Using visual methodologies to explore children’s sense of belonging

by Henry Mainsah

In the Belong project we seek to explore how children negotiate a sense of belonging by looking at how they relate to places, social relationships, and things. This implies that we must map the social world of children in their material and socio-spatial contexts such as home, school, and online, and through things such as food, clothes, and digital media devices. For the project to achieve this, we realise that we need to think creatively, and devise methods that activate children’s voices and elicit reflection about the meaning of their socio-spatial and material attachments. Recognizing this, the Belong project is currently devising and planning several children-friendly and participatory visual research methods through a series of workshops.

child standing in front of a wall with many drawings and notes.
credit: pexels | Michel Serpa

Researching with children

When we say that we are adopting a participatory research approach this means we ought to place children at the centre of any investigation into their experiences, understandings, and feelings of belonging. However simple this might seem, such a task is laden with complex interdependent methodological and ethical challenges. Can we really see children “as competent and accomplished research participants that are comparable to adults” (Morrow and Richards, 1996 quoted in White et al. 2010:144) given our tendency to often see them as vulnerable, incompetent, and powerless? How should the multimodal accounts from children be interpreted and who should interpret it? How do we avoid universalist and acultural views of children to consider how the accounts that they give about themselves will be shaped by their gender, age, social class background, and personal characteristics such as shyness, and willingness to engage with adults or other groups of children?

The British sociologist Les Back points out that the most important parts of daily life are left unspoken, and he urges us to turn our attention to “the realm of embodied social life that operates outside of talk (Back, 2007: 95). According to him photography is an important methodological tool as “…the quality of the images operates outside of language and the conventions of The Word (…) We have to listen to them with our eyes” Back, 2007: 100). We orient towards participatory visual research methods because of the desire to draw upon children’s competencies and preferred modes of expression, to create suitable conditions for articulating their voices.

colored paper and the cut out word ART
credit: pexels | Artem Podrez

Collage-making

As part of our participatory visual research methodology, we plan to organise a series of workshops where children participants will be engaged in making collages of photos of things that they associate with different forms of belonging. Furthermore, the children will perform the role of analysts of these collages, as well as provide commentary on preliminary research results and knowledge gaps.

We understand collage as being the practice of cutting and altering images (or other materials) and combining them with other images or materials (Woodward, 2019). Generally speaking, it is an arts-based research approach to meaning-making by juxtaposing of a variety of pictures, artifacts, natural objects, words, phrases, textiles, sounds, and stories. It is a research method that draws on an artistic practice often used by professional artists, but also a creative activity that children can easily engage in. In our case, the practice of making collages consists of making connections or contrasts between images and describes both the technique and the resulting work of art in which children arrange and stick down photographs that have some meaning to them onto a supporting surface. Data from the collage-making workshops will consist of not only the content of discussions during the process but will also include observations of participant interactions and collage artefacts produced by participants.

We wonder what stories children will be able to tell about themselves when they stand before the images that they have put together of things that have meaning in their everyday lives. What meanings would they generate about their experiences and perceptions of being part of social fabric, and their practices, affects, and feelings of inclusion?  When unexpected objects or images are placed together, this might lead, we hope, to surprising, ambiguous, or even uncertain insights, either by those who make or read these image combinations. We place great value in the potential of unusual visual juxtapositions to “jar” our workshop participants and us as researchers, into seeing or thinking differently.

collage making
credit: pexels | George Milton

The challenge of interpreting

Experience tells us that while visual artefacts such as collages made by children represent a potentially rich view on their worlds and an insightful glance on their social universe, researchers often tend to see these with adult eyes.  In addition, researchers tend to view such visual artifacts “as a product (something that can be analysed and its constituent parts picked apart) rather than as a process (a series of creative actions and markings that tell a story in its own right)” (White et al. 2010: 146). We would thus need to pay particular attention to what the children say while they are in the process of making their visual artefacts to enable us better understand the ideas and stories that these artefacts are based upon.  Collages come about as visual artefacts through a process of recomposition or distortion in order to produce specific meanings. The value of image collages as research data lies not so much in the fact that they portray ‘the truth’, as in our ability to record and understand the context in which they are produced.

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