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La restitution ethnographique à l’épreuve des enfants

Première partie : Ce que la restitution apporte à l’anthropologie. Mondes de l’enfance et mondes politiques en question – First Part: What Restitution Brings to Anthropology. Questioning the Worlds of Childhood and Politics

Chapter 1. Restitution and the Anthropology of Childhood: An Ethical and Political Practice

Valentina Glockner Fagetti


La restitution doit être pensée comme un processus et une composante centrale de la recherche ethnographique et des sciences sociales en général. En explorant les multiples significations de la restitution, ce chapitre nous invite à imaginer et à essayer de construire des relations horizontales et collaboratives pour la production et la co-construction de connaissances scientifiques, académiques et ethnographiques. À travers la remise en question des pratiques de recherche extractives et colonialistes, la restitution apparaît comme un processus réflexif fondamental, pointant vers une « anthropologie engagée » profondément située et immergée dans les territoires et les contextes d’où elle émerge. C’est-à-dire une pratique de recherche qui répond éthiquement et politiquement aux connaissances, aux expériences et aux besoins de ces mêmes acteurs sociaux qui rendent possible la production de connaissances ethnographiques et anthropologiques.

Texte intégral

1The question of restitution is a core matter in current anthropology. A discipline radically transformed in an attempt to distance itself from its colonial origin, with restitution, anthropology finds the opportunity to debate and self-criticize in order to build new data collecting, inter-learning, and research possibilities. For the anthropology of childhood, these issues are even more important, as it deals with research relations and contexts with intrinsic power inequities between researchers and co-authors or participants. However, this paper does not intend to offer a series of tools or methods that could be generally applied to the restitution process; rather, it seeks to share what Michael Lambek (2015) refers to as the cumulative result of a series of experiences and self-critical explorations not intended as answers but as lines of enquiry.

Restitution as a Return Practice

2Restitution, when defined etymologically as “the act of giving back”, may be considered as reciprocity from the viewpoint of anthropological and social sciences research. Reciprocity with the people and the communities with whom we work or, as in the case herein mentioned, with the children that participate in our work and make it possible. This meaning is probably the most common, most embraced, and most extended among anthropologists since our work involves and depends on our knowledge and commitment, even on our meddling in the lives of other people. I refer to the multiple actions through which we researchers return or reciprocate to the people and communities with whom we work, with something so that our presence might be of benefit to them. We try to return or give back a little of what their trust, expertise, experiences, collaboration, and their generosity mean to our work, or rather, in my view, on which our work depends. We often try to reciprocate and return through a series of actions and intentions, putting our material and symbolic resources, our knowledge, expertise, and social relations at the service of these people and communities.

3In my experience, this has included several actions like assisting with governmental paperwork and resolving all types of bureaucratic difficulties, mediating with public and private actors, incurring expenses and money loans, helping with job searches, and sustaining a compromise through patronage relationships (godfather/godmother) which demands social, economic, and symbolic resources, economic and logistic support for the schooling of children from families with whom I have built strong relations for more than a decade. This is a way of reciprocating that many times takes the form of barter, in the sense that what is given and received is not of the same nature but is meant to establish a certain balance and reciprocity. The question is if what is donated or received will benefit in the same way both parties and to what future objectives it would contribute. Nevertheless, it is usually the predominant form of restitution and for a long time, it was generally accepted that the communities and people with whom the anthropologist worked, received only the economical, symbolic, and appreciative benefits derived from our presence.

4Nevertheless, this form of restitution has been criticized and questioned, first by the people and communities with whom we work, who are no longer convinced that our sole presence and the series of contacts, knowledge, resources, and exchanges derived from it are so valuable and useful (Tuhiwai Smith 1999), and second, by those who seek to politicize the ethnographic experience and research work in order to construct new ways of producing knowledge and constructing research collaborations through more horizontal, more conscious, and responsible relationships due to the dynamics and inequalities of race, class, gender, and ethnic or national origin, to mention a few. The recognition of local wisdoms and their interpretative matrices, the cultural and theoretical heritage of communities, as well as the participation of communities or people who were previously conceived only as “objects of study” in the planning, development, and management of research projects are fundamental issues that have been addressed by new generations of anthropologists (Solano et al. 2015; Mejía Lara 2014).

