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Children’s voices in research: Q methodology as a facilitator of children’s participation

Author: Marit Sukk

Please cite as: Sukk, M. (2022): Children’s voices in research: Q methodology as a facilitator of children’s participation. In S. Kotilainen (Ed.), Methods in practice: Studying children and youth online (chapter 7). Retrieved DD Month YYYY, from, doi:

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Calls for research rather than on children and children’s rights discourse have paved the way for the emergence of participatory methodologies (Fargas-Malet et al., 2010), which enable us to view children as experts on their own lives. While interviews remain a widely used form of participatory research, more interactive and creative techniques like Q methodology might be necessary to maintain children’s interest and help them express themselves (Gibson et al., 2018).

Q methodology (Q) combines quantitative and qualitative methods and is designed for investigating patterns of subjectivity (e.g., views, opinions) of social life (Watts & Stenner, 2012). I argue that Q is a child-friendly, participatory approach that can easily be tailored to children’s age and developmental stage. Thus, even younger children can share their stories with relative ease, as evident from a recent study exploring 8- to 13-year-old Estonian pre-teens’ (n=20) viewpoints and experiences related to their parents’ usage of child-tracking technologies (Sukk & Siibak, 2021). In the following discussion, I will rely on the examples from the tracking study. 

The first step of all Q methodological studies is to generate a concourse which aims to represent the things that people think or say about the research topic. It is commonplace to begin this process via academic literature. In the pre-teens’ tracking study, popular resources (e.g., discussions on internet forums) were also used to achieve a balanced coverage. Next, a representative sample of the concourse, a Q set, is formed. Watts and Stenner (2012) suggest starting with a large number of statements, which can be reduced through piloting. Initial Q set for the pre-teens’ study consisted of 76 statements which were narrowed down to 28 with the help of external experts on childhood studies and Q methodology. This approach is also often used in Q methodological studies.

The statements must be carefully formulated to enable participants to express their viewpoints. Personal approach and careful age-appropriate wording of the statements make the statements relatable and accessible to children, e.g., “I feel safe when my parents know where I am.”. Descriptive statements help to reduce social desirability bias, encouraging participants to speak without judgement (Johnson & Van de Vijver, 2002), e.g., “Parents should not track their children without discussing it first.”. Furthermore, descriptive items help children share their viewpoint about a situation even if they have not experienced it themselves. 

Through sorting the statements, the participants provide a model of their viewpoint. Children in the tracking study were instructed to sort each statement into three categories: statements “you agree with”, “you disagree with” and statements “you are unsure of”. After that, the participants were encouraged to sort the cards using a scale of -5 (“most disagree with”) to +5 (“most agree with”).  Children could also sort a card in the category “0” i.e., they were unsure whether they agree or disagree. Sorting a set of predetermined statements meant that children did not have to verbalise their experiences but could rely on cards, thus focusing on the actual meaning of the statements. It is advisable to conduct a short interview before/after the sorting and/or ask open-ended questions during the exercise. Probing for more information and requesting stories or examples helps to get a deeper sense of children’s viewpoints.

The main objective of Q analysis is to establish portions of shared meanings (i.e., factors) which identify a group of people who have sorted items in a very similar way (Watts & Stenner, 2012). For a detailed overview of factor analysis in Q methodology, see Watts and Stenner (2012).

Q methodology is a great tool for exploring the range and diversity of individual perspectives and discovering patterns between them. Its engaging nature is particularly suitable for research with children. Through meticulous work, the limitations of Q can be overcome, providing a truly unique way of studying human subjectivity.

Lessons learned

Strengths of the methodology include:

  • Q methodology can encourage children’s reflections in a systematic manner. (Ellingsen et al., 2014) as the data is collected in the form of Q sorts.

  • Furthermore, since some children can find it difficult to talk to strangers about their thoughts, sharing opinions through fixed statements may make participation less intimidating (Ellingsen et al., 2014). 

  • Q methodology can foster inclusion as statements can be pictures or even single words, meaning that even small children can share their stories. Thus, Q can be viewed as a child-friendly approach.

Some limitations of Q are:

  • Since only shared viewpoints emerge through factor analysis, all the subjective experiences may not be included. 

  • Furthermore, the results cannot be generalised to a larger population. 

  • Critics have questioned Q’s reliability as repeating the process with the same participant does not necessarily yield the same perspectives (Cross, 2005). 

  • Moreover, concourse development takes rigorous effort to ensure that participants’ subjectivity is not limited by poorly chosen predetermined statements. Those not familiar with Q methodological factor analysis must strive to grasp its nuances to achieve meaningful results. 

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  1. Cross, R. M. (2005). Exploring attitudes: the case for Q methodology. Health education research, 20(2), 206-213.

  2. Ellingsen, I. T., Thorsen, A. A., & Størksen, I. (2014). Revealing children’s experiences and emotions through Q methodology. Child Development Research, 2014, 1–9.

  3. Fargas-Malet, M., McSherry, D., Larkin, E., & Robinson, C. (2010). Research with children: Methodological issues and innovative techniques. Journal of early childhood research, 8(2), 175–192.

  4. Gibson, F., Fern, L., Oulton, K., Stegenga, K., & Aldiss, S. (2018). Being Participatory Through Interviews. In Being Participatory: Researching with Children and Young People (pp. 103–126). Springer, Cham

  5. Johnson, T. P., & Van de Vijver, F. J. (2003). Social desirability in cross-cultural research. Cross-cultural survey methods, 325, 195–204.

  6. Sukk, M., & Siibak, A. (2021). Caring dataveillance and the construction of “good parenting”: Estonian parents’ and pre-teens’ reflections on the use of tracking technologies. Communications, 46(3), 446–467.

  7. Watts, S., & Stenner, P. (2012). Doing Q methodological research. Theory, method & interpretation. London: Sage.

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