Version classiqueVersion mobile

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 3. Towards a “Committed Encounter”? Participatory Action Research and Restitution With Street Children (La Paz, Bolivia)

Charles-Édouard de Suremain


À partir de la lecture d’une collaboration volontaire réalisée dans un « centre de réhabilitation » pour enfants des rues en Bolivie, qui s’est transformée en travail de terrain ethnographique, je propose de revisiter la manière dont la restitution s’est construite entre les différents acteurs et l’ethnologue. Je montrerai en particulier comment la restitution a été étroitement liée à la recherche ethnographique, et comment elle a été modulée à la suite de réactions, explications, analyses et propositions des enfants. Après avoir défini la notion de « rencontre impliquée », cette dernière étant un préalable à la restitution, je soulignerai quelques enseignements méthodologiques plus généraux sur les manières de faire de l’anthropologie avec les enfants.

Texte intégral

  • 22 Like the Declaration of Helsinki I (1964) and that of the International Tribunal of Nuremberg (1947 (...)

1The broad movement of “decolonization of anthropology” (Asad 1973; Escobar 1991), also called “epistemology” of the South by De Sousa Santos (2009), is still very much alive in Latin America. Since the Second World War, protocols as well as universal ethics committees have been set up22 for all research related to human participants. Currently, in Latin America, all such research is framed in protocols presented to ethics committees, that is, not only for clinical or health research, but also for anthropology and social sciences. All the people who will be interviewed, observed, part of focus groups, or will participate in some way must sign an informed consent form stipulating that they have been informed of the aims of the research, the methods to be applied, the possible risks, and the possibility of leaving the study group. In this same document, the means for a formal return of the research outcomes are mentioned – feedback/restitution in which the different actors will participate. The protocols are evaluated or accredited by universities.

  • 23 Cf. Bosa (2008) for an Australian example of the extreme control exercised by authorities on how to (...)
  • 24 The Nagoya Protocol is the most recent (2011). It includes provisions on “the treatment of traditio (...)
  • 25 This is the subject of abundant literature: cf. Razy’s critical synthesis (2014). Based on three ca (...)
  • 26 In addition to Vidal (2011), cf. also Zonabend (1994), Flamant (1997), Bergier (2000), Chauvier (20 (...)

2These protocols are intrinsic to research, starting with the project’s preparations, during the development of the project and finally the return of the results23. Notwithstanding, it is necessary to mention that the protocols are subject to numerous local appropriations, despite regulations. Establishing more refined protocols, through which more and more limitations are imposed on researchers, especially in the social sciences, does not change things much24. If it were enough to apply prescriptive instructions to get rid of the burden of the past of a discipline and move on to “another anthropology” (ethical, decentralized, dialogic, or transparent, for example), it would no longer be necessary to engage in debates on ethics25, informed consent, or even on what interests us here, restitution26. The fact that protocols are becoming more and more formalized does not mean that there are no substantive discussions on the subject.

  • 27 On the differences between involvement, commitment, application, or even activism in anthropology, (...)

3My hypothesis is that restitution, ethics, and, more generally, the strict adherence to a protocol should not be decreed, but rather built through a dual process: on the one hand, the commitment of the researcher27, and on the other hand, the active participation of the actors that make the study possible. As Vidal (2011) recalls, “giving an account of the research results to those who have [welcomed the anthropologist] does not deserve any justification a priori, so much so that this approach seems acquired”. This principle should be applied, as far as possible, in multiple ways and poses many methodological challenges to the researcher.

4“Too many rules kill the rules”, as we say when the inflexible execution of a regulation devastates creativity, innovation, spontaneity, or simply negotiations between the actors. Serious consequences can result from the strict application of regulations, if one considers, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962), that “the ethnographic relationship” (Leservoisier & Vidal eds. 2005), which is the foundation of the anthropological approach, comes more from “bricolage” than from “engineering”. For the record, it should be remembered that the former corresponds to art, to know-how, and to the often-improvised aestheticism of the respectful use of the local categories of understanding (emic) of the people that allow the anthropologist to carry out his or her work. On the other hand, the latter aims at applying universal explanatory categories (etic), regardless of the local context, because modern science is most effective, especially for those who promote it. The issue in this text is not to decide if research protocols, ethics, and a return on the project are within the “do-it-yourself” or the “engineering” category, but rather to understand what their use in fieldwork can – or not – contribute to the anthropology of childhood. Once again, the formalization of research protocols in institutions and universities does not exhaust this debate.

  • 28 This project was undertaken in the city of El Alto, located in the highlands of the city of La Paz. (...)

5To better understand the return process that I wish to highlight, I will rely on the voluntary collaborative research project that I conducted in a rehabilitation center for niños de la calle (“street children”) in La Paz, Bolivia, which later became ethnographic fieldwork with children28. I was faced with a series of proposals, coming from the children, for analysis, interpretations, and activities for outreach. These proposals, which I did not expect in this context, made it possible to question the systematic nature of the “paradigm of ethical restitution” that derives from the strict application of research protocols, and to highlight some clues about the need to propose what I call a “committed encounter” among the various actors in research; I mean the researcher’s willingness to collaborate and share his or her research with his or her interlocutors, not only as a supposedly ethical pretext, but as a methodological imperative. In European countries, traditionally, restitution as an event is recognized and especially at the end of a project, but rarely the process of restituting or its transversal nature (Farnarier 2015). In Latin America, the ethical standards enunciated by universities are applied throughout the project, from its elaboration to the final “return”. I will try to show that a “committed encounter” is the necessary condition for the shared construction of restitution, this being not a specific and later moment of the project, but a structuring axis of its development and a guarantee of its methodological validity.