5Even though this type of reciprocity or barter could be considered as an inseparable and perhaps indispensable act of “being there”, on the land, among the community, in the context of study, it cannot be considered as the performance of the anthropological compromise with restitution. Even less, if we understand restitution as a core component of an anthropology concerned with making visible the relations of power and inequity that also play a role in research and knowledge production, and with constructing new possibilities of social transformation. The question of restitution must then be a deep re-examination not only of how we return or reciprocate to those who make our work possible, but also of the role that their knowledge, experiences, and subjectivities have in the way we build anthropological knowledge. In other words, restitution must also be a question about new collaborative possibilities and new epistemologies to build research that recognizes the role of the knowledge and experiences of those with whom we work as theoretical knowledge with an intrinsic value (Castro Neira 2017; Magazine 2015). Consequently, it also raises the issue of what other concepts need to be discussed under restitution in order to recognize its importance in the practice of anthropology and social research. It is also important to be able to question it, to politicize about its uses and meanings within anthropology in the past and nowadays. Restitution becomes then a way of counteracting the epistemic violence, which means, the diverse ways in which violence is exercised in relation to production, circulation, and knowledge recognition of the “others”. An example is denying its epistemic management, exploiting the “others’” knowledge or reducing it to the empirical level (Pérez 2019).

6From a certain perspective, “restitution” can lead to questioning whether what anthropologists do is at times an “extractive” activity, that is, a practice that tracks, finds, and extracts data and information from people and communities with whom the anthropologist works with a purpose or an agenda sometimes elaborated and responding to external social, economic, and political interests and, therefore, presenting almost no benefit for the participants themselves. This is not a new issue, and it requires a permanent discussion, as demonstrated by Legarreta (2017) and Legarreta, Letona, and Hernández Trejo (2016) on how anthropology, together with the institutionalization of scientific knowledge and occidental-central thinking, has served and continues to serve as a tool to reproduce and perpetuate specific forms of dispossession, dominance, and oppression through what is called an “epistemic or cognitive extractivism”. Thanks to the participants, as anthropologists we apprehend knowledge, experiences, wisdom, practices, and social relations that we afterwards bring to other contexts and often use them in situations unrelated to or that do not respond to the needs of those who built said knowledge stores; this is precisely one of the points that must be analyzed in discussions on restitution.

7Restitution can also be conceived in such a way as to suggest that wisdom and knowledge are static, whose materialization or expression can be objectively interpreted – as museographical practices inherited from colonialism do – and that such an interpretation is a process of real construction. One consequence of such a conception of restitution is to believe that it is enough to return some of the knowledge that has been shared with the anthropologists, through academic publications, for example, to settle the debt or obligation that has been generated by “being there” and having witnessed the realities documented and attempted to explain. Moreover, we must ask ourselves whether the mere act of returning the work produced is enough when our presence and intervention is also capable of disrupting, causing harm or detonating adverse dynamics. As if the mere act of giving back could “return a thing to the state it had before”, which is another definition of the term restitution in Spanish, in addition to that of “returning something” (Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language). This is a point I consider critical, especially in those cases in which, above all else, when the research project is finished or published, the last thing we want is for the situation to remain unchanged, because this implies the continuity of relations of dominance and inequality. If we hope to achieve something, beyond the written word, sometimes with few resources, it is precisely that our research contributes to change the state of things.

8How can we practice restitution beyond these limitations and contradictions? How do we construct a research project in which the act of restitution goes beyond giving back or restoring? I believe there is more than one answer. Furthermore, I do not consider that a specific method or a procedure is one of these answers, but rather, that it should be through self-criticism and self-reflection. An interesting way of analyzing this is to think about the results of our work not as finished products, but as parts of a process. It means thinking on the “restitution” of these benefits or results, not as a unilineal and hierarchical process, in which we receive in the first place and then give back in the second place so that someone else receives in return, hoping thereby to balance the established relationship. This also leads us to question the idea that a return or restitution would produce a balance, an equivalence or allow for an equitable exchange. I wonder how often have we researchers “returned” the results of our academic work assuming that this is enough to settle our debt or reciprocate what has been given to us. Although returning the results of our research is a fundamental step in disciplinary and academic work, thinking that this exhausts the meaning and relevance of restitution could divert our attention from other highly relevant relationships and processes.

