Thriving in Childhood: Research in Public Health and Religious Studies
Ask Valerie Michaelson what connects her research in the Department of Public Health Sciences and the School of Religion and she’ll give you a simple answer: childhood. The way that researchers understand childhood and listen to children – not as mini adults, but as children – has a profound impact on both the process and the results of research. Her research explores aspects of what children need to thrive.
In the Department of Public Health Sciences, Michaelson works with the Child Health 2.0 project, led by her postdoctoral supervisor, Dr. Colleen Davison. The research team uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore child health in a holistic way. While modern health research typically focuses on individual characteristics that contribute to health, the Child Health 2.0 project (childhealth2.com) focuses on the whole person, including the dynamic interaction between the physical, mental, social and spiritual domains that all contribute to health.
Michaelson sees her work in the Queen’s School of Religion as a natural complement to this work. Etymologically, the word “health” is rooted in the words “whole” and “holy,” and many ancient cultures and religious traditions are rooted in beliefs around human beings as holistic, integrated beings. For example, Davison’s work has introduced Michaelson to Inuit traditional social values or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ). Inuit also speak of Inunnguiniq which translates into English as “the making of a human being.” The Child Health 2.0 project is learning about these Inuit ideas and teachings as one window to explore holistic aspects of child health. Michaelson’s co-supervisor, Dr. Tracy Trothen from the School of Religion, also brings an interesting perspective. In her recent book on “transhumanism,” Trothen examines how technological advances could radically alter the human species, and in turn raises complex ethical, spiritual and ontological questions about what it is that makes us human.
One of the research areas that Michaelson is most intrigued by is her work on spiritual aspects of health. She stresses that while some people may draw from religion to gain a spiritual experience, religion and spirituality are not always linked. In her words, “spirituality captures the sense of wonder inherent to the human experience, and it is often described in our relationships within four domains: with ourselves, with others, with the natural world, and with some sense of transcendence or mystery.”
Over the past four years, Michaelson and her research colleagues have been refining a quantitative measure for spirituality in adolescent populations. In 2014, the measure was used for the first time in a broad general adolescent health survey in eight countries, including Canada. Preliminary data are now being analyzed, and the research team is fascinated by what they are seeing. Trained as a qualitative researcher, Michaelson enjoys trying to understand the human story behind the numbers. What is going on in the patterns we are observing? Why is this important to children as they navigate adolescence? This is a story the team hopes they will soon be able to tell.
Michaelson’s course Religion and Childhood (RELS 201) will be offered in the School of Religion this fall. Drawing from a large and interdisciplinary literature base (including works from IQ and many of the world’s major religions), students will explore the human experience through the lens of childhood. This course has a particular focus on “rites of passage.” Drawing examples from the ancient world to modern children’s literature (including Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat ceremony), this course will investigate how rituals help to mark important life transitions.
Michaelson cites her own children as an inspiration for her work. The proud mother of three teenage girls, she often asks herself, “In this complex and perpetually connected world, what do they need to thrive and be whole?” She says, “If my research can help me answer even a small part of that question, I’ll be very happy.”
(e)Affect Issue 7 Spring 2015