Reflexivity in Research Practice: Informed Consent with Children at School and at Home

by Hayley Davies
University of Warwick

Sociological Research Online 13(4)5

Received: 29 Oct 2007     Accepted: 18 Jul 2008    Published: 31 Jul 2008


Informed consent is a key consideration in ethical research, particularly research conducted with children. Devising an approach to and obtaining informed consent is a complex task involving multiple considerations. The examples used in this paper are derived from a study investigating how children constitute family members and close relationships. The paper is divided into two sections. The first section suggests that researchers should take a reflexive approach to their professional research practice and addresses how a researcher's professional location determines their particular ethical approach. Consideration is given to how the researcher's particular ethical approach can be achieved in consultation with academic thought and research ethics guidelines, which often offer contradictory advice on important ethical issues. The second section of the paper addresses how researchers negotiate their approach to informed consent in particular research contexts which offer challenges to the researcher's thinking about research participants or chosen procedures for obtaining and maintaining that informed consent is upheld. The paper concludes by arguing that the researcher can incorporate academic thought and aspects of the research ethics guidelines in an approach to informed consent that simultaneously values the research participants and the ethical practices operating in the research setting. Such an approach involves careful negotiation and consideration of the interests of all stakeholders in the research process.

Keywords: Children, Ethics, Informed Consent, Social Actors, Families, Contextual Research Practice


1.1 Ethical principles should not be marginalised as 'separate questions that need additional consideration' (Morrow, 2008, forthcoming: 7). An increase in research governance and regulation in bio-medical research has heightened the focus on ethics which has diffused to social research (see Wiles et al. 2007), with attention to informed consent, highlighting the expectation that research is conducted overtly. With a notable increase in research with children, ethical discussions about child research have become very important; evident in the existence of a body of literature dedicated to this topic. For some, research with children is thought to require particular ethical considerations because of children's relative lack of maturity, and economic and legal dependence on adults. Informed consent is central to ethical discussions, although some researchers have questioned children's competency to fully understand what research is and what it involves, a notion which others have challenged. The process of gaining children's informed consent prior to and during the data collection stages of research is the central focus of this paper and will be related to broader issues in discussions of ethics and informed consent in social research.

1.2 While there is no agreed definition of informed consent (Wiles et al. 2007) there are some points of convergence among researchers and the guidelines discussed here. Informed consent is the imparting of adequate information by researchers to potential research respondents in order for them to decide whether or not to participate in research. Ethical guidelines (British Sociological Association 2002; Social Research Association 2003; National Children's Bureau 2003; American Anthropological Association 2004; British Educational Research Association 2004; Economic and Social Research Council 2006) as well as the academic community (Alderson 1995; Morrow and Richards 1996; Alderson 2004; Alderson and Morrow 2004) emphasise to different degrees the following criteria for informed consent. Information should focus on explaining: the research topic; the person(s) and bodies/organisations conducting and funding research; the motivations for research and, in particular the necessity of participants' inclusion; the possible risks and benefits to the participant of involvement in the research; and how the data will be stored and used, and the participants' identity anonymised. Potential participants should understand that consent is voluntary and can be refused at any point for 'any or no reason' (BERA 2004: 6). Such recommendations presume that the respondents will speak and understand English or be able to communicate with the researcher.

1.3 The formalisation of ethics through institutional ethics committees and standard consent forms (Wiles et al. 2007) can be misleading, suggesting that ethical considerations may be dealt with at a single point in time, overlooking the processual nature of ethics; consent to participate in research should continually be gained (American Anthropological Association (AAA) 2004). Researchers might interpret such formal approaches as implying that ethical considerations are similar across studies. Confronting such assumptions, some researchers argue that ethical considerations should be appropriate to and 'situated' in the research context. This situated approach to ethics is both 'local and specific…it cannot be universalized' (Simons and Usher 2000: 2). As such, there is no single correct approach to ethical issues; the ethical framework evolves with the research and is context-specific. As a consequence of the 'complexity, variable contexts, and duration of different ethnographic research projects, ethnographic research should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis' (AAA 2004: part 1).

1.4 This paper maintains a focus on discussing how particular theoretical understandings of research participants result in particular ethical approaches to conducting research. The paper develops by examining how a researcher's theoretical position is influenced and challenged by a variety of factors which determine the researcher's approach to informed consent. I address how a researcher's theoretical model of childhood requires consideration alongside the theoretical models underpinning institutional and professional ethical guidelines, academic debate and institutional and domestic family practices and processes. I examine how a chosen ethical approach may be contested by those who work in institutional research contexts where there are competing understandings about the treatment and expectations of research participants, and suggest ways in which a researcher may respond to such challenges. I also examine the more informal research setting of children's homes and the relationships which facilitate children giving informed consent. In this paper, 'children's homes' refers to the private domestic settings where children live with their relatives and not to local authority or charitable run institutions where 'looked after' children are housed.

