In order to critically discuss the quoted statement it is first necessary to determine what the power relations between adults and children are. How do adults demonstrate power over children, and what part does fear play in contributing to this power. Fear is another word which will need to be classified, what frightens children and how do adults exploit this fear to exercise power over children.
Throughout history and in all cultures adults exercise power over children, in all aspects of their lives from parental power, teacher/school regulation through to the passing of laws at national level that affect the lives of all children within that society. S. A. Taylor (2000) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al, pointed out that it is adults and not children themselves who write about, debate and decide what rights children should have. This can be seen as an indication of the power adults exercise over children which confines them to subordinate roles within society.
Power means different thing to different people, however, it is generally thought of as the ability of individuals or groups to influence others and put forward their point of view despite the resistance or objections of others. Sometimes the direct use of force is used to exercise power, however idealogies are usually used to justify the application of this force (Giddens 1995) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg81. Thus the old adage that knowledge is power can be said to be true. Children’s knowledge can be disregarded by adults and they can still be controlled by force, (no matter how well intentioned) by the adults who are responsible for them.
In order to understand the role of power in research with children and young people, it is necessary to acknowledge the contribution of sociological thinking. Sociological thinking seeks to explain the role of power in people’s lives, how society as a whole works and how order is achieved (Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg 81). In the past, such explanations emphasized the world of men with small consideration to the world of women and less still to the worlds of children. Feminists were critical of the ideas that portrayed the family as “natural” and unchanging.
However, Feminists ideas also came into conflict with each other in particular black Feminists were critical of white Feminist fro ignoring the paradox of black experience in their arguments. Wright et al (1998) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg83 Fraser et al pg83 Fraser et al pg83 Fraser et al pg83 Fraser et al pg83 acknowledged in his research the importance of Feminist researchers recognition of the reproduction of gender divisions within education. Research in this area has helped to address the educational performance of young women in school.
Family life and public aspects of life are important in considering the concept of power in the lives of children and young people. Bill and Ribbens (1995) and Ribbens and Edwards (1998) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg 83 suggest the concepts of public and private aspects of life and family are relevant for understanding the divisions within the of people in Western society in terms of the meanings men and women associate with the idea of public and private life. These aspects can contribute to the thinking about the position of children, who have limited power within family life. Research studies involving children and young people in their home environment, are often reliant on reports by their parents or carers. Modern researchers, however, increasingly conduct research with children and young people via direct communication with children in order to determine their views first hand.
Power elations in research with children and young people are reinforced by more general and cultural ideas that exist between adults and children in society at large (Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg 84.) Mayall maintained that adults have divided up the social order into two major groups that is adults and children, with specific conditions surrounding the lives of each group. One factor that helps to maintain unequal adult-child power relations is beliefs that adult possess a superior level of knowledge. However, it is difficult to believe that an adult would have a better knowledge of what it is like to be child than the child themselves.
Mayall points out that she needs to acquire from a child their own unique knowledge of what it means to be a child, because although of course she has been a child herself, she may have forgotten much and childhoods vary and are likely to have changed in the time since she herself was a child. Researchers can try to minimise the power relation gulf between them as the adult to the child/children by trying to be “one of them” it is not easy to negate the central adult characteristic of having power over children.
Christensen and Prout (2002) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg 85, outlined four ways that children and childhood have been identified in research. The first of these is that of “the child as an object” this assumes that children and young people are dependent, incompetent and unable to deal appropriately with information. They are in need of care and protection by adults who undertake the role of “interpreters” of their lives. This orientation of research relies heavily on the adult perception of situations and the accounts of adults; it all but negates the views of children.
The second view point is of “the child as subject” this puts children more to the fore in the research process and moving the research to a more child-centred perspective. Despite the suitability of involving children it is recognised that it can be countered by judgements about their social maturity and cognitive ability. Adult researchers exert power in determining who to include e.g. only children of a certain age or intelligence level. In the third viewpoint the child is seen as a “social actor”. That is they take part in, change and become changed by the world in which they live.
Children are seen as entities in their own right, rather than just part of a family unit, or a member of a school, etc. The final viewpoint sees the child as a “participant or co-researcher”. This involves the children having an active role in the research. This perception considers that children should be informed, involved and consulted about all activities that have an affect on their lives; including research. In this situation the balance of power between adults and children can be volatile and changeable. The level of knowledge that the adult shares with the child, dictates the level at which the child is truly involved.
The location and context of research can have an influence on power relations in child research. One location which can have an affect on adult-child power relationships is school. School is a place where the adult-child power imbalance is particularly acute; it is also a place where a great deal of child research is undertaken. Citizenship is much in vogue currently; it is a compulsory subject at secondary school level. Current discourse about citizenship is that there should be recognition of difference and the giving of a voice to the socially excluded. Participation is central to this, but how far can children participate when the school environment pays little heed to the status of child citizenship.
