Studying Children in Context: Theories, Methods, and Ethics


M. Elizabeth Graue & Daniel J. Walsh

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    Writing this book challenged us in many ways—technically as we dealt with the physical distance between Urbana, Illinois, and Madison, Wisconsin; theoretically as we negotiated differing perspectives on research; and stylistically as we struggled with authorial voice. We met the first challenge with e-mail, phone calls, and 4-hour drives. The other two were more difficult.

    We met and talked a number of times while we planned and wrote the book, but we never actually sat down at a keyboard together. When we wrote, we wrote individually. The first draft of each page was written by one of us and then passed on to the other.

    Each “we,” then, in this volume began as one of us speaking for both of us and waiting to see if the other agreed. Take this brief preface. We met and talked about how we would present ourselves as authors and came to something of an agreement, but one of us (Daniel) initially translated that agreement into text—the first draft of what you are now reading.

    We are very different people, with dissimilar styles of writing, distinct ways of presenting ourselves, and, often, conflicting ideas about what research is and how it should proceed. These differences were an important factor in our decision to write this book together. We saw our different viewpoints, experiences, and writing styles as a strength. We wanted not to present ourselves as a homogeneous magisterial “we.” We wanted to keep the tension of our discussions in the writing. We attempted to maintain the tension by forging a style that lay between choral writing and cacophony. Tobin and Davidson (1990) used the term polyvocality. Our goal was a functional bivocality, complex but not so muddled as to hinder communication. The proof of our efforts will be in the reading.

    We indicate at the beginning of each chapter who took primary responsibility for writing the chapter. We do so to identify for the reader the underlying “I” in each chapter. A few chapters were passed back and forth so often that they became very much dual efforts, and those also have been noted. At times, we speak in an identified first person singular, for example, “I (Daniel).” At other times, when agreement is strong, as now, we shift to the first person plural. No chapter that either of us wrote escaped the careful attention of the other.

    We extended our voices by bringing in valued colleagues to describe their field experiences. These short narratives illuminate key issues in many chapters. Our ambition has been to produce a text that is accessibly and usefully complex. Many thanks to Deb Ceglowski, Anne Haas Dyson, David Fernie, Rebecca Kantor, Robin Lynn Leavitt, Peggy J. Miller, and Hsueh-Yin Ting for adding an important layer of polyvocality.

    We are both indebted to many people who helped and guided us in our development as researchers. Without their tutelage, we would not have written this book. We owe its strengths to them. They should not be faulted for its weaknesses nor identified with its idiosyncrasies.

    I (Daniel) owe much to George and Louise Spindler, who first introduced me to ethnography, and to many valued colleagues, particularly Buddy Peshkin, Liora Bresler, Peggy Miller, John D'Amato, Norm Denzin, Joe Tobin, and Gary King. I have learned much from afar from the inimitable Ray McDermott and the peerless Fred Erickson. I have also had the opportunity to associate with many gifted graduate students in recent years. Working with them on research and on their dissertations has taught me a great deal. An incomplete list includes Natalie Baturka, Robin Leavitt, Hui-Fen Lin, Hsueh-Yin Ting, J. C. Chen, Deb Ceglowski, Teresa Vasconcelos, Jean Wolf, Yonghee Hong, Patricia Clark Brown, Min-Ling Tsai, Shunah Chung, Anya Enos, Mugyeong Ryu, Kyunghwa Lee, Carol Owles, Judy Davidson, and Jaesook Lee. Thanks also to Randy Bost for help on the references. Finally, I thank the students who have taken my Child Study and Methods of Educational Inquiry courses, in which many of the ideas in this book were first tried out. My work on this book was facilitated by support from the Bureau of Educational Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    I (Beth) will always be indebted to Bob Stake, who lured me into the land of qualitative research, and to Margaret Eisenhart and Lorrie Shepard, who through their very different approaches taught me that there were many ways to interpret the world. Thanks also to Mary Lee Smith. Colleagues at Wisconsin have supported and challenged my learning. Special thanks to Mary Louise Gomez, Michael Apple, and Tom Popkewitz. Many grad students have taught me in various courses on interpretive research and have come back for more—thanks to Patti O'-Toole, Matthew Weinstein, Deb Ceglowski, Monica Miller Marsh, Ellen Ansell, and Tamara Lindsey. This work was made possible in part by the support of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation's Graduate School Research Grant Program.

    We dedicate this book to our colleague and dear friend Mary Catherine Ellwein, who died in June of 1994 at the age of 36, taken much too young and much too alive by cancer. She was a wonderful woman, strong and smart. She was a extraordinary researcher. And she was good to be with.