Research Focus and Methods

2.1 The study from which this discussion of ethics derives focused on children's conceptualisation of close relationships, in particular, the ways in which children established criteria for constituting family or like-family individuals. The channels through which children conducted and enacted their relationships were also investigated, including the physical and intimate nature of children's relationships. During this study I experienced a particular ethical problem which caused me to re-evaluate my ethical approach and principles and prompted me to write this paper.

2.2 The research was conducted in children's homes and school. Aged 8-10 years old, the twenty-four boys and girls involved in this study attended a state primary school (a mainly ethnic majority school with a small proportion of British South Asian children). The school was situated in the West Midlands, in the bottom third of the most deprived areas in England. A triangulation of qualitative research methods was employed, comprising in-depth semi-structured paired interviews, observations of children's interaction with peers, children's family drawings and the creation of books about families, all undertaken in the children's school. These methods were complemented by visits to a sub-sample of the children's homes. Data collection was undertaken over a period of one year from March 2006 to March 2007.

2.3 The study is located within childhood sociology and more specifically contributes to sociological research concerned with children's family lives (O'Brien et al. 1996; Morrow 1998; Brannen et al. 2000). A new sociology of childhood emerged in opposition to knowledge of childhood produced through socialisation theory which conducted research on rather than with children (Mayall 1998); adults were often required to represent children's points of view. If children were involved in research, they were considered incapable of providing informed consent. The sociology of childhood has aimed to redress this balance by developing a standpoint which considers children as social actors and as individuals with their 'own experiences and understandings' (Christensen and Prout 2002: 481). A social actor perspective considers children as contributors to the shaping of their own lives in their schools and families; children are considered to be valuable commentators on their everyday lives and experiences in their local settings (Mayall 2002), providing broader knowledge of social relationships. Such a standpoint involves attempting to see the world from children's perspectives and placing children at the 'centre of analysis' (Corsaro 2005: xi). This position advocates strongly that children's informed consent is gained and is an ongoing process. As such, the model of childhood is important to determining the ethical principles adhered to as different models of childhood translate to different methodological and ethical considerations (Christensen and Prout 2002). The way in which the researcher theoretically positions the participants affects ethical considerations in all research, not only in research with children.

2.4 In considering this construction of children as social actors, one issue that has arisen is children's power in the research relationship. Whether children, as agents, are able to wield power in an adult-child relationship, in particular, a research relationship, is in dispute. Mayall (2000) argues that children are subject to adult power through their generational status as children. Others argue that power is not 'reducible to the powerless and the powerful' (Holt 2004: 13), and that it is 'produced and negotiated' through social interaction between actors in the 'local settings of the research' (Christensen 2004: 175). Adult power over children can silence the child's voice, which sociologists of childhood are striving to hear. By viewing power as something which is created rather than manifest in different actors, children are not necessarily, nor permanently, less powerful than adults. From this viewpoint, research with children need not require special methodological or ethical considerations (Christensen and James 2000; Christensen and Prout 2002; Christensen 2004). Methods and ethics should be considered in light of the research questions (Lewis and Lindsay 2000), the research participants, and the 'social and cultural context of the research' (Christensen and Prout 2002: 481).

Professional Identity

3.1 While personal identity influences how and what data are produced in all research, the focus of this paper is on the impact that a researcher's professional identity has in the research context. I adopt a position of professional reflexivity in order to examine how my own professional identity and practices influenced the evolving process of gaining informed consent. While researchers conducting field research are encouraged to be reflexive, there is also a potential to be overly reflexive which may result in the researcher conveying more about themselves than the knowledge created through the research (Calvey 2000: 57). A careful balance of reflexive consideration and in-depth description of the study, participants and process is required.

3.2 In devising an ethical approach, the researcher is guided by academic debate over contentious issues, by their own previous experience (Morrow forthcoming: 9), and by their professional associations. Christensen and Prout (2002) argue that the researcher's theoretical understanding of childhood influence methodological and ethical considerations. Ultimately, the 'power' to choose which theoretical standpoint, or way of understanding children lies with the researcher' (Morrow, 2008, forthcoming: 6). However, the researcher's chosen approach to informed consent may differ from that advised or purported by their institution, profession or sponsor, all of whom constitute stakeholders in the research process. As Silva has argued:

'Knowledge is produced not only in the context of fieldwork practice but also in the context of the academic structures where it is exercised. It is important to note that the structures of the academy are multifaceted and not always constraining' (Silva 2007: 6.4).
It is therefore important to see the data that are produced as derived from a particular ethical approach, which may be determined by the researcher and a combination of academic influences. This highlights the importance of the researcher being transparent about how the methodological and ethical approach has been shaped.

