Theoretical Concepts

The Social Constructedness of Childhood

The concept of a socially constructed child is relatively new in geography. It developed in part as a response to the crisis of representation in the social sciences which began in the mid 1970s. Focusing on academic texts, concern was expressed over the ability of academics to misrepresent others through their writing. Children were viewed as a particularly significant group in this debate given their lack of participation in creating academic texts which slowly began to change the ways in which social scientists conduct research with children and other relatively powerless groups. According to social constructivists, the experience of childhood is discursively produced. While modernists naturalize childhood as a time of development, essentializing normative notions of ‘the universal child’, social constructivists highlight the plurality of childhoods, contextualized by social, historical, political, economic, and geographic processes. Geographers utilizing this theoretical perspective explore the material and corporeal experiences that embody children’s everyday lives and consider the ways children’s social identities are gendered, classed, racialized, etc. within particular spatial contexts. Thus, notions of different axes of social identity as mutually constitutive provide an important theoretical basis for many geographers working with children.

Children as (Competent) Social Agents

Mirroring the development of the children’s rights movement, including legislation such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have been increasingly conceptualized within children’s geographies and the new social studies of childhood as social actors. Such a conceptualization views children as human beings, not merely ‘human becomings’. Rather than complying with contemporary interpretations of children as less competent than adults, unable to make key decisions about their lives, such a conceptualization views children as competent social agents, exercising agency to transform their own social worlds. However, this is not to say that a consideration of wider social structures that shape and constrain children’s agency has been deemed unimportant. To the contrary, the ways in which children’s lives are structured by wider global and local processes remain central to analysis.