Rethinking empirical research into Children in Care and Contact

Simpson, Jenny (2016). Rethinking empirical research into Children in Care and Contact. In: 6th International Conference on Sociology and Social Work, 25-26 Aug 2016, Zwolle, Netherlands.



Current literature in relation to contact for Children in Care reveals that there have been a number of theories that have informed the current notion of contact and these are underpinned by psychological and psychosocial assumptions about identity development (Winter and Cohen, 2005). These have included the maintenance of the ‘mother-child’ bond (Clarke and Clarke, 1976); the need to maintain contact to avoid ‘genealogical bewilderment’ (Sants, 1964) and the importance of continuing socio-genealogical connectedness (Owusu-Bempah and Howitt, 1997) and most importantly Bowlby’s (1960) theory of attachment. These psychological and psychosocial assumptions have informed not only the type of research undertaken but also the methodology used (see Cleaver, 2000; Macaskill, 2002; Selwyn, 2003 and McWey and Mullis, 2004).

A further theoretical notion that has informed the current understanding of contact is the family which Smart (2007) has described as the optimal expression of kinship and relatedness. Yet this notion in and of itself is socially constructed, and has the irony of not just being built upon by personal experience but also wider societal expectations that are communicated via the taken for granted prioritisation of family, which is illustrated in everyday language, images and ideas (Gillis, 1996 and Morgan, 1996:238).

This paper will highlight that the empirical research methods that have been used to understand and explain the phenomenon of contact have been dominated not only by socially constructed notions in relation to the family and children, but also by a positivist approach where scientific techniques are used to explain and understand the dynamic of contact which can be described as a complex interaction where there are a range of agendas, interpretations and expectations that take place.

An argument will be made for the use alternative methodological approaches that place the child or young person at the centre of the research project. In particular attention will be given to tools such as Hart’s ladder of participation (2008) which actively promotes empowerment and respect of children and their role in research. Additionally, the methodological approach of triadic interviews will be posited because it allows researchers the opportunity to gain a “more holistic and multi-dimensional understanding of the problem” (Brownhill and Hickey, 2012 p.370), thereby capturing the complexities of contact which can be interpreted as an interactional process built upon the foundation of existing relationships, and which is aimed at maintaining or possibly enhancing what is already present.

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