9Firstly, I consider that the “restitution” of the results of our research should not be an act aiming to settle a debt or an attempt to balance an exchange relationship. Things cannot be returned in their original state, nor is research an acquired debt, but a commitment. Regardless, restitution must be considered as part of the same research process. Therefore, it is necessary to consider that neither restitution nor giving back our work counteracts or eliminates the inequities and power relations that inevitably arise and run through any research process.

10Secondly, the act of restitution becomes sterile if it is performed as an attempt to re-establish a previous state of things or to share with the community the research findings, as if the people with whom we work had not had a central role in the construction of this work, did not know more than ourselves, or did not have their own interpretations, as if the work that is “returned” were nothing but a construction, and often individual rather than collective, as if our presence had not raised new questions and caused tensions, often, even transformed and generated new dynamics and questions in the communities and people with whom we work. That is, restitution should be thought of, above all, as a political act both capable of questioning and at the same time making us reflect on our responsibility in terms of the different power dynamics, the possibilities, and the commitments that the collective construction of knowledge opens up, or the effects and implications of ways of constructing research that tend to individualize knowledge and its production.

11This would make of restitution a process that would reveal the tensions and the contradictions of our work. This aspect of restitution could start with a deep analysis of our actions and their effects on the people and communities with whom we work. The power relations that any research process implies and constructs cannot be eliminated, but we must definitely recognize and reflect on them and take responsibility for their effects. The research process must consider as essential revealing these issues, recognizing and discussing them.

12This becomes even more relevant when we work with children. Therefore, it is important to think on restitution as a part of an exercise to question and place our research and ourselves in the terms and realities of those with whom we work. If restitution is to return something but also somehow compensate those who participate, construct, and make our work possible, then anthropological research must be able to recognize, understand, and incorporate the multiple voices, interests, epistemologies, and experiences of children with whom we work from the very moment of its inception. It is not enough that our work reveals the importance of understanding the world together with and from the children’s perspectives and experiences, but to be able to contribute so that from them, other forms of conceiving research and anthropology can materialize. I imagine this as the search for creating and recreating not only spaces for dialogue, research, and mutual learning with children, but also spaces of co-construction of other possible worlds as commitments that overpass knowledge production.

13A key aspect in a restitution process that attempts to go beyond the mere restitution of results is that its central political objective – the recognition of children’s knowledge – becomes a component of our research and academic work, and not a mere supplement or a final step in research development. Largely, this means recognizing that the academic environment and its goals, however fundamental and necessary they may be, cannot be the ones that determine the purpose, usefulness, or scope of our work. The process of returning or giving back implies opening up to the possibility of being questioned for our own work and its dynamics of disciplinary production and knowledge construction. It is the possibility that we open ourselves to a critical perspective and to the construction of new epistemological, heuristic, and political possibilities to research and establish cooperative and reciprocal relations with whom we work, in this case children. Some dynamics of academic production construct ways of perceiving and working that sometimes systematically distance us from others, stop us from becoming involved and be part of what we do, of the realities we research. These dynamics clearly involve us as researchers, but at the same time often prevent us from committing ourselves as political actors and participants in the realities we study.

14The question of restitution, of how, and what should be returned, repaid, or reciprocated can be a process for reflecting on how we engage with the realities we seek to investigate. For example, it is necessary to reflect on the extent to which the dynamics of academic production limit or exhaust our capacity to imagine other possibilities for the construction of knowledge, and even our capacity to imagine and construct other ways in which the fruits of our research can be materialized, shared, opened to dialogue, collaboration, and recognition of the knowledge and experiences of others. In this sense, it is worth questioning the impact of the fact that many times those about whom we write are not even those for whom we write. This is particularly true in the case of those of us who do anthropology of childhood, which opens a relevant discussion about the distances between those who help us produce knowledge and those for whom the knowledge we produce is intended (Jaquez et al. 2013).

15In this regard, new questions arise: what other platforms, media, and possibilities of sharing the results of our research work can we use to make them available to the children and the communities we work with – or to society in general? How can we build a restitution process that includes children and make them the target group?