Professional Guidelines and Models of Childhood

3.3 Having outlined the theoretical approach to childhood underpinning this study, I will examine the theoretical models of childhood manifest in the professional ethical guidelines and suggest ways in which researchers might reconcile advice from different guidelines when it is contradictory. Ethical research is 'a do-it-yourself and not simply a ready-made approach' (Alderson and Morrow 2004: 12) and ethical guidelines are relative and contingent; they must suit the research respondents, the research context and meet the researcher's ethical standards in varied circumstances. In developing an approach to informed consent, a number of professional ethical guidelines were consulted. These guidelines are both 'influential at the point of training' and 'provide useful support material' for the researcher when devising a research study (Lindsay 2000: 8).

3.4 I argue that it is difficult to find adequate guidance in a single set of ethical guidelines because none of these guidelines offer a clear social actor perspective. Many researchers would agree that these 'codes of ethical practice are idealisations' (Calvey 2000: 56). The guidelines referred to are those of the University from which the research was conducted; the BSA (2002), the SRA (2003), the ESRC (2006), the NCB (2003) and BERA (2004). These guidelines are implicitly underpinned by theoretical approaches to childhood and to informed consent that were at odds with one another and with my own approach. I will first deal with the general ethical guidelines relating to social research.

3.5 Increasingly, academic institutions, as well as professional research organisations have developed their own codes of ethics and research ethics committees (RECs). Professional codes and REC guidance map out the institutional expectations of the researcher. Warwick University guidelines, developed using the work of Fraser et al. 2004, state that the researcher should 'respect' and take account of 'the traditional and sometimes more formal guidance/procedures…[research] settings may have' (Institutional Guidelines on Ethical Practice 5.4.1: 3. Available online). These guidelines specify that:

'In the case of research in educational settings, any special school policies or procedures must be followed and efforts made to fully inform those responsible for children in these settings of the purpose and benefits of any proposed research with children' (Institutional Guidelines on Ethical Practice 5.4.7).

3.6 The recommendation that the researcher have respect for the conventions or rules of that setting, in my view, also applies to research conducted in children's homes. During visits to children's homes, they often deferred to parental authority as a matter of respect. For example, before showing me her room, Tara (age 9) gained permission from her mother to do so. The ideal is to leave unaffected the relationships that existed in the field prior to research; that is, to accept that children may want to gain parental permission because that is how they conduct that relationship aside from the research context.

3.7 In discussions of informed consent, the institutional guidelines, like other professional ethical codes (BSA, SRA and ESRC) assume the research subject or respondent to be an adult with small sections of the guidelines dedicated to research with children. In these sections, children were deemed '"vulnerable" populations' (SRA 2003: 30; ESRC 2006: 19) and researchers were encouraged to take 'particular care' in undertaking research with children (BSA 2002: 4). Conceptualising children as a specialist group for whom 'specialist advice and expertise should be sought where relevant' (BSA 2002: 4) constructs them as a minority, rather than a mainstream group of research respondents. These guidelines reflect the general cultural climate in which the sociologist of childhood works and some of the challenges they face.

3.8 In the dedicated sections to 'research on children' (ESRC 2006: 24, emphasis added), where informed consent cannot be gained and children are not considered 'competent to give their assent to the research, the issue of honesty and consent may need to be managed via proxies…' (ESRC 2006: 24). In these guidelines, the child respondent is theorised as at best, a subject of research rather than a social actor in the research process. It is assumed that adults can give consent on behalf of the child who may or may not wish to participate in the research. This contradicts consideration of children as social actors who should be afforded 'ethical symmetry'; a concept which specifies that 'the ethical relationship between researcher and informant is the same whether he or she conducts research with adults or children' (Christensen and Prout 2002: 482). Ethical symmetry positions children as mainstream respondents rather than a 'specialist' or minority group. Yet, childhood researchers 'implicitly' face the same methodological and ethical considerations as those researching adults. Research with children 'require(s) specific consideration, largely because of the way childhood is constructed and understood within specific cultural contexts' (Morrow, forthcoming: 4). Specific consideration in specific cultural contexts might also apply to constructions of 'other social groups experiencing social exclusion because of their ethnic, gender or social status' (Christensen and Prout 2002: 483). There remains no agreement among researchers as to whether all groups of research participants can be treated with the same ethical values (Wiles et al. 2007). However, it is important to attend to the constructions of the research participants on which the ethical guidelines and academic debate are premised.

Local Ethical Practices

4.1 It is not only the researcher and their academic background that influence the approach to informed consent; all research is influenced by its social and cultural context (Christensen and James 2000). Other stakeholders in the research process may have divergent conceptualisations of children and childhood (which if adopted by the researcher, would have implications for the approach to informed consent) and will necessarily be negotiated by the researcher prior to, and during the course of the research. Despite considering children as capable of exercising power in an adult-child relationship, they are also members of a family, and of a school system in which they are cared for and subject to adults' decisions; an important consideration when conducting research with children. Adults responsible for the care of the children involved in my study were gatekeepers permitting access to the children (Morrow and Richardson 1996; Dyblie Nilson and Rogers 2005), and were indirectly involved in this study. Acknowledging the importance of teachers and parents to children's lives and care, it was important that I devise an approach to informed consent that was ethically appropriate and appreciative of the researcher's, children's, parents' and teachers' interests. I will examine this attempt and discuss the complexities of and obstacles to doing so.

