Volume 7, No. 1, Art. 1 – January 2006

Engendering Development: Some Methodological Perspectives on Child Labour1)

Erica Burman

Abstract: In this article I address when and why it is useful to focus on gender in the design and conceptualisation of developmental psychological research. Since methodological debates treated in the abstract tend to lack both the specificity and rigour that application to a particular context or topic imports, I take a particular focus for my discussion: child labour. In doing so I hope to highlight the analytical and practical gains of bringing gendered agendas alongside, and into, developmental research. While child labour may seem a rather curious topic for discussion of developmental psychological research practice, this article will show how it indicates with particular clarity issues that mainstream psychological research often occludes or forgets. In particular, I explore analytical and methodological benefits of exploring the diverse ways gender structures notions of childhood, alongside the developmental commonalities and asymmetries of gender and age as categories. I suggest that the usual assumed elision between women and children is often unhelpful for both women and children. Instead, an analytical attention to the shifting forms and relations of children's work facilitates more differentiated perspectives on how its meanings reflect economic and cultural (including gendered) conditions, and so attends better to social inequalities. These inequalities also structure the methodological conditions and paradigms for research with children, and so the article finishes by elaborating from this discussion of child labour four key principles for engendering psychological research with and about children, which also have broader implications for conceptualisations of the relations between gender, childhood, culture and families.

Key words: gender, children, women, work, household labour, public/private

Table of Contents

1. Interpretative Resources

2. Why Child Labour?

3. Gender as Already Omnipresent

4. The Impossibility of Abstracting Gender

4.1 Women as oppressors of children

4.2 Gender and age-related constraints

4.3 Gender and childhood as both unstable and asymmetrical categories

5. Working Through Gender and Childhood

6. Further Methodological Implications

7. Principles for Engendering Psychological Research






1. Interpretative Resources

Developmental psychology has a long association with methodological concerns. While its origins within the less-than savoury history of "individual differences" somewhat taints it (ROSE, 1989), by contrast the prehistory to the present domination of psychometrics in psychology generally testifies to a diversity and creativity of methodological approaches. The child study movement elaborated a rich range of observational and participatory approaches to the exploration of children's lives, attentive to unique characteristics and often focused on single case studies. PIAGET's own "clinical" or (sometimes called) "critical" method, from which he elaborated his developmental model, drew on psychoanalytic as well as empirical social scientific methods of inquiry, but this methodological heritage has been largely erased in the process of translation and popularisation of his work within Anglo-US psychology (see BURMAN, 1996a). Doing meaningful research with children—whose activities and perspectives are not only dissimilar from those of their researchers, but also, especially in the case of very young children, where researchers cannot always communicate extensively with their research group (see e.g. GREENE & HOGAN, 2004)—poses key methodological problems of ethics, power and representation that also inscribe all psychological (and social) research. Children have long exercised researchers to work across difference (and interrogate their own understandings of what this difference is) long before these questions started to preoccupy social psychology (e.g. Sampson, 1993) and psychological discussions of research processes more generally. [1]

When I embarked on my doctoral studies with children, cast within a traditional PIAGETian paradigm (BURMAN, 1990; 1996a), I found few methodological resources from within psychology to guide me (aside from PIAGET's own rather brief account, in PIAGET, 1929), but many in anthropology, history and social work. It became apparent that questions of power—in terms of structural social relations and as social instigator of my research relationships—entered into what could be said, and this in turn determined or foreclosed what could be (attributed to be) thought about. That is, power relations had a productive effect on the material available for analysis—so disrupting the then prevailing research preoccupation between "competence" and "performance" effects, since these "effects" were themselves mediated by power (see also BURMAN, 1992). The main interpretive resource addressing my concerns was feminist research. Here questions of power are analysed as entering into all interaction, with research relationships both inevitably recapitulating and also potentially moderating or transforming those wide relations (ROBERTS, 1981). Subsequent debates within feminist (and feminist psychological) research have focused precisely on the question of difference and representation that are typically either presumed or overlooked within developmental research (e.g. WILKINSON & KITZINGER, 1996). I therefore warrant my focus here on "engendering development" not only on what attending to gender does for a reconfiguration of developmental psychological agendas, but also in recognition of the vital contribution feminist work has made, and can make, to the developmental research process. [2]