    Beth and Mary Catherine were graduate students together at the University of Colorado. Daniel and Mary Catherine were colleagues at the University of Virginia. We met each other through Mary Catherine. Were she still alive and working with us, this would be a much better book. Much of what we know about research we learned from her, in particular, the need to be respectful of the multiple layers of intention and commitment required to work with children. We had much left to learn from her when she died.

    We both miss her very much.

    BethGraueDaniel J.Walsh


    Don't make up what you could find out.

    Howard Becker (1996, p. 59)

    Some years ago, I heard Lee Shulman assert that the purpose of research is to get smarter about the world in order to make it a better place. It is, as the Irish say, a “grand” statement. I used it to introduce my research methods courses. I used it to justify my own work, perhaps even to feel grand about it—I was getting smarter about the world, and I was making it a better place.

    Maybe I have become smarter about the world, at least about some very small corner of it, but it is presumptuous to think that I have made it a better place. James Garbarino's (1995) argument that contemporary America is raising its children in a “socially toxic environment” is compelling, and it is disturbing to parents of young children, as we both are (two each). When I read, for example, this morning in Time that Libya's ruling thug, M. Khadafy, is building an impregnable factory that will produce huge amounts of nerve gas, I thought first of my children and feared for them and the world into which they have been brought.

    AUTHORS' NOTE: This introduction was written by Daniel.

    Even in the liberal democracy in which we live, agreement would be hard to reach about what would make the world a better place for children. My own research on schools (Walsh, 1991, 1992, 1993) has convinced me that well-intentioned people have very different views about what would make the world better for children—views that are based on deeply embedded beliefs about how the world works and how children should fit into that world.

    Believing that we are making the world a better place can make us smug, even arrogant—WE researchers (and not you ordinary folks) are going to improve the world. We can hope, but I think that researchers face a more pressing and mundane challenge, that is, to find it out. The reason we should be finding it out is because the alternative to finding it out is not not finding it out, but instead making it up, or, as is more often the case, having it made up for you. Right now, when it comes to children and what we know as a culture about children, those who make it up dominate.

    This book is about the process of finding it out. Finding it out is labor-intensive and expensive. One must go out and look and listen and soak and poke and then do it all again and again. Long hours are required to construct a data record from the raw data generated in the field. Finding it out challenges the researcher in her analysis to explore critically not only that part of the world being studied but the very research process itself. Ultimately, all that labor produces knowledge that is uncertain and that will change, but it produces knowledge. The “it” found out will never have the certainty or the universality of the “it” made up. That is how it should be. The construction of knowledge is a human endeavor. It will never be certain.

    Finding it out about children is exceptionally difficult—intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Physical, social, cognitive, and political distances between the adult and the child make their relationship very different from the relationships among adults. In doing research with children, one never becomes a child. One remains a very definite and readily identifiable “other.”

    In marked contrast to finding it out, making it up presents fewer challenges, takes much less time, and, as a short visit to Barnes and Noble will confirm, is more lucrative. Why spend prolonged time with children in classrooms or homes or playgrounds when one can simply pull an anecdote from here, a little theory from there, and a little “common sense” from one's experience as a parent or a teacher? Explaining what children are like by appealing to some authority is much easier than actually going out and finding out. If an anecdote is required, a visit to the local university lab school or an elite preschool allows one to avoid the less pristine conditions in which the vast majority of contemporary children spend their daily lives.

    Those who make it up take many forms. Self-styled “experts” may well make the requisite bows to research (as in “the research says”) but essentially proclaim how children are and how they should be. Less obvious are people who know something about children but who then move into areas in which they have no particular expertise. Consider, for example, how much of what we as a culture know about children, particularly young children, comes from pediatricians and clinical psychologists who write not about children's mental or physical health but about children in general.

    Also contributing to made-up knowledge are researchers who fail to recognize that there is more to the world than the part that they are examining. For example, under the hegemony of a rather narrow measurement orientation, much research done in the context of schooling has ignored aspects of children and childhood that cannot be quantified. Another example: Piaget studied children with extreme care, but most often within the context of contrived and meaningless tasks. From this research, he drew conclusions about children in general, conclusions that have not stood up when researchers examined children doing meaningful tasks in familiar situations (e.g., Donaldson, 1978; Gelman, 1979; Hatano & Inagaki, 1986).

    Entire categories of children have been made up. Finlan (1994) argued that there is no empirical evidence for learning disabilities as traditionally defined. LD children nevertheless exist as a cultural construct and in the laws of the land. One can go into any school and find them identified and labeled. Vellutino (1987) concluded that no evidence exists that children, or anyone, see letters or words or, for that matter, anything backwards, but the dyslexic child who sees print backwards stands out in our cultural collection of images of children. Walk up to any reasonably educated person on the street and ask him or her about dyslexia and you will hear about children who see letters backwards.

