Childhood and "Othering"

Returning Agency, Reclaiming Responsibility

Sociology 111: Family & Sociology
T. K. Robinson, Instructor
Copyright © 2000 B. A. Collie Collier



Hegemonically speaking, the "normative" definition of any particular rubric within society has always been a source of cultural struggle. Both "family" and "childhood" are two such fluid paradigms, under constant societal and state definition, creation, and reproduction. Indeed, as Stoler notes in her book Race and the Education of Desire, childhood has historically been a hotly disputed site of contention in regards to defining colonial social hegemony and the so-called healthy national body. She notes that just as the bodies and minds of European children represented a susceptibility to a wide 'politics of contamination,' so the European cultural home was the site of a range of threatening potential cultural intrusions, thus institutionalizing the racist belief that civilizing attributes were those in which racial and class-based "lower orders" did not share. Children were viewed as essentially "lower order beings, they are animal-like, lack civility, discipline, and sexual restraint; their instincts are base, they are too close to nature, they are, like racialized others, not fully human beings (Stoler p. 151)."

Why does this happen? Why does hegemonic society seem to have this need to oppositionally define itself against some version of the Other? In his essay "Truth and Power" Foucault writes:

As soon as one endeavors to detach power with its techniques and procedures from the form of law within which it has been theoretically confined up until now, one is driven to ask this basic question: isn't power simply a form of warlike domination? Shouldn't one therefore conceive all problems of power in terms of relations of war? Isn't power a sort of generalized war which assumes at particular moments the forms of peace and the State? Peace would then be a form of war, and the State a means of waging it.

A whole range of problems emerge here. Who wages war against whom? Is it between two classes, or more? Is it a war of all against all ... in this civil society where permanent war is waged? What is the relevance of concepts of tactics and strategy for analyzing structures and political processes? What is the essence and mode of transformation of power relations? (Foucault, p. 123)

A closer look at Stoler's discussion demonstrates two possible aspects of this 'peace-time war.' The first is of "the generic 'savage' in the British imagination, as a mirror for 'attributes which they found first but could not speak of in themselves' (Stoler quoting Jordan, p. 150)." This view was overtly and covertly supported by both state and middle class concerns for their own self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, and is in essence almost isomorphic with the hegemonic view of children at the time, i.e. middle class concerns are projected onto the physical child (or in this case colonialized subject) in a social battle for the hegemonic normative definition. It is unsurprising to note that in both cases the state and its middle class heuristics were also more powerful than the subjected categories of 'child' and/or 'savage,' and thus (as agency was being removed from both children and the colonized) the ensuing discourses which produced the dominant paradigm were notably one-sided. The second interesting concept Stoler brings up is recognition of the metaphoric nature of the discourse concerning racial justification of colonialism. Like children, the racialized Others are forcefully re-presented and re-defined within the metaphor of the protective patriarchal family, conflated with children in the colonial gaze, "conveniently provid[ing] a moral justification for imperial policies of tutelage, discipline, and specific paternalistic and maternalistic strategies of custodial control (Stoler p. 150)." Both overtly through the legal power of the state, and covertly through childcare manuals and psychological studies of the time, the comparison is made and the rhetoric of the time reflects the social hegemonic paradigm: the 'savage' as child, the child as savage.

It is true that today there are other discourses concerning children, varying from psychological studies, racialized Othering, and other perspectives; and the current dominant hegemonic paradigm as to how to perceive them is still in dispute. However, the historical viewpoint discussed by Stoler has of necessity influenced the current contested modern paradigm as well. An example of this is the article titled "Fluid Families" by Robinson et al., where they discuss both the concept of childhood and of family, offering up a new perspective on them in regards to post-divorce family (re)creation and custody decisions. They briefly cover and de-naturalize the disputed social concept of 'family,' situating it within the intersections of recent history, patriarchy, and class within the US, and the ensuing predominant hegemonic model of family as a heterosexual couple with their helpless and incompetent offspring. They refer to this colonially influenced hegemonic ideal of family as the "sentimental family," and note the current societal fascination with this particular rendition of this heuristic, to the extent that they note modern legal attempts by the state to render post-divorce custody decisions reflect more than anything an attempt to recreate that model as swiftly as possible -- regardless of whether or not it is appropriate. What makes their work a new examination of the long-disputed concept of family and childhood is their denial of the 'child as savage' rubric, and their suggestion that children be considered (to the limits of their normative competence) self-aware moral agents, capable of deciding for themselves who their family is.

Robinson et al. do not suggest that children be seen as miniature adults as far as their decision making faculties, nor do they infer that children lack individual regulative control. Instead they demonstrate that children may have, to varying degrees, "normative competence." They define normative competence as the ability to recognize that an individual's behavior influences how other individuals will perceive them, such that a child lacking in such will accordingly have agency denied to them -- regardless of who the child actually is. The authors further note that any individual, child or adult, who is "unaware of, or finds it difficult to appreciate, standards that operate in the normal moral context … will be perceived as morally underdeveloped and irresponsible, and treated accordingly (Robinson et al, p 98)." This then is their criterion for returning agency to children -- the realization that normative competence is learned by degrees, and that the loving family creates a "special moral context (Robinson et al, p 98)" which is the most suitable environment in which a child can both learn and demonstrate this normative competence. Robinson et al. suggest that the benefits of such a view on children include, for the children themselves within and post-divorce, reassurance that the goods of family life are not irrevocably lost, encouragement of moral agency within the child, the benefits of living in two different worlds, the realization that intimate relationships are not inevitable but rather need care and cultivation, and the understanding that families deserve public discussion so that more satisfying possibilities for familial life will be available for the next generation.