From Restitution to Commitment

16A possible response to these questions is the feasibility of radically transforming the meaning of what ethically and politically “restitution” or “returning” imply in anthropology, the media, and social sciences in general. Following the ideas of the Catalan philosopher, Marina Garcés (2011), these can have totally different meanings depending on whether we think of the final bond between what we do and those who make it possible as a “return” or a “restitution” or if we think of research and anthropological work as a way of “being committed” with the realities we study. This apparently simple change of terms actually entails a transcendental transformation, since it implies that the relationship with the people and communities with whom we work does not end with the publication of the material, the end of the project, or the communication of its results. Rather, it uses these elements or procedures to give continuity to a collaborative relationship guided not only by the interest of producing knowledge, but also by the need to build new epistemic possibilities for the co-construction of social thought between academics and children, or between researchers and the people and communities that make our work possible. It is also guided by the need to collaborate in the construction of new scenarios and new emancipatory possibilities for the communities and the people with whom we work, especially children.

17Thinking on research and anthropology in general as ways of committing ourselves, as Garcés (2011) proposes, makes us capable of constructing other forms of research allowing us to “enter the scene”, that is, interrupting what is already instituted in order to “let ourselves be affected”, “break our barriers of immunity and neutralization”. According to Garcés, it means “to stop making the world a differentiated field of interests and transforming it into a battlefield in which ourselves, our identity and our comfort zone are the first affected” (2011). In other words, thinking of our work as “commitment” entails building socially committed research with emancipatory and social justice purposes that always aims to recognize the collaboration of those with whom we work and to involve them in all possible processes. This requires considering research as the creation of knowledge that responds through dialogue and in solidarity to the needs, ideals, and desires of the people and the communities with whom we work. It is necessary to accept that knowledge production is a process of dialogue and knowledge negotiations (Alonso et al. 2015). Therefore, moving from restitution to commitment requires questioning and radically transforming the relationships researcher-researched and research-product at two fundamental levels. The first one consists in no longer considering the restitution process as a mere projection of our interests or a mere communication of our ideas and conclusions to the people and the communities with whom we work, or to others. The second relates to making possible the construction of other collaborative and participatory alternatives that enable children and their communities to get involved in research design and development processes, as well as in the objectives and the strategies to be implemented for its “restitution” to the public.

18It is certainly complex and inclusive to propose research as a committed process, more so than what the word “restitution” in itself implies. Committed research implies breaking down the hierarchies of knowledge/power of scientific knowledge and questioning colonial thinking, recognizing that there are knowledge systems beyond the occidental and modern disciplinary frontiers, as states Walter Mignolo (2015). We have to understand that those whom we think of as “need to be researched” or that our research can help, in reality, possess the knowledge, abilities, and sometimes even the conditions to conduct their own research and analysis (Mignolo 2015). In any case, our research and knowledge production processes cannot ignore, exclude, or function without all that knowledge and those experiences. Therefore, we can contribute and accompany these processes, as proposed by Mignolo (2015), “from the epistemic privilege”, which means from the knowledge, tools, information, access to different resources, and training we have acquired through disciplinary and scientific knowledge, and in this way give visibility to the agencies and the agendas of those whose knowledge has been historically undervalued, subjugated, and silenced.

19By considering anthropology and social research as commitment we are invited to decenter ourselves from our own thinking and research processes, to seek other epistemological, expository and assertive possibilities in order to construct new ruptures with what is established by our disciplines, science, and expert knowledge, to foresee new emancipatory alternatives where children with their knowledge systems, subjectivities, viewpoints, and thinking processes invade and interrupt the flow of the academic, adult, expert, modern, and colonial thinking, to be recognized as participants, as meaningful producers, as protagonists of their own processes (Castillo 2019), and not as mere subjects of study or simple research participants.

20Restitution and commitment are radically different processes. Commitment is considered a non-hierarchical process. This is different to what happens when researchers record experiences, learnings, knowledge, theories, interpretations from those with whom they work – their informers or their study communities – and come back later to return products (publications) that pretend to have converted the “native” knowledge into a supposedly more systematized or legitimate set of knowledge. To consider the research from the commitment point of view could be the departing point for any reciprocity or restitution purpose that would like to go beyond these hierarchical schemes in the attempt of discovering and submerging in new dimensions and political possibilities our work (Butler 2004). For example, we should be ready to decenter, re-politicize, and de-construct some practices that we have assumed in the research process and to open ourselves to other possibilities in which children are not only the main actors, but construct theoretical and empirical knowledge systems and contribute research not foreseen by researchers.

