Vos, Robin (2017). 'Whose reality counts? Exploring children's capabilities with participatory methods.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


“Whose reality counts” is the title given by Robert Chambers (1997) to his book describing participatory approaches. When applied to children, this question opens up new perspectives in exploring their specific set of capabilities. Previously, children were viewed as mere recipients of adult constructs. They were not actors, but subjects of adults' hypotheses which were tested upon them. Such methods of investigation exclude children’s voices and may result in a gap between the academic view on children and the reality they experience.

The aim of this panel is firstly to reinstate children in their legitimate right to voice their opinions and to for these opinions to be valued as such. The papers presented in this panel propose different aspects of this claim. Ranging from legal conventions (Convention on the Rights of the Child) to academic research in psychology (Ryan and Deci 1991, McLellan & Steward, 2014), arguments multiply to empower children. Over time, children are increasingly considered to be actors in the formulation and evaluation of their wishes, opinions and well-being.

The Capability Approach is adopted in this panel as it is defined in Amartya Sen’s work (1985, 1999). This allows for the presented papers to elaborate on a robust theoretical background, specifically when applied to children (Comim et al. 2011).

Research similar to the papers presented here has been led previously, which founded the integration of participatory methods within the capability approach with special application to children (Hart, 2009; Biggeri et al., 2006). Nevertheless, every paper in this panel presents an original elaboration or new method to contribute and enhance the existing literature.

Thus, a second focus of this panel is the identification of capabilities by using participative methods. This stresses the importance of participatory methods once again. It appears crucial to adapt the method to a local situation, one that the individual can identify with. The high adaptability of the research methods employed allows being close to the experienced reality of the observed children.

Thirdly, this panel contributes to the recognition of the diversity of capabilities and their sensitivity to local context. The three presented papers observe a consistent group of children, ranging from ages 8 to 18. On the other hand, all explore a different local context, in a different country and using different methods. Articulating these different approaches seems pertinent in order to explore specificities of each method. On top of this, advantages and drawbacks relative to each protocol can be discussed and evaluated with insights from the other field researches. Comparing and contrasting the contributions by these papers brings out the specific insight that participatory methods allow into the reality of the observed children.

Finally, a major contribution of this panel is the exploration of the treatment of the obtained data. Each presented paper proposes a different method on how to read the very subjective, context specific and mainly qualitative data. One aspect is the ranking of the previously identified capabilities. Further contribution is made by applying an original multidimensional statistics to one of the 3 datasets. The organization of this panel is in concordance with the panel proposed by the Thematic Group on Children and the Youth. The latter has a specific focus on measurement of capabilities, which completes the participatory methods explored in the present panel.

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