It is the ramifications of this hypothesis that lead to fascinating new possibilities for the hegemonic social concepts of family and childhood. As Robinson et al. note in their description of the "sentimental family," the offspring of the parents are still considered helpless and incompetent, and are still perceived as being in need of tutelage, discipline, and specific state and parental strategies of custodial control. It is here where the authors most clearly contest the current predominating social heuristic on childhood and family, and also here where the implications of their hypothesis are most fascinating. If one considers a child a moral agent capable of self-aware and personally responsible choice, within their personal limits of normative competence… then should not the Other be so also? If families refuse to be the sites of political contestation, how might that improve actual quotidian and long-term family life? And finally, if society recognizes that the current working interpretations of childhood are no more than society's own hegemonic fears projected onto the supposed tabula rasa of the physical child… then what does that say of the practice of Othering?

I have already delineated Robinson et al.'s proposed benefits to children should their hypothesis be generally accepted as a societal norm. To extend their hypothesis through the various intersectionalities put forth by Stoler would be to suggest that the state could conceivably beneficially re-phrase its current metaphor of patriarchal, hierarchical, possessive family. In such a view not only would the state desist from attempting to force their naturalized and mystified view of family on its members, but it would also suggest a reinstatement of agency to the state's citizens, rather than the current view of citizens as children to be guided and formed by a benevolently over-watching state. A further benefit would extend to the concept of those outside the family -- for in a societal paradigm of 'family' as having children that are self-aware moral agents there is no need to create an Other against which the family must be protected, and who oppositionally defines what the family fears and may not be. This would allow for a removal of family as site of political contestation, on both an individual level, and on a societal one.

Unfortunately while Robinson et al. offer a rather nice potential vision of both childhood and family, they do not take into account the social (re)creation and (re)production of power. According to Foucault, power is accepted because it is not merely repressive. It does not only say 'no,' but rather it "traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse (p. 119)." The possibility of the current powerful social structures concerning children and their disposition simply handing power over to the children themselves is so unlikely as to be ludicrous. It is obvious that for such an empowerment of children as Robinson et al. suggest to occur, there must be a dramatic realignment of the current social child-rearing apparatus -- it must satisfy society's need for perverse implantation. As Foucault notes, perverse implantation is the advancing and multiplying of a power specifically created to suppress the very 'vice' that is its main support and reason for existence -- a vice chosen for both its inerradicable qualities, and its ability to expand, subdivide, and penetrate further throughout reality. Thus power is given impetus both by its very exercise, rewarding its overseeing control; and by the pleasure discovered fed back to the power than encircles it (p. 43-45). Currently the creation and socialization of both childhood and children nicely fulfills this societal need for perverse implantation. This also explains both the value of 'family' as a source of contestation near and dear to the heart of the masses which the state/power structure seeks to manipulate to its own benefit, and the necessity of creation of an Other against which to oppositionally define cultural norms. Robinson et al. do not address the need of the bourgeoisie to create its own self-defined and state-enforced visualization of family -- they merely add to the social discourse concerning the paradigm of family. This does not mean the return of agency to children, within the boundaries of their normative competence will never happen, of course, but it does mean that the structures of power must be part of this re-definition of childhood and children, and must unfortunately be maintained relatively intact, to prevent their assiduous assault on the entire hypothesis advanced by Robinson et al. as an unsupportable attack on the status quo and the current dominant social paradigm.

There is also the still-extant conundrum exemplified by the constant presence and apparent necessity of the Other. If we continue to investigate all the potentialities of Stoler's discourse through the lens of Robinson et al.'s hypothesis we must recognize probable misappropriations of the concept as well. Consider the rubric of the child as moral agent within the parameters of individual normative competence, as encouraged within the loving family. Even if children are so emancipated, this does not presuppose return of agency to those that do not fit the cultural norm. Who will determine individual normative competence for adults that have been Other'ed? Who will be the loving family for the Other? The state has no vested interest in so 'adopting' non-citizens, and considerable inertia, time, and effort devoted to the current structures of power. The rhetoric of power may change (i.e. 'stop acting like a child!' might become as obsolete as the original denigrative meaning of the word 'spinster'), but the social institutions and practices will not have -- there will simply be different words, different structures to maintain the same current neo-colonialist rubric. Furthermore, is it truly of any advantage to the Other to be still considered but a child, whether moral or otherwise? Is this not simply once again yet another social exemplification of perverse implantation -- of power structures struggling to maintain their creation, domination, and implementation of a perceived social issue?

In conclusion the hypothesis put forward by Robinson et al. suggests potential de-colonizing heuristics, but cannot be said to adequately model a globalized concept of family. Furthermore, while it encourages a new and wider perspective on possible family structures (as opposed to the patriarchal, possessive, hierarchical "sentimental family"), it does not suggest a new metaphor for examination of the Other. This is not, however, necessarily a fault of the article itself, since it was not written to specifically explore those intersectionalities. Keeping in mind its own self-created parameters of modern US families, it is a valuable addition to the current social discourse on family and childhood. It challenges society to return agency to children as self-aware moral agents, within the parameters of individual normative competence, thus avoiding manipulation of the rubric of childhood to further socio-political ends. It suggests intriguing new possibilities for potential structures for families based on individual needs, and encourages public discussion of what exactly families are, and what they should be.



Last Updated: Fri Apr 21 2000