There is a second reason for the conjoint focus on gender and development. Having a background in both developmental psychology and women's studies, I have been preoccupied with the disturbing resonances between discourses of child and economic development for some years now; and the consequences of the role that the figure of the child—especially the little girl—plays within the modern Anglo-US imaginary. In particular I have been concerned with how the trope of the little girl as icon of the western true but often lost self (STEEDMAN, 1995) threatens to stigmatise and oppress children all over the world who fail to "fit" the restricted, or even fictional, models of childhood. Moreover these models of childhood also insidiously find their way into international development policies (both of individual and economic, see BURMAN, 1995a, 1995b, 1996b). In this way psychological models of childhood, so replete with emotional and political investments, play a role in maintaining inequalities. [3]

2. Why Child Labour?

Engaging with the arguments around child labour brings us face to face with the challenge of grappling with some of the most complex questions facing research, policy and practice today. Nevertheless, it is worth recalling the longstanding difficulties academics, activists and policymakers seem to have had in holding questions of gender and childhood in mind together (THORNE, 1987). I hope to explore when and why it might be relevant to attend to gender-specificities around working children. In particular I want to highlight how taking gender seriously unravels prevailing analytical oppositions structuring discourse around labour, including our own labour as researchers: public/private; paid/unpaid; production/reproduction, and even work/care . So, along with other areas of difference—of perspective, of orientation—there are certain key features that are thrown into relief if we take gender as an organising theme. [4]

In general the discipline of psychology—in its dominant modern western forms—has difficulties conceptualising the culturally and materially constituted character of human activity. Child labour as a current global and local issue questions prevailing abstractions and idealisations that structure contemporary representations of children and childhood. While global concerns around child labour typically focus on issues of exploitation within the genre of international child aid or rescue, local concerns sometimes generate more nuanced and reflexive responses. Discussions of working children both historically and currently (HENDRICK, 1990; HOYLES, 1989) indicate children's greater (economic and physical) autonomy and corresponding public order preoccupations. Thus social anxieties associated with the contested status of childhood and mobilised within discourses of child labour highlight its binary character: with claims to protect children and restore childhoods coming into conflict with measures to protect the public from the actions of children and young people. LAVALETTE notes a key transition that occurred between 1870-1914 with the introduction of compulsory education across Europe:

"'Out of school' work increasingly became viewed as a healthy pastime and an embodiment of the work ethic. Equally important was the fact that education occupied children during the working day. This removed the 'problem of order' presented by under- and unemployed children. Thus, importantly work and education could coexist." (2000, p.227) [5]

As EKELAAR (1986) noted around the time of the drafting of the 1989 United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, discourses of child rights blur two rather different sets of freedoms or claims to protection, with the "negative" rights ("freedom from …") much more easily legislated for and agreed upon than the so-called "positive" rights ("freedoms to …"). [6]

Already it should be clear, then, that taking child labour as a focus for methodological debate imports an attention not only to gender, but also to class, "race", sexuality and national/transnational relations—including those structured around axes of majoritisation/minoritisation, both and between within nation states. Unlike so much psychological work—with its primary disciplinary focus on the individual—taking child labour as a methodological arena immediately imports attention to the moral-political and material contexts of children's lives, together with how these contexts are always already structured in relation to other parties and agencies—especially the family and the state. [7]

Contrary to traditional psychological discussions in which "the child" is a presumed natural, largely uniform unit of development (BURMAN, 1994), child labour inevitably invites a questioning of the arbitrariness (or intractability) of its terms: what is a "child'? What are the boundaries for inclusion and exclusion of this category? For example, the category "youth" seems to do some significant work in marking discursive distance from "childhood"— which is thereby preserved as innocent and docile. And what is "work"? Paid, unpaid, at a public workplace or at home? Is it all alienated and exploitative, or it is sometimes pleasurable? Claims that children's work is (now) play presume particular answers to these questions. Addressing such concerns does not replace more conventionally psychological questions about processes and products of development. Rather it displaces them, in the sense of shifting them into a new context of inquiry that has vital epistemological and methodological consequences. Indeed a key instance of those consequences is that the binary between (physical) survival and (psychological) development has now collapsed in international child policies, indicating the close connections between these domains (MYERS, 1992). [8]

I will, firstly, discuss two structural tensions around discussions of gender and childhood. These tensions concern the double dynamic of gender and childhood—as both already deeply connected in usually unacknowledged ways, but as inextricably interwoven with other axes of social relations that paradoxically fracture or displace the attention to both gender and childhood. I then move on to highlight methodological and, finally, theoretical/policy consequences of these modes of inquiry. Consistent with discussions in feminist research, my treatment here is as much conceptual as methodological. Since ontology and epistemology are integrally linked (STANLEY & WISE, 1983), methodological concerns around researching children and childhood are simultaneously theoretical and technical. [9]

