Using vignettes to explore sensitive issues with Muslim children

How stories are an effective tool to explore sensitive issues with children, says Uzma Peeran 

Girl talking to researcher

It's widely accepted that children should be actively involved in research that seeks to understand their perspectives and experiences.

This is hugely important for researchers who wish to investigate sensitive issues with children, such as bullying, abuse, violence and sexuality.

The challenge for researchers is how to do this in a way that is effective and ethical – and an answer to this problem could be to use vignettes.

I used vignettes in my MA thesis and wanted to share the insights this gave me – and some tips on how vignettes can be used effectively to elicit children’s attitudes and beliefs on sensitive topics.

What is a vignette? 

The vignette method presents children with a hypothetical scenario, or story, and asks them what they would do in this situation, or how they think characters should react. It has proved effective in capturing concrete examples of children’s behaviours, beliefs and judgements.

The technique is particularly useful for discussing sensitive issues with children. It allows them to discuss a hypothetical scenario without having to reveal any personal experiences.

Using vignettes with focus groups

I incorporated the following vignette into focus groups with Muslim children aged 9-10, to explore their attitudes and experiences of the negative stereotyping of Muslims:

"One day Farah, aged 10, was making her way to school in the morning. She was walking towards the school gates when suddenly two girls, who she didn’t know, came up behind her. They started calling her a ‘terrorist’ and a ‘Muslim bomber’ and tried to pull her ‘hijab’ off. Why do you think the girls acted this way towards Farah? And called her those names?"

The extract below shows how this vignette encouraged children to actively engage with a sensitive topic and freely communicate their reactions and opinions.

G: "Because they thought she was maybe a terrorist"
A: "They don’t like Muslims probably"
M: "Probably because they don’t have any brains and believe the news and think she is going to do something bad" 
N: "Yep, they got the names from the news!" 
G: "On the TV, they say [Muslims are] terrorists"

A: "If Farah fought back the girls might feel that she actually was a terrorist" 
N: "They might actually believe what’s on the TV" 
F: "And think more bad things about Islam" 
A: "Yeah, Farah should be careful"

"Do you think Farah might have experienced anything like this before?"

R: "Yep, after Charlie Hebdo"
B: "It wouldn’t have been before or in the past, because they weren’t too many problems with Muslims."

Responses to this vignette revealed a great deal of awareness and understanding (and possibly fear) on the part of Muslim children, over how Muslims are represented in the media.

Answers also uncovered that children are reflective about their reactions to negative stereotypes. These findings valuably highlight the need to discuss children’s experiences of media representations of terrorism from an early age.

Top tips

It’s important that the vignette is easy to follow and not too complex. More than 3 changes in a storyline can make it too confusing for participants to remember and engage with.  

Short vignettes using simple language are much easier for children to understand and more effective in eliciting clear responses.

Barter and co (2004) suggests vignettes for adolescents should be between 200 and 300 words, and 150 words for younger children.

Although vignettes need to contain sufficient information for children to have an understanding about the situation, leave space for children to provide you with details and factors that influence their judgement and decisions. 

Changing the details of the vignette can be useful when exploring children’s attitudes within different contexts.

For example the age, gender and ethnicity of the characters, can uncover what influences children’s ethical frameworks about particular issues.

Asking participants to describe how they feel the person in the story “should” act and why, and then how they “would” act and why, could reduce the pressure for children to provide you with the “right” answer. Encouraging them to reveal their true opinions, this can reduce socially desirable responses.

A unique insight

Vignettes can provide a unique insight when you're trying to understand the perspectives and experiences of children and young people.

Within my own research, vignettes provided an insight into how children are affected by news related to terrorism and the concept of terror. It uncovered the need to address young peoples’ experiences of media representations of terrorism from an early age.

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