Tuesday, 5 December 2017

‘Trust me, I know exactly how you feel’: Undisclosed thoughts on researching single mums when you are one

Amy Andrada, CRFR Associate PhD student, provides her thoughts on reflexivity[i] during fieldwork

 “Yup. Uh huh. Ok… Could you tell me more about that?” This is my side of the interview. I listen intensely, nod my head along, and utter some phrase along these lines. It seems rather monotonous, but it’s necessary. This does several things for me and the other person: it ensures active listening, encourages the conversation to continue, and keeps a flow and rhythm to our interaction. For a moment it builds a sense of trust between us, which is vital in my research. But it also serves as a much needed crutch, for me.

You see, there are times during the interview when I’m divided, between being the interviewer and talking to the other person as if they’re just that, another person. If I were to ask them about how many children they have and why, there’d be some dialogue, that would go smoothly. But I don’t ask these types of questions. I ask these mothers why they’re alone. I ask them how they manage being alone with their children. I ask them to tell me when being a single parent doesn’t work for them and how they deal with it.

Most of these interviews start the same - parents express an extreme amount of shame. And I know that all too well, because I’m a single parent. Though single parenthood is the focus of my research, being a single parent myself doesn’t remove how sensitive the subject matter is, or relieve any discomfort when asking people to describe how their children were abandoned by their other parent, their fears of failing as the parent present, and the incidents that lead to choosing their current lifestyle. Now, I didn’t know any of these women previously, but during the interviews I find that I know every one because I know myself. I know what it’s like to tell my child their other parent chose to leave, that we will manage as just us two, and that somehow I’ll make what was wrong into something right.

During these interviews, there’s tears, hand holding, pats on the back and tissues given. I do what any decent researcher would do, I ask if they want to stop. But I’m met with their determination and told discussing these things is helping. Although I’m asking for them, a part of me is asking for me too. Though I don’t live with shame anymore, it doesn’t mean I don’t relive it when asking these mothers to disclose their own. But there is hope as well. Women speak of agency, love, and choice. There are tears of joy among the pain. Though they’re telling me their stories, they’re actively living them. And I am honored to be the one sitting across from them, listening. Which is why I continue.

The more I spend time interviewing these women, the more I see reflections of myself: as I once was, as I am, and as I hope to be. To be on the peripheral, is something academic research doesn’t really pinpoint, but it’s there. It’s just undiscussed, hidden between the “uh huh’s” and “tell me more’s”. But trust me, I know exactly how you feel. I’m just not saying it. It’s your turn to talk. And it’s my job to listen.

Amy Andrada is a CRFR Associate PhD student, based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Amy is researching the dynamics and developments of identity among mothers, in the context of in-group and out-group relations. Her research aims to explore the ways in which identity is shaped by parental, gender, and relationships statuses.

[i] Reflexivity is the process by which the researcher reflects upon the data collection and interpretation process

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Making rights real for children. What a welcome strapline for Scottish Government’s children’s policy and service reform.

As recognised in the recent seminar series on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in Scotland, Scotland has made considerable progress in realising children’s rights. But we still have much further to go: for example, in comprehensively recognising all of children’s human rights and in ensuring children and young people’s participation is meaningful, effective and sustainable. With the further commitments to recognising chidlren’s rights in September’s Programme of Government, it is timely to learn from elsewhere and particularly in ways that can offer new perspectives and opportunities for Scotland.

Professor Irene Rizzini has provided a seminar series in locations across Scotland, with the title Making Rights Real: Lessons from South America. The idea was to share the experiences from Latin and South America, in contexts of substantial child poverty (about two in five of every children, according to CEPAL 2013) and the highest rate of homicides for children and young people in the world (UNICEF 2014). The region is known for its world-leading examples of realising children’s rights – such as child budgeting and constitutional commitments to children’s rights. What can be learned from the social movements and innovative practices, and the ideas that underlie them?

