What’s in a name?

east london windowLast week I was invited to give the CIRCY seminar, this is an open seminar series that you can join in person or remotely. It was the first seminar of the year and also the first time that I was speaking about the Connectors Study publically. You can catch up with the video from the event here. I had a really lovely audience with pertinent and thought-provoking questions to get the discussion going and, as well as being critically constructive, it was a really enjoyable experience.

As it goes with these things there is never enough time to cover everything and as a small group of us made our way to the pub afterwards, my colleague Benji Zeitlyn posed the killer question: ‘What about the name Connectors? I didn’t hear much about connections in the presentation.’

I had been planning for some time now to write a post about why Connectors is called Connectors, and Benji’s questions has spurred me on to do this.

The main reason why Connectors is named as such has to do with a particular way of understanding children’s participation that foregrounds relationships and how we might understand those relational configurations.

In a previous post I wrote about the idea of children’s voices becoming audiable through relationships and connections with others. Focusing on relationships allows us to think about children’s participation inter-generationally. It is also a key methodological tool, asking not how children’s experiences compare but how do they relate to one another across time, across places, and across cultures. As we are interested in the question of how social action becomes a possibility (or not) through childhood it is not just the connections with other people that are important. It is also relationships with places, events and things that we are thinking will also play a role in creating (or indeed impeding or destroying) childhood publics.

This last sentence is informed by a particular collection of social theories. Over the last 10 years I have come to understand participation and collective action through a social practice lens. This is a way of doing research that encourages us to look at everyday life and at the things that people actually do and say, as opposed to what they tell us that they say or do. It is also an approach that asks questions about the contributions that social structures and different forms of agency play in shaping people’s lived experience and the social fabric.

Using this approach researchers have lived with the the Kabyle in Algeria and the Sherpas in Nepal and to find out how their social worlds are reproduced and transformed respectively. Other researchers have shadowed scientists in California to understand how ‘scientific facts’ come to be and how technology plays a part in their becoming. Others have explored how city dwellers in a working class neighbourhood in Lyon create community and resist gentrification. Others still have charted the meaning and challenges of living with diabetes in advanced technological societies like the Netherlands, or how our hygiene habits in England might impact the environment.

In looking at the dynamics of social transformation, continuity and change, and how phenomena come to be what they are (e.g. pasteurisation or the legal system or children’s rights) this particular approach is useful for putting binary ways of thinking about what happens around us into productive dialogue. It is also useful for focusing on the dynamics of how the ‘social’ (life, the everyday, those spaces in-between us all, call it what you will) is created as people, places and things collide, collude and coalesce to make and break relational configurations in time and space.

For Connectors these are all important ideas that foreground the interactions and trajectories that make things happen and unhappen. These are also important ideas for opening up ‘black boxes’ – things we either don’t know much about or that have become banal. Andrea Cornwall and Karen Brock make some nice arguments about this, drawing on Ernesto Laclau’s work, about the black boxing that has happened in the field of international development where terms such as ‘poverty reduction’, ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ have been linked together to create euphemisms that obscure business as usual.

Frequent concerns expressed in the research literature and in practice about children’s participation being limited and tokenistic call for an research approach that can help us to inhabit an intellectual space between institutional and activists discourses. A social practice approach offers just that: an approach that keeps us focused on the configurations that make something (im)possible and that locates us in the in-between spaces of everyday life while demanding that we work the hyphens of those liminal spaces to get to ‘the devil in the detail’.

Connectors seemed like a good shorthand to capture some of this thinking (and, on a practical note, it was a good deal catchier than some of the other clunky acronyms I had been playing around with!) It is my hope that by taking this approach we will be able to produce empirically grounded thick, longitudinal description about how, when, where, and why an orientation towards social action may emergence through childhood and who that might involve; in so doing our aim is to make fresh theoretical, methodological and practical connections for children’s participation.