(Vulner)ability and creative action research spaces

Public discourses of children in general, and children in welfare settings in particular, often revolve around their vulnerability. Official statistics for example note that children in care are more likely than the general population to experience mental health problems. This way of thinking about children has the tendency to focus on the individual child and their problems, making those problems the defining characteristic of that child.

More than two decades of social science research has been dedicated to demonstrating the problems and limitations with this way of thinking. People’s identities, including those of children, are much, much more complex, dynamic and fluid. We are more than a particular encounter, single experience or situation that we find our selves in. Vulnerability is not a static state: it is created in relationships, is characteristic of particular interactions and situations and, crucially, is subject to change.

I like to think of vulnerability in terms of its meaning(s). The Latin root of the word ‘vulnerabilis’ means ‘to wound’.  This meaning of the word is consistent with much of our common sense understanding of the word. However, as well as being the linguistic root of the word ‘vulnerability’, ‘vulnerabilis’ is also the root of the word ‘vulnerary’ meaning a healing agent. As such, the single root presents us with a complex understanding of children and young people’s ‘vulnerabilities’. There is an inherent contradiction in the word’s meaning of both risk and resilience.  Yet risk and resilience are not attributes of the individual. Instead, they are ways of relating to ourselves, to others and our broader communities, as well as national, cultural contexts.

This is a point that has been brought home to me over and over again in my own research. Young people who in policy and practice terms are known only as being ‘at risk’ (of drug abuse, criminal activity, school exclusion) also, unsurprisingly, demonstrate huge creativity and hold quite normative aspirations (about having their own families, about having a job, getting an education) indistinguishable from their more ‘mainstream’ peers. Children who have experienced domestic violence in their families, and who some practice colleagues respond to only as in need of protection because of their vulnerability, demonstrated extraordinary reflexivity about themselves and their situation suggesting an ability not only to cope but also to thrive.

In both cases, such demonstrations were elicited through creative research spaces in which children and young people’s views and experiences took centre stage and in which they were encouraged and supported to engage with and reflect on those views and experiences. With the young people I used participatory video research methods to engage them in documenting and reflecting on their lives in their communities; with the children I used drawing and games to facilitate eliciting their stories. Both spaces were built on the values of children and young people’s agency, of dialogue and of critical reflection.

The complex and situational understanding of vulnerability opens the way for creative interventions and working with children and young people who find themselves on challenging life journeys and/or difficult circumstances. On March 20 Rachel Thomson and I will be contributing to an event at Sussex (20th March ‘The Girls’ Panel Discussion Event Programme1) on an exemplary creative action research space created by the collaboration between young people in South London, the writer/director Ray Harrison Graham and his colleagues, colleagues Prof Robin Banerjee and Fidelma Hanrahan in the Department of Psychology at Sussex, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation who funded The Girls theatre production (more info). This theatre production is both a testament to young people’s vulnerabilities, in all senses of the word, as well as an example of the power of academic and community collaborations, something which is also at the heart of CIRCY’s mission. As our knowledge landscapes change, and the role of the university within those, it is my hope that more such creative action research spaces emerge in which all our vulnerabilities can be engaged with in more creative and hopeful ways.

Posted by smnolas

(an earlier version of this post also appeared on the University of Oxford’s Rees Centre blog)

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