In her seminars, Irene has described how Brazil’s early legal acceptance of the CRC in domestic law not only helped provide a legal framework for children’s rights but, more broadly, was part of a human rights discussion about inequalities and social justice for all. What opportunities would a serious consideration of full CRC incorporation bring to Scottish policy and practice? What challenges would a children’s rights approach have, to examples of discrimination against children such as their limited access to legal aid or barriers to sibling contact?

Through the seminars, Irene has shared the concepts of participatión ciudadana and protagonismo. The first emphasises young people’s social participation and engagement as citizens. The second emphasises young people’s place and role in society as proactive actors, having autonomy and a sense of agency. As Scotland increases in its commitment to children and young people’s participation, it is timely to challenge our own practices. For example, participation in Scotland can often be restricted to adults’ agendas – which can be normative, limited and unwelcoming of resistance and substantial challenge. We often separate out children and young people’s participation from other civic engagement and social movements, so that their engagement as citizens is limited.

Children in action as part of the project Children and the City; Methodologies for Listening to Children
Children in action as part of the project Children and the City; Methodologies for Listening to Children
Irene has shared her experiences with creative and participatory methodologies for listening to children. Over 400 children have been involved in such initiatives in school settings this year in Rio de Janeiro, generating reflections based on an ongoing project designed to exploring and understanding processes of participation, allowing the expression of a diversity of childhoods. In this study the children can choose a variety of ways of expressing themselves, from drawing, telling stories, poetry and so forth to talk about the contexts and the city they live in.

Children’s drawings inspired by the study about methodologies to listen to children (CIESPI/PUC-Rio University, Brasil, 2017)

Irene is returning to Brazil at the end of November, with collaborations continuing on children and young people’s participation with CRFR and collaborating institutions.

Professor Irene Rizzini is Professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (PUC-Rio) and Director of the International Center for Research and Policy on Childhood (CIESPI) at PUC-Rio. She is visiting Scotland thanks to the Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professorship.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Strength and power: autistic pupils and their parents’ experiences of support in secondary school

CRFR Associate PhD student Elizabeth Graham writes about her research exploring children with autism and their experiences of social and educational support in school.

In recent years there has been a significant driving force to teach and include autistic pupils in mainstream schools (Humphrey, 2008). Beardon (2017) asserts that it is autism and the environment that equates to the outcome. For example, surroundings can impact on the level of difficulties experienced. Therefore, the focus should be on adapting environments to better fit those with differences as opposed to encouraging autistic individuals to fit. What follows is a brief insight into autistic pupils and their parents’ experiences and expressions of strength and power when navigating an educational system that does not fit.

Strength can be defined as the emotional or mental qualities necessary in dealing with difficult or distressing situations. The young people in the study displayed great strength when dealing with distressing day to day experiences at school. Most described having no friends, being bullied and isolated, feeling anxious, unsupported, ‘horrible’, unwanted, ashamed and having their confidence knocked. Some also conveyed how they struggled with sensory issues such as noisy classrooms and how they felt claustrophobic in narrow busy corridors. Parents shared how their children would have to recover from the school day in various ways when home: crying, shutting down, and sitting under their covers to recharge. Despite this, some young people are still able to walk through the school doors most days and some even manage to uphold an excellent attendance record.

Parents also demonstrated much tenacity in fighting for their child’s experiences and intelligence to be understood and recognised, to take failing grades seriously, prompting for support to be put in place and some feeling like they have had to fight ‘every step of the way’. This includes requesting meetings with numerous people such as head teachers, deputy head teachers, pastoral heads, head of learning support. This is no mean feat when coupled with the impact of their child’s diagnosis, the level of care some provide at home, worrying about their child when at work, the heartache of hearing their children express suicidal thoughts and subsequent feelings of guilt and being a ‘failure as a parent’. They also have additional challenges of dealing with family members who don’t understand, feeling alone and unsure and sourcing external support for themselves and their children.

