The Ethics and Politics of Knowledge Production in Childhood Studies

Spyros Spyrou, European University Cyprus

Childhood Studies has devoted considerable energy and effort discussing and reflecting on research ethics. The challenge with ethics is that it infuses all aspects of research and knowledge production and hence it is impossible to narrow down to a set of principles or guidelines. There are certainly well-established and tried ways of ethical conduct in research with children. Beyond that, an ethical stance requires, I would suggest, a certain sensibility based on openness, relentless reflexivity, and a critical attitude towards the knowledge practices at work. That is why the question of research ethics cannot be foreclosed but needs to be an ongoing issue for each and every one of us in our individual work as well as for the field as a whole.

In my own personal trajectory, I have tried to cultivate such an ethical sensibility by questioning my own theoretical and methodological choices and motivations as well as looking at and reflecting on Childhood Studies’ own preoccupations and blind spots as a field. When I encountered Childhood Studies in the early 90s, it was still in its early years and full of excitement. It was a time when the field had much to say about the need to facilitate children’s participation in research—as active and engaged subjects—and attend to their voices—find them, record them, highlight them, celebrate them. This was in itself an important and worthy preoccupation and continues to offer much to our understanding of children and childhood. However, it also became evident to me early on that as a field we needed to retain a reflexive stance towards our knowledge practices which could easily become uncritical and celebratory. For me, that meant thinking a bit more seriously about the ethics and politics of knowledge production.

In two articles published in Childhood (Spyrou 2011 and 2016), I tried to outline what such a critical stance might look like when applied to voice research in childhood. I argued, for example, that we need to critically attend to issues of representation by moving beyond claims to authenticity which point to ‘truth’ and ‘essence’ and to consider how we, as researchers, are implicated in the production of children’s voices. Far from being accurate and authentic representations of their worlds and lives, children’s voices are often the product of diverse contexts, forces, and processes at work. As researchers we therefore need to place children’s voices in the proper interactional, institutional, and discursive contexts which produce them and to account for the power imbalances which operate in, and circumscribe, these contexts. Likewise, we need to devote time in our research with children to build rapport with them and to humanize the research encounter which often ends up (given time and other pressures) being more of a utilitarian means for extracting data and serving research agendas rather than relating, sharing and understanding based on trust and respect. Moreover, I argued, we need to attend to the difficulties of voice—those expressions of voice which are difficult to grasp and understand (e.g., the contradictions and silences)—with patience and care. And, ultimately, we need to interrogate our own conceptual and analytical categories which impose particular understandings and interpretations of children’s voices.

More recently, in another publication (Disclosing Childhoods, Spyrou 2018), I extended this line of critique to children’s participation in research arguing that we need to be mindful of how our knowledge practices enact particular kinds of children in research such as ‘the participating child’, who is competent, energetic, agentic, interested, thoughtful and self-reflexive, but also inadvertently exclude from our accounts other kinds of children which do not meet this idealized model. ‘The mess’—the difficult and uncomfortable—which almost always accompanies our research and knowledge practices, often remains unaccounted for as we strive to produce clarity and certainty about our findings and research claims. Along the way, the very processes by which certain kinds of children are enacted or disclosed in research at the expense of others are not only mystified but also naturalized and legitimized.

Above all, this kind of critique seeks to foreground the imperative to produce ethical research, not simply by following certain protocols and guidelines, but by highlighting the need to be critically mindful of our knowledge practices in general and our representation practices in particular. How do we attend to children’s participation and voices in all their complexity (e.g., when they speak with clarity and consistency vs. when they present us with confusing and contradictory statements; when they are eloquent and explicit vs. when they are reticent and silent; when they are excited and eager participants in our research projects vs. when they are bored and passive) with patience and humility so that we do not exhaust their meaning with the simple and all-to-easy practice of using their voices as if they speak the truth? More generally, how do we foster a Childhood Studies which is cognizant and reflexive about its political and ethical choices and the effect of these choices on children’s lives so that our knowledge productions as a field become responsible and accountable?

I elaborated on this last question in Disclosing Childhoods by drawing on the work of other scholars who have been actively thinking about these issues in other disciplines. This is not the place to nuance this argument, but let me just say that the underlying premise is that as childhood researchers, we are partly responsible for the stories we tell and for the kinds of childhoods these stories disclose. Our frameworks—theoretical, methodological, and other—and personal motivations which guide our work, entail choice. In that sense, they are political and by extension ethical interventions in knowledge production. They can generate different kinds of data, emphasize or ignore, and make visible or hide, even when we are not fully aware of such effects. This means that our choices and the interventions they entail come with responsibility. We are responsible for what we study, how we study it, and how we represent the lives and worlds of the children we study. What we bring forth about children and childhood from our work and likewise what we opt not to should be a responsible act. This responsibility should extend beyond the individual researcher to the entire field. The knowledge we produce can have effects on real children’s lives through the disclosures and revelations we engage in, the discourses and policies we inform, or the practices we shape. Though such effects might be more or less direct and more or less significant at different times, the point here is that we should be mindful of and responsible for our ethical trajectories as a field. What kinds of children and what kinds of childhoods might we bring forth when we begin to explore the complexities of children’s voices or the difficulties and challenges of their participation? What new and unaccounted ontologies of the child might come forth when our work is guided by an ethical sensibility which prioritizes and humanizes our relations with children rather than our research goals? Developing this kind of attitude and self-critical stance can, in turn, help us reflect on the political and ethical dimensions of our work which are always already present. Ultimately, it can help us rethink what we do and how we do it and explore more ethical ways of pursuing our work. Needless to say there is no recipe on how to engage critically with ethical questions of this kind but there are certainly ways of thinking which may unsettle our day-to-day ways of doing things and serve long-term the task of producing ethical knowledge that matters. Proposing, discussing, and debating such ways could help cultivate our ethical sensibilities as a field.


References Cited

Spyrou, S. (2018). Disclosing Childhoods: Research and Knowledge Production for a Critical Childhood Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Spyrou, S. (2016). Researching Children’s Silences: Exploring the Fullness of Voice in Childhood Research. Childhood 23(1):7-21.

Spyrou, S. (2011). The Limits of Children’s Voices: From Authenticity to Critical, Reflexive Representation. Childhood 18(2):151-165


Spyros Spyrou is Professor of Anthropology at European University Cyprus. His work explores questions of nationalism, borders and border-crossing, and constructions of otherness in the context of migration. He is currently researching children’s and young people’s political identities in light of their participation in climate action. He also maintains an ongoing interest in questions of research and knowledge production in Childhood Studies. Spyros is the author of Disclosing Childhoods and co-editor of Reimagining Childhood Studies and Children and Borders. He serves as co-editor of the journal Childhood (Sage) and of the book series Studies in Childhood and Youth (Palgrave).