Data and Statistics

Collecting Qualitative Data with Children

Colin MacDougall
Philip Darbyshire
SAGE Publications
Publication Year:
August 10, 2020
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being

Aims and plan of the chapter

The Hollywood film director W.C. Fields famously warned: ‘Never work with animals or children’ lest the actors be upset by children's unpredictability or upstaged by their performance. Vestiges of this sentiment linger in the folklore of qualitative research with children,rendering data collection more daunting than necessary. Like actors, good qualitative researchers use tried and trusted skills to anticipate and manage the unpredictability of children, or the adult-designed structures surrounding them. Researchers also know when and how to step back, enabling children's experiences to take their rightful place on the qualitative stage. This chapter helps qualitative researchers to pause data collection until sound epistemological thinking has devised a best methodology for their question. We start by explaining how contemporary representations of childhood challenge conventional ways of knowing the world. We then illustrate key examples of good data collection practice across countries and research questions that help researchers value their backgrounds in qualitative methods and decide when and how to adapt and innovate for research with children. Drawing on exemplars, we illustrate how to navigate methodological options facing novice and experienced researchers alike. A central tenet of all research involving children is the need for adults to adapt, such as when, during a qualitative study examining children's accounts of exercise, sport, physical activity and play, the facilitators planned a ‘show me’ technique to ask children to demonstrate activities they had described. This morphed into something of a ‘methodological first’ – the ‘jumping focus group’ where the participant children showed the researchers the physicality of some of their play and games. Without this challenge to the focus group norms, we may not have discovered all of the varieties of ‘chasey’ that were played (Darbyshire et al., 2005). This decision was straightforward because, as active chief investigators we (CM and PD) could use our authority to adjust methods on the spot. It is more difficult when the intent of collecting data in a participatory way clashes with a world of incompatible adult-centred paradigms. For example, during another study, one of us arrived at a school expecting, as arranged, to conduct a focus group in a multi-purpose space to minimise symbols of adult power. Instead the school principal ushered us to the formal staff room and announced they were staying for the focus group. The children were so quiet that we could not use the data, wasting the children's time and suppressing their voices. On reflection, we vowed in future to draw on the language of children's rights and act as duty bearers to challenge and question understandings, that powerful adults have of children and childhood, that shape methods (MacDougall et al., 2014).

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