Seen but never heard: rethinking approaches to researching racism and young children

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This paper is concerned with the methodology underlying attempts to understand the nature and impact of racism among young children. In drawing upon data gathered from a year-long ethnographic study of five- and six-year-old children in an English multi-ethnic, inner-city primary school, the paper provides a critique of traditional approaches to the study of racial attitudes among young children. It is argued that such research has been conceived through the articulation of two, inter-related discourses on children and on 'race'; the former couched in traditional socialisation and developmental models of childhood with their tendency to neglect the agency and social competency of young children and the latter being embedded within essentialist notions of 'race' and ethnicity that tend to deny the contingent and context-specific nature of racialised identities. The paper argues that the result of this has been that while children have often been the objects of research they have rarely been the subjects; in other words they are often seen but never heard. The paper argues for the need to move beyond the methodological confines set by these discourses and rethink alternative approaches that begin with the assumption that young children are socially competent. One such approach, drawing upon ethnographic methods and fore-grounding the importance of largely unstructured small group interviews with young children, is illustrated. Through the use of a number of examples, it is shown how this approach can help to emphasise the ability of children as young as five and six to respond to and negotiate their social worlds and more specifically within this the competency with which they are able to appropriate, rework and reproduce a number of discourses on 'race' to make sense of their own social experiences. In doing this the paper also illustrates the way in which it provides a methodology able to draw out and highlight the contradictions, contingency and complexity of racialised identities among young children. Ultimately, it is an approach concerned with placing the children themselves central within the research processes and foregrounding their voices and experiences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-185
Number of pages15
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1996


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