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Seeing Beyond Violence: Main report text

imagine this abstract contrary to the negative, the "negative" of the negative? How would they know it when they met it? A sophisticated endeavour, indeed.

Why did we ask for the opposite/the absence of violence and search for new words and descriptions? `Non-violent' and `violence free' are commonly used terms. From neurological research however we know, that "no" and "not" are difficult concepts to the human mind. Imagine a toddler, and her mother, calling lovingly "be careful, don't fall" while the baby happily wiggles her way - what happens? The toddler will become unsteady and tumble, as it's mind will only catch the embedded command of "fall". The mother's notion of care creates the opposite of what she desired - not the safety of the child, but it's fall.

If I asked you: `Don't think of the white elephant!'. What comes to your mind? Which picture emerges in your inner world of imagination? Definitely not a black panther, I would guess, but a white elephant. So, it seems quite possible that a moral command; "don't exercise violence"; will backfire one way or the other as an embedded command opposite to that desired.

Hence the search for the desired and shared image of something other than violence from the point of view of the children became the focus for this study.

The methodology was chosen to support the children's participation and to guarantee to an extent, that the power of adult and expert language would not diminish the children's findings. Working with photographs seemed most appropriate, as the use of photographs "touches on the limitations of language, especially language used for descriptive purposes. In using photographs the potential exists, however elusive the achievements, to find ways of thinking about social life that escape the traps set by language" (Walker, 72)5

The combination of "digital ethnography" with symbolic interactionism within a research methodology sets a framework condition for children as researchers in which they can act as researchers as well as subjects of their own research. It empowers them, gives them more than a voice but visual evidence of their social understanding of reality. And with the changed focus of good practice it especially deals with the issue of violence in a way that does not violate the children's emotions again by trespassing into their traumatized past.

The study was not a participatory project from the beginning, as the research question came from the organisation and not the children themselves. Yet it was to open a door to the children's world, to understand their construction of social reality, and to leave the adult world with an image more powerful than verbal interpretation. The use of cameras and digital equipment for processing the photos gave the children a power unknown before, especially in SOS Children's Villages, where very often adults come and use their cameras to document village life, portraying the children living there, using the caught images for fundraising or marketing projects. By handing them the cameras and trusting them with the process the power was reversed and on some occasions the interpretation process became a joint learning for young and adult researchers.

That the children often used the opportunity to replay to us the stereotypes that they had learnt from previous experiences with cameras was not surprising. What was surprising was that they quickly constructed their own visual vocabularies that took other directions and invoked other meanings.

Although the study is not meant to be an evaluation as in the original use of the methodology, we as an organisation hoped to learn from the researchers' findings what might be adequate non-violent framework conditions for family based out of home care from the children's point of view. Not only for SOS Children's Village programmes but also for out of home/residential care in general. But it was in the nature of the enquiry that we could not force this, but rather had to give children access to the process and wait patiently to see what they did with it.

The effects of a case study like "Seeing beyond Violence" within the organisation are manifold. It is a giant step to trust children to be researchers, since this reverses so many assumptions that we hold about expertise and authority. Addressing a hot issue like violence beyond a narrowly psychotherapeutic realm requires an imaginative leap. We still have a long way to go on both counts but involving the children in the study is a significant first step, and showing the staff of the four villages the potentials of participatory methodology an important achievement.

Contracting three researchers with different professional background and a range of methodological and theoretical tools made the study also valid on another level. Taking the findings of process and outcome we will develop from these four case studies a good practice example of children as researchers/evaluators which might be applicable in a variety of settings and which is culture and gender sensitive. Empowering staff and children in applying participatory research instruments for self evaluation are steps towards authentic organisational learning.

Hopefully the findings of this study will support similar projects, not only within SOS Children's Villages but within communities as well. And hopefully we will advance some steps further on the path - so that what we imagined at the beginning will grow into new reality.

We intend to further develop the methodology within cultural childhood studies not only in being participatory and gender sensitive but we will also seek out partners for further research projects and for funding similar research in areas beyond SOS Children's Villages and out of home care.

5 Walker, Rob: Finding a silent voice for the researcher: using photographs in evaluation and research. In: M. Schratz (ed.) (1993) Qualitative Voices in Educational Research, pp. 72-92, London, Falmer Press.

6 Schratz, Michael, Ulrike Löffler-Ansböck (2004) The darker side of democracy: a visual approach to democratising teaching and learning. In: John MacBeath, Leif Moos (eds.) Democratic Learning. RoutledgeFalmer, London.

Our gratitude and appreciation go to the children and the staff of the four SOS Children's Villages who volunteered to participate in the project. Their support and openness made
the study possible and a success.

Barbara Schratz-Hadwich
Research Management
SOS Children's Village Hermann Gmeiner Academy

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