4.2 Researchers must engage with research respondents' 'cultures of communication' (Christensen and James 2000) and be sensitive to ethical rules and requirements that operate in the research setting, in this case, children's school and homes. Local ethical practices cannot be disregarded and transgressed by the researcher's own set of ethical standards. Furthermore, relationships that existed in the field prior to research deserve respect. Ideally, researchers would incorporate the ethical values operating within the research context and discuss ethics in ways which resonate with participants' and other actors' understandings of ethics in these settings (Christensen and Prout 2002). For example, in requesting that children participate in research activities in school, parents were required to provide written consent for children's participation in research activities by returning a reply slip to school. In asking for written consent I was engaging in the local practices of ethics specific to the school culture; on one of the occasions I had accompanied the children on a school excursion, a child had had to remain at school due to her lack of written parental consent. Therefore, children, teachers and parents were familiar with this ethical practice of gaining written consent. In such settings, the researcher is faced with a multiplicity of considerations which must be managed in developing an approach to informed consent which satisfies, or at least addresses the concerns of those who have a part to play in the research. More importantly, this ethical approach should be appropriate for the children involved in the study as they are the key informants whose interests should be paramount.

4.3 Where school constitutes the research setting, researchers face the task of devising an ethical approach which is appropriate for that school. The social science literature has not adequately addressed many of the dilemmas that arise for the sociologist working in educational settings. Therefore sociologists undertaking research in schools may need to draw on ethical frameworks devised for educational researchers, and use these as additional resources when considering their own ethical practice. However, there are some important differences between the researcher and the teacher conducting educational research.

4.4 Legal mandate requires that teachers are trained in child protection; the former Department for Education and Skills (Dfes) stated that 'staff have a professional responsibility to share relevant information about the protection of children with other professionals' (Dfes, 2003 cited in Williamson et al. 2005: 398), whereas researchers are not routinely offered or obliged to take child protection training. The obligations of researchers with regard to child protection are unclear (Williamson et al. 2005). Williamson et al. (2005) devised a child protection protocol prior to commencing research which they encourage other researchers to do. As part of the protocol they intended to warn children of the limitations to confidentiality in case children disclosed that they were being harmed. The ethics committee reviewing their proposal deemed this warning inappropriate. Williamson et al. (2005)argued that in not telling children that there were limits to their confidentiality, researchers were failing to be transparent about what the research involved. This lack of transparency undermines the notion of informed consent whereby informants should be aware of the limitations of the confidentiality offered by researchers (Williamson et al. 2005). In my own study, I did not inform children of the limitations of their right to confidentiality, but in hindsight, this is an important consideration for the future of ethical research with children.

Involving Children's Families in Informed Consent

4.5 The potential for greater involvement of children's families in the process of informed consent has been overlooked in ethical discussions. Most researchers would agree that it is good practice to request parental consent for children to participate in research (Balen et al. 2006). This 'good practice' should be located within wider debates over the conceptualisations of children in research about families; there has been a theoretical shift in considering children as 'conceptually' separate from their families (Prout 2003: xi), to re-examining children's roles as active negotiators of family life (Brannen and O'Brien 1996; James and Prout 1996; Jensen and Mckee 2003; Prout 2003). As such, children are now viewed as both independent actors and members of a family unit. This provides good grounds for my suggestion that where appropriate, children's families should have greater involvement in this process of informed consent. Examples of situations where this would not be appropriate are, for example, in investigations into sexual abuse among children where parents are potential perpetrators of abuse. Aside from such examples, I would argue that it is important to engage children's family members in this process of informed consent, as suggested in the professional guidelines discussed below.

4.6 Considering advice on informed consent in the guidelines, a closer examination of how this advice conceptualises the role of children and parents is required. I will attempt to explicate the standpoints underpinning the guidelines and their implications for the position of the child and parent in research practice. The ethical guidelines examined here reinforce that gaining informed consent from children and parents constitutes best practice (BSA 2002; NCB 2003; ESRC 2006); and should ideally be achieved through 'dialogue with both children and their parents (or legal equivalent)' where this is possible and appropriate (ESRC 2006: 24). Discussing children's role in giving consent to participate, institutional guidelines suggest that:

'Where the child consents to participate the parent's consent is not required, but there are often good reasons for informing parents about planned research; parents' agreement will be necessary if children are to be seen at the parents' home or elsewhere if it is not a place where the child can be expected to go without parental agreement' (Institutional Guidelines on Ethical Practice: 5.4.2.).

