Moving away from the ideal and embracing change in research design

My research investigates the access opportunities that young children from different socioeconomic backgrounds have to the outdoors during their day at nursery or primary school, how this impacts their subjective sense of nature connectedness and what the inhibitors or drivers to access might be on a macro (governmental) and meso (institutional) level. As a PhD researcher one year in to my journey, over the course of refining my proposal and preparing to enter the field, I have become acutely aware of how epistemological, ontological, micropolitical, macropolitical, ethical and practical considerations have shaped and changed its focus. What started out as an investigation placing (nearly) equal weight on three different research methods (participatory research with children, qualitative interviews with adults and policy/literature review), has evolved to be mainly concerned with the micro through the participatory work and further shaped by the practical and macropolitical issues brought about by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps most importantly however, I have had to seriously consider and ‘name’ my ontological position and its place within a broader epistemological framework: a vital part of the process as it provides the underpinning for organising, carrying out and evaluating the quality of the research. This is a process which I have found particularly challenging, as I have had to move away from previous embedded beliefs about the ‘value’ of different types of research; namely the superiority of quantitative methods as underpinned by a positivist outlook.

The irresistible pull of positivism

In social research, positivism rejects speculation, confining itself instead to experiential data (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) and is most often associated with quantitative research paradigms which are based on a supposed objective reality and which have dominated the research landscape and continue to exert much influence (Bryman, 2016). It has been argued that as humans we have an irresistible urge to classify the world in an attempt to bring order to uncertainty (Keck, 2009) and although positivism as a philosophy has been roundly criticised, it has been argued that there exists a culture of positivism within Western society that depicts the social world as a reality that is both knowable and measurable (Dunne et al, 2005). The need to discover the irrefutable ‘truth’ of causal relationships via the ‘gold standard’ approach of using quantitative methods such as randomised controlled trials (RCTs) has entered the public domain through an increase in the advocacy of evidence-based policy making in a number of different areas that traditionally would not have used this approach. For example, a 2013 analytical review for the Department for Education co-authored by a well-known epidemiologist, proposed that there should be more quantitative research undertaken in schools, with a particular emphasis on RCTs (Goldacre, 2013). It has been argued however that RCTs are not the most suitable method on which to base public policy decisions, but instead reflect governance that emphasises benchmarking and quantification that is free of context (Pearce & Raman, 2014).

The need for a post-positivist framework

In contrast with positivism, a post-positivist outlook proposes that what is observed is always going to be influenced by the observer (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Post-positivism is most often associated with qualitative research methods which are usually textual, yet still underpinned by a search for coherence and meaning. Qualitative methods have in the past been presented as a less rigorous approach to research: Denzin and Lincoln (2005) state that there has been a tendency to label qualitative researchers as ‘soft’ scientists and their work deemed subjective and unscientific, or their findings interpreted in unhelpful political terms. Because quantitative research methods use key concepts such as validity, reliability, generalisation and replication in an attempt to demonstrate their robustness, qualitative researchers have felt the need to provide alternative ways of showing the rigorousness and credibility of their findings. However, Huttunen and Kakkori (2020) argue that in qualitative research it is important to have a different frame of validation than the traditional ‘Cartesian’ ideas of validity and reliability, whereby an objective researcher makes observations about realities which are true. In contrast, they argue for a Heideggerian notion of truth whereby the intrinsic value of research lies in its ability to awaken novel forms of seeing and thinking rather than an attempt to simply replicate the social world and argue that the most powerful qualitative research will function as a great work of art, enabling individuals to understand the world in a new way (Huttunen & Kakkori, 2020). Willig and Stainton Rogers (2017) further state that the relationship between an individual’s experience and the world is far from simple or direct and that as researchers, our accounts and interpretations of people’s experiences will inextricably be mediated by us and that reflexivity is particularly essential.

