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"Participatory research methods with children and adolescents of the Karen people in the highlands of Chiang Mai - a research report"

Author: Pia Maria Jolliffe


I am delighted for the opportunity to describe my experience with participatory research methods in The Vienna Psychoanalyst with the Karen people and I hope for an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas on the subject. For example, I would be interested in how psychoanalysts interpret the children´s drawings ([see figure 1] The author thanks her father, Franz Vogler, for the technical processing of the drawings) in the continuous text. It would also be important to know what ethnopsychoanalysts have to say of the Karen people and their cultural symbolism.

As a PhD social scientist at Oxford University, I have been working with the Karen tribe people for more than ten years. The Karen people mainly live in the highlands of East Burma and northwest Thailand. Due to economic and cultural reasons, they have a marginalized position in Thai society: initially, most Karen people live as rice farmers in the highlands of northwest Thailand, where there are only limited opportunities to earn money through trade or services. Although many young Karen people spend time in urban areas to make money, most of them live in rural areas and have less income than the majority population. Culturally, the Karen people differ from the Thai population because they have their own mother tongue and their everyday life is characterized by other traditional behavior than is common among the majority population. The Karen people also wear different clothes and eat different food than the Thais. However, in everyday practice, there are always overlaps between Thai and Karen culture, not least because the Karen children go to state schools where Thai is spoken.

For my doctoral thesis in "International Development", I spent a total of 12 months in the Karen village of Huay Tong in the province of Chiang Mai and studied different transitions in the lives of children and adolescents. In order to better understand the transitions in everyday life, in the annual circle and in the course of life, I have worked with participatory research methods. These methods have proved successful in social science research with children and adolescents. (Christensen and James, 2000, 160-178; Crivello, Camfield, and Woodhead 2009, 51-72, Groundwater-Smith, Dockett, and Bottrell 2015) The interest in these creative qualitative research methods is also growing in medicine and health care. (Hockley, Froggatt, and Heimerl 2013, Israel 2012)

Participatory research methods were designed to understand the "how" and "why" of the empirical reality, but not to measure it. These methods have been introduced in international development to work with people who can hardly read and write. (Boybers, Jo and Ennew, Judith 1997) (Chambers 1994, 953-969) In these - often rural - communities the older generation did not go to school. However, even adults, as well as children and young people that have visited the school, often lack the necessary writing and reading practice. This secondary illiteracy often means that those concerned are uncomfortable with written documents, such as social science questionnaires, because they feel ashamed that they cannot read and write properly. Here, participatory research methods help with the use of alternative means, such as drawing papers and wooden sticks, to stimulate people to tell their life experiences.

Participative methods are carried out either individually or in groups. The group exercises are especially useful when looking at the question of dominant perspectives and opinions or interested in cultural-specific types of discussion and representations within specific groups (as in my case the Karen people of the Chiang Mai highlands). The group work makes it possible to recognize how research participants deal with disagreements or create consensus. (Laws, Harper, and Marcus, 2003)

In my own research, I have used collective participatory research methods to understand better the views of children and adolescents between 11 to 14 years. I have decided to ask these young people, in three units each (one week apart), to write mobility maps of their village, a season calendar and life course lines. In this way, I hoped to learn more about the transitions in everyday life, in the annual circle and in the course of life.

Participatory research is very dynamic and requires the concentration of several researchers at once. I therefore worked with four research assistants. These assistants were students of the University of Chiang Mai. Three of them were also members of the ethnic Karen people and therefore understood the Karen mother tongue of the children. This was important to understand the discussions and conversations that the children and young people had during the making of their drawings. I have developed a three-day training course for the four research assistants, which introduced them to the scientific theory and the practice of participatory research with children and adolescents. This training was important to make sure that the four assistants understood that this type of research is about letting children and teenagers speak and to accept their drawings as they want it to be (instead of asking them to work in predetermined patterns). Before starting the participatory research, the assistants visited the village with me to get to know the children, their families and the environment. I introduced the research assistants to the parents, the teachers, and the village pastor, and told them again when and where we hoped to conduct the research. In this way, we made sure that as many authority persons in the village community as possible knew about the research project, supported it and did not feel "hoodwinked" by it. The walks in the village also allowed us to play with the children and invite them to participate in the research with the consent of their parents. The children finally took part in the recruitment process themselves. For example, a 14-year-old girl presented me to her girlfriends and explained to them what my research was about; In this way, five girls and three boys at the age of 13 and 14 years and three girls and five boys at the age of 11 and 12 years were found.