An "engendering" of development involves interrogating the conceptual parameters of existing research to indicate how we might take both gender and childhood seriously. That this is a matter of method as well as topic is indicated by how methodological technologies, as well as theories, carry gendered associations. While, like feminist work, much qualitative psychology is conducted with the intention of critiquing the inadequacies and insufficiencies of traditional positivist psychology, we should be cautious of claims to moral superiority or inherent criticality as warranted by any methodological approach (KELLY, REGAN & BURTON, 1992). Moreover following HARDING (1986), an epistemological commitment may include a particular methodological approach but this does not specify any particular method or technique. Indeed, in contrast to the current gendered division of labour within current methodological debates in psychology, we should bear in mind how qualitative research—far from being cosier and friendlier—can also be more invasive and so be potentially more exploitative (FINCH, 1984) and can carry its own distinct machismo of the pioneer of previously uncharted territories (MORGAN, 1981). [10]

3. Gender as Already Omnipresent

Engendering development is not only a matter of "adding gender" onto an existing research design or analysis, or even of focusing on gender as a category of analysis (as in attending to the gendered status of children—as boys or girls). Rather gender issues already saturate the conceptual and political domains surrounding childhood, through the gendered relations of both family and work. [11]

Much research into child labour highlights how it is no accident that women and children's work has been the reserve labour of every economy—whether industrial or agricultural. Notwithstanding the increasing importance accorded both in sustaining poor families, women's and children's work remains devalued by those families because of the subordinate status of its producers. Here we see ideological issues (about women's and children's status) take precedence over even economic roles (NIEUWENHUYS, 2001). Women and children's work is framed within a patriarchal or at best paternalist framework that maintains their subordination. MORICE (2000, p.198) characterises the logic of this paternalistic approach, as follows:

"Let us not forget that childhood is a temporary condition, not a social class. Like their mothers, they have no 'natural' place in the labour market; so one is 'doing them a favour' by granting them access to it, and that favour is in itself already something of a payment." [12]

JACQUEMIN (2000) discusses the paradoxes of modernisation/structural adjustment in Abidjan, as reflected in the shift in organisation of girls' domestic labour outside the home from mutual exchange (of "little nieces") to the (low) waged labour of maids. The vicissitudes of the market can be preferable for young women seeking to avoid further exploitation. Here two methodological and analytical issues arise: firstly, "giving voice" to the young maids runs the risk of celebrating the global marketisation which gives rise to the conditions for this exploitation. But, secondly, a romanticisation of traditional practices (in this case of girls' work within the family) is equally inappropriate, since the main arenas under investigation implicated within the field of child labour—the family, work and education—are all sites for the reproduction of traditional, including oppressive, gender relations. [13]

Hence a gendered analysis explores how claims to "tradition" obscure how forms of practice (around community, family and work) have emerged as a response to cultural-historical conditions (YUVAL-DAVIS, 1998), in ways that open up questions about the status and meaning of both gender and childhood. Rather than functioning as a warrant for further naturalising and so legitimising inequalities (for women and children are so often linked to "nature"), a conjoint attention to the positions of women and children within shifting agendas of cultural practice enables analysis of what is at stake in social and cultural reproduction, including women and children's respective positions in this. [14]

There are a number of conceptual and political challenges here. For dominant discussions of childhood are either explicitly or implicitly gendered. They are implicitly gendered through the ways the developmental subject or unit of development is rendered culturally masculine by the gendered project of "mastery" that has structured modern developmental psychology (WALKERDINE, 1988; BURMAN, 1995c). Thus the normalised developmental trajectory of the putatively gender-neutral child favours the culturally masculine (and middle class and western) qualities of rationality and autonomy. The problem-solving "child" who discovers and constructs their environment so often appears in textbooks as single and isolated, epitomised by PIAGET's (1957) rendering of the child as mini-scientist. The notional child is therefore culturally constructed as a little boy, perhaps to (heterosexually) partner "his" mother—who is the assumed primary caregiver within the traditional literature. (This thereby avoids any homoerotic resonances set in play by explicit acknowledgements of mother-daughter relations.) Alongside the elaboration of the model of the developing child as notionally or culturally masculine, there has been a corresponding feminisation of the "state" of development, the condition from which the active work of development takes place. So within western culture the little girl has come to exemplify or, in STEEDMAN's (1995) terms, "personify" childhood as a space of passivity, dependence and vulnerability. The problems here with the ways cultural representations of femininity and childhood threaten to collapse into each other (giving rise to difficulties for each) should be obvious (see also BURMAN, 1995a). But what we should note here is the historical and cultural specificity of this set of significations. Thus we need to identify how such cultural resources reflect and inform broader structures of gendered and other power relations. [15]

