Children: Ethnographic Encounters is the latest title in the Bloomsbury series Encounters: Experience and Anthropological Knowledge (series editor John Borneman). In line with the series mandate, it brings together a set of essays discussing material that too often is left out of published work: reflections on personal experiences of doing ethnographic fieldwork. All contributions are written in a highly accessible manner, free from disciplinary jargon or particular theoretical concerns and with only a bare minimum of literature citations. The result is a unique text appealing to a broad readership. The chapters convey a real sense of what ethnographic research with children and youth is all about, including insightful reflections on the many dilemmas researchers inevitably encounter. In this way, the title offers something that the various textbooks on doing research with children and youth rarely achieve and as such forms an excellent companion to such conventional texts.
The volume consists of 10 core chapters, complemented with a full length ‘introduction’ and ‘guide to further reading’ by the editor. The introduction chapter outlines some key issues shaping the volume. How children’s ‘relative structural disadvantage’ (6) in adult-structured societies shape (adult) researchers’ ethnographic encounters with children. The second key theme concerns participant observation, anthropology’s core method, and whether it is actually possible for adult researchers to become a full participant in children’s life worlds. This theme is beautifully captured by reading across James Johnston’s chapter about the ‘exemplary adult role’ that he was pushed into in his school-based research in China, and the chapter by Anne-Marie Sim who succeeded in trying to be younger than she actually was. Although Sim came to fully participate in children’s everyday lives in London (both in and outside of school), she learnt that by trying to be younger she was actually ‘not being a child’ (79). Another core theme is how context matters, and especially how the particular unfolding of (global) social change affects research encounters with children in place-specific ways. Lastly, ethnography is often turned to in contexts where more formal methods are futile. This is not necessarily because the anthropological method always succeeds. Rather, from an ethnographic perspective, and appreciating knowledge as partial, failure and ‘difficulty’ can be reflected upon very productively as many of the chapters demonstrate. The ‘guide to further’ reading that closes the volume goes beyond the ‘contemporary anthropologists’ that have contributed to the volume and refers the reader to a number of core texts on the ethnography of childhood from more distant and recent pasts.
The contributing authors are a good mix of senior and more junior anthropologists, some reflecting on fieldwork conducted over 20 years ago (e.g. Heather Montgomery’s chapter on her research on child prostitution in Thailand), while others draw on very recent PhD research (e.g. Natialia Buitrón- Arias’ chapter on the significance of joining children in Ecuadorian Amazonia on their everyday journeys). Although none of the chapters reflect on research with the very young (under-five), it is good to see that under-tens feature regularly throughout the book. In line with the book’s title, teenagers in secondary education form the upper end of the age-range covered. Reflective of the state of affairs in childhood studies, most contributors are female (except two, James Johnston and Ole Johannes Kaland both drawing on research in China). Although the gendered dimension of conducting research is not explicitly reflected upon throughout, several of the chapters do make some important points in this respect. For example, Anne-Marie Sim notes that because of being female and looking young she finds that her initial worries of being regarded as a ‘strange adult’ were misplaced; in her research setting the popular perception of threat to children is typically represented as older and male (78). In other instances gender appears more subtly, for example in how adult researchers’ physical otherness can sometimes come to facilitate research (children’s interest in playing with long blond hair of female researchers), or, in fact, come to mark otherness in less facilitative ways (the thick beards of some of the male researchers).
These examples also illustrate the importance of appearance in adults’ research encounters with children. The literature on childhood research focuses on the challenge of conducting research across age-based categories, the encounters described suggest, however, that at least at the level of everyday interaction it is the performativity of age that matters more so than chronological age. Age in this sense becomes more malleable albeit not necessarily in all places (e.g. the school) and all respects (e.g. physical size, 62). These generational insights on the practice of doing research, including its many challenges, give the reader a real sense of how ‘age works’ in different settings and how generational relations shape the research and can also be reworked.
The chapters are geographically diverse, with contributions based on research in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Nonetheless the book by-and-large reproduces the problematic idea that it is Western anthropologists who conduct research in the Global South. Further, while there is considerable reflection on the ‘foreigness’ of the researcher, the one chapter (Sim) that appears to be by a ‘native anthropologist’ does not reflect on this dimension (Narayan 1993). Contributions by anthropologists from the South conducting researching in Europe or North-America would also have made welcome additions (e.g. Sadjad 2016). Another theme I was expecting to see more about is the role of the digital dimension in ethnographic research with children. Although, social media and mobile phones are mentioned on a few occasions (e.g. 75, 84, 112) it is not subject to any specific reflection. Despite these observations, I would fully recommend this book to anyone interested in doing research with children – certainly not just anthropologists!