What’s The Point of Doing Research with Children and Young People?

Professor Janice McLaughlin

Professor Janice McLaughlin

Professor Janice McLaughlin is a sociologist in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology and until recently Director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre. Her work explores how childhood disability or illness is framed from within the worlds of medicine, community and family. She has looked at themes such as the diagnosis of genetic syndromes in children, the role of medical intervention in the lives and identities of young people with cerebral palsy and the ways in which family lives can be changed, including positively, by the presence of a disabled child. More recently this work has increasingly become focused on questions about citizenship and young people – a shift that has come from working with young people and hearing their concerns about their position in society and their futures.

Working with young people from different backgrounds can be frustrating, challenging and a lot of work. Below I suggest why all of those difficulties are worth it if we are to create spaces where young people have a voice and how we can at least try to do it in ways that work for them. Most of the problems come from the institutional dynamics around children and young people and in themselves present insight into the ways in which society and the state carefully monitor children and their presence in the public realm. While many of these structures have emerged out of previous harms done to children, in themselves they risk producing the social fact that young people are vulnerable rather than being also seen as having the potential and capacity for agency and creativity. Young people can also be very busy, particularly with the demands of schooling (again highlighting the pressures on them from an early age). We have learned the need to be very adaptive to both their timetable and their interests. When a young person’s free time is limited (particularly for disabled young people who are often having to also fit in hospital appointments, surgery, physiotherapy, dealing with welfare agencies, alongside their school life) you need to ensure that if you ask them to give their time that it a) has a point and b) will be interesting to them.

Within a project examining embodiment and disability we explored the use of creative techniques – in particular making things, taking photographs and producing journals – as a way to make things more interesting and relevant to the young people.

Photograph taken by a research participant’s dad to show how he gets downstairs
Photograph taken by a research participant’s dad to show how he gets downstairs

Piece of jewellery made by a research participant to symbolise the importance of relationships to her
Piece of jewellery made by a research participant to symbolise the importance of relationships to her

For the young people who participated in that aspect of the project their feedback was that it was very enjoyable and did allow them to express issues around their lives and disability that was meaningful. Mark (none of the names given are people’s real names) represented his pride in his physical strength and ability to find ways to move through space through the picture he had taken of him moving down the stairs. Kim, used the bracelet to symbolise how the relationships around her of friends and family were of vital importance to her and a source of strength to her. So the creative techniques did add something to the project and worked well for those who participated, but here also is the snag, the number of participants who wanted to do these activities in comparison to the usual one to one interview was much less. So while methods papers may suggest that when working with children and young people that we should think about ways to make it more interesting and diverse than a research interview, it is worth checking if that is what young people actually want!

One benefit of the visual material the young people made is it did produce material that was very rich and also very appropriate for taking the findings out to non-academic communities. We worked with a graphic artist, web designer and a group of disabled young people to design a website and booklet that young people could use to explore themes about difference and how society treats children who have something different about them, in this case their bodies. The words and images the young people produced were central to that and the site could not have been developed without their input. The website is now being used by schools, third sector organisations and in teacher training (in New Zealand!).

Screenshot of the website
Screenshot of the website

So to sum up, yes it is worth working with children and young people, it’s obvious really, they have lots to say. But we need to keep thinking through and checking (with them as much as anyone) what the point of doing so is.

Other information:

Open access publications from the project:

McLaughlin, J. and Coleman-Fountain, E. (2014) The unfinished body: The medical and social reshaping of disabled young bodies. Social Science and Medicine. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.09.012

Coleman-Fountain, E. and McLaughlin, J. (2013) The Interactions of Disability and Impairment, Social Theory and Health, 11(2): 133–150, doi:10.1057/sth.2012.21

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and ongoing work we are doing with young people on citizenship is supported by the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal.

Other work and resources we have produced on disabled young people’s views on and participation in sport is also available.