First Steps in the Field

  • 29 La Esperanza:

6I lived in the city of La Paz, Bolivia, for 5 years, working on a participatory action research project on child growth and development between Bolivia and Peru (Suremain et al. 2003). In 2001, Serge Vincenti, a photographer friend who lives there, invited me “to urgently do something humane for street children”. At that time, he worked on photographic reports of precarious populations (small artisans, patients at the psychiatric hospital, the women’s ward at the prison). His initiative had sprouted from a boy he had found on the street, whom he had tried to save in vain. The boy was part of a gang or band of children who frequently visited a rehabilitation shelter called El Terreno29. The children had asked my friend to take the boy to the shelter where he could receive better care than in a hospital. Said structure was supervised by a religious political refugee from Peru that had some medical skills. In the end, the boy died, and the gang returned to the street after his burial. Shortly thereafter, some boys asked my photographer friend for help, who confided in me his amazement and questions.

Previous Queries

  • 30 This is the case with child soldiers, HIV-positive children, orphans, and even child laborers who a (...)

7First and foremost, it is important to clarify the terminology. At the beginning of the 2000s, governmental and non-governmental organizations estimated that some 1,000 children lived permanently, day and night, on the streets of La Paz and its surroundings. This detail is useful because the phrase “street child” refers to one of the many etic categories defined and promoted by the UN30 in order to facilitate social action dedicated to rehabilitation. It refers to those children who live permanently on the street, and who earn money from various “street activities”. On the other hand, the term “child on the street” refers to children who work temporarily on the streets and who return home to eat and sleep (Olivier de Sardan & Tidjani Alou eds. 1997). It should be noted that the children mentioned here appropriated the UN category and are called “street children”.

  • 31 These questions are raised by other committed anthropologists in different fields: cf. for example, (...)

8Since 1988, the international NGO ENDA-Bolivia has been developing a drug prevention program in the highlands of La Paz (city of El Alto). When I began to research the local institutions that worked for the supposed benefit of these 1,000 street children, I realized that the children suffered from a “triple denial”: a denial of social existence, a denial of action, and a denial of history – using Bensa’s (2006) words. Furthermore, doing something humane and urgently for street children was an unprecedented challenge for me, as I was experienced in the anthropology of development, but not in emergency humanitarian actions. I was not accustomed to planning humanitarian interventions, but rather to conducting preliminary research. Meeting the actors and their social and cultural environment before even starting the project has always been an inevitable methodological and ethical requirement for me. It seems inconceivable to me – in any way, shape, or form – to dive in without the consent of the so-called “beneficiaries”, in development jargon. The challenges in my friend’s proposal were important: how to reconcile the urgency and the prior acquisition of knowledge that would allow us to support, accompany, and “form a body” with the action? What procedures should be applied in order to meet quality requirements and data quality demands that would increase the chances of success? How does one establish a relationship of open trust with street children in these conditions? How does one give specific help when the anthropologist only has ethnography available31?

9It was first about knowing where I was treading and consequently asking the right questions: what is it that helps establish relationships between street children? Although I had heard about street gangs, I did not know anything about their composition, morphology, importance, or mode of sociability, nor did I know their rules of organization and their mode of survival. While evolving in an a priori known context, I discovered a universe of marginality and rupture that I was unaware of. This was the first challenge. Yet is it possible to reflect on the social organization of street children without touching upon the whole research process? Not only is this process capable of providing data, but it also leads the anthropologist to consider the conditions in which he or she exercises his or her profession. What are the theoretical, methodological, and ethical implications of collaborative research under these conditions? What place does restitution occupy? What role does the anthropologist have? What are the scopes with respect to children? Finding answers to these questions was another challenge. Finally, there was an almost contractual commitment to reflect with and for the children on the possible paths for improvement of their daily existence and future. This is what I later called the anthropologist’s “constructive commitment”, which is based on the “committed encounter” of the anthropologist with the children (Suremain 2013b), and which takes into account all of the questions raised.

The Choice of Participatory Action Research

10Consequently, I began to think about the possibility of developing participatory action research, that is, research which is designed and whose objectives, execution, and benefits are defined by the beneficiaries themselves. It was about co-building an activity with the children so that they would eventually reap the benefits that they would have negotiated and set themselves. Although tempting, I will not discuss here the approximation between a return and the constructivist approach elaborated in particular by Guba and Lincoln (1998), nor will I insist on the place of restitution in the paradigm of participatory action research (Fals-Borda & Rahman eds. 1991), which is partially framed by the constructivist paradigm. I will focus on the operative concept, common to both approaches, according to which restitution contributes to the general objective destined to generate a better understanding of the studied situations (Avenier 2011) from the knowledge produced, which is necessarily hermeneutical.

  • 32 The concept has been barely studied in anthropology, except for Fisher (2014) and Scheper-Hughes (1 (...)