    Ironically, the American cultural obsession with being practical works against finding it out. We tend to dismiss that which cannot be immediately applied—”Just find out what works.” We see ourselves as “doers.” Within such a context, those who make it up thrive. If one is going to make it up anyway, why not make up what people want to know? One cannot guarantee that what is found out is what people want or expect, or that it will lead immediately to practice. In fact, finding it out tends to challenge what a culture knows as well as what it wants to know.

    Truly finding it out requires researchers to look in avoided places and in unfamiliar ways. Research has most often been distanced, focused on what Denzin (1989) calls issues, which “have to do with public matters, and institutional structures,” as opposed to troubles, which are “personal matters” (p. 18). Researchers do studies, for example, of day care but ignore the lived realities of the many children who, from a very early age, spend most of their waking hours in institutional care. The result is, as Wolf (1995) points out, findings about academic outcomes for children who have been in day care, the academic backgrounds of day care teachers, how everything about day care that can be measured correlates with everything else that can be measured (whether it makes sense or not)—everything about day care except what it is like for children, and adults, to be there day after day, week after week. Questions such as what it means for children to be in institutional care for most of their early life, and what the implications are for society, are ignored.

    Why study children? Our answer: To find it out. And to keep finding it out, because if we do not find it out, someone will make it up. In fact, someone probably has already made it up, and what they make up affects children's lives; it affects how children are viewed and what decisions are made about them. Finding it out challenges dominant images. Making it up maintains them.


    Six themes run through this book. The first is the importance of finding it out in context. The “it” we seek to find out is situated, historically, socially, and culturally. Meaning making is situated.

    A second, related, theme is the situated nature of the research process—subjects, researchers, the whole endeavor (Wertsch, 1989, p. 15). The researcher—in fact, the research community—is situated historically, socially, and culturally. Many chapters present short reflections by researchers, each exploring a different aspect of the process in terms of her or his own work.

    The third theme is the centrality of social interaction. We are interested in what goes on between children, how children function in groups, and how they transact and interact. The research literature on children teems with within-child explanations. Our focus is on “between,” not “within.”

    A fourth theme is the social nature of research. We refer not only to the interactional nature of fieldwork, but, also as important, to the interactions away from the field and one's desk—with colleagues, family, and friends. One does not do research to inform only oneself. One does it to inform others. Informing others should begin early in the process of finding it out and should never stop.

    The fifth theme is the centrality of kids, which may seem obvious given the nature of this book. We emphasize that research should keep coming back to the kids. The meanings sought are kids' meanings, not adults'. One difficulty that people who work with children have when they begin to study children is that they focus on the adults' actions toward children; what was intended to be a study of children becomes an evaluation of adults' interactions with children. Adults are unquestionably part of the children's context, but the research is about the kids.

    The final theme is the situatedness of methods. We explore methodology extensively in this book, but methods become actualized only in practice. For this reason, we present many detailed examples as well as working researchers' reflections on their work. One can discuss interviewing children, but it is only when one sits down and actually interviews specific children that interviewing becomes a way of generating data. A method is a tool. One can learn much about tools in general, but how and when to use what kind of tool cannot be determined in the absence of a specific context.

    An ongoing challenge in writing this book was deciding to what extent it should deal with general issues of doing research and to what extent it should focus only on research with children. In some ways, all research—whether with children, adults, peonies, or quarks—is similar. In other ways, each research study is its own peculiar genre. If stepping in the same river twice is not possible, neither is doing the same research twice. As Comic Brother Dave Mason commented, “You can't do something again. You can do something similar. But you can't do it again.”1

    Our strategy is to direct the reader to treatments of topics on which we cannot improve. We apologize in advance for unwittingly going over what others have done better. We assume that the reader has some background in doing research and in interpretive research in particular. To the extent that we can, we will deal with generic research issues succinctly, pointing out where work with children presents its own challenges. We will discuss in detail perspectives we present that differ in some ways from, or challenge, commonly held ones.

    Occasionally, we present lessons of experience from our own fieldwork as short pieces of advice—set off by bullets and in bold print. The short sections contributed by colleagues illustrate key issues in fieldwork with children. Throughout the text are boxes containing lists of references on various topics as well as other useful lists.

    The book has three sections. In the first section, we look across the research process, conceptualizing it as a holistic activity. Chapter 1 critiques the dominant research paradigm on children. Chapter 2 presents a view of research as an interpretive science. Chapter 3 explores theory, Chapter 4 examines ethics, and Chapter 5 discusses the role of the researcher. The second section focuses on fieldwork. Chapter 6 examines strategies for generating data, and Chapter 7 addresses the construction of a data record. The final section interrogates the interpretive process and writing—Chapter 8 and 9 respectively. In the conclusion, we struggle to tie everything together.