Embracing change and moving forwards

When reflecting on these critiques I came to realise that my own ontological position and its location within the broader context of a particular epistemological frame had in fact been forming naturally, almost unconsciously for some time – I just had not yet named it. The overarching epistemological frame informing my work emerged ultimately through my choice of primary research method, the Participatory Action Research methodology Photovoice which draws on a phenomenological tradition through which the researcher enters the world of the researched with no preconceived ideas about what they will find (Rodriguez & Smith, 2018). From there my ontological position naturally emerged as interpretivist/social constructionist. Interpretivism searches for the meanings inherent in people’s actions within the cultures and societies they inhabit and accepts that an individual’s understanding of reality is socially constructed (Chowdhury, 2014). Social constructionists view society as existing both objectively and subjectively, with meanings shared and consisting as realities that are taken for granted (Andrews, 2012). These positions speak to me as I approach my research accepting that children will use their own cultural and social frameworks to help them bring sense to their world and that their personal interpretations will have a direct impact on their behaviour. I propose that the experiences children have with the outdoors will directly relate to the meaning that they place on it.

By working through these epistemological and ontological perplexities, I have in the ‘resolving’ of them, identified myself as a researcher within a particular tradition and this will now shape the direction of my current research, its methods, analyses, conclusions and quite possibly the direction of future research I undertake as well. Although this is a daunting prospect for a novice doctoral researcher, I have come to see that if I want to truly represent the views of young children, my research will by necessity have to be located within a postpositivist tradition and cannot be neat, ordered or linear. As a midwife once said to me, children are not born with a manual and working with them as research participants will be unpredictable – things will almost certainly go wrong but I can embrace this messy, creative, adaptable style of working perfectly legitimately within my chosen research methodology. I can accept the fact that I will be at the centre of everything that I do and will not be a wholly dispassionate, detached observer: my feelings and beliefs are inevitably going to shape the research. This postpositivist epistemology means that I can acknowledge that my understandings will inevitably remain incomplete (Young & Ryan, 2020), while also accepting that my views and agenda are legitimate and valid (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Change can lead to growth: it has been argued that embracing change is vital to living a fulfilled life and that the more we allow ourselves to adapt and realise that change is the only constant in life, the better we will cope with new challenges as a consequence (Baker, 2020). This is true for both life and also the challenges of undertaking doctoral research. In accepting this, I have moved away from being wedded to the concept of the perfect ‘ideal’ of a research design and know that it is entirely legitimate for me to approach my research in an open, reflexive and creative way.

By Anna Ridgewell
Doctoral Researcher in Social Work and Social Care
University of Sussex


Andrews, A. (2012). What is social constructionism? Grounded Theory review: An International Journal, 1(11).

Baker, L. (2020, October 9). Why embracing change is the key to a good life. BBC.

Bryman, A. (2016). Social research methods. Oxford University Press.

Chowdhury, M. (2014). Interpretivism in aiding our understanding of the contemporary social world. Open   Journal of Philosophy, 4(3), 432-438.

Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). The discipline and practice of qualitative research. In Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 1-32). SAGE Publications Ltd.

Dunne, M. Pryor, J. & Yates, P. (2005). Becoming a researcher. McGraw-Hill Education.

Goldacre, B. (2013). Building evidence into education. Department for Education.

Huttunen, R. & Kakkori, L. (2020). Heidegger’s Theory of Truth and its Importance for the Quality of Qualitative Research. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 54(3), 600-616.

Keck, F. (2009). The limits of classification: Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas. In B. Wiseman (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Lévi-Strauss (pp. 139-155). Cambridge University Press. https://doi:10.1017/CCOL9780521846301.008

Pearce, W. & Raman, S. (2014). The new randomised controlled trials (RCT) movement in public policy: challenges of epistemic governance. Policy Sciences, 47, 387–402.

Rodriguez, A. & Smith, J. (2018). Phenomenology as a healthcare research method. Evidence-Based Nursing, 21, 96-98.

Willig, C. & Stainton Rogers, W. (2017). Introduction. In Willig, C. & Stainton Rogers, W. (Eds.). The SAGE handbook of qualitative research in psychology (pp. 1-15). SAGE Publications.