11For me, participatory action research had to be clearly established as an objective for initiating a process of rehabilitation for street children both as historical actors and as social actors who act. This was the equivalent of helping them find, at least in part, what they themselves called their “dignity”32. In a certain sense, by broadening this triple position, it coincides with the notion of empowerment (Cernea 1985), according to which actors and groups mutually reinforce each other through participation in a project. The research hypotheses are those of Olivier de Sardan (1995) on the actor in the sense that he or she has a capacity for action in his or her own existence and future. This means that he or she appropriates events by giving them meaning. The problem in the present case was to know if these hypotheses could be verified for street children. This is a broad question, and the concept of agency only allows us to examine it partially (Honwana & De Boeck 2005; Lancy 2012).

Meeting and Mutual Commitment

12It was in El Terreno that the meetings and the participatory ethnographic study took place. El Terreno actually refers to a modest dwelling without water or electricity surrounded by a large vacant lot in the city of El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz, at an altitude of 4,200 m asl. That is where Doris, the aforementioned religious nurse, works. That is where she tirelessly defends her rehabilitation program called Luz de Esperanza, based on the voluntary participation of children in everyday activities. That is where dozens of street children find to this day a temporary refuge to sleep, eat, bathe, and attempt a withdrawal cure from drugs and alcohol. I started my voluntary collaboration by making regular visits to the field, just to talk or play soccer. There, I never found the same children. There was a continuous flow of children who came to sleep and eat at El Terreno and then return to the streets. Their “normal” life was in the street, they said; the shelter was just a temporary refuge.

The “Click” of the Camera and the Production of Interviews

13Little by little, having established trust between the children, my photographer friend, and myself, the conversations began. Eventually, some even asked to have photographs taken of them, some in groups. They all agreed that they did not want pictures taken of their faces, but of their injuries. It was at this point that the ethnographic research actually began. I took the opportunity to ask them the reasons for this request. They clarified that they wanted to leave “evidence” of their street fighting and also of their daily life on the street. It was then that I realized that the staging of those wounded bodies was not intended to display misery or pain, but rather to establish a first encounter to meet and “tame” each other. At least that is my interpretation. In fact, the photos triggered a series of spontaneous stories about their ordinary life and more specifically about the various events that had led them to life on the street. This information represented a great amount of analyzable data (see Jankowski et al. 2015 on ethno-photography as a collaborative knowledge construction procedure).

14Getting used to hearing stories of fights among children and anecdotes of everyday life on the street, I then began to reorganize my notes to develop a plot of analysis. I figured I could perhaps conduct interviews more systematically, although I was not completely convinced, given the unfortunate condition of children. However, in a couple of weeks, I was able to carry out five in-depth interviews of a dozen children. The interviews were obviously not conducted in accordance with the canonical rules of the methodological guides. Sometimes interrupted by long pauses, often by the arrival of a child, I had to constantly adapt to the context, and to some extent question my work habits. Some of the children interviewed had not yet entered the rehabilitation program. For obvious reasons of availability, security, and discretion, the interviews took place at the shelter. The topics ranged from the least sensitive to the most intimate: social relations in the gang (on the street and in El Terreno), health and food, violence and robbery, drug and alcohol use, family life, and perspectives on the future.

  • 33 My first scientific publication on street children focused on “selective affinities” (Suremain 2006 (...)

15I was amazed to discover the children’s pride in recounting their lives. Gradually, other children visiting El Terreno approached the first group and asked that they take pictures of them as well. Obviously, the photo sessions had a playful dimension: the children made fun of each other, reminding one another of their failures, fears, or fleeting victories. The jokes also allowed them to remember and share their experiences. At the time, I heard the words “brothers” and “brotherhood” spoken several times by the boys. I interpreted the use of this category as a way of making explicit the strong relationship that united them in sharing the many types of pain that their bodies had endured and that they wanted to represent33.

16A collaborative ethnographic project then started. This approach corresponds to what Lassiter (2001) calls “collaborative and reciprocal ethnography”. In other words, the children related more and more stories, anecdotes, details on how they slept, ate, shared drugs, but also on the attitudes of passersby, policemen, physicians, market vendors, or of the city cemetery guards, where they went to drink. And little by little I wrote down the stories, until I asked them if I could record them. The children were enthusiastic about the idea. They wanted to be systematically recorded by commenting on the printed photos that had been given to them. Over time, we even repeated the experience with some of them. Their idea was to retell more and more periods, moments, or events in their lives. Thus, the children progressively became more involved in the research, not only as data producers but as collaborators.

The Co-Production of Life Stories

17At some point a boy asked me to read back to him the notes I had taken of what he had said. Other children also made the request, so I had no alternative but to restitute the information I had collected. We had reading sessions that quickly turned into very lively discussions. Sometimes the children clarified some points, other times they eliminated details; on several occasions they argued about an event, usually a fight, that seemed either true or false to them.

18Then some children asked me for pens and paper so that they could write down their memories, their own “statements” as they called them. Obviously, most of the children could neither read nor write. But they were not discouraged. Rather, they demanded that “those in the know”, including me, help them write up their notes. That interactive or collaborative moment lasted for months but with frequent interruptions due to the rhythm of life on the street. But the collective dynamic did not stop; it only followed different forms on different occasions. Sometimes I would go to El Terreno without getting to see anyone; other times I would find six and up to ten children to play with; and at yet other times, some wanted to continue with the notes, readings, and/or conversations.