In a next step, I asked the parents and teachers of the sixteen children and teenagers for their agreement to let the young people participate. For this, I have had a simplified version of my research plan translated into Thai, the official language of Thailand. I have distributed copies of this translation to teachers and parents. Since the Karen have little to do with formal documents in everyday life, I have asked and recorded - with the permission of the Ethics Committee of the University of Oxford (Central University Research Ethics Committee – CUREC) - the Karen parents, and later the children and young people, for oral research consent. All parents gave their consent, but some expressed concern about the time organization of the exercises. The concern was that during the rainy season in May and June children and young adolescents had many commitments to help with the transplanting of rice seedlings. I had to organize everything so that the group exercises did not overlap with the working times of the children. I also visited the school to inform the director and the teachers about the research project and asked for their approval. The teachers gave passes to the students who wanted to participate in the research. The conversations with the teachers showed me how different the ideas for "a good sample" could be: the teachers thought it would be best for me to cooperate with the class besties. In this sample, which the children and young people created, however, were also students with learning difficulties and those who had problems speaking Thai (but they simply spoke in their mother tongue Karen).

So, I and the research assistants divided on a Friday morning and afternoon in May and in June 2008, the girls and boys into four groups according to gender and age. We have always started the exercises with some sort of icebreaker, like singing songs and we planned enough breaks, in which we offered the children and adolescents a snack with fruit juice and sweets. This was important to keep up their concentration.

The group exercises were very revealing in terms of social differences within children and adolescents. In fact, the performance of the drawings showed intra-group roll distributions, e.g. children who give and those who received orders. I could also observe this kind of power relationships in everyday life when children assisted in groups, in the household, at the cabbage harvest or on the rice field. Social differences between research participants were visible, for example, when boys from a richer household claimed more space on the paper than boys from poorer ones did.

A group of 11 and 12 year old boys drew this picture [see figure 2]. During the drawing, we watched as the boy from the richest household claimed the most space on the paper for himself. He thus draw the village with his household in the center, just behind the church. He left little room for the other boys to put their houses and playgrounds on paper. Only when the wealthy boy had finished drawing did his poorer class colleague take a pen and draw his house in the left corner, surrounded by banana trees and two water buffaloes. He told us that he likes to hunt by the banana trees in the early morning before the beginning of school. When we asked his richer friend for his out-of-school activities, we learned that he never hunts, but he plays ball with other children in front of the church and rides the bike through the village. The family of his friend cannot afford a bicycle.

In the annual calendars, girls and boys presented their activities during the course of the year.

A group of 14-year-old girls designed this calendar [see figure 3]. We can see in it the three seasons in Thailand: the cold season top right, the hot season down in the middle and the rainy season left. In the cold season, one sits around the fire, and harvests rice. Under this drawing, we see a representation of the Buddhist Loi Krathong festival, where the lotus-shaped boat made from banana leaves (so-called krathong) are put into the water [see figure 4].

The boats are decorated with candles and incense sticks, and people believe that their sins will also be swept away with the krathong into the river. Below we see the drawing of a group of people standing in front of a stage. This is the Christmas festival, which Karen people publicly celebrate with music and singing. I was able to celebrate Christmas with the Karen in different villages in Thailand and Myanmar, and each time the music after the Holy Mass was a standard part of the Holy Night. Next, we see young people in work clothes at the rice field at the rice harvest.

The hot season is shown in the center of the drawing. We see young people standing by the roadside and a passing car, which the young people want to pour over with water. It is Songkran a three-day festival, which takes place in the middle of April. Songkran literally means "transition" from one year to the next.  Traditionally at this feast, the younger ones revere the elderly; they pour perfumed water over the hands of the elders and then receiving a blessing from them. The pouring with water has however, meanwhile taken such dimensions that during these three days water battles occurs in the city and in the countryside. Huay Tong is no exception. In the rainy season, far left in the picture, we see a girl standing on the rice field. The girl is wearing a white dress. Among the Karen people, this white hand-woven garment (called hse wa) is the typical costume for young unmarried girls and women.

