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About the Children and Young People as Social Actors research

The well-being and rights of children and young people (including those with disabilities) are the focus of this research cluster. Our research concerns how children participate in and contribute to society and how their growing competence is supported or placed at risk in this process. Children's voice and the extent to which it is heard and acted upon in families, the legal, health, social welfare and education systems, are a key theme of the Cluster's research interests.

We are committed to understanding children's experiences and conducting research that includes and values children and young people's perspectives. Central to this are research approaches and methods that enhance children and young people's participation in research and respect their rights throughout the research process. We have particular expertise in conducting research with children and young people and the methodological and ethical issues related to research involving children and young people. Theoretical frameworks include ecological, sociology of childhood, poststructuralist and socio-cultural perspectives, and Childhood Studies, that challenges traditional views of children as vulnerable, incompetent and powerless and instead regards children as:

… social actors, who have purpose, and who influence as well as being influenced; as people who construct relationships and childhoods, and who can report on and discuss their experience. (Mayall, 1999, p. 12)

The Children and Young People as Social Actors research cluster was established in 2003 by Professor Anne Smith and is now administered through the Children's Issues Centre.


Cluster Membership

Currently, the Cluster has a cross-disciplinary membership, with members from the following University of Otago departments and centres:

  • Children's Issues Centre
  • College of Education
  • Faculty of Law
  • Department of Geography
  • Department of Oral Sciences, Faculty of Dentistry
  • Department of Preventive and Social Medicine
  • Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work
  • Department of Tourism
  • Department of Women's and Children's Health
  • School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences

In addition to University of Otago staff, the Cluster also has members from Massey University and Otago Polytechnic, as well as independent researchers.

Acknowledgement and tributes

The Cluster acknowledges with sadness the deaths of five respected colleagues and valued members of the Cluster:

  • Emeritus Professor Anne B. Smith (May 2016)
  • Professsor Judith Duncan (March 2015)
  • Lyn Foote (December 2014)
  • Dr Tamar Murachver (January 2013) and
  • Professor Anne Bray (June 2008)

Tributes to Anne B. Smith and Anne Bray

The Cluster is deeply saddened by the passing of Emeritus Professor Anne B. Smith, Inaugural Director of the Children's Issues Centre who established the Cluster in 2003. Anne's scholarship and commitment to children's rights and well-being leave an enduring legacy.

Read a tribute to Anne B. Smith

Read a Tribute to Anne Bray (PDF, 165KB)

Cluster Members and Research Interests

Associate Professor Nicola Atwool

Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Workemail:

Professor Lisette Burrows

School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences
phone: +64 3 479 8389

Lisette Burrows' broad research interests are in the social construction of health and physical education curriculum and the place and meaning of health and physical activity in young people's lives.

Lauren Donnan (nee Hitchin)

Doctoral Student (3rd year)
School of Curriculum and Pedagogy,  Faculty of Education, University of Auckland

Lauren Donnan is a third year doctoral student at The University of Auckland Faculty of Education and Social Work, under the supervision of Professor Toni Bruce and Professor Janet Gaffney. Lauren's thesis topic is young carers, who are youth aged up to 25 years providing significant, ongoing support for persons with a disability, illness, drug or alcohol misuse, or who are elderly. Specifically, Lauren is researching the lived experiences of young carers in Aotearoa/New Zealand, with her overarching aim being to explore ways in which young carers' insights can be utilized effectively to inform care theories, policies, and services. Lauren travelled to Birmingham University on a Visiting Researcher Fellowship funded by the IHC Foundation in 2015 to work alongside Pro Vice Chancellor Saul Becker, to determine the most effective policy and service recommendations inherent in her thesis data. Lauren was the volunteer leader and convenor of Young Carers New Zealand (2013-2016), a regular columnist in the Family Care New Zealand Disability magazine, and was commissioned as a young carer consultant for the Ministry of Social Development. ​Lauren and her family have recently moved to Dunedin to enjoy a better quality of family life. She is currently writing up her thesis from her home office.

