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La restitution ethnographique à l’épreuve des enfants

Seconde partie : Outils et modalités de la restitution au quotidien. La réinvention au coeur de la relation ethnographique – Second Part: Tools and Modalities of Everyday Restitution. Reinventing the Ethnographic Relationship

Chapter 12. Everyday Restitution Processes in an Educational Project Related to Research With Children in Yucatán (México)

Guadalupe Reyes Domínguez


Ce chapitre propose une réflexion sur les processus de restitution dans le cadre d’un projet de service social universitaire articulé autour d’une recherche sur les significations que les enfants donnent à leurs expériences. Il décrit comment les acteurs universitaires ont dû remettre en question leurs valeurs, leurs convictions, leurs hypothèses, les normes, et les relations de pouvoir établies dans l’interaction avec les enfants. La restitution a commencé par des appuis quotidiens puis a pris des formes variées, notamment : s’intéresser aux connaissances locales, redéfinir les dynamiques d’interaction, reconnaître le droit des enfants à l’autoreprésentation, remettre en question des conceptions de l’enfance, la volonté de rendre publiquement visibles les connaissances, les compétences et les émotions des enfants et de porter leurs voix dans des espaces où le discours homogénéisant sur l’enfance pouvait être interrogé. Il en ressort que la restitution exige du chercheur et de l’agent de vulgarisation universitaire une écoute attentive, de prendre au sérieux ce que disent les enfants, d’ouvrir des espaces d’autoreprésentation et de repenser les cadres d’interprétation. Elle implique une ouverture à s’engager dans des luttes qui dépassent le court terme et visent à construire un monde plus juste et plus respectueux de la diversité.

Texte intégral

1In 2007, I began my first ethnographic research project on childhood. I was interested in understanding the meanings that children themselves give to being a child in the different social sectors of the city where I lived. Shortly after, I was commissioned by the institution where I worked, the Autonomous University of Yucatán (Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán), to supervise a social service program called “UADY-PERAJ Adopta un amig@ (Adopt a friend), described below, with the participation of students of various academic disciplines with children attending public elementary schools in Mérida, the capital of the state. These two experiences became increasingly interwoven. On the one hand, the venues where the social service program was carried out were ideal places to promote research using the methodological characteristics that I had proposed (discussed later). On the other hand, the research enriched the work that the university students were doing with the children and allowed them to reflect on it.

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2The joint activities among the children, the young students, and I triggered reflexive processes that led us to question the welfare approach and the power relations involved in the first stage of interacting with the children. Within the framework of UADY-PERAJ Adopta un amig@, we had reached the children’s everyday space, focusing especially on many of the things they lacked: economic resources, quality education, access to artistic and sporting events, and self-esteem, among others. Since its convening, the social service program that our university was promoting, along with many others, called for a specific way of restitution. By involving themselves in PERAJ activities, students would contribute to improving children’s “spirit of social repayment to the community”132 and would have the opportunity to support children in different areas of their education and, thus, give back something in exchange for the university education received.

3We gradually learned that restitution is a complex process that goes far beyond simply giving back. Additionally, interactions with children led us to ask ourselves the following questions: How do we define what constitutes repayment? What kind of social relations would characterize this return? How far should restitution extend?

  • 133 Below, I show that this retribution may: a) come at different times (either at the beginning of th (...)

4The reader will find that from a simple definition of restitution as reciprocity or as giving something in return for a benefit received133, we move to the concept of restitution as a complex process. This requires being cautious about the impacts and adverse dynamics that our actions can generate. It is also necessary to regard as valid interlocutors those with whom we interact in our educational and/or research projects, who demand a listening attitude that is attentive to the interests, emotions, and feelings of the other person. Finally, above all, this complex process challenges us to question both our knowledge and commitments, and our views of ourselves, of others, and of the space we share, such as, the power relations and inequitable interactions that permeate our actions.

  • 134 The exchanges took various forms, among others: favors, services, support for direct and immediate (...)

5It should be remembered that in the pioneering traditions of anthropology, concerns for restitution were absent. Gradually, the ethical perspective was introduced into debates on ethnographic work, which led to questioning the lack of access of the studies’ subjects to the results of the researches. This made possible the development of a whole movement to “give back” to the communities: knowledge, dances, rituals, productive practices, and other cultural elements “collected” in the field and analyzed by anthropologists. Thus, restitution as giving back became present in anthropology (De Largy Healy 2011)134. Simultaneously, the idea of restitution as reciprocal retribution or exchange made its way: it was considered necessary to offer a gift in exchange for the data and knowledge contributed by the local populations. At the same time, the growing criticisms toward ethnographic authority led to the questioning of the power relations established during fieldwork and restitution became recognition of the other as a full subject, with the right to intervene during the research, in the discussion of its results, and in the use of these. The approaches presented throughout this paper are nourished by these three aspects of the reflection on anthropological restitution. This combined perspective on restitution gives specificity to this chapter and emerged during the second phase of my research on childhood, which was integrated into a new social service program, with forms of restitution that departed from the initial guidelines of UADY- PERAJ Adopta un amig@ and that incorporated the opinions, interests and demands of the children themselves, as I will show throughout. The new project, “Growing Together”, had a dialogic and intercultural focus and was marked by reflexivity.