The girl holds a bunch of rice cones in her hands [see figure 1]. These are transplanted manually in the rainy season throughout Thailand - and with the Karen people. In the drawing, we see a girl standing alone in her best festive clothes at the rice field. This idealized representation deceives the real conditions of the seedling transplantation. In fact, the transplanting of the seedlings I have experienced as a very strenuous work in the muddy rice field, where you become very dirty. Leeches suck at you, especially when you can not afford to wear rubber boots for work in the wet field like the many Karen. The whole village community usually helps to transplant the seedlings as quickly as possible. This is the only way to ensure a harvest in the cold season. How did this idealized representation of an isolated girl come about? Can psychoanalysis help explain this?

We even asked the young people to present their life story graphically. Here, too, an idealized representation of the concrete living conditions emerged.

Two 14-year-old girls performed this drawing [see figure 5]. They were friends and knew each other well. The life story starts in the lower half of the picture and goes from left to right. At first, the two girls show up as little children. As schoolchildren, we see them sitting on the branches of a mango tree - a popular hiding place for children who do not want to go to school. We see the two growing up, working at the rice field, and then going to the upper level of the Gymnasium in the upper half of the drawing. Then the two girls wanted to become flight attendants and work for a Thai airline. In fact, they have presented themselves as flight attendants in Thai clothing and planes fly above their heads. As old women, however, they see themselves back again to their home village in order to die and be buried there.

After the children had put their drawings on paper, we invited them to present their drawings to all participants. Everyone wanted to do it. The resulting discussions have helped us to understand better the drawings of the young people and to ask questions. We have also asked permission to keep the drawings and use them for research. The research assistants and I have discussed the drawings and the research process in detail every evening and on the following day.
Of course, participatory research methods raise issues of ethics in the research. First, the question arises how much everyone involved actually acts in a participatory way. To what extent can and should research control be given to researchers? In my experience with the Karen in Thailand, it was important to give guidance to the children and adolescents and guide them carefully through the research process. A complete transfer of the research process would have confused the young people. Rather than giving exact guidelines on the nature of the drawings and the course of group work, we have left it up to the girls and boys to organize it in this regard. Participative research is often, as in my case, open and creative. This was helpful during my field research on transitions in the lives of children and teenagers at the Karen tribe in Thailand. One might ask whether the method is also suitable for research on "more sensitive" topics. In my experience, this can only be affirmed - In 2013, I lead participatory research on the subject of escape and education with a group of Karen refugees from Burma (now Myanmar), and learned a lot about the suffering and destiny through the drawings. I would be delighted to hear about the experiences of others with participatory research methods.


Boyden, Jo and Ennew, Judith. Children in Focus: A Manual for Participatory. Stockholm: Radda Barnen, 1997.

Chambers, Robert. "The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal." World Development 22, no. 7 (1994): 953-969, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0305750X94901414.

Christensen, Pia and Allison James. "Childhood Diversity and Commonality: Some Methodological Insights." In Research with Children: Perspectives and Practices, edited by Pia Christensen and Allison James, 160–178. London and New York: Falmer, 2000.

Crivello, Gina, Laura Camfield, and Martin Woodhead. "How can Children Tell Us about their Wellbeing? Exploring the Potential of Participatory Research Approaches within Young Lives." Social Indicators Research 90, no. 1 (Jan 1, 2009): 51-72, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27734771.

Groundwater-Smith, Susan, Sue Dockett, and Dorothy Bottrell. Participatory Research with Children and Young People. London: SAGE Publications, 2015.

Hockley, J. M., Katherine Froggatt, and Katharina Heimerl. Participatory Research in Palliative Care Electronic Resource] : Actions and Reflections. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Israel, Barbara A. Methods for Community-Based Participatory Research for Health. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

Laws, Sophie, Caroline Harper, and Rachel Marcus. Research for Development: A Practical Guide. 1. publ. ed. London [u.a.]: Sage, 2003.

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