4.7 Examining the National Children's Bureau (NCB) guidelines and those of the British Educational Research Association (BERA), one might expect a child-centred approach to research ethics. Unlike other codes, those of the NCB, like Williamson et al. (2005), specify that 'at the outset' of research, children should be made aware of the 'degree of confidentiality and anonymity afforded' them with the proviso that 'there must be limits to any guarantee of confidentiality or anonymity in situations where child protection is an issue' (NCB 2003: 2-3). They emphasise that children must be consulted about the steps the researcher will take and informed of the possible 'consequences' and their 'wishes taken account of' (NCB 2003: 2-3). In contrast, in discussing children's rights to privacy and confidentiality, BERA assert that children are entitled to privacy and confidentiality. Yet, these rights may be overridden if children's 'guardians or responsible others, specifically and willingly waive that right' (BERA 2004: 8). Such a statement privileges adult privacy, confidentiality and rights over those of children and instead of considering children as family members who contribute to family decision-making, it reduces them to dependents for whom decisions are made.

4.8 The BERA advice takes a starkly different approach to children and childhood to many of the other guidelines, and perhaps unintentionally undermines children's competency and power to be active participants in the research process in the same way that adults might be. Having examined the guidelines which relate to research with children in their school and homes, some of the disparities highlighted illustrate the complexity of developing an ethical framework for research with children. Researchers therefore need to critically assess their own theoretical standpoint and resulting ethical approach in relation to the guidelines. While the guidelines examined here are relatively recent, they fail to keep pace with theoretical shifts in thinking, such as childhood sociologists' new ways of conceptualising children. Nevertheless, these guidelines are important for research with children. The general principles of informed consent laid out in the guidelines, noted at the beginning of this paper, show that there is great awareness of how we treat individuals who participate in research. In agreement with others (Christensen and Prout 2002), I would suggest that these considerations are also important for research with children. I have drawn upon these general principles in developing an approach to informed consent which values children as social actors. Despite the guidelines proposing models of childhood that challenge a social actor perspective, the underlying principles which are applied to adults are useful frameworks to guide researchers where they are used alongside academic literature. I hope to show that the general principles intended to guide research with adults, outlined in the guidelines above, offer scope for thinking about children as social actors, in contrast with the child-specific sections of these same guidelines which focus on children as 'vulnerable populations'.

4.9 Based on some of the advice in these guidelines, an endeavour was made to inform children and their parents about the research through an information leaflet using language accessible to children and adults (Alderson 2004). This leaflet was modelled on a leaflet used in The Changing Times ESRC project (Christensen and James 1997-1999). Children were consulted on an early draft of the leaflet to ensure that they fully understood what was being explained. The leaflet (see here) briefly stated who I was, which institution I was aligned with and that I was interested in finding out about children's family relationships, which necessarily involved talking to children. I explained the research activities in which children would be asked to participate and provided examples of the types of questions I would ask. The leaflet was also used to recruit families who would be willing for me to visit their children at home and discuss family life. In this information, I outlined a promise of confidentiality, with the caveat that the data would be used to write about what children say without using their 'real names in the research'. I explained that in order to participate children must gain parental consent to take part in the recorded discussions (BSA 2002; NCB 2003; ESRC 2006; Balen et al. 2006) and that this should be discussed and decided upon with their family (ESRC 2006). Ideally, signed parental consent would be obtained for children's participation in research (ESRC 2006: 24). Where this was impossible, I sought verbal parental consent wherever I had an opportunity for contact with parents. Most important was that children and parents knew what the research involved and made informed decisions about participation. Where children's parents expressed an interest in their child participating in the research and children were not interested in participating, the child's decision was accepted. As such, the approach to informed consent was derived from the use of the guidelines and children were treated as social actors.

4.10 The content of the leaflet was discussed with children prior to the interviews and family book-making sessions and children were reminded of the topics I would cover in the interviews. Reassuring the children that only I would listen to the interviews, I explained how the data would be used. Before recorded sessions, confirmation was sought from children that they were happy to have their interview recorded; they were offered the alternative of note-taking if they preferred. All children agreed to be recorded; the majority were excited about this and some liked to listen to the recording afterwards.

Children's Identities in School: the Implications for Informed Consent

4.11 Research respondents are part of, shaped by and constructed in ways specific to the context they occupy. When conducting research with people – whether or not they are children - it is impossible to separate them from the relationships that operate in the research context or the identities imposed upon them within that context. Neither is it possible for a researcher to extrapolate his or her own identity and values into this context in order to conduct research within a chosen model of childhood, unaffected by the setting. The identity that I had constructed for the children and my own identity were subject to negotiation with both teachers and the children themselves. A reflexive approach considering the school as the research context and the children within that school allowed me to examine how I addressed the local cultures of ethics of the school. I will explore these ideas through specific examples from research conducted in the school setting.