Power is usually thought of as the exercise of will of one social actor over others. The young people in this study exercised a degree of control by withholding information from their parents about some of their experiences at school (e.g. bullying) with the intention of stopping their parents intervening. They were also able to regulate their surroundings when home from school by shutting down and not interacting with their parents. In contrast, parents had the authority to make their children go to school, do homework, limit Xbox and Wi-Fi or reading time. Parents also had a limited ability to effect changes at school, for example, meetings, reversing changes that were implemented (e.g. having their child moved back to a seat they were comfortable with in a classroom) and ensuring their child sits exams that they know they are capable of. Whilst parents acknowledge the efforts of some teaching staff and that support for their children is restricted due to limited resources and budgets, they feel that in the education system as a whole, they and their children hold very little power. 

Elizabeth-Anne Graham is studying for her PhD at the Faculty of Social Science, University of Stirling.


Beardon, L. (2017) Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults, London: Sheldon Press.

Humphrey, N. (2008) ‘What Does ‘Inclusion’ Mean for Pupils on the Autistic Spectrum in Mainstream Schools?’ Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 12(1): 23-46.


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Challenging settings where child sexual abuse can thrive

CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson comments on the high-profile sexual abuse scandals being reported in the media and outlines what needs to change.

Sexual abuse scandals involving the leading American film producer Harvey Weinstein, British music colleges such as Chetham’s and Royal Northern College, and football clubs throughout the UK might seem to have little in common.

However a strong common thread runs through them all, giving us valuable clues to the types of settings and professional ethos where children and young people are especially vulnerable, where abuse can continue unchecked for many years. This, in turn, reveals where young people require especially active targeting for protection and prevention in future.

The film industry, the classical music industry and the football industry all share five common characteristics.

  • While they hold out the promise of fame and wealth, only a tiny percentage of their eager young students ever make it to the top of their profession.
  • In these cut-throat worlds, individual tutors, mentors and coaches have considerable power to determine or damage young people’s careers, and to select favoured protégés. Their special talents, mystique and alleged eccentricities have been used to ignore or excuse their behaviour.
  • The dream of success, nurtured and driven from early childhood, is so strong in the young people that there is great pressure for them and their hopeful parents to keep quiet, not to ‘rock the boat’ nor demand action when they suffer sadistic bullying or sexual crimes.
  • Since students are pitted against each other in a highly competitive, hierarchical atmosphere for the few top prizes, solidarity and common action against mistreatment are further discouraged.
  • The organisations, professions and clubs have kudos, and there is strong impetus to close ranks to maintain their reputations.

Outspoken critic

Dr Ian Pace, music lecturer at London’s City University and himself a former pupil of Chetham’s, has written and spoken widely in identifying all these dangers in the classical music industry, and in demanding a public inquiry into their practice along with future reforms. His insights are valuable for academics and practitioners alike in the effort to reduce childhood sexual abuse – not just in that profession, but in others with a similar ethos.

Pace has said: “It is well known within the music world that there are many other such stories involving a variety of individuals in positions of power at various music schools….many (victims) are extremely afraid to come forward with their stories, in a close-knit world of classical music in which careers are dependent upon the whims of a few powerful individuals.

“Musical institutions are often found to have dismissed allegations (and sometimes dismissed or threatened allegers) prioritising their own reputations, a pattern which continues following convictions. These institutions rarely reach out to the victims, who are as much a part of their legacy as the successful musicians who adorn their publicity materials.

“The perpetrators are also frequently found to be arrogant, narcissistic and bullying individuals convinced of their own superiority to other human beings… I believe that in this context, sexual abuse is often an extension of more widespread mistreatment and psychological abuse used as a strategy for domination. But all of this is frequently excused on account of the mystical aura of these musicians' artistry.”

