Throughout history and in all cultures adults exercise power over children, in all aspects of their lives from parental power, teacher/school regulation through to the passing of laws at national level that affect the lives of all children within that society. S. A. Taylor (2000) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al, pointed out that it is adults and not children themselves who write about, debate and decide what rights children should have. This can be seen as an indication of the power adults exercise over children which confines them to subordinate roles within society.
Power means different thing to different people, however, it is generally thought of as the ability of individuals or groups to influence others and put forward their point of view despite the resistance or objections of others. Sometimes the direct use of force is used to exercise power, however idealogies are usually used to justify the application of this force (Giddens 1995) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg81. Thus the old adage that knowledge is power can be said to be true. Childrens knowledge can be disregarded by adults and they can still be controlled by force, (no matter how well intentioned) by the adults who are responsible for them.
In order to understand the role of power in research with children and young people, it is necessary to acknowledge the contribution of sociological thinking. Sociological thinking seeks to explain the role of power in peoples lives, how society as a whole works and how order is achieved (Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg 81). In the past, such explanations emphasized the world of men with small consideration to the world of women and less still to the worlds of children. Feminists were critical of the ideas that portrayed the family as natural and unchanging.
However, Feminists ideas also came into conflict with each other in particular black Feminists were critical of white Feminist fro ignoring the paradox of black experience in their arguments. Wright et al (1998) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg83 Fraser et al pg83 Fraser et al pg83 Fraser et al pg83 Fraser et al pg83 acknowledged in his research the importance of Feminist researchers recognition of the reproduction of gender divisions within education. Research in this area has helped to address the educational performance of young women in school.
Family life and public aspects of life are important in considering the concept of power in the lives of children and young people. Bill and Ribbens (1995) and Ribbens and Edwards (1998) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg 83 suggest the concepts of public and private aspects of life and family are relevant for understanding the divisions within the of people in Western society in terms of the meanings men and women associate with the idea of public and private life. These aspects can contribute to the thinking about the position of children, who have limited power within family life. Research studies involving children and young people in their home environment, are often reliant on reports by their parents or carers. Modern researchers, however, increasingly conduct research with children and young people via direct communication with children in order to determine their views first hand.
Power elations in research with children and young people are reinforced by more general and cultural ideas that exist between adults and children in society at large (Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg 84.) Mayall maintained that adults have divided up the social order into two major groups that is adults and children, with specific conditions surrounding the lives of each group. One factor that helps to maintain unequal adult-child power relations is beliefs that adult possess a superior level of knowledge. However, it is difficult to believe that an adult would have a better knowledge of what it is like to be child than the child themselves.
Mayall points out that she needs to acquire from a child their own unique knowledge of what it means to be a child, because although of course she has been a child herself, she may have forgotten much and childhoods vary and are likely to have changed in the time since she herself was a child. Researchers can try to minimise the power relation gulf between them as the adult to the child/children by trying to be one of them it is not easy to negate the central adult characteristic of having power over children.
Christensen and Prout (2002) cited in Doing Research with Children and Young People Edited by Fraser et al pg 85, outlined four ways that children and childhood have been identified in research. The first of these is that of the child as an object this assumes that children and young people are dependent, incompetent and unable to deal appropriately with information. They are in need of care and protection by adults who undertake the role of interpreters of their lives. This orientation of research relies heavily on the adult perception of situations and the accounts of adults; it all but negates the views of children.
The second view point is of the child as subject this puts children more to the fore in the research process and moving the research to a more child-centred perspective. Despite the suitability of involving children it is recognised that it can be countered by judgements about their social maturity and cognitive ability. Adult researchers exert power in determining who to include e.g. only children of a certain age or intelligence level. In the third viewpoint the child is seen as a social actor. That is they take part in, change and become changed by the world in which they live. Children are seen as entities in their own right, rather than just part of a family unit, or a member of a school, etc. The final viewpoint sees the child as a participant or co-researcher.
This involves the children having an active role in the research. This perception considers that children should be informed, involved and consulted about all activities that have an affect on their lives; including research. In this situation the balance of power between adults and children can be volatile and changeable. The level of knowledge that the adult shares with the child, dictates the level at which the child is truly involved.