Feminist Methodologies and Research for Early Childhood Literacies

Jeanette Rhedding-Jones. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

Today’s newer research methodologies are the effects and the constructs of postmodernism, critical theory, feminisms, postcolonial theory, queer theory and cultural studies. Although these may contain vestiges of earlier research practices, certainties, fixed categories of analysis and statistical information, they are now challenging what counts as knowledge and who the knowers are. Applied to literacy practices and competencies, newer research methodologies are alternative perspectives and practices that shift research fields towards ethics rather than mere information, towards theories rather than mere findings, and towards reconceptualizing practices rather than merely analysing results or reporting.

In all of this the would-be feminist researcher is in a different positioning from the don’t-want-to-be feminist researcher, and also from the men well read in feminist theory and/or wanting to work for gender equity. This is because feminism, and any other contemporary ‘ism’ such as multiculturalism, anti-racism, anti-ageism or postcolonialism, contains a set of unfixed political values, validities and desires for social justice. So for critically and thus politically oriented researchers, taking out your political and cultural standpoints is an impossibility. So is being able to say how much your feminist (or other) affinity is influencing your research practice and the ways that you decide to write it up.

Given word limits for this chapter, I will not write about who is currently publishing what regarding literacies in early childhood. There is not the space here to discuss the work of overtly feminist, sometimes feminist, pro-feminist and non-feminist research about literacy; and how these might intersect with research about gender. Nor is there space to say what sorts of feminisms and feminist complexities around cultures, sexualities and languages such researchers might be making use of, developing or reconstructing. However, I would point to other chapters in this volume (especially those by Radhika Viruru and by Elaine Millard), and suggest that these are read with an eye to how various feminisms inform their positionings regarding gender; and which feminisms (socialist, conservative right, radical or newer such as global, postmodern, poststructural) appear to be resisted, ignored or acted out agentically through these writers’ choices of research methodologies, academic references, writing genres and discourses.

My aim is thus larger than feminism, in that I would like to reconceptualize research and its relationships to practices and theories. I see these as emerging epistemological and ontological issues for early childhood education and the larger discourses contextualizing it. Deconstructing the meta-narrative of how research is done thus represents new scholarship that challenges theories of knowledge, philosophy and childhood studies. Can there be an ethical research with or for young children? What matters as reconstructed research practice? How can higher educations for early schooling and preschool day care effectively develop more appropriate and useful methodologies? Where are the voices of children in all this (Cannella, 1998; Christiansen and James, 2000; Yelland, 1998)? What sense do children make of themselves and of each other as gendered beings? What methodologies can deal with these questions?

In asking such critical questions, feminism must be acknowledged as a beginning point for many women’s critical scholarship. It was feminism that got us to see marginalization, and got us into theory in the first place, and got some of us into ‘the posts’ beyond that (Lather, 1995; Rhedding-Jones, 1995; 1997a; Richardson, 1997). Also, it is feminism that has enabled many women scholars to see the positioning of children and other dominated groups amongst adults as once we saw the positioning of ourselves amongst men (Firestone, 1970). When I gave a draft of this chapter at a recent Nordic conference about education research, the women there insisted that feminism still has much work ahead of it, and that we must never not see how patriarchy continues. This applies not only to the everyday lives of the children we work with and for, but to the gendered injustices of research practices, higher education, prestigious publishing, academic promotion, bureaucratic power and money (Begum, 1994; Huq, 1997; Weiler and Middleton, 1998). Further, a major task of feminist researchers is to make such gendered power dynamics visible.

Regarding literacy, feminists uncover the politics of power giving boys and men educational advantages in a patriarchal agenda. For example, in many Anglo cultures girls have been the clever ones in literacy, yet this has still not given them educational advantages resulting in their later equal financial and employment positioning with men. So following feminist logic: pushing the case of boys and literacy is thus diverting funds away from girls’ schooling, and driven by the fear of boys not retaining their natural and rightful dominance in the feminized hothouses of early childhood classrooms. Here the quantitative measures used to demonstrate boys’ relative failure in literacy are quite suspect. They request examination by feminists skilled in quantitative arguments, who may then expose such research as functioning politically for patriarchy, rather than scientifically (Gilbert and Gilbert, 1998).

