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Connectors – an international study into the development of children’s everyday practices of participation in circuits of social action

Final Report Summary - CONNECTORS (Connectors – an international study into the development of children’s everyday practices of participation in circuits of social action)

The ERC Connectors Study (2014-2019) was a comparative and multimodal ethnography of the relationship between childhood and public life. The aim of the study was to establish rich and heterogeneous ethnographic case histories, within and across study locations, in order to generate new theory from the bottom-up about children’s experiences, encounters and engagement with public life.

An interdisciplinary research team based across three cities (Athens, Hyderabad, London) engaged with a total of 45 children aged 6-9, and their families, over a three year period (2014-2017), visiting children in their homes and neighbourhood several times a year. Study participants brought a diverse range of familial, cultural, economic, racial, and ethnic experiences to the study. The team used a range of methods with the children (drawing, maps, interviews, participant observation, photography, walking tours, playing, games) resulting in both textual and visual data, as well as generating extensive researcher fieldnotes. Parents, and other family members, were also interviewed. Practices of methodological invention were at the heart of the study, and the team experimented with different creative methods and, learning from the children in the study, allowing play to institute itself into our methodological practices and theory generation.

Drawing on the resultant multimodal ethnographic case histories with children, and their families, the Connectors Study team developed a theory of childhood publics. Childhood publics is a new theory for understanding children’s citizenship. The theory of childhood publics allows us to understand the child in their everyday lives as they move between institutional spaces typically associated with childhood (e.g. family and school). It provides a lens for understanding children’s own encounters, experiences and engagement in their own terms, with things that move and matter to children as well as prompting us to think about how these local to children issues might connect to more global cares and concerns.

Key to understanding these connections is the recognition of childhood political knowingness which differs to that of more normative discourses found in citizenship education and/or social movements. To this effect, the study team collected and analysed idioms of childhood publics, children’s embodied and sensory communications, through play, games, gazes, gestures and imaginative storytelling (of which there was plenty), in order to make visible and recognisable the ways in which children experience, encounter and engage with public life.

This deep contextualisation and analysis, produces a theory of children’s participation that sees child(ren) and participation as embedded in the practices of everyday life, in intergenerational relationships, in memories as well as experiences, existing between and through institutional spaces, and as a process that is and/or can be visually mediated by material (e.g. photography) and symbolic (e.g. imagination) practices. The concept of a childhood publics enables an understanding of children’s experiences of participation, that disrupts and blurs the lines of private/public, personal/political, biography/history. This is an especially significant theoretical innovation as theories and practices of children’s participation continue, for the most part, to consider political participation being something that children need to be formally educated into.

Beyond methodological and theoretical interventions into the literature on children’s participation, the study succeeded in developing a public engagement strategy that also contributed to the theory of childhood publics by working with the children in the study to create and co-curate a public exhibition, in common (London, November 2017; Hyderabad, December 2017; Athens, February 2018). Exhibitions focused on children’s photographs and photo-stories which were created by study children during the fieldwork; they also exhibited quotations from children about public and private life. Learning from the exhibition fed back into the analysis of the ethnographic case histories and of childhood publics.

Following on from this initial experimentation with practices for inventing childhood publics, it is through the study that the world’s first ever children’s photography archive has been established. This is a major cultural intervention into discourses, practices and histories of childhood, childhood publics, children’s citizenship, and archival practice with and for children. The Children’s Photography Archive (a beta version) is currently being developed through further funding (ERC-PoC-874454: CHILDPHOTOARCHIVE).

At the time of reporting, the study findings have been disseminated through 11 peer journal publications, 1 edited book, two exhibitions and exhibition catalogues, three keynotes, 24 invited seminars and workshops, 30 conferences, 1 study blog and 4 popular social science magazines/blogs.