    No one will learn how to do research on children by reading this book. To learn how, one must do it. Someone with a basic grasp of the research endeavor, however, will come away with a stronger sense of the issues involved in trying to understand children's worlds.

    This book was written for people who want to find out what the world is like for today's children and how they construct meaning in it. Our focus is on the society in which we live—late 20th century America. Finding it out is not something that one can do about children in general, but rather about specific groups of children in particular contexts.

    We fear that the world is becoming a tougher place for children and that this society neither knows enough about children nor appears to want to know enough to help children negotiate that world. A society that avoids knowing about its children has already made an ominous decision about its priorities.


    1. I have tried without success to locate the album to reference it. I first heard the line in 1966 from Jim Mudd. As far as I could tell, he knew the album by heart.

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    About the Authors

    M. Elizabeth Graue, a former early childhood special education and kindergarten teacher, is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received her PhD in research methodologies at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1990. Her dissertation, Socially Constructed Readiness for Kindergarten in Three Communities, won awards from the American Educational Research Association for qualitative research methods and for early childhood education. It was later published as Ready for What? Constructing Meanings of Readiness for Kindergarten (1993). She has continued to do research on beliefs about readiness, with a particular focus on academic redshirting, instructional assessment, and parent relationships with public schools. She is Associate Editor of the Review of Educational Research (1996–1999) and has published work in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Early Education and Development, Educational Policy, Journal of Curriculum Studies, and Urban Education. She is married to Clark Landis and has two sons, Sam and Max.

    Daniel J. Walsh is Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985. His interest in interpretive research began with two courses on the ethnography of schooling he took with George and Louise Spindler at Wisconsin. He spent a dozen years as a prekindergarten and kindergarten teacher, the majority of those years in the Chicago public schools. His research has focused on policy and practice in early public schooling, teachers' perspectives as contexts for development, post-Piagetian developmental theory, and research methodology. He is past Associate Editor of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly and has published in various journals, including Journal of Curriculum Studies, Teachers College Record, Educational Foundations, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Early Education and Development, and Psychological Bulletin. He is the author, with Robert Pianta, of High Risk Children in Schools: Constructing Sustaining Relationships. He is married to Naneera Vidhayasirinun and has two children, Buck, 4, and Scooter, 11. He spends as much time as he can on his bicycle and ice skates, preferably with the three people just mentioned.

    About the Contributors

    Deborah Ceglowski is Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Early Education and Development at the University of Minnesota. A former program specialist with Head Start, she received her PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a recipient of a Bush Leadership Fellowship and the Mary Catherine Ellwein dissertation award from the American Educational Research Association. Ceglowski's research interests include qualitative studies of the impact of policies on teachers, parents, and children and employing alternative writing strategies in research.

    Anne Haas Dyson is Professor of Language, Literacy and Culture in the School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. A former teacher of young children, she studies the social lives and literacy learning of schoolchildren. Among her publications are The Need for Story: Cultural Diversity in Classroom and Community (co-edited with Celia Genishi), Social Worlds of Children Learning to Write in an Urban Primary School, which was awarded the NCTE's David Russell Award for Distinguished Research, and Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy.

    David E. Fernie is Professor of Early Childhood Education in the School of Teaching and Learning, The Ohio State University College of Education. His interests include children's play, their understanding and use of media/technology, and the ethnographic study of preschool classrooms.

    Rebecca Kantor is an Associate Professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, College of Education at The Ohio State University (OSU). Her research interests include language and social processes in early childhood settings, children's social worlds and friendships, and preschool ethnography. After 14 years as director of the Sophie Rogers Lab School at OSU, she now serves as its Curriculum Adviser.

    Robin Lynn Leavitt is Associate Professor and Chair of the Educational Studies Department at Illinois Wesleyan University. She received her PhD in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Power and Emotion in Infant-Toddler Day Care and several book chapters and articles on day care. Leavitt's research is interpretive and focuses on the everyday lived experiences of young children in early childhood settings.

    Peggy J. Miller is Professor of Speech Communication and Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her PhD from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is interested in everyday discourse as a medium of socialization and has written extensively on narrative practices in families from a variety of cultural groups. She is the author of Amy, Wendy, and Beth: Learning Language in South Baltimore and (with Wendy Haight) Pretending at Home: Early Development in a Sociocultural Context. She is co-editor (with William Corsaro) of Interpretive Approaches to children's Socialization and co-editor (with Jacqueline Goodnow and Frank Kessel) of Cultural Practices as Context for Development.

    Hsueh-Yin Ting is Associate Professor and head of the Center for Early Childhood Education at National Hsin-Chu Teachers College in Taiwan. She received her PhD in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her master's and doctoral research focuses on peer relationships in early childhood classrooms. Her interests in the interplay between culture and individual also led her to do a study exploring how school culture shapes teacher education.

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