Dr Mavis Duncanson

New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service, Department of Women's & Children's Health
phone: +64 3 479 4528

Mavis Duncanson is a public health physician with interest and experience in child population health. In her current position as clinical epidemiologist with the New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service (NZCYES) she contributes to the provision of up to date and accurate information of the health of children and young people to each district health board in New Zealand as well as to the Ministry of Health. In collaboration between NZCYES and other organisations. Mavis also contributes to the annual Child Poverty Monitor. She has worked previously in the Office of the Children's Commissioner providing evidence-based policy advice on issues of health and well-being, and while living in Sydney contributed to analysis of data for the New South Wales Child Death Review and facilitated consultation on a child injury prevention strategy for New South Wales.

Fiona Ellis

University of Otago College of Education

Fiona Ellis is a lecturer in early childhood education at the University of Otago College of Education. Fiona's research interests are wide ranging and include learning for infants, toddlers and young children, teachers beliefs about pedagogy and learning, early childhood curriculum, transitions in early childhood and early literacy.

Associate Professor Christina Ergler

Department of Geography
phone: +64 3 470 4647

Christina is an Associate Professor in Social Geography in the Department of Geography at Otago. Her research interests lie at the crossroads of geography, sociology and public health. In the past, she has been largely interested in the geographies of health and wellbeing that relate to inequalities in experiencing and utilising urban environments from the perspectives of families. Through this work she started to develop methodological approaches that acknowledge children's expertise or what she calls "beyond passive participation".

Dr Sonya Gaches

University of Otago College of Education
phone: +64 3 479 8949

Sonya Gaches' research interests include how policy, practices and issues of social justice and inclusion impact children's rights, voice and participation in their away-from-home lives.  Additionally, Sonya's research has focused on intersections of teachers' narratives, children's and families' lives and policy effects on the experiences of and relationships between teachers, children and families.

Dr Michael Gaffney

University of Otago College of Education

Michael Gaffney has been involved in a number of research areas: early childhood and school policy in New Zealand; the use of computers in New Zealand schools; children's video and television; access arrangements for children following parental separation; early childhood professional development; disability studies; and links between school culture and bullying and school-wide approaches to behaviour management.

Dr Ruth Gasson

University of Otago College of Education
phone: +64 3 479 4940

Ruth Gasson's research interests have been in Children's Rights, especially the working lives of young people, and in the philosophy of education. She has recently completed a project that investigated the experiences of young people in special education. Ruth enjoys investigating how social policy impacts on people's lives.

Professor Anita Gibbs

Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work
phone: +64 3 479 5677

Anita Gibbs's research interests include: fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD); inter-country adoption policy and practice; auto-ethnographic research and service user voice; the needs of fostered and adopted children; transcultural parenting; and hidden disabilities.

Dr Megan Gollop

Children's Issues Centre
phone: +64 3 479 4918

Megan Gollop is a Senior Research Fellow at the Children's Issues Centre. She has a background in Psychology and Counselling and has worked as a researcher for over 20 years. Her research interests include socio-legal research with families and children on topics such as parental separation and divorce, relocation, and post-separation family issues; digital media; parenting; children's voice and participation; and children and young people's perspectives and participation in research. She is currently working on a nationwide evaluation of the 2014 New Zealand family justice system reforms and is also involved with the Graduate Longitudinal Study New Zealand.

Professor Alex Gunn

University of Otago College of Education

I am interested in beliefs and practices, and in how the things we do in education come to reflect and produce taken-for-granted norms. Furthermore, I am intrigued by how we take up so-called norms of practice in ways that enable and constrain the authorisation of particular subjects, understandings and ideas.