21Returning to the ideas of Garcés (2011), we could say that a committed research or anthropology, open to other political possibilities, is one capable of inscribing new views on the world, based on recognizing as key to thought, inter-subjectivity, and interpretation the voices of those on whose oblivion, subjection, naturalization, subordination, non-existence, or marginalization the power of domination and enunciation has been built. This is an anthropology that not only questions and puts pressure on the hierarchies of disciplinary knowledge and its expository practices, but actively seeks to subvert them and proposes alternatives capable of breaking down the disciplinary order that has historically considered children as secondary social actors or even as those who “cannot talk”. As Garcés (2011) proposes, it is not simply a matter of adding the perspective of those who have been subordinated to the instituted image of the world, but of fundamentally altering our way of looking at and understanding it on the basis of what we are taught. Again, it seems to me that the relevance of these approaches for the anthropology of childhood is enormous, since disciplinary and scientific knowledge has also built its own logic of abysmal thinking around children’s thoughts and subjectivity (De Sousa Santos 2013). In other words, hierarchies of knowledge that have considered children’s thought as an “other” thought, less valuable, non-scientific, and therefore less valid or reliable. At the same time, all those “other” forms of childhood and their manifestations that radically contrast with Western and modern notions and representations of a hegemonic childhood have also been rendered non-existent and invalid (Nieuwenhuys 1998).

22In this sense, research as commitment has to be a political event in the sense that it recognizes and questions hierarchies and inequalities of power (Butler 2004), a way of breaking with the pre-established forms of disciplinary work that neutralize other possibilities of our work, for example, by reducing it to an academic field to which only a few of us have access, by separating and even denying the important link between scientific knowledge and vernacular knowledge, or between activism and academic practice, or by forcing us to exclude from the research and reflective process a set of “subjective” and “emotional” experiences that we have been taught to consider as “not very rigorous”, but which in the anthropology of childhood are fundamental to building relationships of trust, inter-learning and understanding with children, as feminist thought has shown. As a consequence, to practice committed anthropology entails to break with the “immunity” barriers of adult-modern thought establishing that the results of our academic work have to be separately constructed from the subjectivities, emotions, opinions and knowledge of the children with whom we work, from their “non-adult” ways of relating and apprehending the world (Young 2005).

23A “committed” anthropology of childhood would start from the idea that one cannot be and think if in an inscribed and situated way (Haraway 1988), within the scheme of power and subjection of which we are a part, and that our research often reproduces. Therefore, it is important to forge self-critical processes that seek to decenter and decolonize our own way of perceiving and understanding the world. Trying to re-interpret and re-order what Garcés (2011) would call “the coordinates of our own thinking”. For example, we should question the certainties of the evident and adult, objective and objectifying analyses, and try to “interrupt the meaning” of disciplinary knowledge/power that hides, violates, and silences other ways of looking, thinking and naming, in this case, those of childhood.

Concluding Remarks

24I therefore propose to deepen and go beyond restitution as the final step of the research process, and to consider research and anthropological work with children as collaborative processes aiming to subvert the separation between adult expert knowledge and children’s knowledge. Instead, we should think in terms of processes of co-construction of knowledge, in which politicizing research objectives and questions is part of its gestation and development. Rather than expecting to restitute results or products, we should break the mold and contribute to create new possibilities so that those voices that have yet to be heard are recognized, to imagine other life scenarios and make them possible, to make real the new and old ways of life and justice, together with and for children and their communities.

25Active research, committed anthropology, activist anthropology, research-action, let these or other names describe our work; the departing points are the same: visualize and respond to the ethical and political tensions that arise from research as a process of knowledge production, and be capable of responding to the needs and aims of social subjects who are co-constructors and co-authors of the research (Speed 2006), in this case the children with whom we work, but also the multiple actors and institutions that are part of their world. In this sense, I adopt the meaning that Abebe & Besell (2014) give to the concept of ethics in research with children: a process that must guarantee the compliance of what Beazley et al. (2009) have named the right to be “properly researched”, besides the right to be properly represented and to have the space and means to represent themselves; that is, the right to take part in research with the clear guarantee of respect for their rights of participation, free expression, informed consent, and protection. Of course, this will have to occur not only through conditions and codes that guarantee the highest levels of professionalism and ethical standards, but also through methods based on the recognition of children’s knowledge and viewpoints, the use of appropriate tools to provide them with information and obtain information from them, and to safeguard them against any form of abuse of power and authority (Abebe & Bessell 2014).

