Issues in research with children and young people
Issues in research with children and young people

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Issues in research with children and young people

3 What counts as research?

This fundamental question sounds straightforward but is not an easy question to answer. So let us begin with a minimal definition of research as ‘a process of systematic and critical enquiry’. To develop this definition further, we could say that research is underpinned by a carefully planned strategy for investigation and is motivated by a desire to understand or discover something. This theme is addressed in more detail in the following sections.

Quantitative and qualitative research

There are various approaches to choose from when planning a research study that are underpinned by research paradigms. A research paradigm is a set of beliefs which shapes how a study is designed and carried out to address questions or explore children’s and young people’s lives, for example to understand them better. Historically, research paradigms have tended to be grouped into two broad categories: quantitative (dealing with data mostly in the form of numbers) and qualitative (dealing with data mainly in the form of words). Each has particular strengths and weaknesses.

Activity 3 develops this theme by examining the views of three academic researchers who discuss their experiences of conducting qualitative and quantitative childhood and youth research.

Activity 3

Allow approximately 1 hour

Listen to the following recording of a three-way discussion between Dr Samantha Punch, Professor Jane Aldgate and Professor William Pickett. The speakers talk about what research means to them and describe the kinds of research in which they have been involved.

Download this audio clip.
Skip transcript: What is research?

Transcript: What is research?

