Participation in Children’s Rights Symposium

Category: Programme updates

5 Nov 2015

logo_enGGSJ Junior (PhD) researcher Kim Chi Tran participated in the 3rd Children’s Rights Research Symposium that took place between 14-15 October 2015 at the University of Antwerp.

The Symposium involved a small group of 33 researchers. Two-thirds of the group were PhD candidates, the rest were lecturers and professors, some of whom were members of the CREAN group. More than half were embedded within various legal studies and/or had been trained in these fields — especially the more senior academics. The rest were people from various disciplines in social sciences.

This diverse group was a reflection of the objective of the symposium which was focused on situating Children’s Rights Studies as an interdisciplinary field. Within this context, several interesting and engaging discussions took place. This blog briefly touches on a few conversations that have stayed with me and continue to be turned over in my mind although the conference has long passed. These were the exchanges about the tensions between academic research and activism, the challenges of interdisciplinary research, and the malleability of participatory research and its implications.

The conference was also an opportunity to explore how to share my research project and its progress in the form of a poster.

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In his keynote presentation, Dr. Karl Hanson (3rd Children’s Rights Research Symposium, 14 October 2015) offered the following quote which was a metaphor that one of his students borrowed from Francois Ost and Michel Van de Kerchove (1991) to reflect his impression of Children’s Rights Studies after more than a couple of decades had passed since the CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child) was first adopted: ‘it looks like everyone was on the scene, and nobody on the balcony to observe from a distance (Anonymous student (2015), written examination)’. This quote was used as a catalyst for the ensuing debate on the controversial position that deems the distance between the researcher and the researched situation as necessary, and that activism blurs the academic bird-eye view of the situation. This has been a philosophical question with which I have been wrestling since my first encounter with Cultural Anthropology. While I agree that distance is needed, I disagree that distance should be a constant throughout the research process. Rather, I think one should move back and forth between the quasi-insider position at the scene and the bird-eye view from the balcony. The advantages of the bird-eye view are part of the discourse that defends objectivity as part of academic research. I believe that objectivity cannot be taken without critically defining its boundaries. If objectivity means presenting as many perspectives on a given social phenomenon as possible, then it, at best, can only be a goal that should be aimed for, but could never be reached, at least within a specific research project that is bounded by limited resources. In that context, objectivity can be pursued both from the scene and the balcony; nonetheless, the researchers need to be reflexive about their own personal lenses through which they view the world around them in general and the situation being investigated in specific. In that sense, I believe that subjectivity is always part of any claim of objectivity.

Activist research is often contested because it is seen as being entrenched with subjectivity. However, when viewed from another angle, scholarship in general is already a political action (Englund 2006: 26). Therefore, it would be perhaps more productive to reflect on the scale at which we, as researchers, are engaged in acting on the social situations that we are investing. We need to move academic activism from the traditional binary understanding of top-down and ground-up, and dig deeper to see where the seeds of actions start; perhaps then we would find that it is embedded in the social interactions between actors where it has the potentiality to begin chains of reactions of different scales. It is thus important for us to recognize that researchers are already actors in the field. Further more, there are certain forms of research, especially those involve ethnography, in which it would be impossible not to engage in some sorts of actions, since the everyday engagement with the field would demand reactions from the researchers. At the end of the debate on this subject, there was an agreement among participants of the symposium that reflexivity would be an important tool for teasing out the entanglements in which researchers would find themselves, somewhere between the scene and the balcony. This conclusion was therefore reassuring but somewhat dissatisfactory for me. Having heard this debate before, I wanted to engage in a deeper discussion on how reflexivity can be utilized given the technological advancements that are making it easier to capture and share the everyday life and thoughts in different formats by different actors, and the ethical as well as scientific issues surrounding this connection between technologies and reflexivity.