6To better understand the process that was generated from our interactions with children, I discuss in the following sections the initial objectives, premises, and strategies of both my research and the social service I was responsible for. Subsequently, I describe the forms of restitution that gradually developed in this experience of action research.

Research on Childhood With Children of Mayan Decent Residing in Mérida

7My readings of recent critical studies on childhood and of classic anthropological texts that state that there is no universal way to be a child, as well as my work with the university extension course involving elementary school students, raised in me questions about: 1) factors that favor the diversity of childhood even in the same social space and in contiguous generations (Colángelo 2005: 4; James 2007: 262); 2) the meanings that children give to their own life; and 3) the conditions that obstruct or encourage child participation in social dynamics. At the beginning, I set out to investigate how the accelerated transformations recorded during the past few decades in Mérida and its surroundings had impacted the construction of childhood and the meanings attributed to it by children.

8From an initial project carried out in Chalmuch (a small town to the west of the urban periphery), other studies were later derived: one in settlements in the southeast of the city (adjacent to the neighboring municipality of Kanasín) and another in San Luis Dzununcán (in the south of Mérida). Research and the social services of university students walked hand in hand in each of these places. By contrasting what was found in the different study scenarios, I was able to explore, among other things, the influence of ethnic identity, spatial location, family work trajectories and socioeconomic inequalities on ways of living and signifying childhood among children of Mayan ancestry residing in the metropolitan area of Mérida.

9In all the cases analyzed, I decided to distance myself from perspectives that conceive children as passive and irrational beings who follow a natural trajectory of development, as beings to be shaped according to the interests of adults and the cultural context in which they develop, as people fully conditioned by social structure, or as members of a culture that is closed and foreign to the lives of older people.

10In contrast, I assumed that children are subjects who actively participate, along with the other members of their group, in the construction of social reality but are limited by the sociocultural context in which they develop and by mental and biological structures that condition their actions. I recognized the childlike capacity of agency, but I rejected perspectives that idealize the autonomy and independence of children because I consider that there is constant tension between structural constraints, the need of children to influence the situations in which they are immersed and the real possibilities that are presented to them.

  • 135 Although dissimilar nuances can be observed in the approaches of these authors regarding the scope (...)

11On this basis and considering the comments of authors such as Attard (2008), Hardman (2003), James (2007), Bluebond-Langer and Hill (2007), and Emond (2006), I was convinced that children are not only engaged in the building of their own lives, but they are also aware of this, hence the need to overcome the historical marginality that children’s views have had in ethnographies related to minors and to listen to what children say about their experiences.135

12I assumed that child perspectives are not static nor necessarily coherent: what children say varies according to when, where, and to whom they say it. Therefore, because no group is homogeneous, “children’s voices” are polyphonic in nature (Rogers et al. 2006: 161-162). I realized that in many everyday situations, given the differences in authority, status, and power between adults and children, it is difficult for them to demonstrate their feelings or express disagreements (Hill 2006: 63; Green & Hill 2006: 7). In other cases, the cultural context and the values of the group are contrary to individual tastes, interests, and demands, and, for this reason, it may be counterproductive to encourage children to externalize their points of view. Finally, the voices of children dialog with those of other social actors and are permeated by hegemonic discourses, and for these reasons we should not assume that their perspectives are pure or untainted. Throughout my research and the two social service projects, I tried to remain vigilant regarding the above; while, at the same time, doing a constant effort to recover what children have to say about their environment and their lives.

13To gain access to children’s perspectives, I considered it necessary to participate in the daily activities of children but also to create a space of coexistence that was relatively horizontal and cordial to them, far from the gaze and control of parents, teachers, and other typical caregivers. Thus, in one of the first locations of UADY- PERAJ Adopta un amig@, I myself encouraged the integration of the children into the university social service program that they had entrusted me to supervise (of which I will speak in the next section), hoping to create from there the framework of trust, empathy, reciprocity, and mutual respect that various researchers recommend to those who perform ethnography with children (Quecha 2014: 234; Pirés 2007: 233-234).

