Through the looking glass: learning to do ethnography with children and their families

Nieves Galera
Nieves trained in Psychology, and is currently a PhD student at the Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology of Autonomous University of Madrid. Using a sociocultural and ethnographic approach, her thesis seeks to examine and analyze the aspects of linguistic practices and daily interactions that construct child socialization, family ties and other socio-educational processes that occur in contemporary families.


This blog post is a brief outline of my fieldwork process during my ongoing PhD journey. Using my own experience, I seek to initiate a dialogue about the difficulties and opportunities of participating in field sites that involve intense participation with children and families, and that might exceed our initial knowledge and skills acquired during our formal academic training. On the other hand, I intend to reflect on how my practice as “novel ethnographer” changes during the process. Finally, I briefly point out how dealing with uncertainty and vulnerability helped me in the way my understanding of the method has taken.

“No one told me that …”, as an introduction                                                                                               

To give some background, my research aims to understand the real daily lives and daily interactions of very young children (1-18 months) in contemporary families. The main goal is to understand some transformations that family life and current childrearing are experiencing as developmental contexts during the first two years of her life. To do this, I have been conducting a thirteen months ethnographic field-work at home with 4 Spanish families in sub-urban areas in Madrid. When I thought in the project to apply for a doctoral fellowship, I confess that I had not training in ethnography (as a psychologist I was trained mainly in ‘quantitative’ methods). At that time, I only intuited that ethnography could provide the work thread of the complexity of socializing and communicative practices in everyday life.

Perhaps it would be unfair to say that this work is the product of an exclusively individual effort. However, for me it was going to bring some challenges at a theoretical level, but especially at a procedural and relational level (i.e., “practical” in a broad sense) that no one had told me about. As soon as I started my fieldwork, I realized that there were many things for which my academic training had not prepared me and that I had to care about on my own.

I think that the first time I came to become fully aware of it was on a cold morning in late December 2016 when I met little Abril. She and her family live in a 2-bedroom low apartment placed in the old area of Madrid suburb. When I arrived their home and ranged the bell on the wooden door that faces the street, a man opened it but quickly came back inside while a brunette woman around their thirties came out to meet me. She carried her very small baby. Because of her size, her black hair and her indifference to everything that happened around her, it was evident that she was a newborn baby. Immediately, we went inside and sat at a table to start talking about the study. After 15 minutes, the woman asked me to take the girl in my arms. I was sitting in such a way that I could stretch my arms and put her on my left arm. It had been a long time since I had picked up such a small baby but I immediately knew that I was not holding her head tightly. “How is this done?”, I asked while feeling afraid and nervous to move and grab her worse. I felt embarrassed for not knowing and I was wondering what the woman was going to think about my apparent insecurity by taking her daughter. I held the girl in my arms for the rest of the time, and the mother left me alone with her when she was absent for a moment. I also questioned my appearance as a researcher if the mother was giving her daughter to take it.

When I left the house, I thought that nobody had told me that I would have to hold babies or how to do it, and also that the fieldwork was going to require more than taking notes or recording videos. It may seem trivial, but this episode of not knowing how to do something and the anxiety that can generate feeling that maybe being with the families would exceed my expectations about the “ideal good ethnographer”, it was just the beginning of many.

Pathways to the field. Learning to do ethnography accompanying children and their families and an ethical note

Monthly, I have been traveling from my home to the four homes of the babies and their families that participate in my study. I have gone from the old areas of the Madrid suburbs to a more distant and “natural” area in in the mountain outskirts the city. During the study, one of the families moved to a city in the Northeast region of Spain and I also visited them there.

With the beginning of my fieldwork, I started to enter the homes of these families, and as I discussed, I realized that nobody had taught me how to do this kind of work. I felt it as intense shame for not doing “well enough”. I did not know how to hold a baby, or how to talk to them, or when I should sit down or stay in in while families make their daily lives. Thus, as a way to control this “anxiety” during the visits, I began to take note of everything that children did.  A video-camera had been lent to me to record the routines of the families, but I did not know where to place it or how to make a “long shot”. To this is added that the data collection schedule was gruelling. Especially focused on getting as much video-data as possible (along with complete other tasks of the university), the fourth month I felt a huge uncertainty and I thought that fieldwork was a mess.

