Oswell, David. (2013) The Agency of Children: From Family to Global Human Rights

OswellChapter 1- Introduction

Not a theory, but a framework for more accurately describing children’s agency as a topic within childhood studies (8).

THESIS – Children’s collective capacity to make a difference has greatly increased since the nineteenth century and the areas for them to do so have proliferated.    Both human and non-human actors have contributed to this.

Chapter 2 – Agency After Aries: Sentiments, Natures and Spaces

Aries provides a mythical account of the construction of childhood based on his interpretations of art and iconography.  Childhood did not “emerge” in the 18th century.  It always existed, even if it was perceived differently from today.  Three critiques of Aries:

  1. Children cannot be reduced to a category – too definitive and confining (15-16).
  2. Children cannot be reduced to a social invention – there is a developmental (ie. biological) aspect as well (18).
  3. Children are not confined to “child only” spaces (ie. schools & families) – these are broad social spaces where children interact with a broad range of adults and peers (32).

Chapter 3 – Modern Social Theories: Agency and Structure

Durkheim and Piaget have influenced researchers to conceive of early childhood as a primarily biological, asocial state (39).  As children grow they acquire skills and knowledge that bring them closer to adulthood.  Therefore they are primarily defined in terms of how they are “not adults” (Identity/difference thesis Pg. 6).   Focus on childhood as “becoming” instead of “being”.

Only in the 1980s did sociologists begin to understand children as agentic with the power to “do things”. We recognize that children are both shaped by, and play a role in shaping, society (41)

Oswell contends that children are fully social (not pre-social) beings and that children’s research must:

“hold off on any hierarchically ordered normative judgement as to how we imagine or desire them to turn out.  It implies that we understand them, not in terms of an imperative as to what they must become, but in terms of what they are, in terms of how they act themselves in social worlds, and how they interrelate with others” (40).

Structure and agency – False dichotomy between structure and agency (7).  Determining structures vs. creative actions.

Problems with this view –

Chapter 4 – Partial and Situated Agency

Where does children’s agency come from??

Four analytical models of children’s social interactions:

  1. Peer Cultures –
  2. Social Competence –
  3. Hegemonic Negotiation  –
  4. Tactical Agency –

Chapter 5  – Subjectivity, Experience and Post-social Assemblages


Chapter 6 – Family and Household

Family and household have been seen as incubators of children’s agency.  Until the 1970s the family was considered the main site of children’s socialization.  But due to increasing divorce, single parent homes and serial cohabitation, our understanding of family is changing.  How does this impact children’s agency?  The “democratization of family.” Children are now considering speaking subjects who have a voice.  Each member of the family has rights, both legislated and assumed.  Children are actively consulted and encouraged to speak.

Architecture and media are also redefining the family and household.  Children have their own rooms in which they accumulate material possessions and express their individuality.  Media technologies allow family interactions to take place outside the confines of the physical home.

Chapter 10 – Play and Consumer Culture

This chapter explores how the consumer sphere has provided opportunities for children’s agency.

History of play – Play used to be regard as free expression and the performance of friendship

Play theory applied to children –

The recent convergence of toys, media and consumer culture has resulted in the “Marketization” of children’s play and “consumer socialization” (207).  This actually facilitates children’s agency. The marketization of children’s culture works in two ways (208):

  1. Differentiates children by age, gender and lifestyle
    • (Cook 2003) Children’s development throughout life was matched by their development through the different sections of the department store.  Modern television shows do the same thing. As children grow, they advance to more mature TV shows and merchandising.  Consumption stages marked childhood development.
    •  Clothing stores began to speak directly to children as consumers and individuals.
    • This recognition of children as consumer gives them an actual “personhood” that didn’t exist before.

2. Pluralizes children’s agency

  • This recognition of personhood give children a voice
  • Toys and play allow children to develop new competencies. New kinds of interactions develop between children, and with material objects

One thought on “Oswell, David. (2013) The Agency of Children: From Family to Global Human Rights

  1. Pingback: Cook, Daniel Thomas. 2004. The Commodification of Childhood | Cheryl Williams

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