26To achieve this, it is necessary that the different manifestations of contemporary childhood emerge as other epistemic possibilities. In other words, spaces and tools must be created so that children, from their subjectivities and knowledge systems, can interact with disciplinary and academic thinking. It is not about denying the relevance of the latter, but of opening spaces for dialogue, collaboration and negotiation between this type of thinking and that of children’s, and with it, to recognize and value other knowledge and forms of knowing, not inscribed under the occidental scheme of modern/colonial knowledge. That is, it is necessary to destabilize the foundations of “global linear thought”, which is also that of the “expert” and of adult thinking (Leyva Solano & Speed 2015) that dictates the immaturity of a social being as the reflection of its biologic immaturity.

27To construct committed research, capable of restituting to children – as well as to their communities – something more than a product derived from our academic work and enable the birth of co-authored and collaborative projects requires “being capable of thinking and imagining beyond the imperial categories of modernity/colonialism” (Leyva Solano & Speed 2015), on which we have constructed ourselves as subjects and been trained as researchers. Otherwise, we are at risk of continuing to reproduce the hierarchical order of the expert-adult knowledge. When working with children, this easily transpires in the excluding and silencing practices applied to other ways of being and thinking.

28It is important to stress at this point that the ideas herewith expressed do not attempt to build something that must be, nor do they seek to construct a standard or an anthropologically virtuous idea from which restitution work must be considered. Since research is, among other things, a type of power relation, the starting point could be that research dynamics also produce spaces and unedited forms of inter-learning, collaboration, reciprocity, negotiation, and dialogue that most definitely enrich our socio-cultural and academic heritage (Leyva Solano et al. 2015).

29Finally, it is worth mentioning that not all restitution processes mean that children directly receive something or that an action is performed. It is as important to commit children to research and to destine them to co-constructed research results, as it is too closely work with the universe of actors that are part of their social and affective world, because these will remain in contact with the children after our research has concluded and we have left. This universe of actors could include, for example, parents and other relatives, teachers, caregivers, neighbors and community members, personnel from the governmental institutions in charge of their care, protection and wellbeing, activists, and humanitarian and non-governmental organizations, to mention a few. This is how our work dynamics should function.

Final Remarks: When Restitution Enhances and Exceeds the Research Process

30To conclude, I would like to end with a more personal touch and speak of my own experience of different processes of restitution/commitment with children and adolescent migrant workers. I have worked with children in contexts of mobility and migration, and with their families and communities since 2005, from the beginning of my training as an anthropologist. I have had to learn to live with the feeling that I have not been able to fully master the greatest complexities of my work and my vocation. Feeling that one has mastered working with children, that one knows exactly what to do when working and researching with, about, and for them, may not be very convenient in a context in which reflexivity and listening are more important than pre-established certainties.

  • 9De la montaña a la frontera: voces e imágenes de los niños mixtecos de Guerrero” (From the mountai (...)

31My first research project with children was in the community of Oacalco, Morelos, in a collective of indigenous Na Savi (Mixtec) families who had migrated from the “Montaña de Guerrero” (Guerrero Mountain) to work as day laborers in strawberry fields and who had settled in the town years later. I was invited to collaborate with a project on intercultural education in one of the elementary schools of the community and was given the opportunity to develop my undergraduate thesis. We designed a project to identify children’s knowledge on subjects that teachers and researchers discussed almost exclusively among adults and from the adult perspective, with the aim of recognizing the importance of their life experiences and inner thoughts on fundamental matters for interculturality and bilingual and indigenous education. The final outcome was the publication of a small book containing the stories, testimonies, and drawings of approximately 50 children from first to sixth grade, aiming to help teachers understand the richness of the knowledge and culture of the Na Savi indigenous community and to help the children, their families, and communities to (re)appropriate said richness and knowledge9.