  • 136 Reygadas notes that anthropologists usually treat the people with whom they interact during the re (...)

14I also assumed that the interpretations that we as researchers make of reality are always conditioned by the horizon from which we conduct the observations and by the tools used for the collection and analysis of the information. Therefore, I was particularly interested in designing a methodology that would try to dissolve, even partially, the traditional verticality136 in the relationships between the researchers (in this case me and the university students who collaborated with me) and the subjects involved in the study problem (the children from the places where the research would be carried out). Of course, I was aware that, as Vargas (2015: 163) points out, the ideal of total horizontality is a utopia because we inhabit an unequal world and inequalities are necessarily expressed in communication during fieldwork. However, I considered that it is always possible to bring closer the familiar to the strange and therefore could bring my horizon of interpretation closer to that of the children whose lives I sought to understand. The social service program that I have been talking about offered me the possibility of attempting this approach thanks to its emphasis on playful and affective dimensions and its interest in generating friendly relationships between children and participating adults.

Friendship as a Basis for a University Extension Course and as a Methodological Axis of Research

  • 137 The word peraj corresponds to the Hebrew noun that means flower.
  • 138
  • 139 In the school-education area, PERAJ proposes to improve motivation in school activities. In the af (...)

15PERAJ137 is a tutorial program that was born in Israel in 1974 as an “experimental project for students of higher education to mentor children and youth, who require educational and emotional support and who reside in developing or marginalized communities”138. It is currently being developed on five continents in a total of 22 countries. In Mexico, it is carried out in 61 institutions of higher education, but when I participated, it was only beginning to be introduced into our country. This program is based on a strategy of social and affective bonding between upper-level students and children attending public elementary schools. Each student is assigned a child that he or she will accompany during a school year, supporting him or her in four areas: school-educational, affective-formative, social, and play-cultural139 (De Gortari et al. 2007). The program is expected to contribute to the comprehensive education of children, but it is also intended for participating university students to strengthen skills complementary to professional performance such as creativity, initiative, and the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams, among others.

  • 140 In each university where it operates, the program is denominated with the acronym of the instituti (...)
  • 141 The program has been promoted by the Weismann Institute of Sciences, the Ministry for Public Educa (...)

16In Mexico, the program received the name PERAJ Adopta un amig@140 and began its pilot phase in 2008141, at which point I joined (my university was among the ten that participated in the pilot stage). During the first years of operation of the program in Mexico, each of the universities in which the pilot was held had great freedom to define the content and specific implementation dynamics of the program, as long as it met the general goals of PERAJ worldwide and worked within the four training areas contemplated in the original proposal.

  • 142 Each year, in the different settings where I developed research and coordinated social services, I (...)

17To achieve the goals set in PERAJ, university students and children participating in the program in my charge met twice a week for two hours. Some sessions were dedicated to the personalized attention of the university student towards his or her young friend to support the child in his or her academic performance. In other cases, young people prepared games, experiments, audiovisual material, manual activities, exhibitions, and reading materials, through which they addressed group topics that they considered useful for the comprehensive training of children. The program also included guided visits to scientific and cultural venues, as well as to recreational spaces. The content and the structure of the sessions were prepared according to the context of the group of children attending each site. In addition, much emphasis was placed on promoting camaraderie and friendship between young people, children, and supervisors. The subtitle of the program “Adopt a friend” came to life among the various social actors participating in it142.

18Friendship not only facilitated the work carried out as a function of the objectives of PERAJ but was also a fundamental methodological basis of the research in the different scenarios of study. As pointed out by Pinto and Ribes (2012), a universe of possibilities for knowledge opens up during research through friendship, in being together, in casual conversation, in sharing stories, memories, practices, and knowledge, and in the dialog established around “doing it together”. Friendship – these authors say – is as opposed to power relations as it is to indifference; it involves commitment and inquiry, and it also fosters a “constant exercise of self-transformation in the presence of the other” (Pinto & Ribes 2012: 177-178).

19Commitment, involvement, and research are not opposites. Producing encounters that intertwine the experiential plane and the production of knowledge embodies enrichment (Benito 2012: 77). Together, during interlocution, friends elicit various appreciations and meanings of the same situation, and they confirm that social reality is polysemic in nature. Out of the friendly dialog, unforeseen issues arise, not given a priori in the research project, themes that are constructed with the subjects involved in the study. That is why “from the perspective of encounter and dialogue, there is no control of the researcher over research” (Pinto & Ribes 2012: 174). What is required, rather, is that the researcher should continuously reflect on how the dialog is being organized, who is the real protagonist, and what roles the “natives” and researcher have in order to avoid generating monological practices (Dietz & Álvarez 2014: 59).