Writing about gender, however, is not the same as writing about feminism, as researchers and theorists of masculinity, sexuality and anti-racist critiques of white women have shown (hooks, 1994; Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Quinlivan, 2002). So this chapter is not about what girls and boys are doing differently from each other, as readers and writers, non-readers and non-writers and various grey shades between these dichotomies. Nor is it about what men and women teachers and parents are doing that is supposedly because of their gender, and gender’s effects on literacy ‘outcomes’ and related semiotics. Instead, this chapter points to how you might do research and what sorts of data you might decide to get. Nevertheless, the topics and the themes of research to some extent decide its methodology, as do the audiences for whom it will be written. I would argue that who you do the research with and what you decide to (not) research are also your methodological choices. And that your choices are made because of your politics, feminist and otherwise.

In Norway and Nairobi

I’ll start with Norway because that is where I live. Even when they begin to go to school, at the age of six, children here will be given no assigned tasks (oppgaver) and will be controlled by no assessment in terms of marks (vurdering med karakter) until they reach the age of 11 or 12. In line with this there is no word in Norwegian for literacy, as children are not forcibly encouraged to take up reading and writing until they themselves show an interest in it and begin to want it. Hence teachers are not overtly into reading and writing activities, and preschool teacher-carers are not noticeably demonstrating them. As teenagers and adults, Norwegians appear no less able to read and write than people anywhere else in capitalist society; although as an Australian I am very conscious of the number of times I hear the word dyslexic (dyslektisk) said in everyday conversation, on the radio and in the lecture and tutorial rooms with undergraduates. In school, apart from discourses of special education where dyslexia is the province of special pedagogies rather than literacy experts (at least from my Australian point of view), the children are free to concentrate on social competence activities. In other words this is quite an oral culture, and the culture determines the social competence definition (see also Viruru, in this volume).

So what would you as a feminist or as a researcher informed by feminist theory do in this situation? I think I might start with the patriarchal quality of the psychology that constructs the discourse of dyslexia. Questioning further, I might ask who are the literacy experts that Norway may be denying? Or how do the working conditions and the pay of denied literacy experts and acknowledged dyslexic experts differ on gender lines? Who is selling books for children and students and who is not? Who wants school literacy and why? Who becomes an information technology expert requiring those literacies not taken up by schooling? Who will become the gendered readers of written music, of art and dance, of novels, poetry and private letters?

In contrast, and with contrasting research possibilities and problematics, is the following, which I have taken from Woodhead (2000: 16). Here, four-year-old Henry is in Nairobi. His home is a one-room hut that he shares with his mother and sisters. He attends a preschool classroom with 50–60 other children and one teacher. There are no play materials and no learning materials to speak of except wall charts of the English alphabet. The teacher leads the group and the children recite the letters in unison. Here my feminist perspective cannot be articulated alone. As a literacy researcher I would want to know how close Henry’s culture is to shared recitation. How important are formality and respect for adults? Is this regarded locally as a high quality preschool? As a feminist I might ask what Henry’s mother is doing with her time, whilst he is in preschool. And is this more important than my Anglo-Australian judgment of colonial literacy practices? Also, what of the gendered professionalism of Henry’s teacher? What kinds of masculinity is Henry constructing for himself in his everyday life with his sisters? To what gendered and non-gendered uses might his literacy eventually be put? As you can see, these critical questions are beyond those normalized by literacy researchers wanting to measure and quantify what Henry now does. But I have to work to keep my feminist focus because feminism here is not, apparently, what matters most (Rhedding-Jones, 2001b; 2002).


