ACSPRI Conferences, RC33 Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology

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Engaging children and refugee youth in research by eliciting ‘alternative literacies’

Karen Block, Bjorn Nansen, Lisa Gibbs, Colin MacDougall

Building: Law Building
Room: Breakout 9 - Law Building, Room 102
Date: 2012-07-12 01:30 PM – 03:00 PM
Last modified: 2011-12-19


Many of the standard data collection techniques employed in the social sciences – including questionnaires, interviews and focus groups - are most effective at capturing the views and experiences of those who are literate and articulate. Qualitative researchers have long recognised the ethical challenges inherent in conducting research across power gradients. Such gradients typically exist when a ‘white’, middle class, English-speaking and highly educated researcher instigates research with participants who are relatively vulnerable or disadvantaged in some way – perhaps because of age, gender, ethnicity, or low socio-economic status. Bourdieu has suggested that in such asymmetrical circumstances, researchers risk inflicting ‘symbolic violence’ on participants by misrepresenting their position; and emphasises the importance of mitigating this risk by rendering the research process meaningful for participants. Participatory research methods attempt to do this and to ‘empower’ participants by honouring their expertise and knowledge. Participant-generated visual methods, such as photovoice, represent a strategy researchers employ with the explicit intention of empowering individuals and communities.

In this paper, we discuss another approach, in which we used researcher-generated images as focus group prompts when power differentials, understandings of research and language threatened effective communication. We present case studies from our research with newly arrived refugee-background youth and with primary-school children, in which we provided focus group participants with images, and the task of sorting and discussing them. In the research with refugee youth, low levels of English proficiency posed a challenge, but multiple first languages prevented the use of interpreters as a solution. Standard verbal prompts were piloted first, but failed to engage participants in meaningful discussion. Combining visual prompts with an activity, however, elicited sophisticated views on the part of young people about their circumstances. In the example of research with children, this technique was used to stimulate children’s responses and debate independent of the researchers; to minimise the impact of the power imbalance between adults and children; and of pedagogical protocols learned in classroom settings. Children were then given the opportunity to participate in further development of the research methods by reflecting and commenting on the visual method used.

These case studies suggest that visual methodologies using researcher-generated images provide an ethical means of engaging with research participants across social distance, by invoking alternative literacies that they possess. This in turn produces data both different and richer than could be obtained using verbal prompts alone in these circumstances.