  • 143 For a more in-depth analysis on the processes of reflexivity aroused during the implementation of  (...)

20Of course, establishing friendly relations is not something that happens mechanically or by mere will. As pointed out by Corona Berkin (2007: 25), “knowing oneself does not necessarily lead to agreeing or understanding; sharing a project involves facing, confronting, thinking, resolving”. This, with greater or lesser intensity, was what occurred at all the locations where I supervised social services and conducted research. In all cases, the interaction between university students and children – each with their own values, needs, and customs – initially led to tensions or conflicts but gradually forced them to reflect on local ways of life and led us to what Ruiz (2004) calls an “inner journey to one’s own culture”143. According to this author, the door to dialog between groups with different cultural patterns is the reflective and critical penetration of the value system itself, of the convictions, presuppositions, and tacit norms of the system; she argues that for true dialog to be generated, it is necessary for there to be a distancing, an estrangement with respect to one’s own daily practice (Ruiz 2004: 74).

21In our experience in PERAJ, it was precisely the conflicts that coursed through the emerging relations of friendship between children and university students that led to the questioning of their own positions and the search for other forms of commitment and restitution. As Ruiz (2004: 104) points out, conflict is often seen as negative, but it is also a privileged space for changes to occur in individuals and groups to provoke the distancing of norms, values, and ways of usually doing things.

22I pointed out at the beginning of this work that the social service program that I supervised while carrying out my research generated the conditions to understand that restitution is a much more complex process than simply returning or giving something in exchange for a benefit received and that it requires attentive listening to recognize the interests, needs, abilities, and desires of the other. Although in our interactions with the children, the university students and I tried to offer the children something (knowledge, skills, etc.) that we thought could be useful, interesting, or at least fun; the children recurrently used phrases like “That’s useless”, “That’s boring”, and “I don’t like it”, or they simply left the space where the session was held. It was only the genuine willingness to listen to their voices (expressed in actions and words) that led to deep questions of our view, our relationship with them, and our ideas about what constituted a good return to the children. In this regard, it is worth recalling the words of an anthropology student who performed her social service in PERAJ: “All of the young people who participated in the project had grown up in a different context, and it was hard for us to understand the logic of the children. Now, I am in their place, and I say to myself, why would a strange person come and tell me what to do, what to learn, or how to behave?” (Field journal, February 2010).

23The result of the dialogs, confrontations, and negotiations we had with the children was that, on the one hand, questions, and reflections on our research practice and on university extra-curricular work arose and, on the other hand, agreements were reached with the children for interaction and for the development of the sessions; children proposals also emerged for the activities and topics addressed in the university social service. The children thus began to influence the definition of what and how restitution should be carried out.

24Additionally, this gave guidelines for integrating into my study many topics that were not initially considered and for promoting a new project of social service, independent of PERAJ, entitled “Creciendo Juntos. Aprendizaje intercultural” (Growing Together. Intercultural learning). It had a more dialogic, participatory, and intercultural approach, through which I managed to broaden perspectives, hues, and interpretations regarding the meanings that children of Mérida with Mayan ancestry give to their lives and, on the other hand, to diversify the ways of giving back to the children all the learning we experienced with them and all the information and interpretations that they had provided to my study of Mérida’s childhood.

Restitution to Children for Their Participation in Research and University Extension Coursework

  • 144 The recognition of this right of participation is generally translated into collaborative methodol (...)

25Restitution is a complex operation of recognition of the contributions made to the research (pure or applied) by the subjects involved in the study. It may materialize in multiple ways. In its simplest forms, restitution seeks reciprocity in the face of the contributions of the participating population and, in its more complex manifestations, it recognizes the right of the original owners of knowledge included in the research, not only to benefit from the studies made on this basis, but also to participate – within the framework of horizontal relationships – in the definition of the research’s goals, the dynamics of interaction and the use (immediate or indirect) of the results, placing in the foreground the interests and cultural characteristics of the participants themselves144. Having defined my perspective on restitution, below I describe those forms of restitution that were present in my study on childhood and in the social service project “Growing Together. Intercultural Learning”.

Restitution as Immediate Reciprocity

26I have already spoken of the simplest meaning of the term, restitution as giving back, as well as seeking to reciprocate. In the case of my research and the social service associated with the second stage of the project, this form of restitution was attempted from the beginning. The university students sought to reciprocate those who welcomed us in their daily spaces by performing small actions such as accompanying the mothers to some administrative procedure, helping in preparations for family parties, obtaining information required by the families, guiding them in managing legal or health services, and supporting them in the sale of products handcrafted by them. In addition to the above, the most immediate form of restitution was the support for children in academic activities.

