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Regional themes > Children and education Last update: 2020-11-27  

Ethics and the everyday: Reconsidering approaches to research involving children

CSSR Working Paper No. 103

Rachel Bray, Imke Gooskens

Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR)

December 2005

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Guidelines on ethical practice in research with children tend to focus on ways to protect children from potential economic and emotional exploitation. While such concerns deserve attention, we argue that they represent only a portion of the moral framework in which researchers and participants operate. Through an analysis of children’s engagement in a long term ethnographic study, where their participation involved both providing and gathering data, we show the interconnections between so-called ‘research activities’ and young people’s everyday decision-making. Children’s participation in research takes place within existing and emerging relationships. Decision-making based on values – on the part of both children and adults – is part and parcel of these relationships. This paper demonstrates the need to engage with children’s moral worlds seriously while planning and conducting social research.

While designing an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of young peoples in the Fish Hoek valley, we1 took the decision to approach teenagers and ask if they were interested in joining the research team. Six grade 11 students, three male and three female, and two from each of three schools, volunteered2. At the time of writing, we have been working with this group for over a year.

Our rationale for inviting teenagers to be research partners was partly political and partly with an eye to data quality. Conscious of the historical divisions within the research area, we aimed to ground the research process in interaction between young people attending schools in three formerly divided communities. In addition, we hoped to provide an opportunity not usually available to teenagers from these schools, namely to meet weekly and discuss personal, social, political and historical issues in depth. Another value-based decision on our part was to attempt more than a tokenistic participatory approach to working with young people. Our partnership with ‘Tri’3 included talking to members about various conceptual and practical questions (for example the design of methods), and asking them to point us to people they considered influential in the lives of young people locally.

For approximately five months, our weekly meetings with ‘Tri’ members centred on exploring themes within the research and preparing them to conduct interviews. We practised interview techniques, and discussed a range of potential ethical issues that may arise when interviewing peers or adults who notionally have greater authority. The young researchers were provided with information sheets, consent forms, collectively authored guidelines for interviews and tape recorders. Once they had begun interviewing, time was set aside each week to discuss their research experiences. Our aim here was to treat the partnership as a learning process for all involved, to keep ethics an open subject and to encourage everyone to contribute their opinions around responding to difficult situations. All ‘Tri’ members said that one of the main reasons why they joined the research team was out of curiosity to learn about the lives of people living in the valley, and especially what is going on in the minds of young people. Their interests mirrored the broad aims of our ethnographic study, which were to explore the everyday experiences of children and young people in the home, neighbourhood and at school.

The overall study involved children and young people from the age of 9 to 23 years attending schools located in Fish Hoek, Masiphumelele and Ocean View, three historically divided but geographically proximal ‘communities’ on Cape Town’s South Peninsula. The study was situated in a relatively small area of the South Peninsula of Cape Town in which lines demarcating ‘different communities’ were firmly drawn during the apartheid era. Fish Hoek was zoned ‘white’ and Ocean View was created to house ‘coloured’ families forcibly removed from Simons Town and Kommetjie (both of which were zoned ‘white’). Masiphumelele or ‘Site 5’ was designated a ‘black’ township and grew rapidly from the early 1990s onwards. It is important to note that in all cases, a proportion of young people attending school in a particular area do not live in that area and that schools in the research area differ markedly in quality4. While the vast majority of pupils at schools in Masiphumelele are local, a handful travel over the mountain from Westlake or from Red Hill, a semi-formal settlement near Simons Town. Approximately 10% of students attending Ocean View schools live outside the area, usually Masiphumelele. A slightly higher proportion of young people studying in Fish Hoek are non-resident, and pupils come from a variety of areas including Masiphumelele, Ocean View, Muizenberg and some of the wealthier suburbs in the South Peninsula.

Many of the blatant inequalities in infrastructure, service provision and quality of housing designed by the apartheid government remain. So too do elements of the morally-imbued attitudes that legitimised these social and economic hierarchies as recently as a generation ago. The local press, for example, tends to report in ways that reinforce the attitudes that the apartheid government sought to promulgate (for example, articles on Masiphumelele often feature community development projects, those on Ocean View crime, and those on Fish Hoek animal well-being and sporting achievements). In such a context, involving young people from three formerly divided communities in exploratory research could be seen as raising some additional ethical concerns to those associated with age-related power dynamics. We could not predict how the young researchers would respond to local manifestations of a change in official lines of authority, nor whether their reactions might consciously or unconsciously try to undermine or exclude their colleagues (or ourselves).

Following several weeks in the classrooms we established after-school art and discussion clubs, each comprising about 12 students5. Through weekly meetings we developed a close rapport with members of these groups and grew to know their homes, families and other social arenas important to them.

Conducting research amongst and alongside these teenagers has further shaped our understanding of ‘ethics’ in relation to research with young people. Much of the material presented in this paper reflects our experiences of ‘doing’ and talking about social relationships with young people. We reflect on the norms and contradictions that shape peer relationships, and consider young people’s decisions around whether and how to draw adults into their webs of social support. Our discussion is centred on analysis of children’s decision-making in everyday life, as well as in the research context. Such a contextual approach allows insight into young people’s everyday ethical practice and the values motivating their decisions. Moreover, it throws light on any nuances in these processes that relate to the research methods or setting.