In considering to what extent fear is a contributing factor in power relations between adults and children, it is important to define what is meant by fear and how it might affect children. Children experience many different types of fear or frightening situations during the course of their lives. Some of these situations will involve adults, and adults may use fear to control the actions or reactions of a child or group of children.
Adult researchers could also use fear either consciously or unconsciously to exert power over chid participants. The most obvious type of fear that children and young people may experience is the fear of immediate physical harm, this might be a real or imagined threat. Children may also experience fear or anxiety from entering unfamiliar surroundings or situations, this type of fear could be experienced by children taking part in research in a “lab” situation. Finally, children may be reticent in what they say for fear of future reprisals and may not express their true feelings, because they fear that the consequences of their actions may lead to punishment or the disapproval of others.
The first paper I have decided to evaluate is Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School By Barrie Thorne in The Reality of Research with Children and Young People Edited by Lewis et al. Thorne recognises the need to remember that she had to challenge her deep assumptions as to what children are really like. Thorne also states she was continually struck by the fact that he children were separated from the adults by structures of authority.
This authority must rely to some extent on the fear of the children as to the repercussions should they do something against the rules that adults have the power to put in place in the school environment. Another example of how fear contributes to the power that adults have over children is demonstrated in the paper when Thorne was making notes in the playground a girl asked if she was taking down names; voicing the fear of the children that Thorne was recording bad behaviour .The children involved in this research were quite clearly fearful of the consequences of being caught behaving badly or of breaking school rules. This is an example of adults using fear to control the behaviour of children.
The second paper I have decided to evaluate is Aldgate, J. and Bradley, M.Children’s Experiences of Short-term Accommodation in The Reality of Research with Children and Young People Edited by Lewis et al. There is no doubt that children in care are at a distinct disadvantage with regard to adult-child power relations. However, to what extent does fear appear to be a contributing factor to this power relationship.
During the interviews with the children the researchers had to keep in mind that the children may conceal some of their feelings from them because they were concerned that something they said might upset their parents if it got back to them. The researchers found that 41% of the children had anxiety about being accommodated, this fear of the unknown could be said to contribute to the children’s feelings of powerlessness. Other children cited a fear of a hidden agenda that they wouldn’t be allowed to go home again. One child had even expressed the fear that his foster carers might hit him.
All of these examples show how fear can be used to contribute to the power that adults have over children. They felt that they had done something wrong or alternately that if they misbehaved whilst in foster care they might not be able to return home. The researchers believed that some of the children’s anxieties could be lessened if they understood why the placement was necessary and could have some say about the arrangements. This could lead to a slightly more balanced power relationship between the adults and the children, thus reducing the fears and anxieties with regard to the forthcoming events, which could have the affect of empowering the children to a certain extent. Thus, in this case fear, whether intentionally applied or merely coincidental of the situation, does seem to contribute to the power relations between adults and children, to the advantage of the adults. When fear or anxiety is lessened or removed then it is possible that the balance of power might move back towards the child.
It would seem then that fear is one of the most potent contributing factors in power relations between adults and children. Many children like to please the adults that they come into contact with e.g. parents, carers and teachers at school. Fear of angering or upsetting these adults can help to moderate the behaviour of children, thus without actively meaning to adults can use fear to strengthen their power over the child or children that they are responsible for.
Fear of actual or threatened physical violence is also a tool to increase the power that adults have over children. Adults are usually bigger and physical stronger than children and even the merest hint of physical violence would be strong enough to frighten many children in complying with the wishes of an adult. Adults do not actually have to consciously use fear to increase their power over children, the mere fact that children fear some perceived threat or consequence of their actions is enough to make them subordinate to the adult in any given situation. It is evident from the research papers that fear in children makes them more compliant to adults’ wishes and thus fear is therefore a major contributing factor in power relations between adults and children.
Aldgate, J. and Bradley, M. (1999) Children’s Experiences of Short-term Accommodation in V Lewis, M Kellet, C Robinson, S Fraser and S. Ding (Eds) The Reality of Research with Children and Young People, London: Sage in association with the Open University Thorne, B. (1993)Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School in V Lewis, M Kellet, C Robinson, S Fraser and S. Ding (Eds) The Reality of Research with Children and Young People, London: Sage in association with the Open University Robinson, C. and Kellet, M. Power in S. Fraser, V. Lewis, S. Ding, M. Kellet, C. Robinson (Eds) Doing Research with Children and Young People, London: Sage in association with the Open University