27When exploring the relationships between children and the school as part of the research, we observed great differences according to the place where they live, the occupational trajectory of their families, and the educational services in their area of residence. In some of the locations where we conducted research and extension, we found that children experience strong pressures on their school performance because parents aspire for children to improve the family’s economic situation in the future through increased schooling. Elderly people, when speaking to children, will use phrases such as “Study so that you can be someone in life”, “Be smart so you don’t end up like me, but better than me”, “Take advantage of your studies; I did not have that opportunity”, and “You should study so you can get ahead”. Children have adopted the idea that higher education levels are a pathway to social mobility. Faced with competition for admission to secondary schools close to home, many children struggle with little success in getting good grades and are concerned about being able to pass entrance exams. Support in understanding school tasks and content was in all cases a way to give something back to the children for all that they had contributed to the research and the social service project.

28However, the same coexistence with the children made us aware that the educational system, far from promoting children’s creativity or their critical capacity, it saturates them with tedious tasks, with information that is foreign to their lives, forcing them to simply memorize a large number of subjects, without considering their interests, abilities, or prior knowledge, leaving in many cases a sense of disability. Therefore, we tried to promote alternative ways of learning and relating to knowledge that used personal, family and community knowledge as a means of restitution with less alienating effects.

Restitution as Attention to Local Interests of Knowledge

29As I pointed out before, the very dynamics of action research led to the inclusion of children in the definition of topics and in the organization of sessions of the university social service program. Thus, in the various places where we worked, one of the ways to give something back to children for their collaboration was to be guided by their interests of knowledge, emotions, skills, and usual practices. Sometimes, the children participated explicitly in the planning of the sessions; other times, the topics were redefined in an unexpected way for them and for us, but the idea was always to move away from rigid planning, to be open to the unexpected, to give space to creativity, to the recovery of local knowledge, and to sharing childhood abilities. I illustrate the above with an anecdote taken from the experience we had in San Luis Dzununcán.

30One afternoon, upon arriving at the community center where we were meeting, we found the children gathered around a small wounded bird. The animal had fallen from its nest during a wind and rainstorm; the children, seeing that the bird was hurt, wanted to protect it: one of them tried to warm it up by holding it in his hands, another insisted on getting a cookie to crumble and feed it, and another tried make a new nest for it. Later, the bird died, and stories about other dead or wounded birds began to emerge, as well as questions and comments about the different types of birds that they knew. The children also told anecdotes about the small animals that they had as pets and about children who used to hunt birds or disturb the animals by shooting stones with their slingshots. That day, the traditional stories about mythological animals of the region also spiced the discussion.

31The events surrounding the bird incident provided me with much material for research, in particular, information regarding the relationships of children with animals, with the natural environment and with the oral tradition of their group, but above all, it helped me to understand the meaning that children give to their experiences in these areas. At the same time, as the children were interested in knowing more about the animals, the situation opened space spontaneously to restore their collaboration by promoting their own skills and knowledge; simultaneously, we were able to move towards the achievement of some objectives of the social service program. Repayment in this case was made through a series of sessions that focused on birds. The children practiced simple techniques to draw birds; practiced computer skills to learn about the characteristics and behavior of different birds in the region; were told and wrote local stories about mythological birds, such as the xooch’ bird, which is said to announce death and disease in the houses where it flies over; and wrote compositions about their favorite animals.

32The curiosity of the children for specific issues led to the organization of walks to sites linked to their interests. Once again, in these cases, the gathering of information related to the child’s view of the world and the repayment to children for their collaboration in the study were intimately linked.

33For example, on one occasion, we visited the computer lab of the Faculty of Mathematics of our university in response to concerns about wanting to know how computers work and how to use them. Recurrently, the transmission of knowledge and practice around computer equipment was a point of dialog, coexistence, and joint activity between children and academics. From this, we were able to explore children’s notions about new information technologies and about the virtual world. At the same time, children developed newly found skills that they were interested in acquiring and that they could not easily practice in their daily environment.

34In another of the trips with the children to different places from the usual meeting venue, our destination was Áak Park, a space created by Kóokay Alternative Social Science, a civil society group that aims at promoting the community exchange of wisdom, knowledge, and experience in environmental awareness, Mayan culture, and human rights. The children were able to share their knowledge of the natural environment, while the university students gathered information about the children’s views on nature and the inhabitants of the region. Reciprocity was generated right there, recognizing the value of their contributions, resolving doubts, sharing games, and bringing them closer to the knowledge of their group of ethnic descent and to the knowledge of projects such as Kóokay articulated around the struggles and demands of the Mayan people.

