The Utility of Critical Ethnography as a Tool for Empowerment in Early Childhood Research

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


This presentation reported the application of critical ethnography as a means to capture children’s voices in two ways. Firstly, as researchers and secondly as a an authoritative space in which the children’s voices could speak and be heard. The Young Children As Researchers (YCAR) study aimed to conceptualise ways in which young children aged 4-8 years are researchers, could develop as researchers and may be considered to be researchers. The presentation reports on an empirical study exploring research behaviours presenting naturalistically in young children aged 4-8 years. A ‘jigsaw methodology’ was developed, comprising critical ethnography, constructivist grounded theory, case study and the ‘Mosaic Approach’ (Clark and Moss, 2011). Ethnography is commonly indicated in early childhood research because of its capacity to reveal multiple facets of young children’s lived experiences, including features of their everyday contexts that affect and effect those lived experiences. The particular rationale for the present study’s use of critical ethnography was its potential invocation for social justice in respect of a guiding assumption that young children and their voices are excluded from adult worlds, including the ‘academy’. Since the study was an attempt towards democratisation of research, it was guided by three approaches that were adopted to promote recognition of children’s empowerment as researchers: emancipation, participation and induction. Through interview conversations, focus group and a nominal grouping exercise, perspectives of established academy members (n=47) regarding research were gathered, resulting in the identification of four research behaviours academy members identified as ‘most important’: exploration, finding solutions, conceptualisation and the basing of decisions on evidence. Furthermore, the academy members indicated theoretical sampling and consequently, 138 children aged 4-8 years in three early childhood settings and five homes in one English Midlands town participated, together with their parents and practitioners. Children’s everyday naturalistic behaviours were co-constructed through gathering, analysis and meta-analysis of data; in this process, features of critical ethnography integrated coherently with the other instruments forming the jigsaw methodology. Many examples of the four most important key research behaviours presented in children’s naturalistic activities; factors affecting or effecting these behaviours included children’s applications of prior experiences, their innovations, their autonomy, their dispositions and their interactions with material contexts as well as social and cognitive domains. In this study conducted according to the academy’s own protocols, young children’s engagements in research behaviours the academy regards as ‘most important’ were established in ways that suggest the children’s forms of knowledge construction are valid and their voices authoritative. In the research process, the utility of critical ethnography was manifest in form and function: it integrated effectively with other methodologies to create a ‘jigsaw methodology’ that facilitated participatory, emancipatory and inductive approaches. Critical ethnography was also valuable as a vehicle for reifying social justice: the study outcomes reveal a rationale for challenging young children’s exclusion from the academy.
Period1 Feb 2013
Event title34th Annual Ethnography in Education Research Forum "Ethnography as Counter Narrative: Reclaiming the Local in Educational Policy and Practice"
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Critical Ethnography
  • Empowerment
  • Early childhood