Having now made feminism problematic, I’ll try to deal with it. As I see it, feminism as critical theory relates to other critical theories. And feminism as poststructural theory relates to other poststructural theories uncovering power and deconstructing categories, hierarchies and fixedness. Feminism as phenomenology is about interpretations of gendered meanings and hermeneutics. And feminism as positivism attracts social scientists wanting hard sciences, who try to explain and predict in terms of cause-and-effect relations, believing that such findings are not politically motivated, and that method is able to produce reliable findings. In this chapter I spell out some of the implications of this for research about literacy in early childhood.

Whilst not feminist unless its critique or its deconstructions or its interpretations or its statistics and graphs regard gender, or the positioning of women and girls (Glenn, 2000; Hammersley, 1992; Hauser and Jipson, 1998; Rhedding-Jones, 1997b), any doing away with an ‘ages and stages’ notion in early childhood discourses relates to liberation and resistance. So for today’s feminist researchers, learning to resist normalized research practices, normalized evaluations of literacy and normalized notions of ‘childhood’ matters very much. From such resistance comes awareness of other marginalizations, such as gender together with financial differentiation, gender together with an ethnic minority positioning, or gender in the ageism shown to children by adults. Hence it is not surprising that many feminists are now taking up the fight against multiple marginalizations including gender. Having been positioned themselves as resisting patriarchy they are now able to work for other people’s agencies in a range of discourses of institutionalized power. Literacy is one such institution.

So feminisms vary depending on where and when they are or were located (Rhedding-Jones, 1997b; 2001a), and on who decides that this is feminist. Combining positionings (feminism and anti-ageism, or anti-racism, gay and lesbian rights, social justice for marginalized religions and languages) is likely to be called ‘postmodern’, especially if the writing style of the researcher also takes up a range of different juxtaposed genres or textual complexities for audiences. A modernist positioning usually takes a singular stance or standpoint, regarding both research focus and authorial voice.

You cannot do work that is feminist without focusing on gender (although as I have said, not all gender research is feminist). Further, feminist research is not about the biological differences between women and men, girls and boys. Rather it is about the social and cultural constructions of what we do about our identities, as the gendered selves we have temporarily or over longer time (Marsh, 2000). So the words ‘male’ and ‘female’, as biological terms, are not likely to be there in feminist research, where people are seen as subjects rather than as objects. With research which is about girls or boys but which does not name gender or feminism, it is probable that feminist agendas are at work, but the local situation may be such that they cannot be stated (for example, Rhedding-Jones et al., 2002).

In a country like Norway (Rhedding-Jones, 2001a), where feminism seems assumed (by the general public) to have happened some 30 years ago and not to be overly concerning now, it does not help to point to the average incomes of adult women and men and then to try and link these to the literacy practices of the young. Nor does it help much to accuse pedagogical discourses of preschooling as replicating the desirability of the middle-class home, with the traditionally attending mother always putting ‘her’ children first. Watching the little boys of Pakistani and Vietnamese backgrounds grow up to become tomorrow’s technological wizards (Castleton, 2000; Gliddon, 2001) instead of today’s special education’s problem schoolboys is similarly unrecognized as a gendered effect. But as three problems for early childhood literacy education and its related research, I suggest that these have high relevance for today’s feminists, and not only in Norway.

Yet feminists in general appear not keen to take up the research fields of education: perhaps a sign of their own professional lack of experience here, but maybe also some form of hierarchical ordering of what counts as important in the social sciences. So for whatever reason, feminist research in education is usually the prerogative of feminist educators or feminist ex-teachers, rather than feminist sociologists, anthropologists or literary theorists. When the topic is literacy, the researcher needs to know how people become gradually literate, how they become differently literate, occasionally literate, generically literate, technologically literate, graphically literate and musically literate. This may then be linked to the positionings of the very young, and in particular to how their/our different genderings impact upon their/our literacies and vice versa. As implied, a newer feminist research practice will focus not only on children but also on the adults who are with them: on the borders between multiple realities and fantasies, complex sites and events, diverse texts and contexts.