4. The Impossibility of Abstracting Gender

Feminists are now pointing out how taking gender seriously means attending to the different positions and interests of different women, including how distinct structural relations give rise to particular forms of (for example, racialised and classed) femininities. This point is the equivalent of claims made about status of child labour as a symptom, rather than a treatable condition in itself in the sense that it is argued that it is not possible to adequately address the issue of child labour without tackling the broader conditions that give rise to it. Here the relations between women and children (notwithstanding their continuities—especially within the development category "the girl child") echo current feminist attention to the ways women have divided interests that sometimes extend to being oppressors of other women (RAMAZANOGLU, 1989). A particularly relevant example here is the current practice of Euro-US women professionals using the paid labour of Third World women for their childcare, while these women have left their own children to take up this employment. As HOCHSCHILD (2000) documents, the current globalisation of childcare reinforces the dual dynamic of feminisation of labour and the emotional and economic dependence on, and impoverishment of, Third World women. While I will return to the question of the emotional investments in caring for children later, for now let us consider four ways that research into gender and childhood benefits from attention to their intersections with class, racialisation and migration. [16]

4.1 Women as oppressors of children

Notwithstanding its framing under patriarchy, there is the tricky question of women as oppressors of children/girls: Women (as employers, relatives, sometimes even mothers) are often oppressors of girls and young women in relation to both paid and unpaid domestic labour. We should pause to consider why. For poor families (who cannot pay for childcare) the waged labour participation of women relies upon the very low paid and unpaid work of children (as well as other women). Children, especially girls, look after households. This unpaid labour is sometimes supplemented by waged labour. Hence structures of class and racialisation mean that we cannot presume commonality of positions shared by girls and women. So before we blame women for their maltreatment of children, we should remember how it comes about that they are positioned as responsible for these most intimate forms of exploitation and psychological manipulation; the patterns of inequality that they suffer as well as perpetrate. [17]

Such considerations map onto research processes. Through their class and "race" (and age) privileges, researchers into child labour are more likely to resemble the children’s employers or even their parents than the children they research. Above all, a key methodological challenge is to address how in both obvious and subtle ways, domestic work is not only about women working but also about children working. But because so much of it is conducted unpaid within the assumed natural domain of the family, it is typically not even treated as labour (NIEUWENHUYS, 2001). [18]

Taking these issues of gender, family and "care" a step further, in her research with young women domestic workers in Recife, Brazil, ANDERFUHREN (2000) suggested that migrant maids who had moved away from their families to work—by virtue of their social isolation and dependence—were particularly vulnerable to a complex dynamic that paradoxically both emotionally comforted but also disempowered them. For they became enjoined to the "family romance" of trying to gain membership of the family they worked for via educational success. Since the demands of their job prevented sustained engagement with schooling, they became locked into a dual system of frustrated ambition and failure. This only fuelled their sense of lack of competence and entitlement, and so confirmed their subordinate position. This was most poignantly highlighted by the inevitable comparison between their own conditions and those of the children of the families for whom they worked. [19]

4.2 Gender and age-related constraints

Moreover both gender and age inform the ways that work is produced and constrained. The default position within most child labour research—as a reflection of the conditions of most people's lives, and certainly the social policy that informs international development policy—is that households run on girls' and women's unpaid and largely invisible domestic labour. Indeed it is instructive that even when that labour is combined with waged labour, those familial and intergenerational relations still act constitutively. As BEY (2000) illustrated in her discussion of Mexican migrant agricultural labouring families, the fact that children, girls and boys, were paid at the same rate as their parents only worked to harness the parents further into the agribusiness industry, and incite them to regulate and sustain their children's participation in paid work—i.e. to govern the work of their children more effectively than the employers ever could. [20]

