Anne-Trine Kjørholt, Norwegian Centre for Child Research (NOSEB)
Ethical challenges in doing research with children in different social-cultural contexts: experiences from Mphil in Childhood Studies
Anne-Trine Kjørholt presented the MA programme at The Norwegian Centre for Child Research (NOSEB). The programme has 25 students from 10 different countries. With experience from child research projects both in and outside Europe, Kjørholt advocated an approach where research ethical issues are integral to all aspects of the research process and design. Obtaining informed consent, paying heed to the complex role shifting that takes place in everyday interaction, and reacting appropriately when being witness to illegal activities are all phenomena proper to research that is made more demanding by the other’s status as a child as well as by cultural differences. On another level as well, only an integrated approach utilizing a multitude of methods—what she referred to as a “mosaic approach”—can hope to bring useful results in this complex field. Important to Kjørholt is the consideration that not only is child research acceptable, but that children have a right to be involved in research.
Harald Beyer Broch, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo
Anthropological field experiences from work with children in natural settings on three continents
Among Harald Beyer Broch’s main contentions, illustrated by examples from his field work in various parts of the world, was that research which only focuses on one limited sphere is in the end futile when the topic is one as complex as children and their lives. Children, like adults, are strategic, narrative-making beings, and should not be investigated as if they were passive receptors of cultural codes. This insight about the meaning-making activities of children makes it even less feasible to pinpoint a demarcation line between children and grownups, as does the further insight that, roughly put, there is no such thing as childhood as such: what constitutes childhood in a given cultural context is co-determined by a multitude of major and minor interactions between concrete roles and spheres. The upshot is that the researcher, in order to get decent results, needs to live with the people in question and partake in the roles offered.
Elisabeth Backe-Hansen, NOVA
Between participation and protection: Involving children in child protection research
Elisabeth Backe-Hansen opened her presentation by setting up the complex, sometimes fraught, relation between participation and protection. One of the main arguments in her talk was about the need, in child research, to differentiate within the group one is researching. With examples from quantitative research, she argued that there is still a marked tendency to overlook crucial situational differences in the application of questionnaires. E.g., a certain response to whether one “feels safe” or “communicates well with the grown-ups here” can mean very different things in a foster home and in an institution. Likewise, the perspectives and competences of the child are ignored when substantial age differences are not taken into account in interpreting what doing well “all in all” could mean for, say, a 9-year old versus for an 18-year old. In child research the further question, Who will these studies benefit?, also presents us with problems of its own, since the individuals surveyed will no longer belong to the relevant group at the time when any benefit might be expected to accrue.
Janet Boddy, Institute of Education, University of London
Research with children across cultures, within countries: a UK perspective on ethics tensions
A main message in Janet Boddy’s presentation was that almost any study involving children and families is cross-cultural, when working in societies that are ethnically and culturally diverse. There is a risk in overlooking this crucial feature of the social sphere when conducting research that is not specifically concerned with phenomena recognized as culturally constituted and differentiated. This is an ethical concern because of the implications for how we account for minority perspectives in research. Boddy emphasized the need to account for the intersection of ethnicity with other sample characteristics—such as poverty—to avoid misattribution of findings, and to recognize variation within, as well as between, cultural groups. For example, there is a tendency to ignore or exclude minority participants in studies looking for what is “normal”, only to foreground them when the researchers are looking at “problems”. These issues need to be addressed at every stage of a given research project, from the definition of research questions to the analysis and dissemination of findings. There is a need to develop concrete strategies, for example to ensure less bias in the recruiting phase of a project by addressing potential barriers to participation for different groups within society.
Ragnvald Kalleberg, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University ofOslo
Are supervisors and research leaders also responsible for research ethics?
Ragnvald Kalleberg pointed out how major cases of misconduct in science should not unproblematically be seen only as the acts of isolated individuals. Rather than just exposing the odd bad apple, serious cases of misconduct in research can reveal systemic breakdowns. In some of the most highly profiled cases, it turns out that, e.g., the thesis advisor did not function as advisor, and that the person in question was in fact at no stage made familiar with information about the rules and regulations in place. According to a recent survey, 20% of researchers simply did not know about existing guidelines relevant to their research. Kalleberg used these facts as a plea for integrating research ethics into the formal training of researchers. More specifically, advisors should be trained in research ethics before taking on students, whereas today, the actual situation is often that PhD students train their advisors in this area.
Ragnhild Dybdahl, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad)
A donor perspective on ethical challenges in research with vulnerable participants incomplex settings
Ragnhild Dybdahl offered a donor’s perspective by reflecting on the responsibilities, and the limits of responsibility, for the agencies funding cross-cultural research on children. NORAD, as the instrument of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, funds a wide variety of research (97% of MFA’s research budget is devoted to the topic of foreign aid), and the responsibilities on the donor’s part are a central issue. While the researchers must be the ones to design the details of research for best possible results, the donor still has an overarching responsibility for the production and use of knowledge. This means that the research leaders’ formal competence is a research ethical dimension that is crucial to NORAD.
Jason Hart, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath
Ethical issues in research with children living amidst political violence
Jason Hart articulated a deep-seated problem having to do with the roles of children in relation to research, namely, the potential conflict between taking children seriously and providing adequate forms of protection for them. Often, the perspectives and wishes of children are articulated by researchers in such a way that the—often political—heart of the matter is excluded from the foreground almost a priori. In situations of war, the research focus is normally placed on children’s assumed desire for peace and security in such a way that any discussion about the uses of and opportunities presented by political violence is not possible. This is partly an effect of treating the child as an apolitical being, in isolation from social and politicized networks. Crucial to avoiding such bias in favour of the researcher’s own value system is taking seriously the child as agent, as well as more broadly ensuring critical distance between the researchers and the agendas of policy-makers.