35The closeness that we had (along with the children or driven by the relationship with them) to organizations linked to ethnic demands and popular demands led us to take the first steps in the direction of deconstructing the colonial thinking underlying many of our practices and to question our work from a more politicized perspective. Several of us were motivated to participate in larger-scale and longer-term projects related to children in our region and our country. For example, one of the university students who did their social service through PERAJ was linked to an NGO working with migrant children and their families; another joined a project to strengthen Mayan knowledge about plants. I joined the citizen discussions regarding the rights of children in our state (discussed below).

Restitution as a Redefinition of Interaction Dynamics

36Thinking in terms of friendship, the interaction between participants in a university extension course and research involves being willing to rethink goals, strategies, and ways of thinking and acting. Being reciprocal to a friend what he or she brings to you is, to a large extent, being aware of his or her needs, his or her tastes, and the restrictions that weigh on him or her. It also involves taking criticism with an open attitude and being willing to change. In this sense, our friendship with the children and their families led us to transform our ways of working on more than one occasion, as in the following example.

  • 145 In communities linked to a Mayan matrix of thought, there is an important distinction between the  (...)

37Initially, the social service was designed to work with 5th- and 6th-grade elementary school children who wanted to respond to our invitation and had permission from their parents, but it was soon evident that in “their world”, the division of children by age is neither usual nor desirable. For many, everyday life outside of school is that which occurs within a group composed of children of different ages, who are often relatives and neighbors; little ones are cared for by the elder ones, who they see as protectors, guides, and role models. Attending the sessions that we organized without taking their younger siblings, as well as excluding them from games, learning, and fieldtrips, was unthinkable for several of the children. Phrases such as “Can you give me material for my little brother145”, “Can my sister stay?”, and “My little brother also plays” were recurring. Those of us who came from the university learned to work with children of different ages at the same time, forgetting about specific timetables and objectives, to simply share the joy of being together, taking advantage of the conditions and surprises that each day would bring.

38Giving space in the project to relations of solidarity between siblings led us to question our conceptions about the children with whom we initially worked. Gradually, we went from seeing them as vulnerable beings, in need of care and protection, to recognizing them as persons capable of providing others with diligent care, careful attention, and solid support. This new perspective called into question our old ways of seeing and thinking about childhood and pushed us to render visible, in the public sphere, their knowledge, abilities, and emotions as a form of restitution.

Restitution as Recognition of the Other’s Right to Represent Themselves

39Trying to promote horizontal and participatory methodologies that allow broad and diverse restitution supposes not only trying to generate, during the “field season”, an authentic dialog between the researcher and the local subjects. It is also necessary to break the researcher’s monopoly on diverse issues such as the way in which subjects are represented in the final products of the investigation, the type of narrative chosen for the presentation of the data, the decision of who will have access to the products derived from the study and the recognition of authorship.

40In general, horizontality throughout the process and full restitution is more an aspiration than a reality because the final stages of research are often marked by the dynamics of coloniality of the academic field. As stated by Kaltmeier (2012: 46), relationships of reciprocity with subjects participating in a study are almost always interrupted at the end of the information collection period, and the dialog that occurs during data collection becomes a monolog during the periods of interpretation, analysis, and final presentation, as well as when deciding what to do with the results and what actions to promote from them.

41When working with children, things can become even more complicated. In the first place, to whom would the research results be returned, exclusively to the children or also to the adults who authorized our cohabitation with the minors and who, in interviews, informal talks and daily coexistence offered us information and points of view necessary to account for the context of enunciation of children’s voices? How do we turn over all the results to all collaborators when in presenting the findings, children’s affirmations are retrieved that question and censor the behavior of parents, teachers, and other figures of authority in the everyday world of children? Given the asymmetry in the relationships between children and adults in their environment, widespread dissemination of the results in the community by publicizing the research outcomes could compromise the commitment taken not to harm the children participating in the study.

42Alternatively, what would be the most appropriate format for sharing the set of study results with children in a way that would be attractive and useful for them? We never managed to completely solve these dilemmas. Undoubtedly, returning the final results to those who collaborated with the research in a way that would be useful, pleasant, and non-detrimental would have been an excellent way of rewarding and recognizing their contributions to the study, but we believe that this was not the only form of reciprocity possible. After all, as stated by Mummert (2014: 131), “the return to the participants and the ‘co-ownership’ of the results do not completely eliminate power relations...” In the case of the research and university extension activities that I carried out together with the UADY students, we opted for other forms of restitution, with the conviction that, as suggested by Castro (2014: 81), rather than the application of abstract principles, in social research it is wise to reflect on specific experiences as a way to resolve ethical dilemmas.