19The statements were very diverse: some short, others long; some detailed, others more abstract. On several occasions, the boys stopped carrying the photos they had taken and began to write alone or help each other. Some boys preferred to be “interviewed like journalists”, they said. So, slowly, the idea emerged for the statements to be published in the press. This moment was an opportunity to talk about the image of children in the public sphere, more specifically the negative image of them in the press and in society in general.

Writing a Collective Book

20The life stories, photographs, and interviews requested by the children generated a relatively important and heteroclite corpus of great interest to ethnography. To store the material, I asked them if they would allow me to transcribe it. Not only did they give me permission, but some offered their help. Sometimes, I would type it up while their texts and annotations were read to me. My photographer friend also helped with the task, taking advantage of the moment to take more photographs. I printed the transcribed material so as to leave a copy at the shelter at El Terreno. From then on, each child wanted to have his own copy to keep where he would sleep from time to time in the shelter. Obviously, it was impossible to carry the printed material around on the street. It was amazing to observe that the document became one of the children’s few material objects, if not the only one, as if it were a type of “reference point” that allowed them to connect with the material world.

21After a short time, some children talked about “making a notebook”, gathering all the photographs and texts. To complete the notebook, they decided to have my friend take even more photos of their daily life on the street. Gradually the structure of the notebook was refined. The children also invited me to accompany them in the streets so I could get to know the places where they ate, slept, took drugs or alcohol, or where they went to look for cardboard boxes to sleep in or something to cover themselves with in case of heavy rain. They even showed me their bathrooms, the public water faucets, and the market stands that gave them fruit or used clothes. They pointed out a physician who would not tend to one of them, and they also introduced us to a nurse who gave them pills in case of acute pain. These types of “commented” or “iconographic itineraries” (Thibaud 2002; Dewael 2011; Le Guern & Themines 2011) were a real learning experience for me. They allowed me to experience, not just hear the children’s stories. So I was able to develop a type of “collaborative ethnography” under the children’s strict control. The description of each space or activity was validated by the comments, additions, and deletions of the participants. The corpus of transcribed data grew exponentially; it reached about fifty pages of text, without including the also accumulating photographs.

22The idea for making a “nice book” came up almost by chance, during a conversation between some children. They asked for my opinion on the subject. I explained the advantages and difficulties of the project, insisting on the fact that it would necessarily be their book and that it could not be otherwise. I insisted that they had done all the work but that several things were still missing to make the idea concrete, starting with money. They already knew that they could count on my friend to take the photos, but we informed them about the cost of the printing process and the printed copies. We presented them with budgets. They obviously wanted to contribute to the expenses with the little money they had. And they quickly agreed to do a fundraiser with the NGOs dedicated to the rehabilitation of street children. They also decided to ask for money “from the rich”; that is, from embassies, government, and development institutions.

23After multiple failures in their search for funds, we explained to them how to present the book project, insisting on their attire. We also explained that they should not be asking for money while drunk or drugged. After this first learning phase, a month was enough to raise the money necessary for printing. To finance the publication of the book, we turned to the foreign community of La Paz. We also benefited from the support of the Association des Œuvres Sociales (Social Work charity) of the Research Institute for Development (IRD). Some children went to the publishing house to supervise the printing stages of the book, then went off to sell it themselves. For the occasion, the children traveled in small groups, advised each other, and helped each other improve their oral presentation skills as well as their clothing. They put their know-how of the city to the service of the project. For this phase, my friend and I had previously conversed with international schools, embassies, consulates, major international institutions, and even local NGOs. It turned out that the book was published three months after the fundraising process started, which was quite gratifying for the children. In the end, the 500 copies sold out quickly. All proceeds went to the children. We had to print the book again with similar success.

Towards a Success Story?

24Research can be rewarding for more than one reason, first and foremost for the children; however, is this a success story? It presents both the problem of the sustainability of the initiative as well as the expected and unexpected positive and negative effects for the participants.

What Does Success Mean?

  • 34 The Suez Foundation, linked to one of the most powerful water distribution companies in the world: (...)
  • 35 (...)
  • 36

25Initially, the project created a domino effect that led to other initiatives, proposals, and funding. An important French foundation34 made it possible to obtain water and electricity in El Terreno. It also subsequently financed infrastructure: greenhouses to grow flowers sold to the churches and the renovation of the shelter itself. Over the following ten years, various other foundations, NGOs, and the Catholic Church (Diocese of La Paz and the Order of Sister Doris) took over. Obtaining these financial resources based on local interpersonal relationships called for the creation of a website35. This communication effort had the effect of freeing the administrative situation of the Luz de Esperanza charity, which was then legally recognized by the mayor of El Alto. On the other hand, the project had unexpected consequences, some of which presented difficulties. Thanks to the website, many travelers and tourists visit and make donations, volunteers serve as interns, the charity has even been the stage for a “cultural and social trip” in a French travel agency (much like the slum tours that take place in Brazil). The charity received the support of a radio chain. The Bolivian airline Aerosur even proposed to transfer funds from other countries in the region (Peru and Argentina in particular)36. Unfortunately, I have been unable to study the perception that children have of these important events.

