[2] Noticeably within the juvenile justice system majority of cases involved male children-in-conflict with the law especially from marginal locations of society (I have dealt with this scenario in a separate book chapter). My data collection was therefore distinct in terms of the absence of young people’s direct participation and voice in the study. The interview partners, therefore, were officials within the juvenile justice system including the magistrate, public prosecutor, social worker, and police along with NGO partners working with the juvenile justice mechanism. In the legal cases that I studied the absence of children’s voice and active presence came forth in their victim status. The statements of the victim (u/s. 164 of CrPC)[3] were the only instances where children’s voices were negligibly present. Studying reported cases of sexual offences hence became a statement in itself within the research study. The missing participation and voice of young people came alive in legal cases. Young people were present through their actions and their absence in my study.

The researcher’s self as a children’s advocate within the domain of Childhood Research is based on the foundational value of ‘learned empathy’. Here the researcher keeps a conscious distance from her inner child to record real children’s lived experiences. In my study, this came forth in terms of investigating the reported cases of sexual offences to understand constructions of childhood and deviance within the juvenile justice system in India. The case records were stark in terms of the absence of children’s active voice. What was also noticeable was the reporting of incidents as ‘rape’ and ‘unnatural sexual offences’ depending on the gender of the victim. Such reporting completely negated the social reality of active and consensual sexual interactions among young people. In other words, legal reporting converted social instances of consensual sexual interactions among young people as instances of sexual offences. This was related to the notion of ‘statutory rape’ and the legal age of sexual consent. According to this, any sexual interaction among minors below the legal age of sanction would be considered as statutory rape and hence as sexual offence. Such a legal concept immediately positioned otherwise consensual sexual partners as victims and perpetrators. These incidents became especially paradoxical when considering the life circumstances of young people living on railway platforms (I interacted with Praajak – an NGO that works with young people living on railway platforms in West Bengal). ‘Survival sex’ apart from other forms of consensual sexual interactions ranging from friendship, love to marriage was part of regular life on the railway platform. The legal age of sexual consent seems to be at disjunction with this lived reality of the marginal lives of platform children.

The issue of children’s position within the legal system comes up here. The juvenile justice system which specialises on issues related to children positions them as children-in-conflict with the law or as children-in-need of care and protection. In both these positions, children are seen as either norm breakers or as ones in need of protection. Such understandings of children propagate standardized notions of childhood. Interrogating law from the perspective of Childhood Research therefore remains paramount in terms of resurrecting the personhood of young people in terms of their agential capacities and potentials.

This relates to Leena Alanen’s (1992) call to make childhood visible within the scientific paradigm. It puts forth the importance of children’s voices and participation within the research process. However, while working with the law, Childhood Research encounters a challenge. The pervasive absence of young people and their passive position within the legal system and processes is apparent as seen in my study. This calls for more engagement with the law from within Childhood Research to rescue the position of children and childhood. The stance here is to make them visible (through their actions) in the research process while taking into cognizance their current absent voice in law. The scientificity of the process remains in the rigour of such interrogation done by the adult researcher through her self-reflexive situated presence within the research process.

Endnotes: 1. Here I use young people, children and legal minors as synonymous terms not disregarding their conceptual distinctiveness. 2. I have dealt with this separately in a chapter. See, Basu. 2018. 3. The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

Chandni Basu is a Visiting Faculty at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata, India and an Associated Researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Freiburg, Germany. She has worked on a children's project at an asylum seekers camp in Germany. Her research interests include children and childhood, law, knowledge circulation and the postcolonial.

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The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC) is a network for scholars and practitioners engaged in the field of research on and with children and youth across South Asia and beyond. 
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