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Merging street and family relations – Ethnographic study of the social worlds of children in street situations in Recife and Salvador, Brazil

Tampere University
Area of focusSociety

Doctoral dissertation in social work


Children and youth in street situations are a worldwide phenomenon. The exceptionally vulnerable situation of street children has been recognized in international discussions for a long time and is seen in the amount of research on street children globally. However, despite the high amount of concern about street children, the role of their families and communities has received little attention, and similarly, the families are often automatically portrayed as being unable to take care of their children. Still, various studies show that most street children in Brazil have existing bonds with their families, even if these bonds are weak. While family and community reintegration are guiding objectives in many international organizations working with street children, the lives of street children are often studied as detached from their families.


The research aims to understand the characteristics of family relations and the dynamics of socio-spatial street-family mobility for street children in Recife and Salvador, Brazil. The research investigates the ties children express to their families and communities, and studies which factors can help to maintain and improve these ties, and whether it is for the child’s best interest. In the research, family is understood as a wide concept, and children’s definitions, experiences, and expressions regarding their families are respected. The research is situated in different research fields including social work research, childhood studies, family research, and global development studies. The dissertation is article-based and written in English.

The general objective of the research is to understand the social worlds of family life for children in contested family situations. The research questions are: 1. How the social worlds are experienced and expressed by children in contested family situations, such as on the street, and their families? 2. How to conduct participatory ethnographic research with children in contested family situations? 3. What are the possibilities of family-focused community work based on children’s and their families’ social worlds?

The data is collected using ethnographic methods in different non-governmental organizations that work with street children and their families in Recife (2018-2019) and Salvador (2022-2023), Brazil. The participants are children (age 10-17) in street situations, their family members, and professionals working with them.  


The research will inform about the social worlds of family life of children in various situations where their family relations and dynamics are contested. Theoretically, the research contributes to the research and theories of social worlds in the context of children in contested family situations. Methodological contribution locates in developing and implementing participatory ethnographic methods specifically suitable for children in adverse situations, as well as analyzing the ethical and practical characteristics of these methods. The research also offers practical and policy impact in social work and in other professional fields with children and families in developing community-based and family-focused methods in the global context.

Funding source

Tampereen yliopisto