Dr Catherine Hartung

University of Otago College of Education
phone: +64 3 479 4986

Catherine Hartung is a lecturer in Education Studies at the College of Education. Prior to this role she worked as a Research Fellow within the Centre for Research in Educational Futures and Innovation (CREFI) at Deakin University in Melbourne. She has been a Research Fellow and Project Coordinator across several large-scale Australian research grants over the last 10 years. In this capacity she has worked with hundreds of children and young people, from preschool to the final year of high school, as well as teachers, school leaders, families and community members. Although she started out as a high school Visual Arts and Design teacher, her interests have led her in a variety of directions, mostly related to the sociology of childhood, youth and education, particularly notions of young people's citizenship and rights. She is currently writing two books due for publication in 2017 focused on young people's political participation.

Professor Mark Henaghan

Faculty of Law
phone:  +64 3 479 8856

Mark Henaghan, Dean of the Faculty of Law, has research interests that include family law, children's rights, law and the human genome, and the role of judges.

Associate Professor Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott

Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work
phone: +64 3 479 8753

Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott is an Associate Professor in Sociology. As a family demographer, she focuses on young children's family environment. Some of Bryndl's research has examined fathers' involvement with young children, and her current work explores the processes of adding siblings to a family.

Dr Emily Keddell

Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work
phone: +64 3 479 9019

Emily Keddell's research interests include: the links between child welfare policies and socio-political contexts, judgment and decision-making in child protection social work, and ethnic identities including the construction of multiple ethnicities.

Dr Julie Lawrence

Paediatrics & Child Health, Department of Women's and Children's Health, Dunedin School of Medicine
phone: +64 3 474 7007 extn 4526

Julie Lawrence's research interests include family functioning; parenting practices and styles; families experience of incarceration; family discipline and guidance of children; and children's voices and participation in research. Julie is currently an investigator on a large HRC funded randomised control trial looking at the prevention of overweight in infancy ( and is taking the lead in the family/parenting measures.

Judy Layland

University of Otago College of Education

Nicola Liebergreen

Paediatrics & Child Health, Department of Women's and Children's Health, Dunedin School of Medicineemail:

Dr Jude MacArthur

Massey University
phone: 0277415413

Jude is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Education at Massey University. Based in Dunedin, her interests are in inclusive education and ethical research that highlights children's and young people's perspectives. The rights and experiences of disabled children and young people in local schools are a particular focus of her teaching and research.

Margaret Mackenzie

Otago Polytechnic

Margaret  McKenzie's research interests include supervised contact services; family group conferences and child protection; family social work practices; social work theory and method; social work research and evaluation.

Kate McAnelly

University of Otago College of Education

Kate is an early childhood teacher and PhD student at the University of Otago College of Education. Her thesis is on sensory environments in early childhood settings and how they afford the active participation and learning of autistic children, as well as the realisation of powerful learning identities and mana. Her supervisors are Dr Michael Gaffney and Professor Alex Gunn. In addition to ECE , inclusive education, disability studies and childhood studies, Kate's research interests include parenting and families, affective teaching and learning approaches, education and disability policy, and inclusive teacher education.

Professor Karen Nairn

University of Otago College of Education
phone: +64 3 479 8619

My research portfolio is interdisciplinary with contributions to education, youth studies, qualitative research, and geography education. My current research focuses on youth identities, post-school transitions and creative methodologies for researching with young people. My book (with Jane Higgins & Judith Sligo, 2012) Children of Rogernomics: A neoliberal generation leaves school connects the stories of young people with the wider social and economic story of NZ during the last three decades. I am currently developing another strand of teaching and research with a new postgraduate course Writing for publication in the Social Sciences which I introduced in 2015.

Dr Gill Rutherford

University of Otago College of Education

I have worked in the education/disability sector for the past 35 years, and have had the privilege of knowing and working with disabled children and adults from many sectors of our society. A former high school teacher, my work at the University of Otago College of Education since 1995 has focused on Disability Studies, inclusive education within teacher education programmes, and teacher aide education. My research interests include Disability Studies, inclusive/teacher education, teacher aides' role in education, and students' experiences of school.