Research Methodologies and Feminist Approaches to Social Science

Any piece of research is open to some level of feminist practice, which may involve simply being sensitive to gender matters. A more complex feminist practice is selecting and constructing other forms of analysis, interpretation, critique or deconstruction of the research data (Haug, 1987), so that the gendered aspects of these are made clear, resisted or challenged. A further step is a critical awareness of the gendered processes and discourses by which the research itself is valued. In other words, in feminist research that is not within positivist empiricist approaches, the subjective and political positioning of the researcher may be apparent and accepted (Ellis and Flaherty, 1992). For researchers claiming and wanting objectivity, this is problematic.

This section considers methodologies from positivist, interpretive, critical and poststructural approaches to social science research (Connole, 1998; Deakin University, 1998; Hughes, 2001; Rhedding-Jones, 2000). These may include or reconstruct survey and statistical analysis, historical and current case studies, action research, ethnography and multiple methods. They might involve interviews, so-called observations and recordings, document constructings, discourse analysis and academic writing as the postmodern. Within methodologies are strategies (sometimes called methods) for doing the research: designing questionnaires, writing a research journal, photocopying documents, selecting texts for analysis, audio recording and photographing (Rhedding-Jones and Atkinson, 1991; Rhedding-Jones, 1993). These are then put together intellectually and analysed, interpreted, critiqued or deconstructed. From this process come findings, statements, suppositions, critiques, undoings, theories and knowledge. You can see that as I have been naming and locating these I have loosely been making left to right orderings, following Western literacy patterns, to structure an understanding of today’s methodologies. So this could, with some exceptions and overlaps, be diagrammed and put in a box.

However, feminist research is especially concerned with being (ontology). This is why so many feminists have wanted to take up subjectivity and the problem of language as meaning. And because all knowledge is in some way grounded, and all research methods are linked to theories (epistemology), then it is these that feminists hold suspect (Burt and Code, 1995). Hence the feminist movement into poststructuralism is a way to make explicit complex positionings, including those of the researcher. And to resist the neat little boxes that look so nice as research findings. For literacy researchers, who should be especially knowledgable about language and the crafting of writing, this means that doing research is not going to be easy. Here the challenge in feminist poststructural research is to cause political, pedagogical and agentic change because of the research, and through the academic literacy of the researcher. In the case of early childhood education, this research is for the present and the future of young people.

With this in mind, today’s feminist post-positivist research methodologies for literacies may be described as follows. Interpretive research projects use case studies or ethnography or their audiovisual or textual strategies of documenting practice. Interviews or observations are interpreted by a researcher who focuses on meaning, hermeneutics or phenomena. The research can be empirical in that theories come from the practices researched (but this is not empiricist or positivist). Critical research projects are often action research projects that aim at intervention and change. Or they may follow case study or ethnography and their strategies of interviews and document analysis. Research data may be analysed, critiqued, unpacked, undone or deconstructed. The approach is empirical in that theories and practices both matter. Poststructural research projects operate within the postmodern, with deconstructive practices. Research data are thus undone, read differently, described and reinscribed otherwise. In particular the voice of the researcher is heard, as are the voices of minorities, such as children in situations of adult domination like schooling. As empirical research this may be highly theoretical, in multiple ways. Yet as feminist research it always has a cutting political edge.

What happens if our methodology takes up an interpretive approach? If our focus is on masculinity and literacy we might interview men teachers and women teachers, or mothers and fathers, and talk with them in appropriate language about how they see boys relating to early writing and reading experience in various places. Observations here could help us decide how to interpret our interview transcripts in the light of what appears to have happened. This could be further supported by the texts the boys actually produce, perhaps in comparison to the texts produced by some girls. With this approach a researcher’s own feminism (or pro-feminism) makes her (or him) the authority as regards the semantics of the situation, as all interpretations are filtered by the professionalism of the researcher. Here a feminist standpoint theory (Harding, 1993) may be made clear. Interpretive approaches may link to modernity or to postmodernity, and may be combined with other approaches. For a feminist, taking up the interpretive is not a particularly radical step, and it need not be personally exposing. But narratives go well here, and suit a general audience. Hence interpretive research usually presents reports, exposs and theoretical explanations as easy to read.