Sexism also common factor

Rampant sexism and misogyny have been powerful elements in the unfolding picture of a tarnished film industry, as allegations against Weinstein and other stars continue to grow. That this scandal and the music college scandals have chiefly involved female victims, in contrast to football clubs’ mainly male victims, might appear to undermine their commonalities. However, they have actually shared much in terms of sexual attitudes and ethos. These have also increased the risks of abuse and silencing.

Research with male survivors (see for example Lisak, 1995, Nelson, 2016) reveals that their perpetrators often displayed similar traditional, aggressive ‘macho’ attitudes and beliefs to the abusers of women. They promoted these values to victims, belittled them as weak and less than “real men”; and silenced them through fear of humiliation by other men if they spoke out: most of all in traditionalist male environments, such as professional football.

What needs to change?

While none of the three professions discussed can avoid a competitive element to their work, nor can they enable substantially more young people to reach top positions, their experience and vulnerability suggests an urgent need to make some significant changes. These would recognise the special difficulties inherent in ‘dream of success professions’ about speaking out, and in challenging powerful individual mentors. Do changes need to be enforced, rather than voluntary?

Amongst possibilities which require consideration are

  • Collaborative discussion, heart-searching and joint planning for improvement among such professions, through mutual recognition of the common factors which make them dangerous.
  • Creation of a caring and protective environment for all young people in each institution or club, where child protection, bystander education and an ethos which challenges sexist attitudes and behaviour is taken seriously in the training and career development of all staff. This will include safe practice in one-to-one teaching and mentoring.
  • The provision of genuinely confidential and protected whistleblowing arrangements for staff and volunteers who witness abuse and ill-treatment, along with mandatory reporting for the most senior levels of staff and administrators.
  • The provision of genuinely confidential and protected means of reporting abuse and ill-treatment for all children and young people, which is clearly re-advertised to them and their parents at all stages of their training.


https://www.city.ac.uk/people/academics/ian-pace; https://ianpace.wordpress.com/: Both contain many examples of his writings against abuse in music, including cases of convicted abusers in these settings.

Lisak, D. (1995) ‘Integrating a critique of gender in the treatment of male survivors of childhood abuse’, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 32(2), 258-269.

Nelson, S. (2016) Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support, Bristol: Policy Press: especially chs. 8&9.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Supporting children and families in early childhood: When does community action let the Government off the hook?

CRFR Associate Researcher, Dr Kate McAlpine works in Tanzania at the intersection between good governance, technology and children’s rights. In this post she reflects on the key findings from a qualitative study that evaluated the impacts of Children in Crossfire’s[i] programme of integrated child development interventions for children in the early years.

In Tanzania too many people live hand to mouth, as deep and shallow poverty exist side by side. The prevailing belief is that children unite a family, but that they should defer to adults. Until recently young children have been considered by the Government to be the responsibility of the family and not a group that warrants any services beyond health care. 

The main concern of the programme we evaluated was to mitigate the effects of poverty on children’s developmental outcomes, and to do so by increasing young children’s access to early years education. The programme did this by equipping community volunteers to run community based early years centres; and establishing micro-finance funds for women to help finance the centres.

Using a narrative approach that sought out people’s stories; we inquired about parents’ and early years educators’ internal capacities to protect and nurture children. We also investigated the attitudes and behaviours of the Local Government Authorities with regards to investing in services for young children; and sought out changes in familial and community relationships. The interviews were coded and analysed using the classic grounded theory method. 

We discovered that individuals who have been touched by the programme are now ready to parent. But, punitive parenting continues to be prevalent in the communities. Parents and local leaders who were interviewed believe that the early years educators are “true teachers” even though they have learnt on the job. Parents hear that the early years services are good; their children want to attend; and then parents see their child thrive.

Notably, community members are self-organizing to undertake development initiatives that benefit children. Unexpectedly, social capital has been strengthened as a result of the establishment of community managed micro funds that were initially intended to provide funding to the early years centres.

