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Owning our mistakes: Confessions of an unethical researcher

Heather Montgomery

Thirty years ago, it was possible to claim that there was more discussion on the methods and ethics of working with animals than there was with children. As Childhood Studies has matured and become a more established field this is no longer true and the interest (and even obsession?) on how to work with children, and how to do so ethically, and reflexively, lies at the centre of our discipline - and indeed often at the heart of our own professional and personal identities.

This is no bad thing of course and has produced some excellent, theoretically rich and important studies and news ways of thinking.  And yet at times, it has verged on cliché: the chance discovery of a magic key that unlocks the possibilities of truly understanding children’s lives; mistakes that turned out to be blessings in disguise; the trope of the troubled-researcher-finding-redemption-through-practical-action. All of these go to make up a narrative we tell ourselves and each other about how to work with children.

I have been as guilty of this as anyone so what I want to do in this talk is to talk about the things that went wrong, the mistakes that were not learning opportunities, the problems that never become challenges, just remained problems. It is about research that says the wrong things, comes up with the wrong findings and where listening to children also means ignoring what they say. It is less about overcoming ethical dilemmas and more about acknowledging the intractability of some problems and the difficulties research with children involves and the way it can have far-reaching impacts on one’s personal and professional identity. I deliberately offer no solutions to the ethical dilemmas they raise because to me they are still a work in progress. However I believe an honest and non triumphal account of these difficulties can pave the way for a fuller discussion of the ways in which researchers and other practitioners think about ethical issues arising during research with children.