Interdisciplinary research was another central issue that was tabled at the onset of the symposium. More than half of the room were scholars from legal studies who were aware of the limitations of this field and were exploring how to bring their legal expertise together with other disciplines in a productive way. The fear, of course, was that by moving away from the traditional boundaries of their legal studies, they would lose the strength that came with its narrow focus, and they would miss the opportunities to sharpen their skills and expertise in legal studies and practices. On other hand, since the symposium was for interdisciplinary research in children’s rights, the argument for the benefits of interdisciplinary research was met without much challenge. I, however, questioned the taken-for-granted understanding of interdisciplinary research and the absence of other terms that are often used interchangeably with each other such as cross-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary. While in the field, I went through a moment of self-identity crisis after reading Choi and Pak’s emphasis on the importance of definition when people’s work touch on more than one discipline (Choi and Pak 2006). I agree with them that definition is part of being aware of the different approaches through which one brings in practices and knowledges from other disciplines, either by acquiring them through one’s own capacity building or teaming up with those who can provide these components through the lenses in which they have been trained. It was clear from the responses around the table that many were aware of this debate, however my invitation into this debate was not taken further than the acknowledgement of its existence.

Part of the question on how to do interdisciplinary research is the methodology. The frustration of the legal experts around the room about their lack of methodological training made me realize the necessity of the methodological courses that I had taken in the past. They were more than sessions that transferred knowledge of methods, they were opportunities to engage the muddling of carrying out scientific research, which proved to be extremely useful in the field where situations often would be unpredictable and definitely volatile. The second day of the symposium offered two parallel sessions: one dealt with participatory research with children and the other engaged with children’s rights concepts. I chose the former panel in which two distinctly different approaches to children’s participation were chosen. The first presenter of the panel worked with two different groups of children: one group as collaborators in designing the methodology and interpreting the collected data, and the other group as informants who just provided information through semi-structured interviews. The second presenter of the panel only had one group of children who participated in workshops that employed methods that are often used in participatory research. My own research situated in a space somewhere between these two approaches, because the youth participants in my research moved in and out of the participatory spectrum based on the stage of the research and the negotiations between their own interests in the research and mine.

Due to these connections, I found this session of the symposium to be extremely interesting. It engaged in the necessary conversation about what participation of children means — at which point do the participants become participated rather than participating in the research, and the conundrum associated with the level and stages at which the children, as subjects of the research, participate in its design and contents. One dimension of this conundrum is the representation of the participants of the research. Children are not a homogenous group, those who participate in the research represent certain groups of children who have the conditions that allow them to be part of the research. It is then necessary to reflect on who are included as well as who are excluded in the pool of participants. The specific conditions of participation are also necessary for ethical consideration in the analysis and dissemination of the raw and processed data along with their interpretations. Participants who engage in the research as collaborators surely warrant different considerations than those who engage in the research as anonymous informants. These were conversations that triggered more questions than answers, among those was the challenge on how to manage the balance between acknowledging contributions from the participants, giving space where the participants’ voices could be presented, and protecting their privacy or anonymity.

In addition to developing a way to reflect the qualitative, interdisciplinary and visual participatory characteristics of the research, I also wanted to catalyze the addition of motor responses to the readers’ engagement with the poster. As a result, I created a space on the poster for three envelopes that contained physical prints of some data which were collected through the visual participatory research methods used during my fieldwork.

This idea was received quite positively. As a result, I took the encouragement and tried to bring this approach to an electronic format of the poster, which contained some samples of the data that emerged from the visual participatory research methods that I used during my recent nine-month fieldwork in Mongolia.


Choi, B.C.K. and A.W.P. Pak (2006) ‘Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in health research, services, education and policy: 1. Definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness’, Clinical and investigative medicine. Médecine clinique et experimentale 29(6): 351–364.

Englund, H. (2006). Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ost, F. and M. van de Kerchove (1991) ‘De la scène au balcon. D’où vient la science du droit?’, in F. Chazel and J. Commaille (eds) Normes juridiques et régulation sociale, pp. 67-80. Paris: Librairie générale de droit et de jurisprudence.




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International Institute of Social Studies

The Governance, Globalization and Social Justice research programme aims to produce internationally leading, socially committed and societally relevant research outcomes on issues of governance from an explicitly social justice perspective. This blog is a forum on which to share and discuss themes and issues which fall within the broad framework of the programme.