The success of the programme raises wider questions about the planning and financing of social services when communities have initiated their own services. The programme had a working assumption that the early years centres would be legitimized via a process of Government supervision, regulation, and resourcing. However, the minimum standards for centres that were developed by the Government are not fit for purpose. This is because they frame quality in terms of infrastructure and processes, and ignore standards around safety. Nor, is the Government fully invested in resourcing the regulation of early years centres.

Many community members see the value of contributing to early years education, and ward officials recognise that early years and child protection services need financing. But, this does not translate into revenue. Planning to resource services is a completely different thing from delivering services, and children’s services continue to be treated as a matter of charity.

Long-standing systemic impact for young children can only be achieved if neighbourhood leaders (both public servants and elected officials) self-identify as agents of change; if a social consensus emerges that services for children need to be resourced by the government; and finally if citizens and leaders learn how to navigate the Government mechanisms for participatory planning and budgeting, and consistently put pressure on the government to resource children’s services. 

The full research report can be downloaded at

 [i] Children in Crossfire is an Irish International NGO that furthers early years education and development in Tanzania. https://www.childrenincrossfire.org/


Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). Discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine de Gruyter.

McAlpine, K & Omesa, Njeri (2017) A Qualitative Evaluation of the Impacts of a Programme of Integrated Child Development in Tanzania. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Children in Crossfire.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Beyond victims and perpetrators: The hidden side of violence against women

Catherine Whittaker is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. In this post, Catherine discusses the tendency to think about violence against women from a legal or health angle and how this risks blaming violence on victims and perpetrators alone, while obscuring social, cultural, and structural factors - which is what her fieldwork in Central Mexico focussed on.

“Global epidemic.” The phrase evokes an image of a world ravaged by infectious disease and the urgent need for science to find a cure. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is often framed as a “global epidemic”, for instance, by the World Health Organisation and UN Women

Yet the neatness of the metaphor is threatened by the messiness of everyday life. During my Mexican Government-funded ethnographic fieldwork in rural Milpa Alta, in the south of Mexico City, I have found that violence against women is not necessarily indicative of pathological behaviour.

Traditionally, the father is the head of the family, charged with punishing other family members’ misdemeanours, while women are tasked with protecting the family’s physical and moral health. So a mother might take her husband to the local priest to ritually cure him of his drug addiction. And while men are often considered to have the right to physically discipline their wives, women may discipline their sons, even beyond childhood. For example, a mother might punish an adulterous son upon his wife’s complaint.

On the other hand, Milpaltenses considered being disrespectful to elders a severe form of violence, as this upsets the social order and triggers rage, which may give the disrespected elder a stroke or heart attack. In addition, Milpaltenses of all ages and both genders expressed greater concern about structural violence: infrastructural problems, land rights, and the protection of the environment. Women are respected, “strong” fighters in this collective rights struggle.

These behaviours and sentiments cannot be dismissed as a case of “backward cultural violence”, but instead stem from a complex worldview, historical experience, and ethical system, which recognises and condemns other kinds of violence and empowerment than we currently do in the UK. The example of Milpa Alta shows that a universal cure for the VAWG “epidemic” does not exist.

The “epidemic” imagery also suggests privileging the perspective of health. Many researchers (e.g. Mulla 2014) look at health or legal contexts because of the problem of access: It is easy to identify a patient or a client, while most cases of VAWG remain in the dark, unexamined and unprosecuted. It is also a question of funding, as governments are particularly interested in the (cost-)effective provision of social and medical services. I would like to highlight one major problem with this focus.

We know that victimhood produces victims. Julia Penelope’s (1990) lesbian critique of language usage illuminates how this works: “Men beat their wives, but the media talk about spouse abuse, battered spouses, and domestic violence … disguising violent acts as well as erasing the male agents”. So, using terms such as “violence against women” deflects attention away from those directly responsible for it.