4.3 Gender and childhood as both unstable and asymmetrical categories

The instability as well as asymmetry of the categories of gender and childhood functions productively. The girl child is linguistically marked as a development policy anomaly, with many cultural practices and developmental policy interventions for girls focused around what girls are going to become (as women), rather than what they are now. We might make links here with BUTLER's (1990) reversal of the usual binary between sex and gender to see gender as an effect of sexuality rather than as prior to and determining sexuality. So we could see the attributed (hetero)sexuality—in the form of purity, danger or liability—translated into gendered notions of honour, modesty and respect, or in the worst cases as a resource (as in prostitution), as constituting the gendered position of girls with dramatic implications for the conditions of their lives. INVERNIZZI (2000) discusses how issues of sexual safety and conduct came to govern the available arenas for girls' working activities as itinerant street sellers in Lima, thus depriving them of possibilities of gaining new skills and independence, and even some of the more pleasurable forms of working activity. Once a girl became adolescent she was unable to continue unless in a fixed workplace because she would be stigmatised by her association with the street, and would either be relegated to domestic work at home or would enter a relationship early to have her own family. [21]

An area of commonality between the categories of age and gender is their convergent instability. Typically within psychological and social accounts, gender as a category, where not explicitly topicalised (as in questions of gender identity, socialisation or peer relations), is subordinated to age. In particular, the status of childhood predominates over gender. This gives rise to an overdetermined occlusion of girls' experiences whereby girls', like women's, labour becomes invisible. (This occlusion is overdetermined since it occurs precisely through prevailing cultural connections between women and children’s work.) Feminist economists have long highlighted how models of labour as stable and enduring in the public sphere reflect a masculinist representation of work. Yet both women's and children's work are subject to a privatisation and casualisation that renders them elusive to study. As with discussions in women's studies, just as it is hard to say what is, or is not, a women's issue, so we cannot abstract children's issues from other key questions. [22]

5. Working Through Gender and Childhood

Having identified some of the tensions and complexities structuring discussions around working children, I now want to explore four more specifically analytical implications of "engendering development". These are: where gender is the topic; where gender is presumed or normalised; whether the focus on gender is limited to either the child or the parent; and where gender is absent. Once again, while my examples are taken from the field of child labour, they illustrate particularly graphically some of the conceptual and methodological issues we are posed with in conducting developmental psychological research. [23]

Much research around child labour addresses gender explicitly, either by focusing on girls or boys' work, or by making comments about gender-specific effects within more general research about children. For example, MIZEN and POLE's (2000) UK-based study of children and young people's involvements with paid work noted the significance for girls of gaining greater independence from their families through paid work outside the home. But do only girls and women have gender? Are we falling prey to the traditional dynamic whereby only the linguistically marked term carries the stigmatised or subordinated version of the characteristic in question? If, instead, we accept that gender permeates all social structures, then we should be topicalising the gendered production of boys too, rather than allowing its normalisation to stand unquestioned. Moreover there are deeper consequences of this failure to attend to the covert as well as overtly gendered naturalisation/normalisation of child labour. If this presumes boys' and men's waged labour in the public sphere, it also homogenises the diversity of different kinds of working practices. This has given rise to the need for detailed studies that, for example, highlight the additional burden of work carried out by girls. [24]

But alongside the visibility of gender as topic, there is an alternative treatment of gender as presumed or normalised. This normalisation of gender most obviously happens where girls are mentioned as absent from the arena of study. For example, some studies of children's participation in school note that only boys attend, while others comment on the absence of girls in terms that imply parental disinterest: "The question of sending girls to school does not seem to have even arisen in the minds of these families" (SARAGAPANI, 2000, p.14). Clearly such approaches are not only insufficient but also recall how, until recently, the chronically poor—those most in need of support—have typically been excluded from aid and development work because they were so unreachable. Similar normalised exclusions and pathologising scrutiny also enter into developmental psychological research, whereby the disadvantaged or minoritised group only gain attention or visibility when they are problematic in some way—so exacerbating the dynamic of pathologisation to which they are already subject. PHOENIX's (1987) analysis of the representation of young black mothers within psychological research is indicative here, while this analysis has been applied elsewhere as illuminating barriers for minoritised women and children accessing support services (BURMAN, SMAILES & CHANTLER, 2004). How do we move beyond simply accepting these norms to doing something to change them? Moreover how do we do this without falling prey to the dominant development discourse that instrumentalises girls' rights or entitlements? This happens routinely in policy discourses where education is promoted to reduce population rates, or girls' status is invoked as cultural as well as biological reproducers of the future nation or workforce. These are particularly important issues for developmental psychologists to address, since the discipline is gaining increasing attention, both within national and international policy circles. Individualist discourses of "lifelong learning" and security through economic productivity increasingly figure within social policy as a replacement for welfare. Education, childcare and the promotion of women's participation within the labour market are emerging as central to national development programmes—for richer, as well as of the poorer, countries (JENSEN & ST. DENIS, 2003). We need to have a critical grasp on what these measures mean in practice, and to design our studies to disentangle global, national, familial and individual interests that enable attention to children's and gender-specific issues. [25]