I started wondering how to conduct such an intensive fieldwork in a balanced way. What to do with this uncertainty? Maybe, being emotionally well is essential to participate fully in a process of these characteristics, but I neglected it for a while. I underestimated the amount of tasks, objectives and expectations and I carried it badly, so it drained me. I started to think about the sustainability of me as novel researcher and the necessity of paying more attention to my well-being. I thought about the concept -and practice- of (auto)care as a way to think in this part of the process. Care as an embodied way of responding to interdependence as I shifted across the houses of the four families. On the other hand, it may not be a question of eliminating the uncertainty and mess of fieldwork in fact but of taking advantage of it for its possible investigative potential. This also changed my way I understand the method and the way my role in research is taken.

Through the looking-glass. Re-signifying my practice as a novel ethnographer


Two weeks ago I travelled to the north-east of Spain to conduct fieldwork with a family living there. When I finished, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art of the city, where I spent some time in an exhibition. Upon entering the museum, I came across a large mirror that occupied a huge wall. Two teenagers were practicing different poses and holding a smartphone in their hands to take pictures. I could not resist the temptation to get closer to take a selfie too. Meanwhile, a group of elementary school children were about to start an “educational” workshop and a boy was running behind me (see the picture above). When I left the building, I began to think that the mirror could be a metaphor of my ethnographic research journey with children.

I remembered Alicia Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. As Alicia in the story, at the beginning of my fieldwork I wanted to reflect a reality (what I saw) that is not reality. What I observed in the mirror was not “me” and the “children”, but an appearance of me and them. Maybe I was concerned by an image of me as an expert and ideal researcher focused on presenting an objective and neutral vision of the participating babies and their families. I thought that taking a tripod and a video-camera would help to build that image, but none of that was the case as I could saw from the moment I entered the home of the first family and the mother placed the little Abril in my arms to rest hers throughout our conversation. The following image, taken a few days ago during my visit to the family in the north-eastern city illustrated that first metaphor of my research process.


The mother (on the right) was holding Neleo to check if she recognizes himself in the mirror while I held the tripod to record (left). The frame of the mirror can serve as a metaphor of a “closed system”: my “formal” academic background, my “cold” view of the method as something applied regardless of the logics of the children lives, and the idea of an expert researcher trying to present a legitimated image of the children and their families to reduce my own uncertainty.

How to overcome the projection of “me” and “the babies” in the mirror? Perhaps a way to solve it is as Alicia in Wonderland did when she decides to cross the reflection in the mirror to enter the chaotic universe that it contained. To survive this task, she is forced to reinvent herself as she encounters the different characters she encounters along the way, without stopping asking them but with a clear goal: to search beyond what she see in the looking-class, and in a chess game that seems to follow the rules set by a child. The next image, taken later, illustrated this second idea of my ethnographic process.


Abril is now 15 months old and is playing in the high chair next to her sister Sofia. I’m sitting on the floor next to her and I get into the game prompted by Abril. I try to make a tower with blocks like Sofia does, but Abril starts messing up and throwing the pieces to the floor again and again. I keep trying to make a tower with her, but she has fun pulling them and laughs when she throws them to the ground. This way of playing, without logic (or outside my logic), and her way of disorganizing the pieces, represent the chaos in the ethnographic research with children and families. Here the method cannot be rigid and the role of the researcher is to adapt to that seemingly absurd logic. Apparently, there is chaos, but this chaos, like Abril’s game, however disorganized it may seem, it has a logic in itself. Perhaps redoing and adapting to it is the goal of my ethnographic process and it may involve reorganizing the way we understand ourselves in the field even when it goes beyond our initial expectations. It does not mean to detract recognition from our “formal” / “closed” systems (like university), practices and methods but to be aware of their potential when they enter into alliance with other ways of doing and spaces as childhood. As the field work progressed, as in the photo, this is happening in relation to the game but not only. I think that the metaphor also applies to other situations that have challenged my initial goals (for example, giving a baby to eat / eat on occasion). For me, this way of understanding the field is a first step to better understand the motives of families, the diversity of logics with which they organize their lives and also to learn how to make this path (losing our need of control) with them .

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