Similarly, focusing too much on the health and legal side of VAWG risks blaming violence on victims and perpetrators alone, when there are social, cultural, and structural factors to consider. These require long-term ethnographic fieldwork to identify, and sustained, tailored community interventions to address. Far from an “epidemic”, VAWG is often more insidious.


Mulla, Sameena (2014) The violence of care: rape victims, forensic nurses, and sexual assault intervention. New York ; London: New York University Press.

Penelope, Julia (1990) Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Fathers' Tongues. New York: Pergamon Press, p. 206.

More information about Milpaltense cultural symbolism surrounding violence and gender:

Whittaker, Catherine (2017) "Suckling the snake: Motherly goddess worship and serpent symbolism among contemporary Nahua in Milpa Alta, Mexico." In Maternità e politeismi/ Motherhood(s) and polytheism, ed. by G. Pedrucci, F. Pasche Guignard, and M. Scapini, pp. 505-514. Bologna: Pàtron.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Person-centred cultures in dementia care – learning to communicate ‘Beyond Words’

Dr Julie Watson is a registered nurse and a Research Fellow in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Health in Social Sciences. Her research focusses on relating to people with dementia until the end of life in care homes. She is the author of CRFR Research Briefing 86 Face-to-Face: Relating to people with dementia until the end of life in care homes.

Person-centred care is widely advocated within health and social care policy in the UK (Department of Health 2010, Scottish Government 2017). In practice, however, person-centred care is often reduced to person-centred ‘moments’ (McCormack and McCance 2017). The challenge is to create person-centred cultures within our health and social care settings, such as care homes, which move beyond those extraordinary person-centred moments that can happen during certain activities, such as a birthday party, to permeating the ordinary and everyday, including being helped to have a shower or a meal.

There is an extra layer of complexity when considering person-centred cultures within dementia care. In our hypercognitive culture, which places a high value on cognitive ability (Post 2000), the cognitive impairment brought on by a condition such as dementia can have serious consequences; when a person with dementia loses the ability to have a conversation or remember another person’s name, it can lead to them being seen as less of a person than they once were. They can experience the loss of relationships and social isolation, which ultimately leads to suffering if their needs are overlooked when they are unable to express them verbally. This prompts the philosophical, but inherently practical question, ‘what is a person?’

Moving beyond a purely cognitive view of personhood and recognising that human beings are more than a mind, but are also a spirit and a body, expands opportunities to hold people with dementia in relationship until the end of life - and find ways of alleviating their suffering. How we view people with dementia, whether we recognise their enduring personhood despite the effects of advancing dementia, will determine how we behave towards them. This short animation - Beyond Words (see link) - summarises some of the ways people with dementia continue to communicate and connect with others beyond words. It is based on research findings from a PhD study which aimed to appreciate the ways that people with dementia and care staff in a care home relate to each other (Watson 2015). Recognising the enduring personhood of people with dementia and learning to connect ‘beyond words’, is a fundamental prerequisite to creating cultures in dementia care which enable the person-centredness aspired to within policy and practice – a first step in making the ordinary extraordinary.

View 'Beyond Words' on the University of Edinburgh's Media Hopper site:

The animation ‘Beyond Words’ and other work by the staff and students of Edinburgh Centre for Research on the Experience of Dementia will be on show at the Explorathon at Leith Labs on 29th September 2017.


Department of Health (2010) Personalisation through Person-Centred Planning http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130123201648/http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_115175

Scottish Government (2017) Scotland’s National Dementia Strategy 2017-2020 http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0052/00521773.pdf

McCormack and McCance (2017) Person-centred Practice in Nursing and Health Care: Theory and Practice Wiley Blackwell: Oxford. Post, S.G. (2000) The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer Disease: Ethical issues from diagnosis to dying John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London

Watson (2015) Caring with Integrity: Developing the conceptual underpinning of relationship-centred palliative dementia care in care homes https://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/20458

Dr Julie Watson is the author of CRFR research briefing 86 Face-to-Face: Relating to people with dementia until the end of life in care homes.