26Nevertheless, the (relative) inflow of money was not a guarantee for the success of other, not less important, aspects. Thus, the distribution of tasks in the charity (site management, flower sales accounting, among others) gave priority to the boys and left out the girls, who ended up flowing in after having been initially excluded. Although not formally excluded, girls had subordinate responsibilities until recently. Now they occupy a place that is equivalent to that of the boys. For example, the construction of a bedroom for girls was completed after many difficulties, probably related to the (too) central but indispensable place of Sister Doris in the scenario. In addition, if regularity in financial sources was never really attained, the risk of losing the children and never seeing them again certainly existed, favored by the media success of the charity. In fact, reactivating participatory dynamics has been a permanent challenge for the charity from its creation until today. Despite the passage of time, how to encourage individual strategies aimed at the community remains a difficulty.

27In just a few years, the street has become a stage where NGOs, charities, and philanthropists compete to do something for street children. However, children are not fooled by this proliferation of good intentions, first because they rarely translate into long-term action. Children also say that they feel instrumentalized by reintegration projects to the extent that they are treated as “beggars”. The children entrusted me with many stories about the actions proposed by local NGOs in favor of street children. For example, the children severely criticized a “ladies’” NGO that offered them money in exchange for drawings on Sundays, in front of the church that these women regularly attended. The children said that the women just wanted to win “their share of paradise” for free, that is, without any effort.

28Other projects, more appealing to the children, offer detoxification programs or help with back-to-school supplies. An NGO (Nayra, which no longer exists today) had an ambulance that parked in a square in the center of La Paz: the children knew of it in case they were injured. However, the most coherent programs rarely correspond to the children’s deeper aspirations. Little, say the latter, are they “risking” for them. Much more than material or medical assistance, the children require understanding, care, and affection, as if understanding them implied “risking” something or even themselves. This seems to be the meaning behind the incredible paradox that a child expresses through the idea of being “lucky to be on the street”: just as it is necessary to risk one’s life to survive, it is also necessary to risk one’s life so that others can understand it. In the confrontation between children and agents, be they anthropologists, NGOs, charities, or others, it seems that roles and position no longer exist.

Transferring Knowledge to Action

29How was the knowledge transferred into action? Did the research increase the chances of success of the broader rehabilitation program for street children? Did the children find, at least partially, through this research what they called their “dignity”?

30One answer is that it is not how the knowledge is produced but how it has been acquired that affects the program. Participatory action research can verify this: the action is constituted in the problematization of the facts, and this is built into the action. A return is, therefore, an integral part of the process, and is not limited to “returning” something after the fact. The different semantic insinuations of the word “return”, in French, are discussed by Vidal (2011): theft, debt, restitution, among which the author prefers the concept of “accountability”. Even if my hypothesis ascertained that we should know the social universe of the street children before acting, it was the children’s request that validated it. If I perceived that the issue of the social bond in the gang was the starting block, it was the children who guided me in that direction and gave me the opportunity to explore it.

31A second answer is that the deepening of the social bond was gradual and iterative. It was built on negotiation. The photographs, the drawings, and the life stories, followed one another. This first phase led to individual and collective interviews, then to observations in the street. Finally, individual and collective conversations about the observations were held and a set of data was collected. At the same time, the project of publishing a collective book was born. It was this project that served as “glue” to the research, what guided the process and gave it meaning, what best embodied the social bond between the children, and what greatly motivated the street children to actively participate in the rehabilitation program.

32The status of the image was unique in the process. It constituted a starting point that referred to the desire to show what cannot be shown. It was a response from the children themselves to the denial of their social existence that was bestowed upon them. Because of and thanks to the photos, they challenged their status as “untouchables”. The status of observations was also important. It referred to the will of the children not wanting to hide anymore in everyday life. Observations were complementary to the photos: they illustrated the committed long-term relationship between the children and the anthropologist, a relationship based on respect and trust. Another essential component was the status of the word. It referred to the will to explain or rather to explain oneself. The word was a direct response to the “denial of action” suffered by street children in beneficent speeches. For the children, speaking was a first step towards their capacity to assume their own destiny. In short, the status of the text referred to the desire to set events in time. It was a response to the denial of history suffered by the children. Writing also expressed their desire to integrate society by controlling an ability deemed “normal” for any other child of their age.

33From all this, it should be noted that the children intended to become the actors of their rehabilitation, and that they considered this possibility within the framework of a “dignified” existence to which they gave meaning thanks to their activities. In its own way, participatory action research constituted one of these activities where the anthropologist became a convinced and committed “facilitator” (Suremain 2013a), with the challenging condition that the anthropologist have his hands free, in other words, that he have enough time and institutional freedom to carry out the research. There was also the condition that the children let the anthropologist become acquainted with them and discover them, thus enshrining a personal experience forever remarkable and unique.