Young, M.E. &Ryan, A. (2020). Post-positivism in health professions education scholarship. Academic Medicine, 95(5),695-699.

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Volunteering as a way to support belonging and wellbeing in the lives of refugee youth

“Establishing a sense of belonging in early resettlement is foundational for wellbeing among refugee youth…” (Correa-Velez et al., 2010)

My research focused on the idea of belonging with the understanding that a sense of belonging is something almost all people want and need to experience and something that we will all experience differently. In our personal lives, we can easily see that belonging and wellbeing are connected, especially when we consider transitional periods such as moving or starting at a new school or university. That is, as we settle into something new and begin to grow a sense of belonging and comfort, our wellbeing, our moments of contentment and happiness, increase. As Correa-Velez et al. (2010) suggest above, for refugee youth, the establishment of a sense of belonging is critical for wellbeing. My doctoral research was conducted with unaccompanied refugee girls who arrived alone as minors in England to seek asylum and settle. The research explored various spaces in which the girls felt both belonging and a lack of belonging.

One of the refugee girls I spoke with during my research, Nia*, shared such a lovely story of how she felt a sense of belonging through her interaction and friendship with an older local woman who volunteered at a local learning centre where Nia went to practice English and get help with her college work. Nia spoke repeatedly about the older woman, Mary*, saying she loved her and describing a friendship that included days out to castles and chicken farms, tea in the garden and reading books together. Mary had basically taken Nia under her wing and not only supported her with English practice, but with seeing and learning more of the local area. Mary made Nia feel welcome and safe and provided a space where Nia could be curious, ask questions and practice English without feeling insecure or fearing ridicule. When Nia spoke of Mary, her face lit up and her tone conveyed a sense of contentment as though she fully knew that she belonged in those moments with Mary. In an environment that was hostile to her in so many other ways, Nia’s time with Mary was a safe space for her to relax and recharge.

Being generous and giving of our time like Mary is something many of us can do. When we volunteer, we can support a sense of belonging and wellbeing in the life of a refugee youth (or any refugee!). Volunteering is a great way to welcome the refugees in our local areas and contribute to the growth of an environment that desires for everyone to find a space to belong and to experience a healthy and positive sense of wellbeing. There are so many ways to help: teaching English, hanging out, helping with homework, sorting supplies, etc. I have found that I also get so much out of volunteering as it provides me with a huge sense of satisfaction at having been able to tangibly help another human and even grows my own sense of wellbeing. I’ve always thought that my dream job would be as a professional volunteer so I could help people in lots of different ways; unfortunately, professional volunteering doesn’t usually pay the bills. But I strongly encourage everyone to get involved and volunteer; you could be the Mary to someone’s Nia.

By Dr Anna Wharton

*Nia and Mary are pseudonyms.


Correa-Velez, I., Gifford, S. M. and Barnett, A. G. (2010) ‘Longing to belong: Social inclusion and wellbeing among youth with refugee backgrounds in the first three years in Melbourne, Australia’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 71, no. 8, pp. 1399–1408 [Online]. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.07.018.

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Difference and encounter among young migrants and their peers in British secondary schools

Social connectedness and emotional wellbeing are intrinsically linked. On this basis, projects and programmes working with young migrants and refugees often aim to encourage their ‘integration’ through the provision of psychosocial support (PSS). The Horizon 2020 ‘RefugeesWellSchool’ (RWS) project implements and evaluates PSS programmes for migrants and refugees in secondary schools in the UK and Europe. In the UK, Professor Charles Watters and I conducted programmes in two schools as part of the RWS project: a ‘classroom drama workshop’ in a school in Inner East London, and the ‘Peer Integration and Enhancement Resource’ (‘PIER’) in a school in Brighton & Hove. My doctoral research on the project used ethnographic methods to explore a) the differences that mattered in young people’s peer relationships; b) if and in what ways, if any, these differences were bridged in moments of ‘encounter’ among peers; and c) how peer relations of difference or encounter were influenced by various factors, including educational policies and practices and the RWS project and its UK programmes, which I discuss here.

