Elizabeth Ackerley reflects on some of the learning from a recent ‘theory building day’ held by and for the International Centre team.
Why do some young people sexually harm their peers? How does place and space impact on identity? How is identity constructed and responded to in different contexts? Is safety physical, relational, ontological, or a combination of all three? How do we remove the stigma associated with sexual violence and move this ‘hidden’ issue out of the shadows? What new methods do we need to develop to capture experiences? How do we conceptualise and locate power, and then share it meaningfully with children and young people?
In the bustle of bid writing, designing and carrying out research projects, analysing data, writing reports, keeping up to date with policy and delivering training to professionals, it is sometimes hard to find time to fully engage with theory. In addition to time constraints, the idea of theory can seem daunting and inaccessible, especially if it is unfamiliar. But engagement with theory is what allows us to understand and answer the questions above, and advance our thinking of how best to protect children and young people from sexual harm. Theory is an integral part of social science research; it provides a framework through which to analyse the stories we hear and the conclusions we draw, and can itself develop and be refined through the process of research.
As an applied research centre our primary aim is to increase understanding of, and improve responses to, child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking in local, national and international contexts. It is sometimes tempting to see theory as being abstract and removed from the pressing needs and questions our research tries to address. But “there is nothing so practical as a good theory” (Lewin, 1951, p 169), and taking time to come back to theory enriches our thinking and can sharpen our critical reflection too. So we have made ‘engagement with theory, policy and practice’ one of the key ways that we achieve our mission as a centre.
In light of this, the team met for a day, earlier in the summer to learn about, and engage with, theories currently being used, or developed, by members of the team. The programme was packed, with four presentations in the morning, four in the afternoon and time devoted to discussion following each session.
Jenny Pearce began by giving us a quick recap of theories that are often used when thinking about sexual violence and child protection. Drawing on theories of trauma and relational choice, gender-based theories, and psychosocial theories, we were invited to consider whether fresh theoretical insight might help us destigmatise and challenge the hidden nature of child sexual abuse in order to support both individuals and groups to better acknowledge the reality of what some children go through.
Camille Warrington and Isabelle Brodie then discussed participation theories in their presentation. They highlighted the complexities of the idea of participation, and the extent to which we interrogate the dynamics of power when developing ‘participative’ practice.
Roma Thomas followed, asking us to consider the ‘affective turn’, exploring how we could develop imaginative and innovative methods in social science which remain grounded in theory. We were invited to think about the capacity of things and bodies to affect each other, to pay greater attention to how research affects us, and to develop new ways of paying attention to the empirical material we are faced with.
To end the morning session, Lia Latchford and I presented on the use of intersectionality theory in analysing how young people’s identities are both shaped and impacted by society and what this means for professionals responding to children and young people affected by sexual violence. Acknowledging the history of the theory and its roots in the black feminist activist movement in America, we highlighted the voices of young black women discussing the intersections of racism and sexism to highlight the relevance of this theory in analysing how young people’s experiences of sexual violence are inextricably linked to other aspects of their identity.
After lunch Jenny Lloyd looked at the way that theories used in human geography can speak to the research of the International Centre. Exploring place and its relation to time and people, we were prompted to think about how different aspects of identity become more or less visible in certain spaces and the influence geographical location has on experience.
Carlene Firmin followed, presenting on Bourdieu’s social theory of habitus, field and symbolic violence and how she has used this in her work on developing appropriate safeguarding responses to peer on peer abuse. Through development of the use of this theory in understanding young people’s actions in a certain context, Carlene discussed how she has developed a contextual safeguarding framework to help local authorities respond to cases of peer on peer abuse.
Julie Harris then examined the philosophical assumptions that underpin a realist approach to evaluation, exploring whether critical realism is an appropriate philosophy for understanding the effectiveness of social interventions to help young people affected by sexual violence. Julie argued that realist approaches bring together a focus on the experience of individual young people and practitioners, as well as a rigorous engagement with understanding how and why things change through social interventions.
In the final presentation Lucie Shuker drew on her research into multidimensional safety to explore how concepts develop through analysis, and reflected on the process of developing a model and how models then come to be described as theories. Lucie highlighted the importance of reflection in the advancement of ideas and how theories benefit from rigorous critique.
We closed the day with a discussion of how we continue to build on this engagement, and develop the ways we use theories to understand experiences and improve practice.
It was a varied and stimulating day: the array of theories presented and discussed served as a timely reminder of the value that engaging with theory can bring to our work.
Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.