34Considering the entire process, one may wonder if it is still possible to speak of restitution. Indeed, traditionally in European countries, it is understood that restitution refers to a formal return (as in an account, a report) of the data after the project by the researcher to the informants, as if the return were a vertical process and the data collection job were only carried out by the researcher. The collaborative research project presented here is quite the opposite. In fact, there was no moment of restitution as such, but rather a continuous feedback throughout what I would much rather call a “dialogical encounter”. This could be defined as a horizontal dialogue process between various actors who consider themselves equal to each other; in other words, between actors who do not perceive an asymmetry or a hierarchy regarding the importance of each one’s voice.

  • 37 Author’s translation.

35The relatively long duration (two years) of the anthropologist’s presence in the field, and later in the streets, made possible the mutual domestication of the actors. That was the minimum condition for the establishment of trust that allowed the taking of photographs and the work on the life stories, the testimonies, and the descriptions of street life. As Vidal (2011) says: “The return is not, then, the conclusion of an investigation, but a stepping stone toward other projects, which the anthropologist must assume.37

36Perhaps, though, duration was not a sufficient condition. It also took the commitment of all the actors to provide support: (i) on the part of the photographer who had to put aside his own aesthetic pride and obey the rules set by the children; (ii) by the anthropologist who had to put aside his established theoretical framework to respect the particular rhythm that children impose on research; (iii) on the part of the children to reveal their rugged and failed existence in the face of a society that perceives them as dangerous, dirty, rude, and useless, and that denies them their status as actors and citizens.

37Finally, we can question the modalities for restituting the results of ethnographic studies to children. From the exposed scenarios, two specific elements emerge: on one hand, the importance of having children face to face who have a voice (or not) and, on the other, the presence (or absence) of adult leaders (like parents or guardians) who speak for the children. In both cases, what exactly should be presented to the children? What is supposed to be within the reach of children? What is not? How can we meet their expectations? At what point in the process? Before publication or after?

38In fact, it was during the oral appraisal of the research that children with a voice stood out. They were allowed to express themselves and explain how they had lived the research process, what they would retain from it, what had changed for them. In this regard, it should be noted that the forms of restitution were scarce and hardly diversified. Aside from posts incorporating photographs, stories, and children’s drawings, there do not seem to be many options. Signing a publication in plural sometimes happens, but it is more of a guarantee of appreciation for the children’s participation in the work than a recognition of their role, and a true return. Gérard Lutte (1997), for example, adds “and 59 street children” to the title of the text. Even rarer, finally, are the cases in which children continue encouraging the activities previously initiated with a project, research or otherwise. Furthermore, this participation cannot be anything other than ephemeral because children grow up and stop being children at some point.

39In short, if restitution can be anticipated at the institutional level, as is done today in Latin American universities, it cannot be applied without the active collaboration of the actors, here children, beyond formal informed consent. The anthropological approach is fundamentally exploratory, and its outcomes are always unexpected. It would then be contradictory to systematically plan restitution. Perhaps one can anticipate the pitfalls of research and try to avoid them. There is then no “recipe” as to what “good restitution” should be as specified by contemporary ethical research policies. Undoubtedly, the rhythm of the “dialogical encounter” can be much less intrusive and much more satisfying and enriching for everyone.


Albert B. 1995 « Anthropologie appliquée ou ‘anthropologie impliquée’. Ethnographie, minorités et développement » (87-118), In J.-F. Baré (dir.) Les applications de l’anthropologie. Un essai de réflexion collective depuis la France. Paris : Karthala.

Asad T. (dir.) 1973 Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Atlantic Highlands NJ : Humanities Press.

Avenier M.-J. 2011 « Les paradigmes épistémologiques constructivistes : post-modernisme ou pragmatisme? » Management & Avenir 3(43) URL :

Bensa A. 2006 La fin de l’exotisme. Essais d’anthropologie critique. Paris : Anacharsis.

Bergier B. 2000 Repères pour une restitution des résultats de la recherche en sciences sociales. Paris : L’Harmattan.

Bosa B. 2008 “À l’épreuve des comités d’éthique. Des codes aux pratiques » (205-225), In D. Fassin & A. Bensa (dir.) Les politiques de l’enquête. Épreuves ethnographiques. Paris : La Découverte.

Burelli T. 2012 « Faut-il se réjouir de la conclusion du protocole de Nagoya ? » Revue Juridique de l’Environnement 1(37) : 45-61.

Cavagnoud R., Suremain (de) C.-É. & La Riva Gonzalez P. 2013 « Infancia y niños en las sociedades andinas contemporáneas » Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Études Andines 42(3) (special issue).

Cernea M.M. (dir.) 1985 Putting People First. Sociological Variables in Rural Development. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Chauvier É. 2003 « Restitution et réception du texte anthropologique » Ethnologie française 37(2) : 503-512.

Cheney K. 2011 « Children as Ethnographers: Reflections on the Importance of Participatory Research in Assessing Orphan’s Needs » Childhood: A Journal of Global Child Research 18(2) : 166-179.

Current Anthropology 2010 « Engaged Anthropology. Diversity and Dilemmas » Current Anthropology 51(2) (special issue).

De Sousa Santos B. 2009 Una epistemología del Sur. La reinvención del conocimiento y la emancipación social. México : Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales/Siglo xxi Editores.

