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You are here: Home Research Resources Expert Guides Sahrawi and Afghan Children and Adolescents Understanding Children and Childhoods Current Research Practices

Understanding Children and Childhoods Current Research Practices

The past few decades have witnessed a growing interest in the study and protection of children living in diverse circumstances and locations across the globe. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) was signed by 191 countries and represents an effort to place the protection of all children within an international human rights framework. In Article 22, the Convention makes special reference to refugee children, their right to live with their families, appropriate protection, and humanitarian assistance. In response to the growing sense of urgency to protect children exposed to different kinds of violence, the United Nations commissioned the groundbreaking Graca Machel Study, released in 1996, which was headed by the former First Lady of Mozambique and examined the impact of armed conflict on children.

Graca Machel’s report was published by UNICEF (1996), entitled The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The report has been made available online at


There has also been a rise in academic research on war-affected and displaced youth (Ayalon 1983; Djeddah and Shah 1996; Elbedour et al 1993; Gupta 2000; Hamilton and Man 1998; Hjern et al 1991; Macksoud 1992; Magwaza et al 1995; McHan 1985; Miller 1996; Sack et al 1986; Ziv and Israeli 1973). The majority is carried out from psychological and psychiatric perspectives which tend to rely on standardized questionnaires aimed to measure and quantify the impact of displacement (or conflict) on the individual child-respondent (Ahmad 1992; Cohen 1985; El Bedour et al 1993, Farhood et al 1993; Gabarino and Kostelny 1996; Qouta et al 1995, Van der Veer 1998; Mghir et al 1995; Mandalakas 2001; Willis and Gonzalez 1998). Psychological perspectives, in general, support a universal model of childhood development (Boyden 1994; Panter-Brick 1998; Scheper-Hughes and Sargent 1999; Wessells 1998). The effects of conflict on children are often framed in terms of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Abu Hein 1993, Punamaki and Suleiman 1990, Rossman 1998; Thabet et al 2004; Van der Veer 1998). Such approaches tend to pathologise and medicalise stress and the effects of living in situations of protracted violence or displacement.

Also see Bracken 1998; Bracken et al. 1995; Kleinman et al. 1997 for critiques.


In contrast, an anthropological approach emphasises holism, social context, personal experiences, relationships, values, and culture. Too often, however, the adult members of society are assumed to be the most appropriate spokespeople, based, perhaps, on Western researchers' assumptions about the ability of adults to better articulate knowledge and experience - and the inability of children to do so effectively. The current research programme aims to bring children and youth into the anthropological study of the refugee phenomena and to legitimise their voices, perspectives, and agency.

A growing number of studies suggest that researchers and practitioners are actively seeking the views and participation of children in their projects and programmes. The publication of Children and Youth on the Front Line (Boyden and de Berry 2004) offers detailed ethnographic descriptions of young peoples experiences of war, as both survivors and perpetrators. The authors challenge orthodox assumptions regarding definitions of childhood, and the vulnerability and passive victimization of children affected by conflict and displacement. Save the Children sponsored The Children of Kabul project which is another important example of the use of participatory methods to document the views and experiences of young people, in this case, Afghan children (de Berry 2003). Such child and youth-centred research provides a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the way individuals and their communities cope with the effects of prolonged forced migration.

Last updated Sep 23, 2011