In the ‘superdiverse’ context of the Inner East London school (Vertovec, 2007), students treated national or ethnic differences as ‘commonplace’ (Wessendorf, 2014). Students said that they appreciated the learning opportunities offered by the school’s diverse makeup, and I often observed them asking questions about each other’s religions, languages, or home countries. During the classroom drama workshop it became clear that the workshop’s focus on targeting cultural issues linked to immigration was largely irrelevant in this superdiverse context, since most students already had empathy for each other’s experiences of migration. Other identity issues were more important to them. One day after school I observed two Asian students joking with their teacher about not wearing Muslim dress in central London, as they didn’t want to be stereotyped as ‘bombers’. In having a dialogue with the students about this issue, the teacher encouraged them to critically reflect on their roles in and with the world (Freire, 1970). In addition, school policies and teacher practices mediated the involvement of a large number of students in gangs, influenced in part by socioeconomic deprivation. One teacher described this process as an ‘up-hill battle’; another commented that gangs ‘would always win’ unless structural inequalities were addressed.

Diversity was less commonplace in the Brighton & Hove school than in the East London school, and differences of nationality, ethnicity and religion played a bigger role in young people’s peer relationships. I observed one student being questioned by her peers in class about why she was wearing the hijab. She responded with frustration. In both schools, students often spoke with humour about differences with their peers; the line was sometimes unclear between playful ‘banter’ that aimed to bridge difference, and discrimination that aimed to cement it (Wise, 2016). Several newcomer students at the Brighton & Hove talked positively about receiving peer and teacher support when they first arrived in the UK. The school provides comprehensive English language support and runs a ‘young interpreters’ programme which supports students in welcoming newcomers. One White British student, however, told me that independence was important too in welcoming newcomers – if the school does everything for you, you won’t know how to do it yourself. His comments indicate the inherent paradox of ‘organising’ encounter, as ‘for encounters to happen something has to be left open’ (Wilson, 2017:612).

The 8-week PIER programme in the Brighton & Hove school aimed to encourage understanding of, and empathy for, the experiences of migrants and refugees. Several students said that the programme had helped them to step out of their comfort zones and to put themselves in others’ shoes. However, the narrative focus of the wider RWS project on ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ risked alienating some students by exoticising immigration (Hall, 1991). Some White British students seemed shy or embarrassed when introducing themselves as ‘just’ from Sussex. In the East London school, many students rejected the ‘migrant’ label outright, with one Nigerian-Spanish newcomer declaring ‘But I’m not a migrant!’ as he read the project consent form. Through their use of language, projects can discursively reinforce social divisions, or even create them (Bourdieu, 1991).

My findings challenge the assumption that national or ethnic categories are key (Wimmer and Schiller, 2002), indicating that other ‘differences’ also ‘make a difference’ in the lives of young migrants and their peers (Berg and Sigona, 2013:356). My research foregrounds young people’s agency in navigating differences through ‘convivial labour’ involving curiosity and humour (Wise, 2016; Wessendorf, 2020). I hope to provide ‘an account of a cultural politics that avoids banal optimism while holding on to the possibility of transcendence’ (Back, 1996:2). I found that schools and PSS programmes can encourage encounter across peer divisions, although their efforts are challenged by structural constraints such as socioeconomic deprivation. Schools and PSS programmes need to find the right balance in supporting young people’s peer relationships without ‘hand-holding’ or othering them in the process.

Emma is currently completing her doctoral thesis on the RefugeesWellSchool project at the University of Sussex. If you have any comments or questions on her research please do get in touch at

Works cited

Back, L. (1996) New Ethnicities and Urban Culture: Racisms and Multiculture in Young Lives. 1 edition, London: Routledge.