Thirdly, there is the methodological question of the unit of investigation. Typically studies addressing gender and childhood only focus on either the gender of the child or the gender of the parent. But gender qualifies not only the child and parent, but is structured within the broader relations in which children (and men and women) are placed. Even some children's paid work is owned by their family. In other cases the familial economy still informs why children work. For example the rationale for engaging in paid work British young people offered was in terms of securing their access to leisure pursuits (as the researchers put it, the young people "worked to play", MIZEN & POLE, 2000). Nevertheless participants also noted that it "takes a bit of the stress off your mom" (ibid., p.35)—also thereby indicating who within the family economy would be called upon to pay for such entertainment. By contrast, earning one's own money was privileged above "helping" (amplifying) the family income by the children INVERNEZZI (2000) interviewed in Lima, thus implying a diversity of perspectives and orientations from children in different cultural-economic settings in ways that cross-cultural psychological studies rarely interpret. [26]

Fourth is the methodological problem of where gender is absent. Absence of discussion of gender does not imply the absence of gender effects. Child labour addresses areas of tension and complexity that transcend agendas merely concerned with its abolition. Just as the more extreme and abusive practices render more subtle tensions hard to see, so also noticing the contexts in which gender figures and disappears from focus is instructive, as an indication of how gender intersects with other issues (such as age, class and dis-ability). There are parallel arguments to those critiques of policies around women in development which highlight how women are targeted as new sites for development strategy and intervention (KABEER, 1992; MARCHAND & PAPART, 1995). Similarly, claims for children's development are formulated as fostering resources for national development. [27]

The sociologist QVORTUP (2000) has claimed that in postindustrial contexts children's work is now in school. Elaborating this further, he proposed that children should be paid to go to school. The consequences of this perspective become clearer when an attention to gender is introduced. Is child labour a candidate for explicit recognition and remuneration along the lines called for by the British feminist campaigning group "Wages for Housework"? Yet such a demand left the broader relations and system maintaining the distinction between paid and unpaid work, and its association with the public/private spheres intact. Moreover what kind of model of familial relations does this approach invite? Should mothers be paid for helping children with their reading? Should children be paid for brushing their teeth? And where might this lead—would we alternatively fine children for failing to brush their teeth? While clearly the political ramifications of this are extensive, in methodological terms it becomes clear that taking each child as an economically separate agent only bolsters the wider economisation of relationships. [28]

6. Further Methodological Implications

Having addressed the ways child labour research has been framed, in terms of the role of gender in its guiding questions and preoccupations, I now move on to some more explicitly methodological implications. Here we should note feminist assertions of the integral connections between methodological, epistemological and political frameworks (HARDING, 1986). Four key issues emerge for consideration: issues of account generation and interpretation; the status accorded specific contexts as well as generation of children's own accounts; implementing intersectionality of gender/age/class/racialisation within research designs; and finally questions of representation. [29]

There is a lot of talk in childhood studies and child rights-related work about hearing/giving voice that emphasises the productive character of research. Some research focuses on how attending to the narrative structure of accounts can illuminate the traumatic changes within girls' lives (e.g. JACQUEMIN, 2000); while others (such as ANDERFUHREN, 2000) attend to children's aspirations/fantasy as both survival strategy and as structuring their exploitation. BEY's (2000) analysis of children's perspectives on their work alongside their parents, harvesting tomatoes for agribusiness, highlights a key issue in interpreting the status of the accounts generated: for—significantly—the children did not see themselves as exploited. Like equivalent discussions in feminist research (e.g. KITZINGER & WILKINSON, 1997), these kinds of case studies highlight the need to situate accounts within an analysis of the structural (material and ideological) conditions that give rise to them so that their status is accorded neither a spurious authenticity nor dismissed as "false consciousness". [30]