Dr Samantha Punch
Well, I think for me, it’s about exploring what other people think about the social world. So it’s about tapping into their understandings and meanings of how they see the world from their point of view. So in particular, it encourages me to challenge my own assumptions and question things that I take for granted, so it’s trying to put myself in other people’s shoes.
Winifred Robinson
Professor Aldgate.
Professor Jane Aldgate
Well for me, I think research is testing out ideas, and what we call hypotheses, about whether a particular service performs as well as it’s meant to do. I want to question assumptions that are made in the legislation, and assumptions that are made by policymakers and practitioners, so that in the end, we can provide them with information that will improve services for children.
Winifred Robinson
Professor Will Pickett.
Professor Will Pickett
I guess to me research is asking good questions to develop new knowledge, and in the area of young people and their health, I think it’s very important that we ask informed applied questions that potentially could be of some benefit to their health in their condition. I think there’s also an element of discovery and research that is very attractive. So, for me I guess research is about obtaining new knowledge and answering questions that potentially are going to help people.
Winifred Robinson
Samantha Punch, what characterises your own particular style of research?
Dr Samantha Punch
Well, because I’m interested in finding out people’s understandings and meanings of the world, I have to use quite an open-ended and flexible approach. I’m concerned with letting the research participants define what’s important to them, rather than coming in with my own questions. So, my kind of research is very qualitative in nature, and very exploratory. I usually use a range of different methods, and my interviewing style is very informal, particular at the beginning of a project, and ideally if I have the time, I prefer an ethnographic approach, where I actually take time to live with the participants and I’m actively involved in their daily lives. The drawback to this is that it is a time-consuming approach.
Professor Jane Aldgate
My research is very much characterised by the fact that it is grounded in the theories and knowledge that we have about human growth and development, and about services for children and families in the public domain. So in order to do that, what I have to do before I start a research study is to look at what the latest literature says, what other people have said in research, and to see where we are in terms of our knowledge about a particular subject. Then what I want to do is to test out whether that knowledge can be added to, or whether there are new things that we can find. So I would say it’s a combination of discovery, but also testing out what we’ve already got, and seeing how much that is true, or what new things we can learn.
Winifred Robinson
Will, what characterises your research with children and young people?
Professor Will Pickett
The style of my research is inherently quantitative. We are looking at numerical relationships between variables, meaning risk behaviours and some health outcomes. We developed objective questions, put them together into a survey instrument and then administered them systematically to children in classes throughout the world.
Winifred Robinson
Samantha Punch, coming back to you now, why do you think that research is important?
Dr Samantha Punch
It’s important because it enables us to fill gaps in knowledge, it enables us to explore new and interesting questions about the social world, and it helps us to move beyond common-sense understandings of the world, so we try to find explanations for how and why the world works in the way it does.
Professor Jane Aldgate
For me, research is important because it helps to inform the judgements of professionals and practitioners. Social workers, for example, are working with children who live in a very complex world where they have to make decisions which have a major impact on children’s lives. For example, if you’re weighing up as a social worker whether you should take a child into the care system or not, you need to know what research tells you about what the consequences of that decision are going to be for that individual child.
Winifred Robinson
Professor Pickett, why do you think research is important?
Professor Will Pickett
In my particular field, researchers are trying to provide information that is going to help others make decisions about the health of children. So in this particular case, the information from our surveys of children in schools potentially helps educators, and the people that both teach and that control our educational system, understand what children are going through. Much of our research goes to government people, and people who work within government who actually control municipal federal policy around different risk conditions, and it helps them make informed decisions.
Winifred Robinson
Samantha, what motivates you to do research?
Dr Samantha Punch
I think first and foremost, it has to be an interesting topic that appeals to me personally. I have to be curious about the subject that I’m going to be studying. In particular I enjoy doing empirical research because I like the field work, I like getting out there and talking to people. One of the driving forces that does motivate me to do that research is that previously most research has always been done with adults, so it’s only recently, the last ten years or so, that people have begun to ask children and young people what they think about their own lives. So, part of my motivation is that I feel it’s important to fill that gap in social research, because, often as adults, we assume we know what childhood was like because we were all once children, but often we’ve forgotten, and we’re seeing it through our adult eyes, and also there’s many different ways of being a child, so different children are going to have different perspectives on that.
Winifred Robinson
Professor Aldgate.
Professor Jane Aldgate
Well the research that I do is often with some of the most vulnerable children in our society, and I feel that we have a duty to try and offer those children the best life chances that they can get. So, what motivates me to do research is firstly, to ensure that the children’s voices are heard, and that their views, as Samantha has said, that their views are actually put forward. But the second thing that motivates me is to actually make a contribution to improving the quality of life for those children. I think we do that by listening to what the children have to say.
Winifred Robinson
From a personal point of view, what led you into working as a researcher?
Professor Jane Aldgate
My research work has very much come out of my own training as a social worker, and what led me into research was listening to children who seemed to me to have experiences which were way below what they should be. For example, I remember going to visit a little girl in a children’s home with my practice teacher, and this little girl had lost contact with her families, and I said to the social worker, why does she not know what her mother looks like, because the child had said please can I see my mother and what does she look like, and I in my naivety as a sort of 21-year-old, thought well she should be able to see her mother, and in fact that led me to ask why should any child be deprived of actually seeing their parents, or if they are, can we understand why they are and what can be done about it, and that led me really on my course of working with vulnerable children and their parents.
Winifred Robinson
Samantha, can I ask you the same question about your personal motivation?
Dr Samantha Punch