43Based on the above, we encouraged children to have the opportunity to represent themselves and share these representations during the progress of the project through means other than their direct intervention in the final research reports and social services. Inspired by the work methodology of Rosana Podestá (2007), we encouraged the children who participated in the research and in the social service program of a particular school to write letters to children in another school, sharing how their daily life was, the place where they lived, and information about their school and their family. As a follow-up, we organized mutual visits so that the children from both places met in person. During these visits, they created posters and activities with themes and dynamics of their choice. From there, many elements were obtained to enrich the research, and the children were able to present it themselves, without the filter of interpretation and representation that researchers introduce when writing the results of their studies. There were also many childhood reflections on the similarities and differences with the other children. The construction of this space of reflection on identity was another form of restitution for our collaborators.

44On another occasion, we visited a television studio at the UADY facilities. With technical advice and supervised management of teams by university students, some children were able to film their peers, while others acting as “host” and “special guests” conducted interviews about their lives and their opinions about the place where they resided or about their family and the school where they studied. That day, their excitement overflowed, and the enthusiasm was even greater when, the following week, fragments of that day were broadcast on university television, and the children could see themselves on the screen. Once again, the coexistence during the day trips, the comments of the children, and what they captured in the recordings were invaluable sources of data for my research. For them, it was an opportunity to expand their knowledge but, above all, to represent themselves “before others”, for themselves and according to their own criteria.

Forms of Indirect Restitution and of Longer Duration

  • 146 In the first section, I referred to the limitations and precautions that must be taken when we see (...)

45The options of reciprocity to those who provided us with information, interpretations, affection, fun, and practical support during fieldwork are always varied. Along with the daily exchanges to recognize and reward the person who collaborates in an investigation and to pay attention to the needs, interests, and proposals of the other in the space of the interaction, there are also indirect forms aimed at placing their struggles for recognition and their demands in a broad social spectrum and in the public arena. In my case, there have been two indirect ways in which I have tried to return what I received. The first has to do with a persistent effort, and not always successful, to generate what Margarita del Olmo (2010: 91) calls “critical ethnography”, that is, an ethnography that seeks to contribute elements to cope with an unjust problem in a particular domain of life. I have tried to show, using multiple children’s voices, how discourses and power structures traverse and limit the lives of children from Méridan located in specific social positions. In this sense, the papers, courses, and articles derived from the research that I have commented on have attempted to make visible the conditions of children of Mayan descent residing in Mérida and its surroundings, their joys, worries, fears, and expectations, in an attempt that their voices146 be heard beyond the homogenizing discourse of dominant sectors about childhood.

46Another indirect form of restitution has been to bring the opinions gathered in the different study scenarios to forums external to the academic world. In this sense, I have participated in events of civil society organizations, government agencies, and teacher groups, trying to show some of the points of view of the children with whom I have interacted in order to question and/or nurture reflection regarding governmental policies and programs, alternative projects, and daily practices that, despite the good intentions of their promoters, are based on adult-centered perspectives and colonial relations, which see children as objects rather than subjects, as beneficiaries of actions rather than as actors with capacity for reflection and with the potential to generate proposals.

47Certainly, as with other forms of restitution, those that I have attempted in my research and social service work do not eliminate the power relations in which children and university actors are immersed. They do not fully compensate for everything received, nor award to those who collaborated in the study full control of the results. Notwithstanding, I believe that the testimonies of children and young people participating in the action research project described here and my own experience authorize me to affirm that we have taken some steps in the process of recognizing children as valid interlocutors, and this is the best retribution we could give them.

48The challenges are still great. We need to continue reviewing our perceptions and interpretations of childhood experiences, as well as broaden reflection and questioning, from politically situated perspectives, of our ways of “supporting children” and of influencing the processes that place them in situations of vulnerability.


49Throughout the text, I have tried to show that there is no single form of restitution or a particular moment for it, and that raising the issue of restitution forces us to reflect on our forms of interaction with the children participating in our projects, on the power relations experienced during our encounters, on the production of materials resulting from the research, and on our professional and personal activities upon finishing our work in the field.

50I have shown that in research with children, it is not simply a question of “settling an account” by giving something in return for the benefits obtained by participating in the life and activities of our young collaborators, as this is often the result of an outside view towards cultural dispositions, interests, and feelings for them and their community. Restitution demands careful listening, taking seriously what the children say, opening spaces for their self-representation, a willingness to let ourselves be questioned by them, and rethinking our interpretative frameworks, our value systems, and our understandings of the world, so that we can bring together horizons, dissolve the otherness and join forces for the construction of more equitable and inclusive social relations for all. Restitution also implies openness to engage, from different trenches, in struggles and actions that surpass the short term and arise from historical subjects committed to building a more just world, respectful of cultural diversity and of people who go through different stages of the life cycle.

