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Cassie Brownell on Fieldwork and Objectivity in Early Childhood Research

April 6, 2019

By Heather Gibb

Professor Cassie Brownell

What are the broader implications for fieldwork and objectivity in early childhood research when the participants, armed with digital cameras, capture the researcher and their process?

Professor Cassie J. Brownell’s work engages with complicated questions around photography in the context of qualitative research methods and their wider implications for the field of early childhood. In a symposium examining drawing, photos, and photography in critical early childhood research, Brownell will consider how digital photographs produced by early learners challenge traditional ways of “seeing” and thus, of making sense of visual data in studies of early childhood.

Drawing from the findings of a year-long case study, Brownell will discuss what happened when twenty-two child participants were asked to re-tell a print-based personal narrative using tools such as craft materials or LEGO and to photograph their resulting projects. The ensuing photographs revealed an unexpected tendency among her participants to turn attention away from their own projects and toward the research process itself, documenting the camera, the researcher and their peers composing scenes.

Brownell is interested in the implications of one photograph, in particular—that of the researcher’s stationary camera. An object hidden in plain sight, the camera was not meant to be noticed but nonetheless caught the attention of one young learner. This image illuminates a tension common to fieldwork— between the researcher wanting to observe a participant in the field and the participant in turn wanting to observe the researcher and their approach. Brownell will explore the implications of this image and the particular vantage point of the young photographer who took it. Together, she says, they challenge prevailing notions about “impartial” methods and expose the “surveilled nature of research.”


Cassie J. Brownell is Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning

Paper title: Hidden in Plain Sight: Exploring Double Exposure in Early Childhood Research

In AERA Symposium: Picturing Inquiry, Framing Childhood: Examining Drawing, Photos, and Photography in Critical Early Childhood Research

Sun, April 7, 11:50am to 1:20pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine Level, Maple East