A conversation about ethics and working with the young

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Early in the semester, we decided that it would be a good idea for us to organize a workshop on ethical research with children and youth. Many of our graduate students and faculty members are currently conducting research with (or about) children and youth, and there are not always straightforward guidelines as to how this research should be conducted from an ethical perspective. Thinking about ethics in relation to children and youth always brings up many questions that can be difficult to answer.

On October 22nd, we met in the I-CYS lair for the workshop. There was a great turnout—faculty and students from numerous disciplines including History, English, Women and Gender Studies, Psychology and others joined the conversation. Each of us had an opportunity to share our current or past research, and to outline the steps that we have (or haven’t yet) taken to address potential ethical dilemmas in our work. It was clear that everyone in attendance recognized the value of working with children and youth, but also the importance of ensuring that this research is conducted in a way that respects the child’s voice and dignity. A recurring theme was that researching the young potentially requires a particular set of ethical criteria, one that is different from other types of research.

The interdisciplinary dialogue that was fostered was, for me, the most engaging element of the workshop. Some of us are doing empirical work with children or young adults. We are using a range of methods including, for example, observation, visual methods, and interviewing. I have used reading discussion groups and visual methods with young adults to better understand their perceptions of place and place-identity. Because I asked my participants to share information about their personal lives, I had to ensure that I protected their identities. It was important to me that I told their story in a way that corresponded with how they would have wanted their story to be told. As the research was being conducted, I was their gatekeeper. I continue to be the gatekeeper of their stories even though my physical time with them has passed. While thinking about ethics, I came across this special edition of the Children’s Geographies journal, published in 2008. This edition of the journal focuses on interdisciplinary perspectives on ethical issues of child research.

A number of scholars at the workshop are not engaging directly with children or youth. Kristine, for example, has done historical research on children. Her work involves examining photographic records produced by the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements, as well as family letters, to understand the ways in which WW1 affected families and young people. Although she is conducting historical research, she is working with representations and constructions of children and young people. She is accessing their voices through historical documents, and therefore has to share this evidence in a way that respectfully and accurately depicts their experiences of the world.

As a group, we considered the similarities and differences between these various research techniques. Regardless of whether we are working directly with young people, or with visual or written representations of their lives, it is essential that we consider the ethical implications of our work before, during, and after the research has been conducted.

As well as sharing our own research, we discussed how to navigate ethics on a more practical level. How do we ensure that our research meets the ethical requirements of our faculties, funding bodies, and the university at large? The University of Lethbridge has a Research Services committee that assists faculty members and graduate students with issues such as ethics. Before any research is conducted, all proposals must go through ethical clearance by the university. An overview of this procedure can be found here: http://www.uleth.ca/research-services/research-ethics. This website also has a direct link to the Tri-council ethical policy. Fortunately, Susan Entz, the university’s ethics officer, was able to attend our workshop. She answered many of our questions and was able to comment on university procedures.

Interestingly, both websites have included information on ‘ethical guidelines for work with human subjects’, but there are no specific guidelines for working with children and youth. At the workshop, it became quite clear that we understand our research to involve an additional layer of scrutiny because we are working with young people. Kristine found an excellent resource for researchers called ERIC (Ethical Research Involving Children), which is a joint project between various parties including UNICEF’s Office of Research, the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University, Australia, and the Children’s Issues Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. On their website, they outline four key areas for ethical consideration with children: harm and benefits, informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, and payment/compensation. Check out their website—they have some excellent resources and guidelines for conducing research with young people!

Navigating ethics seems to be a recurring theme for this academic year. On October 24th, The Centre for Oral History and Tradition organized a very stimulating panel presentation called: “Oral History Ethics, Consent, Responsibilities and Obligations: Scholars reflect on these concerns in their research”. The event, which was moderated by Carol Williams, included presentations by Nancy Janovicek (from the U of C) and Heidi MacDonald and Claudia Malacrida (both from the U of L). All three discussants shared their oral history research projects and then commented on the ethical dilemmas that they encountered. There were many parallels between this presentation and our workshop earlier in the week.

In March, we look forward to welcoming Jane Nicholas from Lakehead University who will be sharing her research on the history of North American freak shows in the twentieth century. In a recent article, Jane touches on many of the issues that we started thinking about our workshop. We look forward to carrying on these discussions with her!!

Our conversation about ethics is ongoing and, we think, really important. Please feel free to share with us how you, as researchers or practitioners, engage ethically with children and young.

The beginning of I-CYS….

Jan’s story:

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We knew we wanted Kristine Alexander to join our gang at the search dinner. We went to our local oddity: a restaurant built inside an old water tower. The hiring committee included a historian, a neuroscientist, a biological anthropologist and a cultural anthropologist. We were giddy with the possibilities for the search. It was the culmination of all the work we had done building a multi-disciplinary group that also included people working in education and children’s literature. We began as a reading group in 2009, and then we organized a successful conference in 2011. Now, the Institute for Child and Youth Studies (or I-CYS) was a reality at the University of Lethbridge, and we had been given the go-ahead to search for a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Multidisciplinary Studies of Children and Youth. Heady stuff. And against the usual institutional inertia around cross-disciplinary work and research on children and youth. We were excited by our growing momentum, and here was our first candidate. And she was a delight! Her research on girl guides took in several of the contemporary themes in child and youth studies: girlhood, colonial studies, the nature of historical research on the young, and visual methods. That in itself was encouragement enough! Yet, what really made everything click was Kristine’s wit, her incisive thinking on the central issues, and especially her energy and courage for confronting the obstacles to working across disciplines, faculties, frames of reference. Frankly, she was game for our grand project. And she so got us! And now more than a year later, it’s clear our choice was the right one. And the I-CYS gang is still growing…

Kristine’s story:

KA Grade 1

I learned all kinds of things during my job interview at the U of L: that southern Alberta is beautiful during the summer, for starters, and that an old water tower is actually a great place to put a restaurant. I also came to understand, during my dinner with the search committee members who are now my colleagues, that joining this playful and multidisciplinary group of intellectuals – like interdisciplinary research more generally – would require trust, openness, lots of communication, and a sense of humour.

Each one of these qualities was on display in abundance throughout my visit to Lethbridge. I’d caught glimpses of the creative and scholarly energy of the place several years earlier, when I gave a paper at 2011 “Mapping the Landscapes of Childhood” conference, but it was our dinner conversation at the water tower – which ranged from the play behaviours of rats to the joys of Michael Apted’s “Up” series – that really convinced me that this place, and this group of people, was something special.

Over the past year and a half, the I-CYS gang has been busy: we’ve shown films about young people, hosted academic talks, and invited graduate students to hear about the path-breaking youth engagement work that Syrus Marcus Ware is doing at the Art Gallery of Ontario. In May 2014, we held a workshop investigating the “conjoined categories” of risk and resilience in child and youth studies that was attended by scholars, practitioners, and artists from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. This fall, we welcomed the first I-CYS Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Erin Spring, a new scholar whose interdisciplinary work on young adult literature and place exemplifies the spirit and goals of the Institute. We’ve got a growing community of graduate and undergraduate students, and have a number of events planned – many of which will be discussed here. We’re also excited about hosting the second “Mapping the Landscapes of Childhood” conference, which will be held here in Lethbridge on May 8-10 2014.

We’ll be blogging about these and many other child and youth-related things here, so watch this space!