51I believe that the reflections expressed here can nourish not only the research and the university extension coursework that university students engage in with children, but they can also be useful for reflecting, in a more general way, on the interactions that interest both ethnographers and academics for promoting participatory projects of social transformation when we engage with diverse social sectors.


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133 Below, I show that this retribution may: a) come at different times (either at the beginning of the research, during the project, or after the end of the project; b) it may take various forms (from everyday favors to participation in activities that, in the broadest social spectrum, support the struggles and demands of the population involved); c) have diverse consequences for both the local population and the researcher (in principle it may reinforce inequitable and asymmetric relationships or generate alternatives to them and also promote greater involvement of the researcher in community initiatives and demands).

134 The exchanges took various forms, among others: favors, services, support for direct and immediate requests, medium-term collaborations, contributions to local struggles.

135 Although dissimilar nuances can be observed in the approaches of these authors regarding the scope and restrictions of children’s agency and also variations in the methodology they propose to address children’s voices, they coincide in underlining that children actively participate in the construction of the social reality and that their points of view should be taken into account in the research. This contrasts with most of the studies on children carried out before the 1980s, which focused on what adults reported regarding children’s activities and in the teachings directed to these ones, rather than in children’s interpretations of their own lives (Hirschfeld 2002: 614).

136 Reygadas notes that anthropologists usually treat the people with whom they interact during the research in non-egalitarian ways: as individuals who provide information, as exotic entities, as victims who must be saved or those who are backwards that must be civilized, as subjects created by technologies of power to those who must be freed or as revolutionary heroes to those who must be pushed forward (Reygadas 2014: 107).

137 The word peraj corresponds to the Hebrew noun that means flower.


139 In the school-education area, PERAJ proposes to improve motivation in school activities. In the affective-formative area, it is oriented to strengthen the self-esteem of children, to expand their social skills, and to reinforce their sense of belonging to a group. In the recreational-cultural area, through varied activities, children are encouraged to enrich their worldview and cultural, scientific, and recreational experience (De Gortari et al., 2007).

140 In each university where it operates, the program is denominated with the acronym of the institution followed by the word PERAJ. The phrase Adopta un amig@ refers to the Mexican section of PERAJ. Thus, in the case of Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán (Autonomous University of Yucatan, UADY for its acronym in Spanish) is called UADY-PERAJ Adopta un amig@. In the following pages, I will refer to it simply as PERAJ.

141 The program has been promoted by the Weismann Institute of Sciences, the Ministry for Public Education, and the National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions (anuies). By 2015, it had already operated on 168 university campuses and included the participation of more than 4,600 university students, almost 5,000 children, and 353 public primary schools (

142 Each year, in the different settings where I developed research and coordinated social services, I could observe the friendly relations between children and youths through the comments that they both shared at the end of the school year. Regarding the position of the university students, see Aguayo et al. (2010). Regarding the children’s views see Reyes and Pereira (2010).

143 For a more in-depth analysis on the processes of reflexivity aroused during the implementation of PERAJ and on my conception of intercultural dialogue, see Reyes & Pereira (2010).

144 The recognition of this right of participation is generally translated into collaborative methodologies and forms of representation closer to the vision that subjects involved have about themselves.

145 In communities linked to a Mayan matrix of thought, there is an important distinction between the voices brother and little brother. The second is equivalent to the Mayan word witzin, which means younger brother and alludes to a relationship of affection, care, and protection towards the person who is named.

146 In the first section, I referred to the limitations and precautions that must be taken when we seek to access the “voices of the children”.


Docteure en anthropologie (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexique), est enseignante-chercheuse à la Faculté des sciences anthropologiques (Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán). Elle a enseigné l’anthropologie à l’École nationale d’anthropologie et d’histoire, à l’Université Métropolitaine Autonome et à l’Université Autonome du Yucatan, où elle y a dirigé des thèses et supervisé des projets de services sociaux impliquant des enfants. Elle a mené diverses recherches et publié sur la vente ambulante, les luttes urbaines, le jeu, les festivals, les inégalités éducatives, les identités et les pratiques des enfants. Niveau 1 au « Système National des Chercheurs » (SNI), elle a participé au projet ChildHerit.


Ph.D. in anthropology (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico), is a professor/researcher at the Faculty of Anthropological Sciences (Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán). She has taught anthropology at the National School of Anthropology and History, the Autonomous Metropolitan University and the Autonomous University of Yucatán, where she has supervised PhD theses and social service projects involving children. She has conducted various research projects and has publications on street vending, urban struggles, play, festivals, educational inequalities, identities and children's practices. A Tier 1 National Scholar System, she participated in the ChildHerit project.

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