32Here, it is fundamental to differentiate between the processes in which children are recognized as important social actors for the research. This largely or completely depends on their experiences and knowledge, and the processes in which children conduct, construct, and develop research by themselves (Kellet 2005), the researcher only meant to facilitate and accompany. The case mentioned above was more of the first type. Nevertheless, paraphrasing Kincheloe (2005), the idea was to design research, thinking, and analysis processes in which children felt intensively committed to a study aimed at showcasing their social and educational lives.

33The result of this process was a book that gathered their testimonies about national and international migration, discrimination, ethnical identity, attachment/detachment to the land, child labor, the loss of their native language, cultural transformation, acculturation, poverty, and processes through which they appropriated for themselves Oacalco, the community at the receiving end of the Mixteca migration, which they transformed into an extension of their native community. Some of these categories and interests were pre-selected, but the methodological development enabled the children to redefine the questions and objectives. Therefore, they were able to point out elements and subjects that had been ignored but were fundamental and had to be included: for example, the role of indigenous cosmovision and rituality in Na Savi children’s identity, the forms of discrimination that arise in the native community towards those who have left, or the differences that arise among children that stay in the community and those who emigrate and learn other abilities and knowledge, but at the same time lose Na Savi abilities and knowledge, such as how to walk in the mountain, make tortillas, care for animals, identify healing plants, etc.

34An example of a work process that can illustrate one way in which the children’s knowledge modified the research trajectory is the following: from previous work with teachers and students, we had identified the importance of talking about racism and discrimination in order to address, without blaming anyone in particular, existing problems of discrimination among indigenous and mestizo children at school. We then proposed the exercise of constructing individual stories, taking advantage of a call on this subject launched by the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminación – CONAPRED). The result was that while mestizo children elaborated stories about discrimination based on the representations, concepts and symbols of the dominant urban and television culture, several Na Savi children employed the narrative structure of myths of their culture of origin to address examples of discrimination, their own and learnt, but above all, to address thoughts of greater transcendence and scope, such as the common origin of humanity, or the fact that we all share the “same blood” despite having a different skin color. It was an exercise that allowed us not only to recognize the children’s experiences as sources of cultural knowledge production, socially relevant to their life contexts (Glockner Fagetti 2008), but also to reveal and incorporate the different structures of collective representation and cultural imaginaries around discrimination, race, and equality. With this, the structures of meaning raised by the children, allowed the development of conversations that placed their own notions, experiences and representations at the center of the debate and dialogue. It also enabled the development of a critical awareness of their multicultural social, cultural, and educational environment, and thereby the recognition and transformation of their position in these environments (Diaz Soto & Swadener 2005).

35In terms of the experience of restitution/returning/commitment there are other important elements to highlight as well. First, the attention had been focused on the final product: a book in which the children would see in print their experiences and knowledge, through testimonies, narratives, and drawings. It was a material object they could possess, share, and distribute and that would also be used by the community schoolteachers. Even though the book was a reason of pride and enthusiasm among the children and their families, and indeed enabled teachers to reinforce their knowledge on the lives and culture of their students, my inexperience at the time and enthusiasm with this task prevented me from seeing and resolving issues then that I can now recognize as even more important. Firstly, the book could not be printed in Mixtec, but only in Spanish, partly because the families spoke two different variants of Mixtec, but also because it was not possible to manage the time and the resources necessary to achieve one or more translations. This was a major flaw, and, of course, it meant that the main objectives of the book were not fully attained and that there was no generalized and long-term appropriation of this material by the children and their community. A further difficulty was that virtually none of the children or adults in the community could read or write Mixtec.

36In the end, the construction process of the book was more important than the book itself and it became an enriching restitution exercise in the sense that it responded to dynamics and necessities that were relevant to the children at that moment in time. They started recognizing themselves as a collective, possessing extremely valuable knowledge and abilities after numerous group meetings with the object of sharing their personal, family, and community stories – real or imaginary – through activities such as theatre, drawing, written and oral storytelling, games, mural painting, and toy construction. Thus, they created and claimed for themselves a space that did not formally exist in the school: a space for the Na Savi language and imaginary. As their native tongue and ethnic identity had more presence in the school through the aforementioned activities, they realized that they were a community within the school, larger and more cohesive than they had initially perceived. The financial award to the project for publication, made the headteacher and the teachers accept it and enthusiastically support the activities. After several months of work, the result was that Mixteco children put aside their shyness and discomfort and now dared to speak out loud their language, anywhere and whenever in school. They started to face discrimination, mockery, and bullying from their mestizo classmates cohesively as a group through language, identity, and a sense of belonging.