4.12 Many researchers would agree with Devine that:

'School serves to construct children in particular ways relative to adults…the absence of children's voice in most decisions regarding the organization of their time and space is contrary to the notion of children as social actors with a right to have their views expressed and heard' (Devine 2002: 312).
The context of school is manifest with 'power relations and structures of authority' which 'deny the agency of children, or at best temper it' (Pole et al. 1999: 48). In school childhood is constructed as 'a rehearsal for adult life' and children are reduced to subjects in this space (Lloyd-Smith and Tarr 2000: 63). Children are organised according to age-groupings (Pole et al. 1999; David et al. 2001) and the associated age-based targets for 'educational achievement' (Pole et al. 1999: 51). While teachers may not actively seek to deny children's agency, in disciplining children and working within such structures, the power differential between adult and child cannot be avoided. In my interactions with children, I endeavoured not to reproduce the power relations that characterised this setting and to reduce my own adult power. However, it was also important to avoid undermining the adult-child relationships that already existed in the school, and maintain this careful balancing act (Alderson 2004).

4.13 Researchers need to examine what constitutes an adult in the social and cultural context of the research setting (Christensen 2004). In the school where the research was conducted, adults taking part in classroom activities were mainly teaching staff. The likelihood was therefore, that unless a conscious effort was made to differentiate myself, this would be the identity assumed for me. Other researchers have described their endeavours to avoid such an identity (France et al. 2000; Christensen 2004; Holt 2004). Similar to the approach of France et al. (2000) I requested that the teacher introduce me to the children using my first name. The class teacher protested 'but every other adult in the school is referred to by their surname'. The teacher was highlighting my 'transgressing (of) institutional expectations on adult behaviour' (Holt 2004: 13) and showing that I was disregarding the 'rules set for adults at school' (Christensen 2004: 174). The teacher's response necessitated an explanation for this request; that I was choosing to differentiate my identity from that of a teacher or authority figure in school, to encourage a research relationship based, as far as was possible on equality. In this sense, professional reflexivity allows the researcher to examine how respondents and others occupying the research context might perceive them, and how this researcher identity might impact on the data collected.

4.14 Where researchers have been introduced to children as pseudo teachers, there is a danger that children may feel unable to refuse researcher's requests to participate in research. Children may perceive research as part of their schoolwork (Denscombe and Aubrook 1992) or consider the information on which informed consent was based, to be another form of 'education' (David et al. 2001). In practice, my conscious attempts to differentiate myself from the role and practices associated with teachers appeared successful. I was assured of this through the nature of particular shared conversations with the children, which I will describe below. Researchers are often privileged with revelations about children's lives to which teachers are not party, as is encapsulated in the title of Morrow's (1999) paper: 'if you were a teacher, it would be harder to talk to you'. Children were often explicit in revealing that secrets were shared with me because I 'was not a teacher'. I am not arguing that children do not confide in teachers; children will also trust teachers with revelations or experiences that they might not share with a researcher. The point I am making is that in many situations I was accepted as a non-authority figure by the children, yet this identity was challenged by adults in the research setting.

4.15 For researchers conducting research in schools one difficulty is their reliance on adult gatekeepers allowing access to the children. A good research relationship with the teacher may ensure access. Simultaneously, taking a social actor perspective I also wanted to afford children autonomy in the research process; more autonomy than the children themselves or the teachers are accustomed to them having in the school setting. Therefore, the researcher must perform or negotiate two identities which balance out the researcher's own theoretical perspective, the interests of the teachers and of the children. An example of this dilemma occurred during my field work. One of the research activities consisted of children making and discussing family drawings. Two boys had agreed to draw their families in a communal space during lesson time. The boys accepted the opportunity to leave class, although their distractedness suggested that they were more enthused by having escaped class than by completing their drawings. Viewing this as possibly a subtle attempt to refuse participation (Valentine 1999), I asked if they wanted to complete their drawings or go back to class. At which point a teaching assistant passed us and rhetorically asked me, 'Are they giving you trouble?' She addressed the boys: 'I hope you realise, she can keep you in at break. She has as much power as we do'. This was an uncomfortable situation. The dilemma was that as a researcher, there is a 'need to be accepted by both children and adults' (Christensen 2004: 173). I could neither challenge nor agree with the teaching assistant's coercion of the boys. I remained silent. Such a direct attribution of power was deleterious to my endeavours to perform the role of a non-authoritarian adult. Despite my efforts to develop an identity acceptable to, and facilitative of, a reciprocal relationship with the children, teachers' expectations of children in this setting contrasted with my objectives and my consideration of children as social actors. While I was offering the boys another opportunity to refuse participation, the teaching assistant was undermining their agency to refuse and simultaneously imposing an identity upon me, with which I did not identify.

4.16 Just as a researcher's access to children is often 'mediated' by adults (Valentine 1999: 145), I recognised that my relationship with the children was often mediated through the school staff. This illustrates how the practices which characterised the cultural context of school had an impact upon my own professional identity in a way that might diminish the children's agency to refuse aspects of the research which were unfavourable to them. In hindsight, such problems might have been addressed by briefing school staff on the importance of children being able to give and refuse consent at any point in the research. Yet in my experience of this institutional setting, behaviour which a researcher may interpret as a subtle refusal to participate in research would be regarded by teachers as misbehaviour due to the cultural values and structural features operating in that context. The above example illustrates the complexities involved in conducting research in institutional settings. Similarly, the field experiences of Rowe in his ethnographic study of the police force suggest that he faced similar challenges in 'operationalizing principles of ethical research' in such a setting (Rowe 2007: 37).

