Home > Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science > News and events > 2013 > 26November_revisitingthesocialstudiesofchildhood > Revisiting the Social Studies of Childhood Conceptualising the agency of children in extreme settings

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Revisiting the Social Studies of Childhood Conceptualising the agency of children in extreme settings

Biography of Speaker(s)

Professor Campbell is Head of the Social Psychology Department. She has a long-standing interest in questions of agency and identity, particularly through her work on community health in Africa, and has published widely in this area. This seminar drew on her on-going research into AIDS-affected children in rural Zimbabwe.

Seminar abstract   

Understandings of children’s well-being in the past two decades have been heavily influenced by the ‘new social studies of childhood’ (NSSC) (James and Prout 1990) which portray children as competent social actors, exercising agency (independent reflection and action) independently of adults, often in extremely challenging settings. Such understandings of agency are well supported by a solid body of empirical research. In this paper, we seek to extend this conceptualisation by calling for closer attention to children’s own understandings of what would constitute desirable outcomes of action.

We drew on 128 draw-and-write exercises where rural Zimbabwean school learners (aged 10-12) discussed the challenges facing their HIV-affected peers. We discuss two separate analyses of the same data. The first analysis – informed by the NSSC approach, and using the method of thematic content analysis – did indeed find some evidence for children’s agency in mobilising support from peers and teachers, constructing positive identities around caring roles and showing immense courage and resourcefulness in ensuring their daily survival.

However a re-analysis of the same material influenced by Sen’s (1999) and Seckinelgin’s (2012) understandings of agency, and using a narrative approach to draw-and-write analysis, taking the whole story rather than thematic chunks as its unit of analysis, drew greater attention to the limited opportunities for effective action by HIV-affected children, the negative outcomes of many of the choices they made, and the extent in which contextual and relational factors limited their access to outcomes they themselves would value: the support of caring and loving adults, adequate food, and opportunities to advance the health and safety of  themselves and their family members. We argue for conceptualisations of children’s agency that take greater account of children’s own accounts of the outcomes they themselves would value, rather than simply identifying agency in any form of independent reflection and action per se.