The Sound Toolkit at the International Conference of the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth 2016

As part of the International Conference of the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth, Dr Lisa Procter and Dr Abigail Hackett (of the Storying Doncaster Sounds Project), led a symposium entitled Materialising and Spatialising Childhood Studies alongside Professor Peter Kraftl, Dr Matej Blazek and Associate Professor John Horton. Our shared aim was to explore the methodological implications of a material-biological ‘turn’ in childhood studies – what some commentators are calling a ‘new wave’ of scholarship. We critically reflected upon the diverse opportunities and challenges of thinking and doing childhood studies through innovative theoretical frames, such as affect, habit, the posthuman, the more-than-social, the nonrepresentational, the Anthropocene, and more besides. Given the potential complexity and enormity of this task, the symposium was organised around two specific questions.

  • How can new materialist, postfeminist, and object-oriented philosophies be articulated in and through methods for doing childhood studies?
  • What are the implications of a ‘spatial turn’ in childhood studies, and of nonrepresentational scholarship in children’s geographies, for our attempts to witness (what) matters in children’s lives?

The symposium was split into two sessions. In the first, the organisers presented individual research papers reflecting on these two questions. The first paper, by Procter and Hackett, drew on data from the Storying Sounds project which looked at how young children experience sound. We drew upon notions of entanglements (Ingold), vibrations (Gallagher), and temporality (Lemke) to explore how sound matters in children’s sensorial experiences of the environment. Our presentation can be accessed here.

Blazek’s paper followed, and explored the tensions between the more-than-social materialities of human practices, the significance of individual experience in social life, and the limits and promises of research representation. Finally, Kraftl and Horton’s paper asked questions about how we can account for both the materiality of children’s lived experiences, but also the discourses of class, race, ethnicity, gender etc represented within children’s talk about the material world. Developing nonrepresentational, new materialist, post-feminist conceptions of childhood, their paper explored the troubling coagulation of a watercourse that passes through a Muslim cemetery and whose waters were felt to be ‘racist’ by our participants, of the pressing materialities of dirt, rats and litter, and of the swarming, percolating, co-mingling geographies of play in an area of London that, children told us, felt ‘abandoned’ and marginalised by decision-makers.

In the second session, artists collaborating with Procter and Hackett supported a workshop enabling broader engagement with these questions by conference delegates. The session explored the role of arts-practice in developing potential methodological responses to the ‘new wave’ of childhood studies. We used two case study projects working with artists to explore ways of representing both movement and sound using visual/material methods.

As part of the workshop participants were invited to use the Storying Sounds Toolkit to explore sound in the environment. Participants were invited to go on Drawing Sound Walks. Using blank drawing disks from toolkit and pens, participants went on short walks around the beautiful grounds of the conference venue. When they heard a sound that was significant to them in whatever way they defined that we asked them to stop, listen and then draw.

Participants returned with their drawings and we discussed the what, how and why of their drawings. This gave rise to some fascinating reflective conversations about capturing young children’s experiences:

Can we ever understand young children’s experiences?

We explored the impossibility of ‘fully’ knowing children’s experiences of their own life worlds, particularly dimensions of experience that relate to affect, emotion and feeling. Materialist perspectives offer us a way into trying to understand experiences that are not our own, but that is perhaps all they can do. We reflected on Sarah Pink’s notion of ‘being with’, not as a way to completely know, but as a way to gain insights into the lifeworld of another. For Pink this means engaging in the embodied and situated practices of the field site. We asked whether it was more challenging to be ‘with’ when we are doing research with young children.

The Sound project has shown that transduction across modes, in our case from the sound to a line, was a way of unsettling assumptions about what is known about children. As this project has shown, children’s drawings of sound offer us insights into the ways that their experiences of sound may be different to our own. For example, children did not experience sounds as having a singular meaning (such as a bark is the sound of a dog), rather their interpretations of sound was entangled with other dimensions of their experiences happening within the moment. For them, the noise of a barking dog could have multiple meanings attached to sensations in their body, memories of the place, personal preoccupations going on for them at the time.

This discussion raised important questions for Childhood Studies, particularly around how we can use visual methods to unsettle assumptions that adults may have about children’s experiences.

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