Gaining Access to Children's Peer Culture

5.1 Reflecting on how I was received among the children and the extent to which I was party to their peer interaction provides an indication of the identity children assumed for me. Spending an extended period of time in school allowed children to see that I did not act like other adults in school. In the words of Tom (age 9), I did not 'shout at children like other adults' did (Field notes). Like other researchers, I constructed an identity whereby I deliberately avoided resolving 'conflicts among the children' (Christensen 2004: 174). I sat with the children in class, accompanied them in their mid morning- and lunch-breaks and exchanged information with them about our lives. The children drew attention to this in a conversation about the research:
Trusha (age 10), 'I liked it when we told each other our lives. We got to know other people in class more better and got to know you more better too.' (Transcript).

5.2 While children often referred to me as their friend, they also recognised that I was not a friend in the usual sense and that I, like the teachers, had a professional identity. Having never met another researcher, and trying to locate my professional identity, Melissa (age 9) explained to her friend:

'Hayley's like a social worker 'cos she talks to you and writes things down' (Field Notes).
Melissa was likening my identity to another familiar adult who carried out practices similar to my own; asking questions and making notes. There was a risk in being perceived as a social worker. Melissa's comment raised questions about how she perceived our relationship and the confidentiality that might accompany our discussions. Researchers not only need to be considerate of the role of adults in the cultural setting of the research, but also of how their own professional practices are perceived by the children involved in the study.

5.3 As part of the process of informed consent, I had offered the children privacy and confidentiality. Children were assured that our conversations would remain private and confidential from parents, teachers and other children. It is argued that:

'confidentiality has a particular resonance among children whose relationships and friendships are performed through the engagement with telling and keeping secrets, revealing secrets to other children or 'telling' adults' (Christensen 2004: 171).

5.4 Feedback from the children regarding their participation confirmed that this act of keeping secrets was an important aspect of the research relationship. Many children stated that they had enjoyed 'sharing secrets, like friends do'. Learning that an adult could be trustworthy had been a positive experience for Laura (age 10), who noted that the research encounter had improved her confidence to approach adults with any problems.

'If I had anything wrong before, I wouldn't tell other people and I feel confident now to talk to you and to teachers' (Transcript).

5.5 To some extent, I regarded the research relationships with the children, as they did, as friendships. However, in conducting participant observation, there was a risk that my professional role was sometimes forgotten (Alderson and Morrow 2004). In using participant observation, it is difficult for researchers to continually make respondents and other actors in the field aware that they are acting as researchers, particularly where researchers are called upon to undertake non-research tasks in the research setting (Alderson and Morrow 2004: 14). The endeavour to remind children of the research is nevertheless important in preventing them revealing aspects of their lives which they might share with friends but would not want used for the purpose of research. This is one of the many ways in which research with children is similar to research with adults. Ultimately, the responsibility for how to deal with sensitive revelations is left with the researcher who must find a way of communicating participants' views without identifying or revealing any sensitive material which might identify them.

Research in Children's Homes

5.6 The ethics of conducting research in children's homes have received far less attention than research in school settings (Nilsen and Rogers, 2004). Furthermore, ethical guidelines take no account of home as a research context (Yee and Andrews 2006). When conducting research in children's homes, I considered the cultural expectations of parents/guardians and of children in this particular research setting and endeavoured to be sensitive to these. Children generally do not have adult friends; to present oneself as such to children's parents would be perceived as highly suspicious in the current climate of child protection and 'stranger danger'. Adults who do enter children's homes with the intention of talking to the children often do so in the capacity of 'health and welfare professionals' carrying out perceived 'surveillance' (Valentine 1999: 145). Given the frequency with which professionals such as health visitors enter children's homes, there is a general understanding in society of what those individuals do, whereas it is rare for researchers to visit individuals' homes. In this sense, it was desirable to construct a favourable identity for myself which was not associated with surveillance. While I did not want to be intrusive, in visiting their homes and observing their lives and family practices, I was intruding. It was also clear from some of the parents' (but not the children's) negative responses to my request to visit children at home that this may have seemed like an 'invasion' of family privacy and a 'crossing of traditional boundaries between public and private' (Hood et al. 1996: 119). Where I was permitted to visit children, I felt it was appropriate, as I often did in school, to allow the children to participate in setting the agenda. The children were familiar with the practices that characterised our relationships, recognising that I was interested in them and their lives, and often this translated to a 'show and tell' of their toys, computer games or items they collected. My identity as a researcher was always in this sense, implicit. On one occasion, Tom made explicit my role as a researcher by suggesting to his mother, in my presence, that I record her while he and his sister ate their evening meal even though I had no intention of recording children or parents' accounts in their homes. His comments typified those of other children, and I would argue that this illustrates that the children were well informed about, and understood my purpose in visiting their school and homes.