A critical approach takes into account the uses of literacy and the people and actions positioned as important. It might be combined with the interpretive or the poststructural. In early childhood education, a critical approach might request a sharp look at psychology as an informing discipline (Cannella, 1998) and at the roles played by adults in the normalized practices of institutionalized child play. Action research (Mac Naughton, 2001) is closely in line with critical theories, following the earlier Frankfurt school, the influential neo-Marxist work in 1980s teacher education, and the new critical theories in early childhood (Bailey, 1997; Grieshaber, 1998; Rhedding-Jones, 2002). Here innovations to practice are documented, critically reflected upon and evaluated before new spirals of introductions recommence. For literacy, this allows for a politics of change, and the questioning of the status quo of pedagogy. Teachers find this an inclusive teaching/researching practice. For some parents also it works well. And feminists get the chance to reconstruct both pedagogy and literacy as more appropriate for the gendering of today’s young people. Making a difference is thus one of the successes of action research (Berge and Ve, 1999; Mller, 1996); though critical approaches go far beyond an endpoint of satisfaction. For example, feminists find that what is more problematic than pedagogies and literacies are the people occupying the positions of power: the publishers of bestselling books, the examiners who operate at the other end of schooling and university, the politicians controlling the purse-strings, the school principals and policy makers, the children’s fathers and what they (do not) read and write. Researching the gendering of these, with a critical approach, involves also what happens outside the school and preschool.

With a poststructural approach, research shifts into multiplicity and uncertainty, by making problematic both meaning and language. Here Australian feminist poststructural theory in education has gained much space internationally (for example, Davies, 1993; 2000; McWilliam, 1994). More than just a clever play with words, this approach to research is beginning internationally to construct a new ethics (Rhedding-Jones, 2000), to challenge knowledge and philosophy, to resist boundaries and to open itself to all forms of difference and complexity. Here the process of research produces a feminist cooperative knowledge, where the researchers must have particular accountabilities to the children and the adults participating in the research, and also to various reading audiences of differing positionings. Women are central here as theoretical resources, and in the development of innovative research methodologies. For literacy, such an approach might engage the girls and the boys as gendered subjects not necessarily so different from each other. And because poststructural theory is about the breakdown of dichotomized thinking, gender itself is deconstructed and reconstructed. As are literacy and early childhood. And research.

I would argue that people experienced in working and playing with the very young can reconstruct research methodology, because of their/our particular positionings (Creaser and Dau, 1995; Grau and Walsh, 1998; Hatch, 1995) in relation to practices, autobiographies, memories, and communications by everyday language(s) and bodies. Working with the very young in fact sharpens these positioning-related skills and arts. Far from looking down on them, an innovative researcher puts such skills/arts to advantage. Yet as with all confrontations between institutions and individuals, the effects of power can be devastating. Hence postgraduate students fail, research grant applications get rejected, articles and books remain unpublished. Challenging research practices (especially those of people wanting not to reject their own values regarding literacy, learning, play, work, age, space, time, and ‘isms’ like feminism, multiculturalism and postcolonialism) are thus at risk.

As an endnote here: feminist methodologies cannot be fully described or prescribed (Fonow and Cook, 1991; Malterud, 1996; Reinharz, 1992). Within the various approaches to social science inquiry there are places for a range of feminisms and a range of feminist ways of conducting research. What matters regarding feminisms here are feminist epistemologies and ontologies. For feminist theorists have not just critiqued and reconstructed methodology (Alcoff and Potter, 1993). Their/our critique and reconstruction are resistance to the normalizations that pervade which knowledge counts. We work to show that theories of difference must affect every aspect of the research process and its products.

Early Childhood Education and Feminists

Differences in ‘Northern’ normalized practices of institutionalized childcare and education have led to the dichotomy of early schooling and preschool day care (Penn, 2000). Here if preschooling may be said to represent and construct the private and feminized discourses of the home, then schooling perhaps represents the public space of a normalized masculinity, such as the army, the church or a men’s sporting club. For feminist researchers there is much here not yet researched, with little critique as yet having been done by women about our own dominant positioning in early childhood education and its discourses (Jrgensen and Phillips, 1999). That said, we must also ask who are the professors and who writes the books.