Dewael A. 2011 « Dessine-moi ta ville aujourd’hui et demain… Représentations et imaginaires urbains des jeunes citadins de Chandigarh » Carnets de Géographie 3 URL :

Escobar A. 1991 « Anthropology and the Development Encounter: the Making and Marketing of Development Anthropology » American Ethnologist 18 : 658-682.

Fals-Borda O. & Rahman M.A. (dir.) 1991 Action and Knowledge. Breaking the Monopoly With Participatory Action Research. New York : Immediate Technology-Apex.

Farnarier C. 2015 « La restitution comme épreuve de la recherche » (203-224), In Vidal L. (dir.) Les savoirs en sciences sociales. Marseille : IRD Éditions.

Fassin D. 2008 « Répondre de sa recherche. L’anthropologue face à ses ‘autres’ » (300-320), In D. Fassin & A. Bensa (dir.) Les politiques de l’enquête. Épreuves ethnographiques. Paris : La Découverte.

Ferreira J. 2015 « Restitution of the Research Data in Ethnographic Health Research: Issues for Debate Based on Field Research Conducted in Brazil and France » Ciencia & Saude Coletiva 20(9) : 2641-2648.

Fischer E.F. 2014 The Good Life. Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing. Standford : Standford University Press.

Flamant N. 1997 « Compagnons et collaborateurs d’atelier. Travail, subordination et dérision de l’ordre dans l’entreprise » Gradhiva 21 : 117-124.

Flamant N. & Jeudy-Ballini M. 2002 « Le charme discret des entreprises. L’ethnologie en milieu industriel » Terrain. Anthropologie & Sciences Humaines 39 : 5-16.

Gough K. 1968 « Anthropology and Imperialism » Monthly Review 9(11) : 12-24.

Guba E.G. & Lincoln Y.S. 1998 « Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research » (195-220), In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (dir.) The Landscape of Qualitative Research. Londres : Sage.

Guffanti L. 2011 « Le retour permanent :communiquer l’enquête en situation d’ethnographie réflexive » Interrogations 13 URL :

Honwana A. & De Boeck P. (dir.) 2005 Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa. Oxford : James Currey.

Jankowski F., Le Marec J., Defives B., Krasowa-Wade T. & Neyra M. 2015 « Photo-ethnographie et élaboration collective de savoirs. Le cas d’un programme interdisciplinaire et participatif au Sénégal » Techniques & Culture URL :

Kobelinsky C. 2008 « Les situations de retour. Restituer sa recherche à ses enquêtés » (185-204), In D. Dassin & A. Bensa (dir.) Les politiques de l’enquête. Épreuves ethnographiques. Paris : La Découverte.

Kovats-Bernat C.J. 2002 « Negotiating Dangerous Fields. Pragmatic Strategies for Fieldwork Amid Violence and Terror » American Anthropologist 104 (1) : 208-222.

Lancy D. 2012 « Unmasking Children’s Agency » AnthropoChildren 2 URL :

Lassiter L.E. 2001 « From ‘Reading Over the Shoulders Natives’ to ‘Reading Alongside Natives’, Literally: Toward a Colaborative and Reciprocal Ethnography » Journal of Anthropological Research 57(2) : 137-150.

Le Guern A.-L. & Themines J.-F. 2011 « Des enfants iconographes de l’espace urbain :la méthode du parcours iconographique » Carnets de Géographes 3 URL :

Leservoisier O. & Vidal L. (dir.) 2005 Terrains ethnographiques et hiérarchies sociales. Retour réflexif sur la situation d’enquête. Paris : Karthala.

Lévi-Strauss C. 1962 Le totémisme aujourd’hui. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France.

Lutte G. 1997 Les enfants de la rue au Guatemala. Princesses et rêveurs (avec cinquante-neuf filles et garçons des rues). Paris : L’Harmattan.

Olivier de Sardan J.-P. 1995 Anthropologie et développement. Essai en socio-anthropologie du changement social. Paris : APAD-Karthala.

Olivier de Sardan J.-P. & Tidjani Alou M. 2002 « Les enfants de la rue à Niamey » Lasdel 6 URL :

Protocolo de Nagoya 2011 Protocolo de Nagoya sobre acceso a los recursos genéticos y participación justa y equitativa en los beneficios que se deriven de su utilización al convenio sobre la diversidad biológica. Texto y anexos. Montréal : Secretaria del convenio sobre la diversidad biológica / Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente URL :

Razy É. 2014 « La pratique de l’éthique :de l’anthropologie générale à l’anthropologie de l’enfance et retour » AnthropoChildren 4 URL :

Scheper-Hughes N. 1993 Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Setti F. 2017 « Long-Lasting Fielwork, Ethnographic Restitution and ‘Engaged Anthropology’ in Romani Studies » The Urban Review 49(3) : 372-381.

Suremain (de) C.-É. 2014 « Ethics in Ethnography With Children. Antropology Confronted to Its ‘Little Demons’ (Examples From Latin America) » AnthropoChildren 4 URL :

Suremain (de) C.-É. & Bonnet D. 2014 « L’enfant du développement » Autrepart 72 (special issue).

Suremain (de) C.-É. 2013a « Des corps à la rue. Petite histoire d’une recherche-action participative auprès d’une bande d’enfants de la rue à La Paz (Bolivie) » Corps 11 : 213-224.