The Shefton Collection: Preserving the Past, Securing the Future

Andrew Parkin    Sally Waite

Mr Andrew Parkin and Dr Sally Waite

Andrew Parkin is Keeper of Archaeology at the Great North Museum where he is responsible for the archaeology and ethnography collections.  He is particularly interested in the archaeology of the Greek and Etruscan world, his latest research has concentrated on Etruscan bronze mirrors in the Shefton Collection.  He is currently working on an exhibition about Gertrude Bell which is due to open in January 2016. 

Sally Waite is a Teaching Fellow in the School of History, Classics and ArchaeologyShe teaches Greek Art and Archaeology at undergraduate and postgraduate level.  Her research focuses on the history of collections. Most recently she curated an exhibition on the Kent Collection of Greek and Cypriot pottery at the Royal Pump Room Museum at Harrogate.  She has worked extensively on the Shefton Collection of Greek and Etruscan Archaeology.

The Shefton Collection takes its name from its founder Professor Brian B. Shefton (1919 – 2012), a Classical archaeologist based in Newcastle from the mid-1950’s until his death in January 2012. Brian Shefton first came to Newcastle in 1955 as a lecturer in Greek Archaeology and Ancient History; he remained for the rest of his career, becoming Professor of Greek Art and Archaeology in 1979. One of his most significant achievements was the creation of a collection of classical antiquities. This Collection moved from the University campus to the Great North Museum in 2009 and is now housed in the Shefton Gallery of Greek and Etruscan Archaeology. It continues to be used for University teaching and research but over the years its remit has expanded to encompass work with other audiences, in particular local schools.

The Collection is not widely known and a priority has been to raise its profile and make it more accessible. A project funded by Renaissance North East and the Catherine Cookson Foundation catalogued the Etruscan material in the Shefton Study Collection. This was originally conceived as a collaborative project to document and disseminate Professor Shefton’s knowledge of the collection. We worked together in the months before his brief illness and sudden death and the resulting catalogue will form an addendum to a larger project funded by the Pilgrim Trust to enhance and digitise the Shefton Collection records for all objects on display in the Shefton Gallery. The illustrated database has recently been completed and, once on-line, will provide a platform for students, researchers and others to access the Collection.

In April 2013 the University and Great North Museum hosted a series of public lectures and an international conference (PDF: 1.77MB) in memory of Professor Shefton. Leading academics and museum specialists presented on key pieces in the Shefton Collection. As a result of this conference we are currently co-editing, alongside Professor Sir John Boardman, some of the papers, together with others especially commissioned, to be published in a forthcoming book: On the Fascination of Objects: Greek and Etruscan Art in the Shefton Collection.

An additional element of the Shefton memorial events was an engagement project undertaken with West Jesmond Primary School in Newcastle. 572 children (aged 4 to 11) were given the opportunity to create their own artworks inspired by selected objects from the Shefton Collection. Children participated in archaeology workshops at school and were encouraged to produce an individual creative response to the Greek and Etruscan objects they encountered. The workshops were facilitated by both undergraduate and postgraduate student volunteers.

Reception children, for example, created their own fishplates. These were based on several examples of this distinctive type of Greek decorated pottery in the Shefton Collection. Many of the children focused very closely and were able to produce their own versions of the plates.


A selection of the children’s art work was displayed alongside the artefacts in a special exhibition in the Great North Museum.

GNM exhibition

As part of this project 90 year 3 pupils also attended a Greek activity day in the Great North Museum. Here they took part in a range of activities, guided by student volunteers and museum staff, including pottery making, cartoon drawing and gallery based workshops. The project gained momentum growing beyond its original scope, for example the school set up their own exhibition in their visitors’ reception area, revealing the extent of their engagement with the project and pride in what they had achieved.

We recently had the opportunity to present a paper on current research and engagement initiatives involving the Shefton Collection at an international conference hosted by Aarhus University in Denmark. This conference explored some of the challenges facing classical collections in Universities and the ways in which different institutions have tried to make their collections relevant to wider audiences.