Children as ethnographers


We want children to be their own ethnographers.

Lorenz points to this article in The St.Johns Hopkins Newsletter by anthropologists Pamela Reynolds and Veena Das.

“You can’t just interview children because most children will find interviews boring and walk away. So we need to facilitate a way for children to explain their own lives with you. We want children to be their own ethnographers, so children can reflect on their own lives and examine them”.

The article is very interesting and insightful – read the whole article here.

It is not only about holding the interest of chlidren. i think that as adults, especially adults in the “researcher” mode, we often have no clue abut what children are thinkng and why. Especially in cases where the children are likely to have difficulty coping with the situation and therefore, in expressing any emotion or response, self-ethnography can be very useful. Here is an example from Das – She [Das] gave an example of a participant who wanted to study the experience of children growing up as dalit, the untouchable caste in India, but from a new angle that hadn’t been examined. He chose to study their paintings, bringing in aspects of psychoanalysis in his work. It was a perfect melding of anthropology and the field of psychology, which rarely interrelate. In Das’ words, it “bridged the humanities and social sciences gap.”

Related reading :

Children’s Drawings from Darfur : Ethan Zuckerman had writtwn about children who were refugees form the warfare in Chad. In February 2005, Human Rights Watch sent researchers Dr. Annie Sparrow and Olivier Bercault to Chad to talk with refugees who’d fled from the bombings and Janjawid militia attacks in Darfur. A pediatrician, Dr. Sparrow usually gives crayons and paper to children to entertain them while she interviews their parents. When she gave crayons to children who’ve fled Darfur, the results were harrowing and powerful.

What amazed me was how details in the children’s drawings echoed details from the photos – the stocks of the automatic rifles, the round shape of the houses, the posture of two gunmen riding on horseback. It was immediately clear to me that these drawings weren’t of weapons imagined by children, but eye witness accounts.

Children who could not have expressed these verbally in any way.

The Kalleda photoblog project : I had written earlier about this initiative that I came across on flickrThis is the photoblog of the kids at Kalleda Rural School in Andhra Pradesh, India. The students take their own photographs documenting their lives and post them on their own flickr accounts. This account is a collection of some of their best photos.

Most of these photographs are simple and tell stories from the lives of these cildren – glimpses that would otherwise never be available to the outsider. I had written to the person behind this suggesting that specific themes could be introduced to the kids so 1. we the outsiders get a better idea of what certain notions – like say freedom or modernity or education mean to the kids there, and 2. the kids themselves think more deeply about them…


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3 Responses to “Children as ethnographers”

  1. Charu,

    Very interesting information there on working with children. I remember for some of the

    kiddie research we had done for getting their reactions to packaging for a kids product,

    instead of questioning them, we had given them crayons and asked them to draw what they saw

    on the pack. it proved to be a simple and effective way of understanding their recall on the

    elements of the pack, the attractiveness of the pack or the pull factor as seen from their

    eyes, the product format comprehension etc. Guess the Q & A mode – no matter how much fun we

    make it for them – always reminds them of being in a classroom and that is the last thing

    they’d want to think of when they’re away from school 🙂

  2. Reshma, working withn images does work better with kids – drawing, painting and I guess even photographs (although I haven’t tried photographs with kids myself). they have such a short attention span that doing formal q-a or discussion sessions just won’t work. focus groups with kids always degenerate into a loud party after the first 10 minutes!

  3. I ran a workshop at the EPIC conference in Seattle last November and one person told a story about trying to do research in a restaurant that catered to kids and parents. No doubt I have forgotten some key details, but he couldn’t get any traction with kids, the ones he needed to hear from. He ended up building a cheap foam costume – a big dog or something – and standing near the serving line. It fit into the environment and gave him access to the kids.

    I believe all the informed consent and parental acknowledgement was all sorted out lest anyone get concerned. It was a unique solution to a total challenge, at any rate.

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