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by Manfred Liebel
22nd February 2021

My book on the decolonisation of childhoods invites us to critically reflect on the Eurocentric bias of childhood studies to date. This research has colonial roots. It was based on colonial paradigms for a long time and is still partly based on such paradigms today.

The Western pattern of childhood develops in parallel with colonisation. It is constructed as a form of conquest of a foreign, unknown, empty, natural and uncivilised territory. In this sense, childhood was conceived by the liberal philosopher John Locke as a ‘tabula rasa’ and, almost 100 years later, by the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau as ‘pure nature’ in the sense of the ‘good savage’.

The colonial view also shaped the beginnings of sociology, psychology and the educational sciences in general, as well as childhood studies in particular in its beginnings. In his lectures at the Sorbonne in Paris in the early 20th century, Emile Durkheim, one of the fathers of positivist sociology, compared children to ‘primitive man’. According to him, the ‘intractability’ of their ‘primitive passions’ corresponded to that of ‘savages’. In order not to endanger the cohesion of civilised society, they would have to be subjected to a ‘prevailing’ moral education, to ‘discipline’ and to ‘self-control’, in particular by school. In his magnum opus The Social System, the influential US sociologist Talcott Parsons also equated the development of societies with the development of the individual personality. Thus, he thinks of certain social groups or societies as immature, primitive or backward with respect to others, like children, without perceiving their specific distinctive characteristics. With regard to children, Parsons spoke of an ‘invasion of the barbarians’.

In the 1980s, the Austrian education scientist Peter Gstettner exemplified how in the newly emerging pedagogical and psychological sciences on childhood, ‘the academic conquest of unknown territories precedes the conquest of the childish soul’. He demonstrated this especially with the history of developmental psychology, but also in the conceptualisation of childhood in the corresponding scholarship as a whole. According to him, all dominant models of human ‘development’ included territorial associations: populations and individual people alike were thought of in terms of political regions, as territories to be conquered, occupied, researched and proselytised.

These paradigms have been questioned in childhood studies since that time. Childhood itself is now understood and deconstructed as a historically and culturally variable and changeable ‘social construction’. The perception of children as social actors and subjects as well as the claim to do research ‘from the child’s perspective’ also contribute to counteracting this ‘colonisation’ of childhood. But scholars including myself point out that the new childhood studies also had a Eurocentric bias. Childhood studies continue to be dominated by researchers of Northern universities who have internalised the standards of scientific excellence that apply here. These standards claim to be the only access to knowledge of reality and truth and thus exclude many other forms of thought and knowledge, especially those outside the academy and in non-Western cultures. The dissemination of research results is also heavily dependent on Northern-based publishers and journals, and they are generally only perceived internationally if they are published in one of the former colonial languages, particularly in English.

The interest in the way of life of children in the formerly colonised regions of the world has increased in recent years within childhood studies. This attention is one way of contributing to its decolonisation. But it is also crucial that it opens itself to ways of thinking and understanding from non-Western cultures and cooperates with researchers who are rooted in these cultures, with these researchers being given scientific spaces in which their work and ways of research can be disseminated and taken seriously.

When comparing childhood studies to other fields, we see that this process has already progressed further in feminist-orientated research, for example in the critical discussion of the colonial implications of the category of the powerful and empowering (white and male) subject. Particularly in Latin America and Africa, there is also engagement with so-called indigenous or horizontal-dialogical epistemologies and research methods, which could be taken up more strongly in childhood studies. Horizontal methodologies are based on the principle of overcoming the distinction between researchers and researched, and creating communities in which all participants equally shape and control the research process. In this context, it would be of particular importance to maintain equitable relations with population groups that are particularly affected by the consequences of colonisation and the current postcolonial constellation. These are, as I have shown in my book, especially children who have to live in great poverty, whose lives are constantly at risk and who are affected by racist and sexist violence. I call them children of the global South.

To decolonise knowledge and modes of knowledge, we need to think more about the relationship between knowledge and power. There is no such thing as neutral knowledge or pure research. Interactions – and our own dispositions as researchers – are still contaminated by the coloniality of power that is renewed in institutional and everyday interactions. The academic field is deeply structured by coloniality and, in the current context, there are massive dynamics of a commodification of knowledge led by transnational corporations. Despite these hegemonic tendencies, the field of research is still a strategic place for changing the geopolitics of knowledge and getting closer to what the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls ‘cognitive justice’. That is why it is important to have a policy and ethics of research that is not conceived from an idealised academic field but that considers in an integral way the political, economic and social aspects, from the definition of the topic, through the collection of data, to the publication of the results to promote the process of decolonisation of knowledge.

Such reflections can play a major role in the recognition of non-Western childhoods and the self-empowerment of the children of the global South. A step in this direction can also consist of perceiving and supporting these children as researchers on their own behalf. There are more examples of this than is generally known (and recognised in the academic community), especially in the countries of the South. Adults are often involved but have more of an advisory role. I will give an example from Nicaragua.

With the support of an adult woman with experience in research, a group of girls and boys in a small town explored the question of how to overcome the daily misery in their quarter. They combined verbal and visual methods (role plays, video reports, collages) to address grievances in their immediate environment and to analyse and prioritise them in relation to global contexts. At a public event they presented their results to representatives of the municipal administration, the police, the Ministry of Education, the water supply company and representatives of civil society invited by them. The local media also reported on the project. One of the demands was to improve the water supply in the district. ‘We don’t have clean water and we have to dig holes or take it from the polluted river. Therefore, we ask the mayor to help us with this problem’. The mayor’s office and the water supply company took this demand seriously and only three weeks later laid water pipes throughout the district, so that most of the households of the approximately 2,000 inhabitants had access to water. The water supply company confirmed that the children’s demands and the publicity event were the decisive trigger for this.

The example shows that children’s research is not content with producing knowledge, but demands practical consequences. It does not invalidate the unequal power between adults and children, or even in the postcolonial world order, but it does help children to stop accepting it as unchangeable and strengthens their self-confidence to be able to make a difference. Even researching their lives is important for children not least because they experience oppression and discrimination in its various and interconnected forms at first hand and by their own body. As children of the global South, they did not only have themselves in mind. And in their research they had many a practical opportunity to reflect on the injustice in the world globalised from above.

Cover of 'Decolonizing Childhoods'Decolonizing Childhoods by Manfred Liebel is available on the Policy Press website. Find out more here.

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