Friday, March 11, 2016

Re-Thinking Children’s Agency in Extreme Hardship: Zimbabwean Children’s Draw-and-Write About Their HIV-Affected Peers

We compare two analyses of the same ‘draw-and-write’ exercises in which 128 Zimbabwean children represented their HIV-affected peers. The first, informed by the ‘New Social Studies of Childhood’, easily identified examples of independent reflection and action by children. The second, informed by Sen’s understandings of agency, drew attention to the negative consequences of many of the choices available to children, and the contextual limits on outcomes children themselves would value: the support of caring adults, adequate food, and opportunities to advance their health and safety. Conceptualisations of agency need to take greater account of children’s own accounts of outcomes they value, rather than identifying agency in any form of independent reflection and action per se.

…In line with the New Social Studies of Childhood, our first analysis dutifully sought out and documented instances of independent reflection and action by children. To what extent might we regard these as evidence for agency? Children were depicted as exercising agency in the sense of reflecting and acting, but because they often had so little access to significant power, resources or support, the actions they performed did not bring them closer to the outcomes they would value. We argue for the need for renewed debate about how best to conceptualise children’s actions in contexts that (i) provide them with a highly constrained set of options for exercising initiative, (ii) where the exercise of choice in one arena of their lives might be associated with negative long term outcomes in another; and/or (iii) where the outcomes of their actions may not take them any closer to their own perceptions of a good life. In conceptualising agency, instead of positing independent action as an end in itself, we prefer to regard independent action as the means to end that actors themselves would value.

In a tangentially related debate in the field of gender studies, critical researchers of women in the global south are increasingly concerned by a tendency to exaggerate the agency of women in situations of extreme subordination and coercion. Attempts by well-meaning academics, activists and policy makers to avoid depicting marginalised women as victims have led to a situation where “the search for agency in the least favourable situations has reached almost epidemic proportions” (: loc 554). In the process, they argue that feminist scholars – motivated by the desire to avoid potentially offensive depictions of ‘third world women’ as passive victims – have sometimes unwittingly aligned themselves with individualistic neoliberal understandings of agency and personhood. They have done this through advancing understandings of agency as any form of decontextualised individual choice and through celebrating actions by women that lead to nothing more than their basic survival. In the process they “neglect the oppressive structures of material and discursive power”, generating understandings of agency that undermine attention to, and analysis of, gendered oppression (): loc 2253)…

There is no doubt that, as the NSCC has now firmly established, children are able to act, show resourcefulness and survive, often with little help or input from adults. To that extent they are ‘competent social actors’. This was a vitally important point to make in the 1990s. However in the light of the strong body of research generated by the NSCC tradition, we believe this can now be taken as a given. We argue that the next step for researchers is to pay greater attention to the factors that mediate between so-called agency and its outcomes, and, most important, pay particular attention to children’s own accounts of their hopes for the future, and children’s own visions of what would constitute a ‘good life’ from one social setting to another.

Below:  Draw-and-write of a child suffering with HIV/AIDS

Below:  Draw-and-write about a child carer

Full article at:

aDepartment of Social Psychology, The London School of Economics and Political Science, London WC2A 2AE, United Kingdom
bBiomedical Research and Training Institute, Harare, Zimbabwe
cSchool of Applied Human Sciences, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban, South Africa
dDepartment of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
eDepartment of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College School of Public Health, London SW7 2AZ, United Kingdom
*Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 207 955 7701. 

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