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Researching Children’s Experiences is recommended reading for all potential or current researchers interested in conducting studies involving children and adolescents. The text begins by providing a historical context of childhood research perspectives that have been adopted in the past. The authors themselves advocate a social constructivist stance asserting that the individual plays an active role in their physical and social environment and in making sense of the world. This appears to be in opposition to developmental models that attempt to define cognitive and biological stages through which all children must pass. Freeman and Mathison downplay the importance of theories related to describing universal characteristics of children in various developmental stages. Rather, through the social constructivist lens, the authors illustrate an informative and sympathetic way to approach research with children.
The second and third chapters outline means to gaining access to potential participants. These chapters discuss ethical guidelines, methods for recruiting, details of parent and child rights to sufficient information regarding the nature and risks of a proposed study and thoughtful examples and critiques of previous methods employed. As a developmental psychology student, I found these chapters stimulating in generating ideas for my own recruitment strategies and providing appreciation for the process of gaining access to participants in a manner that is both useful in constructing the experimental environment and considers the needs of everyone involved in the research procedure. The authors continue the text by outlining researcher roles and the pros and cons to various research strategies. The emphasis placed on the method equilibrium is concerned with participant reaction and nothing is mentioned assessing the explanatory value one method holds over another. Furthermore, Freeman and Mathison limit discussion related to analyses to the chapter nine. Although, the social constructivist perspective considers the individuals involved in the research process and their inter-dependent relationships, I firmly push social sciences to emphasize and at the very least acknowledge the extent to which qualitative data can be objectified to provide meaningful and useful results. Otherwise, all that remains of social science is a collection of detailed individual cases that are both time-consuming to obtain and interpretable in an infinite number of ways. I support that observations, drawings, or detailed written accounts can be quantified so long as the investigator operationally defines observed behaviors or thoughts which are held accountable to statistical analysis.
Interviewing, art/ photography and journaling/ other written responses are themes of the next three chapters. All three sections include suggestions and examples to building studies that are relevant to the type of information sought. As I stated previously, insight into the degree of explanatory power for each method would have been helpful here; however, I agree with the authors that different methodologies may be appropriate for different children and various techniques allow for a broader range of responses that may lead an investigator in an entirely new direction. What interviews lack in their formal nature, art, journaling and free responses enable non-verbal content analyses on unidentified structures and themes in reasoning.
Finally, the authors discuss analyzing data and children as researchers. The main point of skepticism in the analyzing data section is the lack of attention paid to preemptively planning suitable analyses. Although Freeman and Mathison acknowledge the act of considering content analysis prior to conducting a study, it becomes apparent that much of the consideration for analysis occurs post hoc. In respect to pilot studies and initial assessments of experimental validity, a degree of flexibility is assumed in generating viable hypotheses. However, one would hope that clear hypotheses and patterns of interest would be defined prior to data collection even in the social sciences. The authors’ inclusion of a chapter examining children as researchers pays homage to their social constructivist viewpoint. Utilizing the child’s perspective in all stages of the research process is enlightening and acknowledges the value of children’s ideas. The take home message the authors convey is once the researcher stops assuming she knows more about the experiential content of a child than the child himself, she can expand the knowledge base for researching and documenting children’s experiences.
Coming from an interdisciplinary program incorporating methodologies from anthropology, psychology and philosophy, I would promote the reading of this text for undergraduate and graduate students who are planning to pursue a career in child research. The authors create a somewhat textbook feel by including discussion questions following each chapter. The questions could be used within a classroom setting or for a curious and engaged social science investigator. Occasionally, an active researcher loses sight of the mediating processes necessary to obtain meaningful and representative data. Although, I advocate a fusion of the social constructivist and developmental models to explain children’s cognition and behavior, reading a text with a strong stance in one direction offers an opportunity to evaluate the positive attributes one enlists whilst critiquing the value other attributes may provide in creating a coherent scientific framework.
© 2009 Natalie A. Emmons
Natalie A. Emmons is a post graduate student at the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University in Belfast. She has a background in evolutionary psychology and is currently studying cognitive universals of religious thought. Her work focuses on a multidisciplinary approach to understanding religious thought and behavior in addition to synthesizing multiple levels of cognitive processing.
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