A conversation with Associate Professor Jeanette Lawrence

The School of Psychological Sciences has a history of involvement with refugee and asylum issues. It was the birthplace of the Researchers for Asylum Seekers (RAS) group, which began about 12 years ago and continues to this day with strong School involvement, running an annual conference, generating publications and hosting an assortment of activities.

Associate Professor Jeanette Lawrence has been at the forefront of psychological research with refugee populations and has several ongoing projects. Newsletter sat down with her and posed some questions about her work.

Your research career has been wide-ranging and versatile. When did you get interested in studying refugee populations? 

I started working on the African Pathways Project in partnership with Mission Australia about 10 years ago. This was a project aimed at changing developmental experiences and pathways for refugee children in disadvantaged schools in Melbourne suburbs. The children mostly came from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Our developmental psychology team took a partner role in running school-related interventions, inter-school soccer matches, after school educational programs, homework clubs, parents' groups, and playgroups. We also started a program of research on the educational pathways and experiences of refugee and other disadvantaged children. We began using custom-built computerized research tools to help children and young people to report their experiences. We later worked closely with another school, carrying out research that informed teaching and community activities. Foundation House (Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture) was a natural place to focus research with refugee young people for someone like me interested in development and the interweaving of developmental change and culture.

Can you describe your most recent research project and what it hopes to achieve? 

I am working with Dr Ida Kaplan, a clinical psychologist and honorary member of the School, who heads up direct services at Foundation House, drawing in other colleagues on particular projects. Ida and I have been developing a set of computer-assisted interviews (CAIs) to enable children and young people from refugee backgrounds to contribute their perspectives to our understanding. We are interested in what their wellbeing means for children and young people as they are resettling in Australia after trauma and dislocation as refugees.

We have several studies in progress, working with clients of Foundation House direct services, through psychosocial programs conducted in TAFE environments, and currently, with children in schools in the northern region of Melbourne.

The current project is aimed at understanding the different aspects of their wellbeing for children who have arrived from Syria and Iraq within the last two years.

We invite children to work with a research tool constructed to give the children due respect and to enable them to express their thoughts and feelings with comfort and confidence. The tool is a custom-built computer-assisted interview (CAI) that invites the child to work in a child-friendly, culturally sensitive interface. The CAI, ‘My life in Australia’, offers children the choice of either a simple English or simple Arabic version. Research assistants are trilingual and bilingual and able to assist children in a single preferred language or with a mix of two or three languages so that they can convey their meanings and preferences. The interface presents standard and innovative tasks with animations and illustrations. We believe that this respectful innovation enables the children to make their contributions to knowledge and gives them a voice often denied refugee children in research.

What are been some of the challenges that you have faced in this project and how have you approached them?

There are several massive challenges. These relate to developing research tools that are theory-generated and presented with respect; recruiting children from different cultural groups who may be vulnerable and open to further harm by adults, including researchers; constructing research situations that give children personal agency and choice; and opening up our own assumptions and procedures to issues that arise when we invite people from other cultures to frankly express their views that may differ from ours.

You are a developmental psychologist by training. What does a developmental perspective contribute to research on refugees and asylum seekers that other perspectives tend to miss?

That's a timely and pertinent question, because there’s a whole line of research around “the new sociology of childhood“ that argues that developmental psychologists deny children the right to be persons while they are children for the sake of focusing of what they will become as adults in the future. They also argue that developmentalists concentrate on what children can’t do at particular times or stages in their lives rather than what they can do.

To my mind, we contemporary developmentalists who like to call ourselves ‘developmental scientists’ are neither stage-bound nor future fixated. We take a systemic perspective on studying children in the processes of change in dynamic interaction with their social and physical environments.

A developmental perspective has particular relevance to setting the child in context - in place and time - at multiple levels. This kind of contextualization allows us to view change for refugee children in terms of normal developmental pathways (for people living in their cultures) and in terms of the exceptional events and relationships involved in their lives. Every child can be seen as an individual in particular environmental, cultural and personal place and time. The linking of connections between the personal and the social and between the now and the then is fundamentally developmental. The links focus our attention on what may emerge and how it may come about in dynamic interweavings and interactions.

What is a key question in psychologically-informed refugee research that has been neglected and needs greater attention, in your view?

Taking account of the developing person in dynamic interweaving with his or her social world. Taking this perspective involves asking yourself these questions. What is this person experiencing? Who is s/he – in relation to personal history, cultural identity, place and the experiences of then and now? What can s/he tells us about the trauma and dislocation of the refugee experience? What does that refugee experience mean for this person and what is s/he thinking and feeling about that experience, and how does that work out in his/her actions in the world?

You co-authored a wonderful chapter on the role of respect in research interactions with refugee children and young people in a book on research ethics a few years ago. Why is respect so vital in this research domain, and how has your deep engagement in research ethics influenced how you carry out your studies?

Respect is one of the major ethical principles that governs and directs human interactions. Some ethicists and the NHMRC claim that it is the primary ethical principle. Respect involves noticing, acknowledging, attending to someone. That means seeing each person as a human person with the same rights as any other person. It further means seeing the unique and particular claims and needs of each person. Everyone deserves that kind of acknowledgement. But children deserve it more if they have been damaged, neglected, overlooked, and sometimes treated as ‘baggage’ in adults’ flight to better lives.

I think that has meant for me that we should be careful about how we approach researching children and young people. I don’t mean we should leave refugee children un-researched. That may disadvantage them further and deny useful evidence to those seeking to make life better for them. It means that respect needs to be kept in mind and translated in our every decisions and approach. It’s hard to say how you try to do that, but it’s like having a big question mark over your head that says, ‘Where’s the respect here?’ It pulls you up – on questions to ask, methods to ask them, and your interactions on the ground.

If a student was passionate to get involved in research with refugee populations, what questions should they ask themselves first and how would you recommend they get involved?

Well I think the first question to ask oneself might be, ‘Why do I want to take this step into research with refugee populations?’ Do I see it primarily as a research area that will attract attention and funding and advance my career? Will it mostly give me a chance to do good and to feel good?

I’d prefer someone to start with a different kind of question, focused on the people involved, especially young people. From what I’ve said here, naturally, a lead-in question is, ‘Where’s the respect here?’

Then I think there’s a place for something we psychologists are not good at – Humility. About 20 years ago when I was studying expertise, Alex Wearing once said, ‘an expert is a person who can learn from anyone’. I haven’t completely worked that out yet. But I think it’s important for someone who wants to be an expert or high-level researcher. You need to be open to guidance and criticism from people in the field who know more about it than you; and willing to do some reality checks along the way with people who know better.

Practically, that will most likely mean giving up some of the sacred cows of our discipline, and going for more than expediency; more than standard, off-the-shelf methods that are “parachuted” into other cultures and don’t fit; more than negative and deficit views of the refugee experience; and more than simplistic analyses.

Thank you, Jeanette!