I initially started studying Spanish and Portuguese, and spent a year in Bolivia to improve my Spanish, and had to do an undergraduate dissertation, so I had to choose a topic when I was there, and I saw many children working, and that was unusual for me, and I wanted to find out more about that, and the street children were the most visible children at the time who were out working in the streets, so my first piece of research was basically just hanging out on street corners, with shoe shiners, and finding out about their daily lives.
Winifred Robinson
Will Pickett, what has motivated you to become a researcher?
Professor Will Pickett
I actually went back into academia after a period of time when I worked in a factory, and that was a pretty good motivation, I guess. More altruistically, I think it’s actually very gratifying to engage in research that might actually help people. That means a lot to me that you might actually make a difference to people.
Winifred Robinson
Professor Aldgate, how is academic research different from other kinds of research?
Professor Jane Aldgate
I think the main difference is that one approaches academic research with a certain degree of scepticism. I guess that contrasts with some aspects of journalism, where you are actually looking to raise awareness about a particular issue, and you are actually going to find out information which will embellish the question that you’ve actually asked.
Dr Samantha Punch
I think social research is different from journalism in two main ways, the methods that are used and the way in which the evidence is used. Social research tends to use methods in a more rigorous and systematic manner. So, for example, even if you have an informal approach, you would cross-check the data that you’re finding by using other methods, or by asking other informants. So, for example, I would not only ask children what they do, but I would also maybe observe to see if they do do what they say they do in practice, whereas a journalist would probably be less likely to go off and seek different viewpoints and different angles. In relation to the presentation of findings, I think, the two kinds of information gathering are different. Social researchers go to lengths to present the complexity of their findings, they talk more in terms of shades of grey, whereas a journalist is more willing to present a story rather than the wider picture. So a journalist can present results in a more black-and-white manner to back up their argument, rather than search for counter evidence.
Winifred Robinson
Will, what would you have to say about all that?
Professor Will Pickett
One of the things that always governs and controls and affects what I do is the peer review process, the fact that I’m going to have to publish my work, and my methods and my results, and it has to be held to a certain standard, and that standard is the standard of my peers, and it’s actually quite difficult at times to get through that process. I assume that journalists face the same things, they have to go through an editorial process but maybe at times the process isn’t as pure as what the scientific process should be.
Winifred Robinson
Professor Aldgate, I know that your expertise is in Social Services, and in research with children and young people, how does that research differ from research with adults, and should it differ?
Professor Jane Aldgate
I think that the research is very similar in the basic principles of working with either adults or children. The differences with working with children are that they are obviously at different stages of development. For example, a young person who is 16 will have a much more complex grasp of the world than a 4-year-old, and so you have to adjust your techniques according to the sort of age and stage of children that you’re interviewing. But I think we are beginning to realise through our knowledge of child development research that younger children are much more competent and much more able to grasp issues than we originally thought. For example, I was very impressed in my study on short-term fostering that 7-year-olds had a very clear grasp that they were going to their foster homes, not only for themselves, but in order to also help their parents. There is also the very critical issue of the difference in power between children and adults, and it is most important that you don’t lead children into giving you the answers they want, that you protect children when you’re doing research with them, so that they don’t have to answer questions that they don’t want to answer. It would be very easy to exploit children in order to get the answers that you want, and to manipulate their answers.
Winifred Robinson
Samantha Punch.
Dr Samantha Punch
I think this is a very big and important question to ask, and I’ve changed my mind in relation to this. When I began to do research with children, I thought well if children are competent social actors, research with children should be the same as research with adults. But when I came to do the research, I found myself worrying excessively over how I was going to present myself, if I could communicate effectively with them, and I went to great lengths to try and minimise the power imbalance that Jane was talking about. So I think that there’s actually three reasons why research with children is potentially different from research with adults. The first reason is in relation to our own adult assumptions about childhood. We assume children to be different, which is why we tend to use child-friendly approaches. Secondly, because childhood is constrained by adult-centred society, children are marginalised in relation to more dominant adults, so they’re not used to being asked their views directly by an unfamiliar adult. The third reason is that children are perhaps different, but I see this as the least important reason, the fact that children, particularly younger children, may have a shorter attention span, they may have less experience of the world, and they may have a more limited vocabulary. It is after all very hard to argue that research with a 5-year-old is not different from research with a 15-year-old. But we need to use those kinds of arguments very critically. What I would say then is that research with children is not necessarily different, it does depend on the questions and topic that we’re asking, depends on the setting and the context, the children themselves, their age, but also the researcher’s own attitudes and behaviour.
Winifred Robinson
Professor Will Pickett, do you make a distinction in your work between children and young people?
Professor Will Pickett
I think the key to answering that question actually isn’t necessarily round the methodology, although you have to take steps to ensure that things are crystal clear in what you’re asking children, and you have to consider things like literacy level and degree of understanding. But I think actually the root and key of it is, any time that you’re involving children in research, there has to be scrutiny of the ethics of what you’re doing. Obviously with very young children you have to obtain that consent, either through an adult or in a very simple manner with them, and you have to be sure that they understand. You have to do whatever it takes to protect those children from harm, whether that harm is physical or emotional.
Winifred Robinson
Does research with children and young people need any special techniques, Professor Aldgate?
Professor Jane Aldgate