5.7 Visits to children's homes allowed me to observe their interaction with parents and the power dynamics of the relationships which had influenced parental consent for children's participation in the research. This setting permitted observations of children's degree of autonomy and independence in their homes and families, and in decisions affecting their lives. Furthermore, these observations provided the opportunity to contrast the formal positioning of children as legal dependents (Valentine 1999: 144) with a more subjective understanding of how children negotiated decisions within their home and family context.

5.8 Children were active agents in family life, in contrast to their relative lack of agency in school. In practice, most of the children fulfilled a role within their family whereby they were attributed independence by parents. On telephoning one parent to arrange a time to visit her child, she stated that she would ask her daughter when suited her best, indicating that to some extent, it was the child's decision as to how she spent her time. Children's role in negotiating decision-making within the family is overlooked by ethical guidelines. Other parents highlighted practical barriers to children taking part in these visits as Hannah (age 9) noted. In discussing the request to visit children at home, issued in my information leaflet Hannah said: 'oh yeah, my mum says you can't come round because they don't come back from work 'til six and then she has to make us tea' (Field notes).

5.9 Where visits did occur, children were in a relatively powerful position. They were in familiar surroundings, in the company of parents, grandparents and siblings, whereas I was in unfamiliar territory, negotiating the role of 'good guest' and 'professional researcher' (Yee and Andrews 2006). On reflection, visits to children's homes had involved a considerable degree of trust on their part. In allowing me to enter their homes, they and their families had implicitly consented to being observed. Having already had private discussions with the children in school about their families, children may have been concerned that aspects of these conversations would be revealed, particularly when I was alone with parents. However, children's experiences of our encounters would have confirmed for them that private details from research conversations were not disclosed to other children or to parents. Furthermore, in spending an extended period of time in the field, a researcher becomes aware of and attentive to what children would and would not consider sensitive. This was central to building trusting relationships with children at school and in their homes. The children appeared to have trusted me on this basis. Nevertheless, we cannot assume that children would not want to share information about the research discussions with their families; evidence suggested that some children were happy for their parents to hear the recorded discussions, discussing openly with parents the content of our interviews. This further complicates the research relationship; confidentiality (with its limitations) may be promised, yet researchers should not assume that this means that children will keep topics or issues they have discussed as part of the research confidential from family members or friends.


6.1 Many of the arguments outlined in this paper equally apply to conducting research with other groups of individuals, in particular, those groups deemed 'vulnerable'. As outlined in the beginning of this paper, research ethics and more specifically, informed consent cannot be considered aside from the research objectives, research context or participants. Building on the work of others who suggest that the theoretical location of the researcher is fundamental to ethical considerations (Christensen and Prout 2002; Morrow 2008), I have suggested that the professional research practices of the researcher must also be examined in considerations of ethics. In research with children, where a researcher's identity is confused with that of a teacher, health or welfare professional, the consensual research relationship is potentially compromised, as a confidential relationship over and above that which a researcher can promise is implied, with potentially detrimental consequences for informed consent. Researchers should adopt a reflexive approach to their professional identity, examining how they and their practices might be perceived by their participants.

6.2 Part of this professional reflexivity involves the researcher considering their own theoretical understanding of their participants relative to other competing theoretical models. This paper has argued that the ethical codes consulted here were inadequate in providing an approach to informed consent that fitted with the researcher's chosen consideration of children as social actors. I have attempted to show that if the general principles which relate to adults are taken as the basis of informed consent and considered alongside academic debate, it is possible to use these same guidelines in support of a social actor perspective in research with children. Using the general principles of informed consent as guiding frameworks for approaching research with all groups deemed vulnerable may result in researchers being less likely to treat those groups as objects or subjects of the research.

6.3 In this paper, I have argued that researchers should favour advice appropriate and relevant to the relationships and local practices which characterise the research setting. This approach should of course be based on a dialogue with the research participants and on their self-defined interests. The lack of consensus over ethics allows researchers the flexibility to adapt their ethical approach to suit the local cultures of ethics that operate in specific research settings.

6.4 Finally, in considering the specific case of children, this paper has suggested that children's desire to include their families in the research process is testimony to the cultural importance of their families in their lives. Future research and also ethical codes might attend to how parents/guardians, where appropriate, could have greater involvement in this process of informed consent, to the benefit of children taking part in research. Where research is school-based, parents/guardians could be invited to attend an information workshop where the researcher could discuss the research with children and their families who could learn together about what is involved. Listening and responding to participants and their values is important to developing an ethical approach that privileges the research respondents' views and experiences in qualitative sociological research.


I would like to acknowledge the support of the Economic and Social Research Council for funding this research through their 1+3 scheme. I would like to thank my supervisors Dr Hannah Bradby and Professor Pia Christensen for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this paper, and the children who participated in this research.


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