Concepts Addressed So Far…

We read…. that there might not necessarily be one benchmark for childhood;  that there might not be diverse childhoods that can be thought of in relation to a ‘normal’ childhood. We have discussed that we cannot talk about a universal child figure that “determines the baseline truths about all children everywhere” (Affrica Taylor reminds us).

These writings are specifically inspired by the work of Foucault, Derrida, Butler, and other philosophers. Certain themes highlighted within this scholarship have provided us with conceptual tools to think about children and childhood. For example, we began reflecting on the idea that there is no possibility of a value-free exploration. We talked that we are not looking for the truth – the articles highlight that ‘reality’ does not exist independent of the knower and the process of knowing. Rather than making absolute statements, we are trying to acknowledge the importance of stating where our ideas come from and what their ethical implications might be. In fact, we have discussed how racialized, gendered, sexed, and classed discourses are important factors in shaping our practices/questions.

The readings reflect on how racialized, gendered, heteronormative discourses have construed a true child. This construction allows practitioners/researchers to make sense of who children are, who they should be, and what they need in order to fit into a specific ideal.   The articles note that one of the problems of universality is its failure to comprehend and accommodate complexity.

Meanings, they remind us, are not fixed, rather they are constitutive and ever changing (Gleason, for instance).


What are discourses within this literature?

Another area within the course readings is the conceptualization of language. Language can be seen as a discursive system of socially construed signs, a meaning-filled practice, rather than what might be referred to as modernity’s instrument for delivering reality. Within this perspective, language does not constitute an absolute representation of reality. Meaning is part of a complex linguistic negotiation among individuals and, as such, it is one of the most important practices through which cultural production and reproduction take place. In light of recognizing the discursive nature of language, the authors tell us that the term ‘children’ can be viewed as a social construct with which we infer or build meanings.

The readings view a discourse as a body of social knowledge that both constrains and enables how we think and talk about a particular social object or practice. Discourses allow individuals to interpret a particular situation. In other words, we can only make sense of a situation after it has been placed within a discourse. Discourses constitute both power relations and subjectivity. Our subjectivity is constructed by their participation in discourses. We enter discourses and take a position through which we make sense of a situation (according to poststructural feminist scholars). Each discourse has its own style and employs various words, images and practices in its own fashion”. These statements, words, and practices are not only related, but are mutually dependant.

The articles use the term dominant discourse to describe the way things are named, spoken of, and written that become experienced as objective and true—what Foucault (1980) called “regimes of truth.” As regimes of truth, discourses hold power over individual and societal ways of understanding the world; they organize our everyday experience of the world, govern our ideas, thoughts, and actions, and determine “what can be said and not said, what we consider normal or not normal, appropriate or inappropriate”

What about Power?

A universal discourse has been created about children through strategies and techniques of power in accordance with political, social, judicial, and economic conditions of society. Both historical and power structures in a society determine (but not in a deterministic way) and legitimize knowledge. Foucault’s (1977, 1978) work on power relations has been central in understanding the construction of legitimate knowledge about children. According to Foucault (1977, 1978), discursive power relations involve the formation and regulation of meanings and understandings, disciplining how people act. This view of power and knowledge challenges the idea that power is a thing to be exercised by ‘powerful’ people or groups.

Foucault (1978) defines power as a network of discursive relations that moves away from simple coercion. In fact, as Foucault (1977) explains, power involves resistance. The actual resistance that the exercise of power meets is largely of its own creation due to the discursive nature of power. A key concept related to power is knowledge: ‘Power produces knowledge’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 27). Wherever power relations exist, a field of knowledge is constituted. Reciprocally, wherever a field of knowledge exists, power relations are constituted. The effects of discursive power relations involve the formation and regulation of meanings and understandings, disciplining our actions. Knowledge also creates possibilities and capacities for action.

Another theme within the readings has been the problematization of binary/dualistic thinking. Oppositions have been framed between the rational and irrational, ordered and unordered, objective and subjective. In fields such as child and youth care, we discuss the distinction between included and excluded, empowered and disempowered, and voice and voiceless as being natural. However, the readings argue, these distinctions are contingent upon dualistic conceptions of power struggles and, as such, are problematic. The issue is that systems of knowledge have been taken for granted. Here is a quote from Mac Naughton that I always use when I work with practitioners:

The significance of binary oppositions and their ‘other’ is that the ‘other’ is not equal to the main part of the pair. There is a hierarchy of value, set culturally in binaries and dichotomies (Ghandi, 1998). The pairs are always ranked, so one part of the pair always has a higher value in the ranking and is privileged over the ‘other’. So using binary oppositions places some meanings in a secondary, subordinate position and often an aberrant position. (p. 83)

The authors contend that there are ethical implications to conceptualizing binaries: Binaries create spaces that make practices and research in child and youth care come to a halt, a stand-still space in which possibilities for encountering other ways of seeing and relating or transformations are closed. These binaries are packed with certainties, applicable knowledge and regulated spaces make practitioners and researchers the holders of important (dominant) knowledge.

Because binaries and the hierarchies created through them are not natural but are socially produced, the readings tell us that they can be deconstructed or challenged – which is what we are doing in this course.

More to come…   on AgencyGovernmentality