The basic processes for studying children are the same as the basic processes for all scientific study:
One source of information about children comes from first-hand information (usually, interviews). This is the easiest source of data, but it is the most difficult to evaluate. The question may not be understood the way it was intended (so the answer does not mean what you think it does). In interviewing children, the questions asked is often less important than the answer given. The advantage to getting first-hand information is that children who ostensibly have the same experiences may stress very different components of that experience.
Examples of types of interviews include:
Examples of the use of these techniques include
Second-hand evidence (observation, often) is more commonly used as the basic source of data in studying children. In some cases, it is the only source (e.g., studying infants). It is very difficult to do well. One must take into account all the relevant details of behavior, ignoring the irrelevant. To do this, one must be in the proper position to observe the behavior (both physically and subjectively). In doing this, the research must be careful to separate the subjective aspects of an observation from its objective aspects (i.e., focus on description, rather than inference). The process depends on accumulating a mass of observational evidence and letting the patterns emerge. Nonetheless, in the end, one must still infer the meaning of the “observed” patterns in the behavior (in other words, the “patterns” aren’t really given in the observation, but are inferred by the observer—a cue ball strikes a billiard ball, which caroms off the cushion, and we infer that the first ball “caused” the other to move away—at least, if we are to believe Isaac Newton).
Again, there are multiple ways to observe behavior:
Examples of second-hand evidence include:
A variant on observational techniques is controlled observation. This is in the tradition of classic experimental techniques. If it is well-designed (i.e., if it is designed to show the contrary, if it is there at all), it provides the least ambiguous of answers. The problem is its artificiality and lack of a “situation” to provide clues. There are two ways to do this: Unobtrusive measures depend, not on manipulating a child’s behavior, but on finding artifacts of children’s behavior. This permits children to behave in their normal fashion, but it is also gathering information at one step further removed from the child’s own experience. Experimental design sets up an artificial situation, one in which some children are subject to some particular stimulation (the “experimental” group) while others are in the same situation but do not receive the stimulation (the “control” group). This method permits one to structure a simple yes/no situation which would confirm or deny one’s hunch. Examples of this approach include Piaget’s The Child’s Conception of Space and Bandura & Walters’ Social Learning and Personality Development.
© 2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 16 April 2004