37Finally, the major richness in the restitution/returning/commitment attempt was in all those initially “unplanned” processes that emerged thanks to the interaction among the same children, who gave the work its deep value, and which had been unforeseeable during the research design. The key to this was intense fieldwork focused on a methodology based on the principle that knowledge production started with the recognition of the experiences, the knowledge, and the inner thoughts of children as fundamental components of the theoretical analysis and the ethnographic material, but also, that such analysis arises and is built predominantly in spaces, moments, and playful and non-formal interactions in which children have the possibility of determining the contents and direction of individual and collective research activities, through tools such as games, narratives, drawings, theatre, crafts, walks to explore the environment, picnics, trips to nearby locations, etc.

38When the project ended, the relationship had become so close that even after 13 years I am still in touch with several of the participating families and children, now young people between 19 and 23 years old. They are currently parents of small children and pre-teens, and our contact and companionship has become so close that it has been transferred to personal and family processes of all kinds. With some of them, our relation has even evolved into ritual kinship – godmother – and it has enabled us to take the dynamics of restitution and commitment to completely different levels that for me are now inseparable, not only from the process of research, documentation, and knowledge building, but also from my personal and professional life.

39I would like to close this text by mentioning that my research work with children has always taken place in contexts of deep and violent inequalities. This has not necessarily led me to characterize children as “vulnerable” subjects and social actors. Rather, I am in favor of recognizing their experiences, lives, and wisdom beyond categories such as this one, which often function more as an attempt to essentialize, to erase and to reduce people and realities that are much more complex. The structures of subjection and inequality to which migrant and working children are subjected to have been crucial and at times decisive, in the way in which my research and academic work respond to their life stories and trajectories. Of late, my research with Mexican and Central American children and adolescents in contexts of mobility and migration has led to restitution being above all a process in which, first and foremost, there is a need to respond to legal, economic, and emergency safeguarding situations, as well as to violations of human rights.

40These are situations in which the research process often must be accelerated, diverted, interrupted, or cut off in ways that are not easy to foresee and in which the research must also serve as a denunciation and defense mechanism. In this instance, research appears subordinated to other needs for documentation and restitution/collaboration that go beyond the academic. Notwithstanding, these needs give another meaning and richness to the research process. This implies that the results are not always easy to translate into documents and outcomes that the academic community recognizes, and these results may also have many security and privacy implications that are even more challenging and relevant. However, from my point of view, they offer possibilities for rethinking and re-inventing the role of social research and restitution with migrant children and adolescents in an era marked by serious and profound inequalities and violence.


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9De la montaña a la frontera: voces e imágenes de los niños mixtecos de Guerrero” (From the mountain to the border : voices and images of the Guerrero Mixteco children), published in 2008 with the support of Programa de Apoyo a las Culturas Municipales y Comunitarias (PACMYC) (Program in Support of Municipal and Community Cultures).


Anthropologue attachée au Département des Recherche en Éducation (DIE) au CINVESTAV (Mexique), est spécialisée dans l’enfance, la migration et l’anthropologie de l’État (Mexique, Inde et États-Unis). Elle explore les méthodologies réflexives et participatives, et les stratégies d’autoreprésentation ethnographique. Récompensées par des prix nationaux (INAH, COLMICH, Académie des sciences du Mexique), elle a (co-)dirigé divers projets (Alliance ConTex, National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation) et reçu des bourses de l’Institute for Advanced Studies de Princeton et du Matías Romero Program. Elle est membre fondateur du réseau de chercheurs sur l’enfance et la migration dans le Sud : Colectiva Infancias.


An anthropologist at the Department of Educational Research (DIE) at CINVESTAV (Mexico), specializes in childhood, migration, and the anthropology of the state (Mexico, India, and the United States). She explores reflexive and participatory methodologies, and strategies of ethnographic self-representation. She has received national awards (INAH, COLMICH, Mexican Academy of Sciences), (co-)led various projects (ConTex Alliance, National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation), and received fellowships from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and the Matías Romero Program. She is a founding member of the network of researchers on childhood and migration in the South: Colectiva Infancias.

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