Secondly there is a focus on the study of specific contexts as well as a commitment to generating children's own accounts. At least four strands of argument can be identified. (1) Many studies take specific communities and historical moments as their focus; thus giving rise to rich descriptions that foster the generation of new theory. What are the consequences of this for the analysis of gender? From her research in Keralan fishing communities, NIEUWENHUYS (2001) documents the reciprocal relationship between women and children's work, thus extending ELSON's (1982) important analytical framework which drew attention to the need to account for how general cultural assumptions enter into the evaluation of work, such that both women's and children's work is generally assumed or disregarded as "work". (2) Historians of course caution against making spurious parallels between earlier and contemporary child labour conditions/debates. But, again, this invites the question: how is this reflected within changing analytics of gender? (3) Life span developmental psychologists (e.g. BALTES, REESE & LIPSITT, 1980) would concur with child labour researchers in highlighting the necessity for longitudinal as well as cross-sectional studies to document patterns of variation in children's work participation over time. We also need to attend to gender specificities within this. (4) There are key questions of accountability—not only to immediate research participants but also to other political constituencies in ways that attend to both gendered and age dynamics. [31]

Here we should recall the general key implication (already mentioned earlier) that methodological designs should explore intersections between gender, age, class and racialisation. We need to challenge the invisibility of children's unpaid as well as waged labour, including how gendered relations intersect with this in their various forms, since: "Housework is never counted, thus girls' contributions to family well-being is systematically neglected" (LEVISON, DURYEA, HOECK & LAM, 2000, p.53). Much research has noted the enduring pattern that girls work longer hours than boys, yet as GULRAJANI (2000, p.43) points out:

"A girl child in hill regions of Uttar Pradesh who may walk for eight hours a day to fetch potable water ... is unlikely to be helped by ILO Convention 182 [banning child labour]. Her work is not is not even recognised as labour, leave alone as the worst form of child labour. And yet she may be one of the most deprived children of the world." [32]

Similarly, particular issues are posed by migration and family position. Migrant child workers and families are most vulnerable to exploitation, and so constitute a particularly urgent arena for research and intervention. In terms of family position, while highlighting the need to take a systemic approach to family/household labour, WHITE (2000) has highlighted how in some contexts the introduction of schooling actually increases the workload of younger preschool children (to release the older children for school attendance). [33]

The fourth problem is about who speaks for whom: "giving voice"—"speaking for" vs. creating/enabling "speaking positions" for others. The complexities of gendering childhood operate at multiple levels. Even (or especially?) children's self-advocacy organisations are likely to reproduce existing patterns of inequalities (including but not only gendered inequalities) and if they do not then we need to know how, when, and what this means—including which girls get involved. Other analytical and methodological challenges include what it means to "research with" vs. supporting "research by" children (in which it is also important to respect principles of autonomy and agency asserted by children's organisations). [34]

Beyond these four methodological problems, we still have the dilemma of resolving which researchers with which children? Issues of access and participation typically reiterate in their process the very structures of disadvantage that motivate their topic. This is one of the many ironies of conducting research that attempts to address inequalities. Finally, we could attempt to change the more covertly sexed/gendered dynamics of research relations. For there is a dominant discourse of cultural masculinity and femininity and heterosexuality of the positions structured by research practice, a discourse that is also suggestive of covert cultural links between political and sexualised models of activity/passivity that are always already inscribed by both the gendering of methods and models of childhood. Like The Sleeping Beauty, the princess/researched is conceived of as pre-existing but dormant, rather than actively engaged and/or produced through the research, waiting to be woken by the prince/researcher's kiss/intervention. [35]

7. Principles for Engendering Psychological Research

Engendering development is a matter of engaging with the cultural practice of gender in its varied forms. This takes us beyond the focus of much mainstream psychology, and even challenges its terms of reference. I suggest four areas that need to be conceptualised in terms of methodological design within developmental research. [36]

First is the delicate negotiation of the dilemmas between supporting vs. challenging community/cultural practices. This is especially tricky in the context of international development policy and its resonances with colonialism. Yet clearly a critical perspective on community and cultural practices is needed, as well as measures to address poverty alleviation for families to render their children's unpaid and paid labour less expedient. In particular, "talk of traditional practices can obscure the exploitation of children" (JACQUEMIN, 2000, p.107). As communities are internally divided (and rarely officially deemed "represented" by the women and children) and culturally diverse, so a gendered research agenda needs to inform these different levels of application. [37]

