Ethically important moments in research with children and young people: our October discussion

By Cara Blaisdell

In our October meeting, we used the idea of ‘ethically important moments’ to guide our discussion, defined as:

The difficult, often subtle, and usually unpredictable situations that arise in the practice of doing research (Guillemin and Gillam 2004, p. 262).

Following Guillemin and Gillam, we wondered how our University ethical review process had ‘matched up’ with our subsequent experience of ethics in practice. This led to a free-flowing and stimulating conversation! Some key themes that emerged:

It was not what we experienced in the field that was surprising, but how we experienced it. Many of us felt that our University ethical review matched up well with our experience, in terms of which issues came up in the field. However, this didn’t mean it was simple to deal with these issues. For example, one group member struggled to manage the expectations of the adults in the ‘host’ organisation where she conducted her research. They wanted her to provide an ongoing evaluation of their work with children and young people during her time researching, and this expectation was hard to shake. She had anticipated this in her ethical review, but the consideration she gave to the problem didn’t stop it from becoming an issue in practice. There was no easy solution, other than to keep talking about it with participants.

Our role as researchers in relationship with participants, and how to negotiate and frame these relationships in the various stages of our research. We particularly discussed the differences between ethnography—which many of us have used—and autoethnography. What is the place of our researcher ‘self’ during fieldwork, and during analysis and writing up? How do we want to present this in the written PhD? Carolyn Ellis, for example, has published a ‘methodological novel about autoethnography’. One issue that was raised was how a less conventional, perhaps novelistic writing approach could fit within the requirements of the PhD thesis. We did not come to an answer about this!

How to work with specific groups of children and young people, without reinforcing the stigma or marginalisation they may already be experiencing. One group member shared her experience working with disabled children who were in (supposedly) inclusive schooling settings. She worried that by specifically seeking out disabled children, she would be reinforcing difference in a way that made children’s everyday experiences more difficult. This was particularly a concern, because the ‘inclusive’ setting was, in some ways, not particularly inclusive. Another group member was thinking about her future research, which may focus on child poverty. She wondered about how to engage with children about this topic in a sensitive manner, while not overly assuming they would find the discussions harmful or offensive.

Finding out the rules about ethical procedures, and what is required of us. We talked about this mainly in the context of informed consent. Who decides whether we need parental consent, for example, when researching with children and young people—especially in the case of ‘older’ young people? There are many layers to this issue, including the researcher’s position, requirements from the University, and what the fieldwork setting requires (e.g. a school and a youth club might have different views on the matter, different countries may have different institutional requirements). Those of us who have dealt with the issue of parental proxy consent generally agreed that compromise was necessary in order for the research to move forward.

Thanks to all who came to this session, and contributed to such a lively and reflective discussion! Below are some readings that group members mentioned during the session. We look forward to our November meeting, where Geetha Marcus will be discussing her PhD research, on using intersectionality to research the experiences of Gypsy and Traveller girls in Scotland (Wed, November 25th at 4pm, location to be confirmed).

Readings suggested by group members:

Ellis, C. (2004) The ethnographic I: a methodological novel about autoethnography. Oxford: AltaMira Press

Holman Jones, S., Adams, T.E., and Ellis, C., eds (2013) Handbook of autoethnography. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press. (particularly the introduction, for a clear understanding of the difference between ethnography and autoethnography).

Guillemin, M. and Gillam, L. (2004) Ethics, reflexivity and ‘ethically important moments’ in research. Qualitative Inquiry 10(2): 261-280.

What are some of the most valuable resources you’ve come across when approaching ethical considerations in your work? Any suggestions, comment below!


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