Dr Jenny Salmon

phone: +64 3 454 4648

Jenny has recently returned to Dunedin from Canada where she was on a one-year post-doctoral research fellowship (2012) at the University of Manitoba in her field of interest – namely fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She is a social scientist who has been involved in this neurodevelopmental disability for the past 10 years. Being extremely keen on qualitative methodology, her book, based on her Master's thesis and published in 2006, explores the experiences of the birth mothers of individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Fathimath Shiraani

Department of Tourism

Fathimath Shiraani is a PhD student studying at the University of Otago Tourism Department, under the supervision of Professor Neil Carr and Dr Gill Rutherford. Her current research interest lies in exploring lived travel and tourism experiences of children with disabilities. The multidisciplinary nature of this study allows her to investigate the intersections between tourism; disability; and childhood studies. Additionally, Shiraani enjoys teaching – from 2014 she has been working as a tutor for the University of Otago (Department of Management; and Disability Information and Support). Frequently she engages in voluntary roles, with recent work done with the Dunedin Multi-Ethnic Council as an Executive Member and a Coordinator of a migrant women's group.

Dr Jean Simpson

New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service, Department of Women's & Children's Health
phone: +64 3 479 8338

Dr Judith Sligo

Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine ,
Dunedin School of Medicine

phone: +64 3 479 7223

Judith Sligo is the manager of the Next Generation Studies at the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit. These studies focus on the children and stepchildren of the Dunedin Study cohort.  She has also been involved in several different research projects with children and young people, including a project looking at young people's transition from school, participation in public life and socializing without drinking alcohol. She recently completed her PhD, which focused on young people's transition from compulsory education into further education and paid work. Judith Sligo's research interests include children, young people and their families; social policy; parenting; research methods.

Dr Lee Smith

Department of Oral Sciences, Faculty of Dentistry

Lee Smith has recently undertaken a number of collaborative studies focusing on children's/young people's experiences of oral health and their rights during oral health care. Currently, she is leading a study exploring Pasifika adolescents' conceptualisations of oral health and their past experiences of oral health care. Study findings, in collaboration with Pasifika peoples, oral health care workers, and interested stakeholders, will be used to design a more culturally competent model of oral health care, which is aimed at addressing the poorer oral health outcomes of Pasifika youth and inequities in access to oral health services. Dr Smith also has an interest in gender-sexuality and has previously undertaken a number of studies with queer youth.

Associate Professor Nicola Taylor

Children's Issues Centre
phone: +64 3 479 4919

Nicola Taylor is the Director of the Children's Issues Centre. She undertakes socio-legal research with children, young people, parents and professionals (primarily judges, lawyers, social workers, psychologists and parenting support staff) on a broad range of child and family law, welfare and parenting issues - particularly those concerning separation/divorce; guardianship; day-to-day care; contact; relocation; abduction; care and protection; the impact of legal and welfare proceedings on children and families; the participation and views of children in family law proceedings; judicial meetings with children; international law and human rights issues affecting children; rural childhood; citizenship and nation building; the ethics of research involving children and young people; the discipline and guidance of children; strengthening parenting in Southland; New Zealand university graduate longitudinal outcomes. She is also a Board member of the Childwatch International Research Network (based in Norway) and co-chairs their Thematic Groups on Children and the Law and Child Research Ethics.

Professor Patrick Vakaoti

Te Tumu School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies
phone: +64 3 479 3074

Patrick Vakaoti is interested in sociological and community development work with young people.  His research based mostly in Fiji and the Pacific focus on young people's issues like street-frequenting and political participation.


Dislocation following the Christchurch earthquake: Children and young people's experiences, University of Otago Research Grant (2011-2012)

This Cluster-initiated study investigated the temporary and permanent dislocation of children and young people from their homes after the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010/2011. The perspectives of 94 children and young people who relocated to Dunedin and Central Otago and those who remained in Christchurch were ascertained. The experiences of schools that accommodated relocated children were also investigated. This research will make an important contribution to knowledge about children's post-disaster recovery and to the development of improved post-disaster planning mechanisms.

Researchers: Associate Professor Claire Freeman, Megan Gollop, Associate Professor Nicola Taylor and Dr Karen Nairn


Two special-issue journals and an edited book have been produced

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