Ethical guidelines in social research often specify that studies involving ‘minors’ require additional protective measures in the light of power relations between adults and children (for example Shenk and Williamson, 2005). It is only sensible to attend to the possibility that children may be exploited in the research process. Yet children are often thought to be inherently vulnerable, owing to cultural notions of authority and power in generational relations between children and adults (Alderson, 1995; Mayall, 2000; Alanen and Mayall, 2003). This assumption that has been reinforced by a particular reading of legal documents designed to uphold children’s rights. The South African government has ratified two internationally binding documents, namely the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Many of the state’s obligations are repeated in, and thereby reinforced by, South Africa’s Constitution (Section 28, the Bill of Rights). What is interesting is that although the rights specified in these documents are weighted equally, it is those detailing children’s rights to protection that are uppermost in people’s thinking around research ethics (see for example, Boyden and Ennew 1996: 41-43). As a result, rather less attention is paid to the implications for social researchers of rights that refer to children’s positive engagement in social relations, for example the right to express their views freely in matters concerning them, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds (Articles 12 and 13 in the UN CRC).

The steps we took towards appropriate ethical provision prior to and during our study are not unusual in the context of social research with children. The research proposal was scrutinised by the ethics committee of our university institution prior to its approval. Members of this committee include experienced researchers from a range of disciplines who were able to make practical suggestions, particularly towards improving the wording of information sheets and consent forms designed for children and adults. The purpose of the information sheet was to give a succinct, accessible overview of the study’s aims, scope and activities. Written in each of the three dominant local languages (Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa), these documents also explained our actions towards assuring confidentiality and the right to decline participation. Importantly, they were designed to be used as resources within conversations about the study and the implications of being part of it, not as replacements for verbal explanation and discussion. Different designs were used in information sheets and consent forms intended for younger and older children, and for parents (see appendices).

The subject of ‘informed consent’ in research with children is one that dominates guides on ethical practice (see for example Schenk and Williamson, 2005). Attempts are being made to move beyond the view that true informed consent is impossible owing to children’s unfamiliarity with research and its possible implications for their lives. This view begs questions around the particularities of ‘research’ within the experiences of young people, and contains the dubious assumption that adults are necessarily more familiar with research than children and more capable of making decisions around participation. Clearly, children’s abilities to understand what their participation entails vary according to their developmental stage, their experience and exposure to similar activities, and their status within the context in which research activities take place (Boyden and Ennew, 1996: 42). Yet, as Christiansen (2004:165) argues, there is no reason to apply different principles to research involving children or to assume that a different set of ethical standards is needed. Our approach was to treat the securing of consent as a gradual and emerging process, and one in which young people are capable of making an informed decision on the basis of experience and particular information. Thus, at frequent intervals during the early months of the study we spoke about its aims and activities, made information sheets and consent forms available, and responded affirmingly to potential participants’ queries or wishes to retract. Interestingly, individuals of similar age reacted differently to the opportunity to sign a consent form. Some seemed to consider it merely a formality; others explicitly valued it as a symbolic commitment to the research group.

A perhaps more reliable marker of consent was attendance at research sessions. Some came for the first few, and then did not continue. We did not attempt to persuade them to return, but found ways to communicate that they are welcome if they wanted to come back. Our thinking here was to emphasise the voluntary nature of the study in the context of school-related settings in which children anticipate certain types of adult authority.

Regardless of the form and timing of consent to participation, it is important to remember that the particularities of an individual’s experience, and any implications for his or her well-being, are to a large extent unpredictable by both participant and researcher. We were aware that ethical provision is not just about preparing appropriately, but requires ongoing sensitivity towards the dynamic nature of power relations and lines of authority.

In the case of ‘Tri’, we provided considerable support and guidance through both weekly meetings and regular telephone conversations. Not only was it important to address young people’s particular questions, but also to maintain open channels of communication. We also recognised that processes of cognitive development that continue during adolescence may affect young people’s decision-making abilities. Moreover, members of ‘Tri’ viewed us as those with experience in the research field and welcomed our guidance in this light.

The body of this paper looks closely at young people’s decision-making in their role as researchers and as research participants, within the context of everyday decision-making. Our purpose here is to reflect on the process through which we, as adult researchers, have deepened our understanding of young people’s ethical frameworks, their negotiation of contradictions between ideals and realities, and of their approach to research activities and the relationships formed therein6. We conclude by commenting on the implications of our analysis for ethical practice in research involving children.

  1. The study, ‘Growing Up in the New South Africa: Perspectives from children and young people in the Cape Town area’ was conducted by Rachel Bray, Imke Gooskens and Susan Moses.
  2. Information about the research was distributed through a local NGO named OIL that promotes peer education in the three high schools participating in the study. Half those who volunteered heard about the project via OIL, and the remainder through school friendship networks. We did not offer payment for participation in weekly meetings or research trainings, but paid individuals a set amount per interview conducted and transcribed.
  3. Pseudonyms have been used throughout the paper. For readers’ reference, those chosen by the six members of ‘Tri’ are Chloe, Gift, Brian, James, Leanne and Tayo.
    Keen to establish a group identity, the young researchers decided to call themselves ‘Tri’. This name was chosen because it reflects the joint interaction and work of people coming from three communities.
  4. There is an extreme differences in fees charged by schools in the respective areas. Fees at Fish Hoek Senior High are just over R7,000 per year, at Ocean View Secondary R300 per year and at Masiphumelele High R200 per year. Decisions about where a child goes to school are more reflective of class than of community of residence. And, as we would expect, there is a direct relationship between fee levels and the quality of resources available to students attending schools in the area.
  5. Separate clubs were started for the three approximate age groups that were the focus of our research, namely grade 6, grade 8-9, and grade 11.
  6. In the light of this focus we discuss data that demonstrate the ethical dimensions of young people’s thoughts and actions. Unsurprisingly our material also shows that they, like anyone, are occasionally manipulative or deceitful.

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