Secondly, we need to be suspicious of the opposition between productive and reproductive labour. This is because it reinforces the economic model of western modernisation that was predicated on designating women's work as that which maintains and services the male breadwinner as head of household. This is (at least as) inappropriate to the conditions of most families of working children across the world today—as it always was to working class European households. Far from improving their situation, current models of economic development actually give rise to greater exploitative practices in relation to myriad forms of child labour—and in particular that of girls. Beyond this, we need to revise how work is conceptualised—since this connotes labour as sold against a wage; which itself further renders invisible the bulk of children's work (since it is conducted in the so-called "private" sector). This is what is being played out in the covert gendering of child labour and even child development debates (with the boy-child as norm, and girl-child as anomaly). A key future project could document further meanings of children's work, for whom, and the dispute of meanings over it. [38]

Third, there is the tension between supporting (the exploitation of) families vs. (the exploitation of) children. As already indicated, addressing intersections between gender and childhood highlights some limitations of "rights"-based approaches. The portrayal of rights as competing (rather than, say, complementary) elaborates adversarial positions that do not sit with the complexity of interdependent (even if non-equivalent) relationships clustered around gender and child relations within families: children are exploited within as well outside their homes, yet so also are their parents. NIEUWENHUYS (2001) calls for a redefinition of social reproduction in terms of a system reciprocal obligations that span generations, highlighting the need to study the interplay of different forms of exchange comprising the realm of the economic within specific cultural settings. [39]

Fourth, feminists and Marxists have long pointed out that, in addition to being a haven from a heartless world, the family is also a site of oppression for women (as well as sometimes for children). Developing this, a further analytic and methodological principle is that we cannot ignore affective relations and investments. ANDERFURHREN's study, discussed earlier, highlighted how young women domestic workers' desire to be part of the family they worked for fed their sense of broader social marginalisation and, further, how even this desire was the site of manipulation by their employers. Reciprocally, it is also clear that the oppression of families and their further exploitation through the ravages and vicissitudes of the neoliberal global market requires children's labour. But it also (in the case of BEY's, ibid. analysis of the Mexican migrant tomato pickers) highlights that the presumption of the parental concern to maintain children's wellbeing is relied upon by businesses to maximally sustain their workforce. We could see this as a new paradigm of self-government, in the sense of simultaneous government of, and by, the family. [40]

In these ways we can see how the methodological issues posed by child labour inform how we might turn the challenges of developmental psychological research to good use. They invite ways forward for developing research agendas that support children's development in spite of and against instrumentalised national and international economic strategies. In particular, addressing the complex and multiple intersections of age with gender and other structural axes of differences enables the formulation of critical theories and research practices. Thus a focus on child labour highlights how the methodological and ethical-political questions that we also face in developmental psychology inevitably concern both representational strategies and rights. By attending to these we may be better equipped to engage with the broader social and global policy concerns that developmental psychology is called upon to inform. [41]


1) This contribution was first published in German in the "Handbuch Qualitative Entwicklungspsychologie" (Handbook of Qualitative Developmental Psychology), edited by Günter MEY and published by the Kölner Studien Verlag; see for details: http://www.qualitative-forschung.de/publikationen/qualitative-entwicklungspsychologie/. <back>


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Erica BURMAN is Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she co-directs the Discourse Unit and the Women's Studies Research Centre. She is author of Deconstructing Developmental Psychology (Routledge, 1994, 2nd edition in preparation), co-author of Challenging Women: psychology's exclusions, feminist possibilities (Open University Press, 1995) and Psychology Discourse Practice: from regulation to resistance (Taylor & Francis, 1996), editor of Feminists and Psychological Practice (Sage, 1990) and Deconstructing Feminist Psychology (Sage, 1998), co-editor of Discourse Analytic Research (Routledge, 1993) Culture, Power and Difference (Zed/UCT Press, 1998), and consulting editor to Critical Psychology (University of Cape Town/Juta, 2004). She is currently working on projects addressing intersections between methodological paradigms and practices in feminist and qualitative pedagogies; gender, culture and models of psychological therapy provision and practice; and the role of representations of childhood and memory within culture and international development (with a forthcoming book in progress Developments: child, image, nation to be published by Routledge). She is also a group analyst.


Prof. Dr. Erica Burman

Discourse Unit
Department of Psychology and Speech Pathology
Manchester Metropolitan University
Hathersage Road
Manchester M13, OJA

E-Mail: E.Burman@mmu.ac.uk


Burman, Erica (2005). Engendering Development: Some Methodological Perspectives on Child Labour [41 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 7(1), Art 1, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs060120.

Copyright (c) 2006 Erica Burman

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