Berg, M. L. and Sigona, N. (2013) ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space.’ Identities, 20(4) pp. 347–360.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and symbolic power. Reprint, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Hall, S. (1991) ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities.’ In King, A. D. (ed.) Culture, globalization and the world-system: contemporary conditions for the representation of identity. Basingstoke: Macmillan in association with Department of Art and Art History, State University of New York at Binghamton, pp. 41–68.

Vertovec, S. (2007) ‘Super-diversity and its implications.’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6) pp. 1024–1054.

Wessendorf, S. (2014) Commonplace Diversity: Social Relations in a Super-Diverse Context. UK: Palgrave Macmillan (Global Diversities).

Wessendorf, S. (2020) ‘Ethnic minorities’ reactions to newcomers in East London: Symbolic boundaries and convivial labor.’ The British Journal of Sociology, 71(2) pp. 208–220.

Wilson, H. F. (2017) ‘On the Paradox of “Organised” Encounter.’ Journal of Intercultural Studies. Routledge, 38(6) pp. 606–620.

Wimmer, A. and Schiller, N. G. (2002) ‘Methodological nationalism and the study of migration.’ European Journal of Sociology, 43(2).

Wise, A. (2016) ‘Convivial Labour and the “Joking Relationship”: Humour and Everyday Multiculturalism at Work.’ Journal of Intercultural Studies. Routledge, 37(5) pp. 481–500.

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Art and wellbeing

What the voices and experiences of children and young people living in conflict contexts, can tell us about the role of extracurricular art activities in promoting wellbeing

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My research study on the experiences of Arab/Palestinian minority children and young people in Jerusalem, showed that not only are the voices of children not represented in the social, political and economic aspects of their lives, due the ongoing discrimination in policies and practices towards them. But also, their voices are largely missing from research studies being conducted ‘on them’, specifically those assessing their wellbeing. As researchers, it is our duty and role to act as advocates for positive change, and therefore, we have to provide children and young people with the opportunity to inform us on how this complex reality, characterised by conflict violence, discrimination and structural inequality, is affecting their everyday lives and spaces, beyond the medicalised psychological impact. Not without it, but including and beyond it.

In my study, I also explored whether extracurricular art activities in the context of Jerusalem, can be helpful in enhancing and promoting the wellbeing of children and young people. My interest in art activities in particular developed as a result of my own experience, observations and concerns as a practitioner. Being a social worker in a context affected by conflict, I was aware of the importance of art as a therapeutic tool in supporting the healing, recovery and resilience of children and young people who continue to be exposed to war and political conflict. But also, my work with schools informed my understanding of the lack of opportunities children and young people had to engage with or get introduced to art.

As someone who grew up in Jerusalem, I was one of the few who  attended a school that had an art and music class. This was my only positive space away from all the fears and uncertainty. I knew deep down that the moment I walked out of the school gate, all these fears would come crashing down on me. Art classes helped me understand my feelings and express them, at least when they were part of my school curriculum. They helped me build confidence and become both aware to and open about difference and ‘the other’. The thought of this not being a part of any child or young person’s development is what encouraged me to explore whether this was important for children and young people’s wellbeing in the context of Jerusalem today, and if it indeed was, then how we could as practitioners promote such spaces to enhance wellbeing.

My study findings articulated the significance of engagement and participation in art activities, as a supportive tool which enhanced children and young people’s wellbeing. The stories of my young participants told how much they thrived for creative and art activities, which they reported further connected them to their community and culture, and provided a safe space where they could express their thoughts and emotions and talk about what matters to them. This was important to them at a time when constant political violence, exclusion and social inequality have somewhat managed to fracture that connection, that feeling of safety and belonging to one’s community, hence negatively affecting their wellbeing. Participation is key to supporting the wellbeing of children and young people in Jerusalem, however, agency is ultimately the first step to ensuring participation. Without acknowledging children and young people’s voices, without offering opportunities for them to participate in meaningful activities that speak to their culture, history and identity, professionals’ understanding of their needs and experiences, will remain dependant on adult views and perceptions which don’t necessary speak to their real needs.

By May Nasrawy
Doctoral Researcher in Social Work and Social Care
University of Sussex

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