Suremain (de) C.-É. 2013b L’implication constructive. Anthropologie, recherche, développement, Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches, Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense.

Suremain (de) C.-É. 2006 « Affinité horizontale et stratégies de survie parmi les “enfants de la rue”. La bande Solitarios à La Paz (Bolivie) » Revue Tiers Monde 47(185) : 113-132.

Suremain (de) C.-É., Lefèvre P., Rubín de Celis E. & Sejas E. (dir.) 2003 Miradas cruzadas en el niño. Un enfoque interdisciplinario sobre la salud, el crecimiento y el desarrollo del niño en Bolivia y Perú. La Paz : Plural-Institut de Recherche pour le Développement-Éditions de l’Institut Français d’Études Andines.

Thibaud J.-P. 2002 « Une approche des ambiances urbaines :le parcours commenté » URL :

Uhalde M. 1999 « Les mystères de la restitution » Sociologies pratiques 1 : 1-7.

Vidal L. 2009 « L’anthropologie de l’aide humanitaire et du développement entre exigence méthodologique, ambition épistémologique et souci éthique » (229-252), In L. Atlani-Duault & L. Vidal (dir.) Anthropologie de l’aide humanitaire et du développement. Des pratiques aux savoirs, des savoirs aux pratiques. Paris : Armand Colin.

Vidal L. 2011 « Rendre compte. La restitution comme lieu de refondation des sciences sociales en contexte de développement » Cahiers d’études africaines 2(202-203) : 591-607.

Vincenti S., Suremain (de) Ch.-É. & Chicos de la calle 2002 Nosotros chicos de la calle: ¡Un futuro posible! La Paz : AOS / IRD.

Zonabend F. 1994 « De l’objet et de sa restitution en anthropologie » Gradhiva 16 : 3-14.


22 Like the Declaration of Helsinki I (1964) and that of the International Tribunal of Nuremberg (1947) requiring the “informed consent” of all participants subject to research on human beings.

23 Cf. Bosa (2008) for an Australian example of the extreme control exercised by authorities on how to conduct fieldwork.

24 The Nagoya Protocol is the most recent (2011). It includes provisions on “the treatment of traditional know-how typical of autochthonous and local communities” (Burelli 2012).

25 This is the subject of abundant literature: cf. Razy’s critical synthesis (2014). Based on three case studies on child labor, I wanted to highlight the contradictions and negative effects, in terms of ethics, that entails the strict adherence to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Suremain 2014).

26 In addition to Vidal (2011), cf. also Zonabend (1994), Flamant (1997), Bergier (2000), Chauvier (2003), Fassin (2008), Kobelinsky (2008), Uhalde (2009), Cheney (2011), or Guffanti (2011) on the concept of return.

27 On the differences between involvement, commitment, application, or even activism in anthropology, cf. among others, Albert (1995), Suremain (2013b), and the special issue of Current Anthropology (2010).

28 This project was undertaken in the city of El Alto, located in the highlands of the city of La Paz. It has been discussed in publications on how to conduct differently restitution and participatory action research (Suremain 2006, 2013a, 2013b), with the exception of a collective book (Vincenti & Suremain et al. 2002).

29 La Esperanza:

30 This is the case with child soldiers, HIV-positive children, orphans, and even child laborers who are included in the generic category of “UN child” or “development child” proposed by Suremain & Bonnet Eds. (2014). Cf. also Kovats-Bernat (2002) and Cavagnoud & Suremain et al. eds. (2013) on the subject.

31 These questions are raised by other committed anthropologists in different fields: cf. for example, Vidal (2009) and Ferreira (2015) in the health sector; Flamant & Jeudy-Ballini (2002) in the business sector; and Setti (2017) for the Roma / Sinti populations.

32 The concept has been barely studied in anthropology, except for Fisher (2014) and Scheper-Hughes (1993) in their work in Brazil on the construction of emotions in the face of illness, violence, and the death of children.

33 My first scientific publication on street children focused on “selective affinities” (Suremain 2006).

34 The Suez Foundation, linked to one of the most powerful water distribution companies in the world:



37 Author’s translation.


Directeur de recherche en anthropologie, HDR, directeur de l’UMR 208 PALOC (IRD-MNHN, France), a travaillé sur l’alimentation, les rituels, les soins et les figures de l’enfance dans l’Aide internationale. Après avoir exploré les tensions entre patrimonialisation et développement local à partir des enfants, il étudie la place des Générations Futures, comme notion politique et groupe d’acteurs émergents, dans les changements sociaux et culturels qui s’opèrent avec la transition environnementale. Ses terrains se situent en Amérique latine et en Afrique. Il est co-directeur de deux revues en ligne : Anthropology of Food et AnthropoChildren.


HDR, and is a Senior Researcher in anthropology and Director of the UMR 208 PALOC (IRD-MNHN, France). He has worked on food, rituals, care, and childhood figures in International Aid. After having explored the tensions between heritagization and local development centered on children, he now focuses on the place of Future Generations as a political concept and as an emerging group of actors, in the social and cultural changes that are taking place alongside environmental change. He conducts fieldwork in Latin America and Africa. He is co-editor of two online journals: Anthropology of Food and AnthropoChildren.

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont sous Licence OpenEdition Books, sauf mention contraire.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search