I think that it requires the same general techniques that you would use with adults, but with some younger children, you might well want to use the techniques of play. When were doing the foster care study, we did have some 3- and 4-year-olds, and we wanted to try and get them to express how they felt about going from home to foster homes. So we used two dolls houses and two sets of families, and we got children to play out their experience. We also got the 4-year-olds to draw faces, with smiles or with frowns, to express how they felt about it, or we would show them a whole series of some very simple kind of emotions on paper. And it was amazing how children were able to sort of actually respond to those. Often children will tell you how they feel by their body language, and I think that with young children you have to be aware of how they are expressing themselves. Some children will automatically become silent or become very withdrawn when you’re asking a difficult question, or they may want to distract you by going off and running or rushing off and going to play.
Winifred Robinson
An emotionally difficult question.
Professor Jane Aldgate
Yes.
Winifred Robinson
Samantha Punch, did you use any special techniques?
Dr Samantha Punch
I think whether we use special techniques or not depends very much on the questions we’re asking, and the context in which we’re doing that. So, for example, in a project that I worked with young people about how they cope with their problems, this was a potentially sensitive topic, and not all teenagers wanted to reveal to me the personal problems that they’d had. So I did use special techniques, I used problem page letters from magazines, and video clips from soap operas, as a stimulus so that they had a choice of talking about problems in the third person, and talking about it at general level, rather than getting personal. Whereas another project that I’ve worked on recently in Scotland has been exploring children’s experiences of sibling relations, and I’ve found that I’ve hardly had to use any special techniques at all, because children have found it incredibly easy to just talk at length about the pros and cons of having a brother or a sister, and I’ve done those interviews with 5-year-olds through to 15-year-olds. And yes, some 5-year-olds have been monosyllabic, and some 15-year-olds have been. So again, it’s not just down to age.
I think the important point to bear in mind, is that there’s no magic method to do research with children, that all methods or tools/techniques that we use have advantages and disadvantages, and we need to scrutinise both the limitations of using these techniques as well as the benefits, and we shouldn’t assume that using certain special techniques such as drawings, for instance, is going to necessarily be a fun and easy technique to use with children. Some children, like adults, hate drawing and are worried about their perceived ability to draw, so we shouldn’t necessarily assume that these so-called special child-friendly techniques are always going to be beneficial.
Winifred Robinson
Is there are cut-off point below which you would say a child was too young to be interviewed, to take part in research?
Dr Samantha Punch
My research in Bolivia involved children as young as 2 or 3 years old. Because I was participating in their everyday lives and I was at their homes, and I was just spending time with them, then they could be very young indeed. In terms of interviewing children, I haven’t interviewed children younger than 5, and I found that with 5-year-olds, some talk at length, and as I said before, some aren’t so open, but that can be the same with older children too.
Winifred Robinson
Professor Pickett, in your research with children and young people, do you use any special techniques?
Professor Will Pickett
I think there are standard research methods, whether you’re an anthropologist or an epidemiologist, a numbers person, and I think that they are applicable across age groups. I think that there are just sensitivities you have to have to the needs of children and the treatment of children that you can never forget about. It applies to all people, but it’s especially important with young children. For the forms of research that we’re engaged in with young people, it wouldn’t be physically or practically possible to do the same sort of research in a Grade One, say, a child that was 6 or 7 years old, because there wouldn’t be the comprehension to a written survey and the ability to collect the information in the same way. So there are practical limits on this sort of research.
Winifred Robinson
I’d like to move on now to discuss the role of children in research, and their role as participants, but also, whether they can ever be co-researchers, or even active researchers themselves. Jane.
Professor Jane Aldgate
Within the last few years there’s been considerable changes on this front, and children more and more are involved in designing the research in which they’re participating. For example, the National Children’s Bureau had a research study looking at children’s views on being in the care system, and they used focus groups, where children actually decided themselves through these groups, what were the issues.
Winifred Robinson
Samantha, would you like to comment on how the role of children and young people in research is changing?
Dr Samantha Punch
I think on the one hand it can address some of the power imbalances between an adult researcher and a child participant, but on the other hand it can create new dilemmas, and it just shifts one set of power issues for another set, because, at the end of the day, adults do tend to retain ultimate control. I think there’s also a big danger of it being tokenistic, and we need to scrutinise what we mean by the term participation. It’s often seen as an ideal goal, and as a way to get better data, but often it does just refer to active involvement in data collection, rather than being fully involved throughout the research process. I think another important issue is that, at the end of the day, children generally are not trained researchers. We don’t ask adults to go out and do their own research, so why are we so concerned with getting children to do that? And I think children, like adults who are not researchers, do lack wider theoretical and conceptual knowledge about how to move beyond common-sense understandings of the social world. So, although it could be a good idea to involve them as consultants, it is very problematic and difficult to effectively involve them at all stages of a research project. And I do think sometimes it can just be a reflection again of our adult paranoia that we should involve children, yet we don’t often involve other research groups throughout the research process. So again, why children?
Winifred Robinson
Professor Pickett, what do you think?
Professor Will Pickett
There are more participatory models emerging, where children are actually engaged in the research planning process much more than they would be in my sort of research. I would be asking some very hard questions about the validity of those approaches, but by the same token I think we should be very open-minded about the potential benefits to the research process of having more active involvement. The essence of any research is to get at the truth, and I would want to make sure, whether it was my research process or some newly proposed research process, so as others might question my techniques, I would question new techniques that maybe haven’t withstood the test of time yet.
Winifred Robinson
Professor William Pickett, Dr Samantha Punch, Professor Jane Aldgate, thank you very much for taking part.
End transcript: What is research?
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What is research?
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As you listen, make notes following the headings in Table 1 on the similarities and differences in their individual approaches. How do they describe their research interests and the contexts in which they carried out their research? What qualitative and quantitative aspects to their research did they identify? What roles did children and young people play in their studies?