Early childhood is usually seen as from birth to age eight. Literacies and their emergent practices (Rhedding-Jones, 1997c) involve children’s listening, looking, drawing, speaking, touching, feeling and thinking. What is crucial is what adults do, what other children do and what happens with technology, as well as what children do for themselves. So people, practices, desires, texts, technologies, media and graphics construct the various literacies. In some locations, a written culture is not important. In others it is there, but its measurement and its early manifestation are of little consequence. Researching literacies must then be culturally appropriate to the participants in the literacy events and non-events. Thus sites for literacies, or locating them contextually and culturally, are not only different locally. They must also be seen globally. And the literacy of a child, like orality, might involve more than one culture and more than one language. For feminist (and pro-feminist) researchers, who themselves will have first-hand (or vicarious) experience of marginalization or difference because of their gender, a positioning of otherness because of language and culture should be able to be understood. Unfortunately, this does not always follow.

So young children marginalized linguistically are quite often expected to be integrated into the dominant culture (that is, via standard language in public places, and by not being invited into the homes of the dominant). In practice much integration is in fact assimilation, as in the case of the almost total non-use of community languages in the institutions of early schooling, preschooling and care. Relatedly, and because white feminism has a history of ignoring black people, Asians and people of colour, it cannot be expected that many white feminists will work sympathetically with linguistic (and hence literacy) difference. With newer research though this is beginning to happen (Jones Diaz, 2001). Paying lip service to what used to be called ‘the mother tongue’, but in practice making sure that literacy develops only through one standard national language, is beginning to be seen as inappropriate literacy pedagogy. Moreover, having one language only to read and write is out of step with today’s transnational and hybridized identities (Rhedding-Jones, 2001b). Refusing multiplicities by insisting on a monolingual and a monocultural positioning (Andersen, 2002) is thus an essentially modernist stance. So feminists engaged in global and postcolonial debates (Harding, 1996) will resist such early childhood educations of singular linguistic positioning. Research following this involves awareness not only of the functions of language(s) but of the effects of a postmodern world. Early childhood literacy needs then to be seen as operating not only locally but within global space. Quite often here, the misnamed ‘minority’ children are far ahead of adults, researching theorists included.

A multilingual or translingual education thus requests research that takes into account the diversity and multiplicity of the cultural positionings of the gendered subjects of literacies. For feminist researchers this means being open to the practices of women and men in other countries, in subcultures within cities, and in minority religions (Levine et al., 2001). We need more than token gestures to representative tourism. Researching such literacy events and sites requires a knowledge of the home cultures and the street cultures of children, of the cultures of their race, of the desires their parents have for their learning. Being sensitive to the gendered difference within cultures is thus the work of the feminist researcher, who aims not to downplay the culture of women or to disregard the culture of men. And when these are not so separate from each other, then perhaps it is the gendered culture of the researcher that must be taken more into account. Furthermore, the roles of research assistants, postgraduate students and children themselves as informing subjects must be critically acknowledged and acted upon.

Literacies and Feminist Practices

Measuring or even describing literacy because child development has been the basis of pedagogy has resulted in a literacy of ages and stages. Thus ‘the developing child is researched within an evaluative frame that is mainly interested in their position on the stage-like journey to mature competence’ (Woodhead, 2000: 29). Similarly, literacy is seen as a linear naming of competency in reading and writing, with experts saying what beginning writers and readers can and cannot do. Feminists critical of such namings, fixings and expertise will challenge this positioning, especially as it regards how boys and girls are differently rated, ranked and described (Love and Hamstom, 2001). But feminists without a critical theory of anything except gender will not focus on the more far-reaching problems of who counts as expert and how children are positioned in relation to adults in power.

