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Children and Youth as Subjects, Objects, and Agents

Children and Youth as Subjects, Objects, and Agents

Welcome to the fifth of the new SHCY Commentary series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.

Children and Youth as Subjects, Objects, and Agents: Approaches to Research in a Global Context, Preview and Report

By Elena Jackson Albarrán

In May 2018, approximately twenty scholars of childhood gathered in the sun-drenched conference rooms of the University of Minnesota’s Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) for two intensive workshop days to prepare manuscripts for a proposed interdisciplinary volume.  Long-time collaborators and newcomers alike broke bread and compared research methodologies in this space that, since 2013, has hosted the “Subjects, Objects, Agents: Young People’s Lives and Livelihoods in the Global South” research circle, collaboratively directed by Mary Jo Maynes, Frances Vavrus and Deborah Levison.    

Intentionally designed to test the geographic and methodological diversity that characterizes the broad interdisciplinary field of childhood studies, the projects explored the lives of children and youth across time, space, and discipline. Ranging in temporal scope from the mid-seventeenth century through the present, and attending to geographies across the Americas, Africa, Australia, Asia, and Europe, contributing authors hailed from such disciplinary traditions as anthropology, critical literary studies, economics, education, history, policy and development, political science, population studies, and sociology.  Over the course of the workshop sessions, as participants sustained hour-long gazes on facets of historical and contemporary childhoods in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Chile, China, Germany, Guatemala, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and United States, clear common threads began to emerge. The proposed book, Children and Youth as Subjects, Objects and Agents: Approaches to Research in a Global Context, is centrally engaged with questions about how researchers take into consideration children and young people’s conceptions of themselves and how we conceptualize children’s agency at different ages. To this end, workshop participants presented aspects of substantive research in the context of intentional self-reflection about methodology, positionality, and/or disciplinarity. 

ICGC ConferenceThe structure and organization of the workshop made optimal use of the intensive time block.  All participants read five pre-circulated papers, engaged in a one-hour workshop for their own paper, and convened for two brainstorming sessions that brought individual session comments into conversation and identified emerging common themes and methodologies. Those conversations can best be described as forwarding democratic, mutually enriching, affirming, and fruitful advances for the field of childhood studies.  Reading across each other’s work, we affirmed hallmarks of the field in the (sometimes surprising) consistency of certain themes, and we also identified some common pitfalls that many of us stumble into regardless of discipline or methodology.  Some of these are summarized briefly here: 

Scholars of childhood tend to privilege children as agentic only when they are being transgressive.

The child agent is often constructed as the paragon of our field, and when children’s voices and actions are legible to scholars, it’s tempting to always try to read them as a force against the power structures that give shape to their lives. And of course, scholarship has shown ways that children are able to contest, reframe, or negotiate their own subjectivity to systems of authority.  But we should not overlook children’s actions as less meaningful when they manifest conformity.  The expression of agency does not necessarily subvert authority.  Just as much value can be gleaned from the documented actions of obedient, or apolitical, or institutionalized children in ways that teach us something meaningful about their lived conditions. 

Childhood studies epistemologies are overwhelmingly Western.

Developmentalist approaches applied to the study of children and childhood draw disproportionately from Western social science theories, which are premised on white normative models.  Many of the contributions to this workshop illuminate the realities of other childhoods that belie the universality of such models, both to children’s lived experiences and as metaphors for development, and beg us to diversify our expanding definition of “childhood” to include other realities. If we begin from a different vantage point, the slave childhoods in the U.S. South, for example, any presumed shared knowledge about the trajectory of life from “the liminal stage” onward quickly dissipates.  Accepted social science discourse has always been teleological and linear, and as such has privileged progress and civilization as rhetorical and political organizing principles.  But non-Western epistemological positions disrupt those assumptions, as in the case of Bengali narratives that conflate very young and very old life stages as similarly imbued with enlightened knowledge.  The very premise of childhood as a construction, a sacrosanct concept for today’s scholars of childhood, urgently needs to turn to the non-dominant childhoods carried out over time in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the United States to find new starting points from which to build critical analytical models.  


The nature of childhood studies methodologies uniquely accentuates the positionality of its scholars.

It goes without saying that everyone has lived some kind of childhood, and therefore comes to the field with a set of internalized assumptions framing their inquiries. While academic conventions ask us to subvert those subjectivities, the authors of this project have chosen to sustain an introspective gaze regarding their sources, subjects, and informants. Therefore, methodologies and the scholar’s position take center stage in each of the contributions.  We can see the structural injustices layered into the construction of the colonial educational archive in Uganda, for example, as a way to understand one of the myriad ways that children’s historical voices are rendered silent by administrators, and doubly so when these children are racially marginalized.  We can see the futility of ever fully reconciling adult testimonies of their childhoods with those they documented as children, given all of the mediating factors that intervene between memory and diary. Childhood, as any subjectivity, remains wholly unknowable, but what scholars can do is to responsibly chart out possibilities within the knowable context in each case.  The scholars here are not shy about revealing, and critiquing, the methods we employ to rescue children’s stories, migrations, and experiences from the shadows. 

This project has drawn attention to the power of childhood studies to make contributions toward the research of and in the Global South. But it also calls attention to the dire need to further internationalize the field.  While the geographies represented span the globe, all contributing scholars present (with one notable exception) hailed from U.S. academic training.  That the contributions of the non-U.S. trained scholar, rooted deeply in postcolonial/decolonial studies and non-Western ways of knowing, were thirstily absorbed by the rest of the conference participants, highlights the continued epistemic imbalances that make an imprint upon the field. 

Participants left the workshop energized from the intensive intellectual exchange, challenged with new methodological and theoretical approaches put forth by their colleagues, and validated in their quest to push the field of childhood studies in critical new directions.  The manuscript revisions in process bear the imprint of the conversations sustained in Minneapolis.  While scholars rarely have the opportunity to indulge in this type of focused, well-organized exchange, participants concurred that working in community is an ideal model for scholarly production. 

[HOPEFULLY] A preview of this book project will be presented at the 2019 meeting of the Society of the History of Childhood and Youth as a roundtable, wherein several of the authors will present snapshots of their contributions and dialogue with each other and the audience about the methods, sources, and positionality, in the expanding parameters of our field.

Prepared by
Elena Jackson Albarrán, Miami University
Kelly Condit-Shrestha, University of Minnesota

About Elena Jackson Albarrán

Elena Jackson Albarrán is Associate Professor of History Elena AlbarrĂ¡nand Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University.  Her monograph, Seen and Heard in Mexico: Children and Revolutionary Cultural Nationalism (Nebraska 2015), was selected for the María Elena Martínez book prize awarded by the Conference on Latin American History. In it, she examines children’s responses to the Mexican state’s cultural and educational projects following the revolution of 1910 and argues that despite children’s heightened visibility and agency during these decades, they also experienced uneven access to the democratic promises of the revolution. She is co-editor of and contributor to the volume Nuevas miradas a la historia de la infancia en América Latina (UNAM-IIH, 2012). Other publications include chapters in the edited volumes Transnational Histories of Youth in the Twentieth Century (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), Mexico in Verse (University of Arizona, 2015), and articles in The Americas, Iberoamericana, and Studies in Latin American Popular Culture.  Her current research project examines the transnational circulation of children and their cultural productions in and through the Americas in the interwar period in the context of developmentalist rhetoric.

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