Table 1

Researchers Research interests and contexts Qualitative and quantitative elements Children and young people’s roles in the studies
Samantha Punch
Jane Aldgate
William Pickett
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Discussion

The researchers discuss different approaches to their research, reflecting their diverse backgrounds in education, social care and health, as well as the distinct objectives of their research. Punch reflects on the value of working in partnership with children and young people, and developing methods which are effective in capturing their views. Note how this differs to the approach adopted by Aldgate, who has conducted a wealth of research within care contexts which are tightly bounded by policy frameworks. Pickett describes his own research background in epidemiology with an interest in adolescent health risks. In each case, it is interesting to consider the position of children and young people within the research process, which in turn reflects the investigative approach taken. Punch describes how research can help us develop our knowledge and understanding, whereas for Aldgate research provides opportunities to inform policy and practice. Pickett talks about using quantitative survey analysis, in contrast to Punch and her description of qualitative research. Aldgate emphasises the importance of research being grounded in theory and facilitating opportunities for researchers to test new ideas and ways of thinking.

Rather than dividing different methodological approaches into two distinct fields, we view different methods as sitting along a qualitative–quantitative continuum. How research is designed to explore, measure or test, for example, is underpinned by the research paradigm. When conducting research, the first priority is to clarify the question or hypothesis being investigated, and then decide which approach or approaches will provide the kind of data needed to construct robust evidence which will answer that particular question/hypothesis. This will involve decisions about the role of the researcher and participants within the process. In the next section, we will consider the researcher’s role in practitioner research.

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