If reading is about the makings of meanings, as traditionally supposed, how can anyone possibly know what meanings another can make? And if you are a poststructuralist deconstructing meaning as itself always lacking, then what (Gallop, 2000; Tobin, 1995)? Further, not expressing all that we know is a feature not only of writing but also of talking, of acting and of living. So seeing literacy as an engineered thing of reception and expression is thus only a tiny part of a much bigger picture, of which there are many. Examining or measuring ability to read and write thus positions readers and writers as observed and thus as betrayed subjects. Feminist researchers in particular are expected not to be wanting to exploit other people, especially those rendered relatively powerless by age, size and a literacy presumably less developed than their own. But the irony is that adult researchers and teachers assume ‘the child’ is incompetent, when in fact ‘the child’ may soon be highly literate in the multimedia and technologies rapidly overtaking traditional texts.

In the case of literacy research about (on, for, with) the very young, the history of its practice is, I think (following Connole, 1998), as follows. Positivist empiricist inquiry has research interests that regard prediction, control, explanation and technically exploitable knowledge. Here children are tested to find out what they can do. The researcher is the one who knows and the research product is quoted as absolute, essential to future strategies, financial expenditures and the promotion or sacking of teachers. A far right political agenda is seen to be in line with this: politicians and a general public who want simple answers get them. Economic rationalism is done on the basis of the research results. This is research performed on objectified children who are unable to protest, whose futures as readers and writers are not taken into account in terms of their interests, and whose complex semantic and sociocultural relations to literacy are denied. The ethics here are that the research must be defended as an accurate naming of categories of literacy achievement, and that the results are kept under lock and key until publication. A further ethics here regards the accuracy of the counting of the quantities inherent in the measurement instruments. In other words, there must be no cheating in the compilation of charts, graphs and statistics.

In an interpretive approach to literacy research, the researcher’s interests regard understanding at the level of everyday language and action, and discovering the meanings and beliefs of teachers, parents, assistants and the children themselves. Here the literacy practices in current use are studied as particular phenomena with hermeneutic value. Classroom research rules, with the words and doings of children and adults coming into the research focus. The ethics are about the accurate or reasonable describing and interpreting of what is seen and heard to happen. Analysing (from videos, for example) and categorizing actions and interactions must be done as faithfully as possible to present the most likely account of what happened. Quite often large numbers of items, institutions or interactions are studied, as if their number validates the research. To generalize excruciatingly about gender here: (1) women seem to like this research practice, usually with no critique of its time-consuming accountability, and of the impossibility of language ever saying everything; (2) men (and women with less time to spare) appear to resist the problems by preferring the discourse of expertise offered by positivism, or by taking up the technical problematics of how to interpret the found phenomena.

Critical theory’s research methodology practices may include the interpretive, but always there are layers of critique and sharp questions regarding power. What counts is the critical analysis, which may be of discourses and not only of practices. The interests of critical research are to radically transform human existence, by practical and public involvement in knowledge formation and use. Here many of the new critical theorists in early childhood education have to date been relatively silent regarding literacy. This may be because literacy itself is seen as an undesirable site for research, given radical agendas of child advocacy and social justice. Here the argument is that institutional literacy is usually imposed: a case of adult dominance over the very young, a matter of teacher power. Alternatively, not researching literacy may simply reflect a lack of experience or knowledge amongst researchers, about how texts work and how readers and writers act. But maybe I have been in literacy-less Norway too long: for the last five years I have taught, examined and researched without the concept. This may, of course, simply reflect my own lack of knowledge about the multiplicity of terms Norwegians use for the notion of literacy.

With poststructural approaches, the research interests are to question totalizing or unified interpretation and understanding (Scheurich, 1997). This includes self-critique of the positioning of the researcher (as at the end of the last paragraph). What matters regards locating dominant interests and saying or showing how these are produced and maintained. Hence marginal positions matter. For literacy this means literacies, with many acceptable practices, resistances and agencies. Minorities would here include whichever gender is non-dominant; whichever languages are spoken, written and read at home but not in schools and preschools; whoever has their marginalized sexuality or their religion not represented appropriately in the texts used and produced in educational institutions; which social classes in terms of higher education or money are disadvantaged regarding literacy practices; whose literacy at home does not include computer literacy; whose ethnicity and race are not represented by the teachers and the tests of literacy in the schools. Here the ethics regards other people, and attempts to maintain multiplicity: to work for lack of fixedness, including fixedness in research approaches and in understandings of what literacy is or might be.

