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Conference Papers

Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth 5th International Conference, Sheffield University

Going to School to Achieve Social Adulthood: A critical exploration of Ethiopian children’s school attendance as an act of ‘everyday agency’

1 July 2014 (forthcoming)

This paper proposes that the exploration of what counts as mundane and “everyday” for children in different contexts can be highly illuminating in the Critical Realist endeavour to understand why children do/do not choose to act at certain moments and in certain ways.

Taking Ethiopian children’s school attendance as an example of an act of agency that is interdependent upon structure and culture, I consider the explanations of educational participation given by children attending primary schools in one Ethiopian city. Firstly, I demonstrate that these explanations often rested on assumptions about school being the/an appropriate arena for childhood. Secondly, I argue that the reasons for attendance taken for granted by these children – including going to school to become good workers, good people and good citizens of Ethiopia – reveal the dominance of social and political norms regarding morality and the achievement of social adulthood.

These findings contribute to our knowledge of children’s understandings and motivations for action in one crucial area of their lives. They also have implications for the design and implementation of educational policy in urban Ethiopia, and point to potential social repercussions that might result from an education system – or economic context – that fails to fulfill children’s expectations.

Sheffield Institute for International Development 5th Postgraduate Conference, Sheffield University

Lessons from Childhood Studies: Can listening to children help to reconcile our divided priorities in planning education for development?

25 March 2014

Awarded the prize for Best Paper at the conference, sponsored by the International Development Planning Review.

This paper explores how methodological and theoretical lessons from the field of Childhood Studies can be applied to development policy, particularly with regards to education.

Education is at the forefront of development agendas, and education policy in the Global South is a prime example of “divided priorities” in international development. Although universal, quality education is almost unanimously agreed on as a worthwhile aspiration, what that quality education is understood to look like, and its supposed purpose, vary greatly among economists, national governments, theorists of social justice, international donors and (I)NGOs, for example.

The contribution of Childhood Studies here is to stress the importance of children’s priorities being included – and given prominence – in this debate. Childhood research has demonstrated that rather than being passive, immature and incompetent, children are social actors, producers of knowledge and challengers of orthodoxy. As such, it is imperative that children are included in discussions about policy interventions that directly affect their lives.

As key stakeholders/supposed beneficiaries of education policy, then, it is important that we explore what children want and expect to arise from their schooling. I review some examples of the valued capabilities that the Ethiopian schoolchildren who participated in my PhD research expected to be expanded through their participation in education.

My paper concludes, however, with the Critical Realist recognition that people’s understandings of the world are fallible. I consider how social research can evaluate whether education is doing what children think it is doing and theorise about other important functions of schooling.

Prezi slides available here

Researchers in Development Network Conference, University of Leeds

What does it mean to do participatory research? Challenges and opportunities in doing critical research with schoolchildren in Hawassa, Ethiopia

7 November 2013

Drawing upon PhD research exploring why Ethiopian children attended school, this paper considers what constitutes “participation”, and how different factors shape the extent to which research remains participatory.

The interdisciplinary field of Childhood Studies, like Development Studies, encourages participatory research characterised by democratic allocation of power and control. This was the methodological foundation of my research. Children were invited to decide if and how they wanted to participate. Participatory research tools including diaries, role-play and child-led tours departed from adult forms of communication and addressed assymetrical power relations. “Child-conferences” enabled participants to verify or challenge my representation of their lives.

However, there were constraints to how participatory my research could truly be. Limited by time and ethical approval processes, research questions were pre-decided. Participants’ agency in determining their involvement was limited by the hierarchical and authoritative educational environment. My theoretical framework necessitates a more critical understanding of the structures and pressures at play in children’s lives, requiring observation and analysis beyond participants’ perspectives.

Prezi available here

European Sociological Association 11th Biennial Conference, Turin

‘Going to School to Develop Our Country’: Ethiopian schoolchildren’s national identities, commitments and obligations

29 August 2013

This paper draws upon research exploring why children in Hawassa, Ethiopia attend primary school. Using ethnographic and participative methods, the research sought to go beyond not only orthodox human capital accounts of education, but also the “new paradigm” in childhood studies. Based on my research into decision-making, experiences and understandings of education and constraints on children’s agency within the school system, I argue that the latter paradigm can overstate children’s agency.

This paper examines one feature of the findings arising from focus group discussions, individual interviews and child conferencing. Many children expressed that they went to school to “help their country” or to “develop Ethiopia”, by which they meant that their education would benefit Ethiopia by fostering both economic and political progress, and enhancing the nation’s global reputation.

This paper explores the notions of national identity, participation and citizenship that these children linked to their school careers. In doing this, I draw on the work of Sharon Stephens and others on children’s national identities. I also revisit classic sociological studies of education as an institution of socialization, where children’s choices and expectations are managed, and a generation of capable workers and obedient citizens cultivated.

L Marshall