It can be seen then that the ethics of researching the literacy of young children is not a simple matter. This is not just about getting or constructing data, analysing, interpreting, critiquing or deconstructing them, and writing them up (Blaxter et al., 1996). Ethical research involves for many researchers today (feminist poststructuralists, critical multiculturalists, postcolonial theorists) a reconstruction of what it is to do research. This necessitates thinking critically about particular sites, local events and differing subjectivities. It seems to me (as a feminist) that feminism has helped us see these things by showing us how women and girls (and their literacies and their research) must be considered differently and allowed to be different from men and boys. But if feminism is not itself plural, if it continues to refuse to acknowledge other marginalized groups, or it remains blind to its own locations of power, then there are problems to be dealt with. For these reasons a ‘feminist methodology’ is suspect.

Despite all this, the newer feminist (and queer theory and anti-racist and postcolonial) practices regarding literacies may arguably be researched as dividing and blurring between gendered and other ways of being: (1) a teacher (of literacy); (2) a parent (for literacy learning); (3) a researcher (for and of literacies); (4) a policy maker (for literacies); (5) a writer (of texts and computer programs for the becoming literate); (6) a measurement expert (of literacies); (7) a child (who is expected to become literate).


I have been drawing from classic Anglographic feminist texts on methodologies (Alcoff and Potter, 1993; Burt and Code, 1995; Fonow and Cook, 1991; Harding, 1993; 1996; Reinharz, 1992) to try to answer the question about what feminist research might be. This is a modernist question, because it seeks to categorize researchers as within or without. In postmodernity we can be both. Further, as I have tried to explain, there are many ways of doing feminist research and many related and theoretically driven approaches to inquiry in the social sciences. Not all of these are feminist, whatever that may be and however it shifts in time and space.

But over time, and given changing ideologies and the changing make-ups of workforces and given clientele, the spaces occupied by thematic, methodological and theoretical positionings begin to be taken up by others. In early childhood education the clientele comprises the students and participants of early schooling, preschooling and higher education. Here the employee statistics show the slow shift of ethnic minorities and senior women into the teaching, leading, lecturing and examining forces. Resultantly, changing ideologies and values begin to deal more seriously with locations of difference, multiplicities of meanings and openings for otherness. As effects of these, the themes, the theories and the ways of going about doing research are also changing. Time itself is a causal factor of change, as populations alter their social and scientific priorities, together with their desires for new fields, new modes, new actors and new writers. These shift as history reconstructs practices and values.

Much feminist research has come from a close relationship between the researcher and the researched. In one way, this places it in a similar position to the research of teachers. Teachers’ research is produced because of and for the students past and present and future, with whom the researching teacher works. For teachers, teaching and researching go together. As with feminism, there is an ethics here which is not the same as the ethics in the research of an outsider who comes into the field. What then are the ethics and the competence of literacy experts without the professional experience of teachers, and without complex and highly developed literacies of their own?

I hope that this chapter raises many questions. Should men research women’s issues? Should adults research the so-called literacy of children? Are the people conducting literacy research themselves lacking all but a basic understanding of what literacy is and how it differs in different situations, cultural contexts and genres? What has been the history of children’s exclusion from research conducted about them, and what are the effects of this on today’s research practices? Are young people in a position to conduct their own research? What would they do about us? What do we want research for?

Following this, anyone who still decides to research literacy will: (1) attempt to create new subject positions for people to occupy regarding literacies; (2) be prepared to reject existing methodologies and usual audiences for research; (3) constantly critique their own research practices and their own positionings regarding ever widening literacies; (4) not be afraid to theorize, to produce theory from the research, and to read expansively; (5) acknowledge that all knowledge is limited, con-testable and must eventually change, because of who people are, where they are, when they produce their knowledge and for whom.