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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Judith Bessant about her book, Making-Up People: Youth, Truth and Politics

Our member, Prof Judith Bessant (RMIT University, Australia) talks about her new book, Making-Up People: Youth, Truth and Politics (Routledge, 2021).

Making-Up People: Youth, Truth and Politics book cover showing a child at a protest

Q: What is this book about?

The main focus in this book is on how children and young people are represented, where those representations came from and what interests informed them. It is about the politics that shape those representations, how and why they change in time and according to context. It is an inquiry into who creates or makes up those representations and why they do so. This of course take us towards the struggles or competitions that always exist over how the world gets to be named and the asymmetric power relations that shape who has an effective say.

Documenting the changing nature of how young people are represented highlights that there are no conceptual consistent core 'real things' 'out there' that underly these representations. In short, it underscores the political nature of these categories. This is not to run a social constructivist line, but to offer a relational account of what is going on.

Attention is also given to how young people have historically engaged in various political and indeed major leadership roles.

It is a book that also demonstrates the problematic nature of claims that 'youth' are intellectually, cognitively ill-equipped and inherently (naturally) incapable of making good judgment and are ill-informed. For these reasons they cannot be party to 'proper politics.' In short, I ask what historically informed research into how young people are represented, or misrecognised, can tell us about the political nature of those portrayals?

It is also an inquiry into the delimiting effects of those representations, how, for example, they are used to prevent many young people from doing and being what they otherwise could be in fields like politics and within their communities generally. It is about the harms caused by such misrecognitions and, importantly, it is about how many young people variously represent themselves and respond to those accounts. In the later chapters of the book the focus turns to contemporary action by young people, how they variously represent themselves though their actions.

Q: What made you write this book?

A long-standing interest in politics and how young people have been and continue to be excluded from that field is what moved me to write this book.

I was also interested in how groups and networks of powerful individuals use science and various techniques to legitimate their efforts to maintain the kind of governments and institutions we now have.

I wrote this book to highlight value in thinking about how we come to 'know' or 'make up' certain kind of people, in this case young people, and the implications of that for young people's lives, for intergenerational relations and for liberal democracy. That is, democracies have always been strengthened by encouraging more people to partake in political formally and informally.

I was also prompted to write the book because I wanted to draw attention to the thinking, the prejudices, and the emotions that undergird the rules and norms we use to regulate entry into or exclusion from participatory processes in a community. This tells us something important about ourselves. It indicates the ethical standing of a community and the extent to which members of it can legitimately lay claim to be open and democratic.

In short, I wrote the book because I was interested in how representations of certain 'kinds of people' shape norms that are then used to determine who gets excluded from enjoying basic civic and political rights work. This matters because those rules of exclusion-inclusion consign some people to the category of 'disempowered Other,' those who must obey rules they do not make (Davidson 1994).

Excerpt from the book:

There is a long-standing animus about the very idea that young people are, or could ever be taken seriously as political agents. Acknowledging that children and young people can be political is offensive to common sense. After all, everyone knows young people are cognitively immature, ethically defective, inexperienced and under-developed and for these reasons are not able to engage effectively in political activity. And if for some reason they are silly enough to try, they should be kept well away from politics for their own sake and for that of the community.

Recent versions of this idea relied on claims about 'the adolescent brain,' which, it is claimed, is not fully mature or developed like the 'adult brain.' 'Science informs us that young people are neurologically not full adults even at 18 years of age' (Toumbourou,, 2014). According to Chan and Clayton, e.g., owners of 'the teen brain' are not ready to vote at 16 (Chan 2006, cf. Bessant, 2008: 347-360).

Notwithstanding the common sense idea that politics is no place for young people and that they need to be protected from entering the public sphere, another more recent argument paradoxically complains that young people are politically apathetic and disengaged. Since the 1990s we have seen much public discussion and research on young people and their political disengagement characterized by alarm about young people’s lack of interest in politics. Many surveys of young people's political attitudes, and voting behaviour have been carried out to confirm this (Kimberlee 2002). It seems that participation in traditional or conventional forms of politics is now rare among young people.

Yet something seems wrong here. Clearly children and young people are engaging in politics and are doing so in considerable numbers. Recent academic research has tracked standout examples of such action. This research reveals that children and young people are engaged in often impromptu, issue-oriented and collective action (Bessant 2014, Pickard 2019, Bäck 2019). As I document in this book, this is not a recent phenomenon: there is a long and rich history of political action by children and young people.

If this is the case, then why is there a disconnect between dominant ideas about what children and young people should not be doing, and what they actually do?
How to make sense of this incongruity is what animates this book. Why also have certain young people elicited such enormous support and admiration from supporters and vitriolic abuse from others? One possible reason for such responses is that it offers one way of ignoring what they say. Attacking the messenger rather than the message is an old device.

All this does not, however, address the problem raised as children and young people are continually inserted into dire political situations and crises whether they want to be or not. Typically this is because children are victims of horrendous circumstances over which they had no say or influence.

Consider, e.g., the iconic image of the unknown Jewish 'ghetto boy' photographed bare-legged in his 'little boy shorts,' standing fearful with hands in the air as Nazi paramilitary troopers point a machine gun at him during the eviction of Jewish people from their Warsaw homes in 1943. Or think of nine year-old Kim Phuc, photographed in 1972 as she runs, with other children, naked and screaming toward the photographer as they flee a napalm air strike by South Vietnamese forces incinerating their village of Trang Bang.

A few years later in 1976 Soweto outside Johannesburg, 15 year old Antoinette Sithole is photographed running alongside her 18-year-old friend Mbuyisa Makhubu as he carried in his arms the limp body of Sithole's dying 12-year-old brother, Hector, a casualty of a police bullet. This is testimony to the brutality of the apartheid regime and the ways young people are so often central political actors in such political crises. Significantly it was also action also helped bring about the demise of the apartheid regime.

Or consider the Argentinian 'dirty war' of 1976-1982, when around 30,000 people mostly aged between 16 to 35 years 'disappeared' as part of the junta's bid to eradicate a generation of young people represented as political subversive.

Think too of the famous 'David and Goliath' photograph of 15-year-old Palestinian Faris Odeh at the Gaza Strip in 2000. It's a powerful image of a boy standing alone facing-off a huge Israeli military tank. Faris Odeh has a stone in his hand prepared to throw it at the tank (Hockstader 2000). Ten days later (8 November), Odeh was once again throwing stones when he was shot by Israeli troops and killed (Hockstader 2000). For many Palestinians he epitomized heroic Palestinian defiance and resistance to Israeli military occupation. This image of Faris Odeh became a central icon in graffiti and street art, in calendars, political posters and in social media.

Closer to our own time, in 2015 is the confronting image that ricocheted around global media outlets. Who can erase the 2015 image of the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylun Kurdi, whose small body lay on the beach of Bodrun in Turkey, bearing mute witness to the greatest refugee crisis in modern history?

Whether valorised as sad, injured or dead victims of state terror, freedom fighters, as climate warriors or excoriated as school truants, delinquent rioter, petty criminals, young people are present in the political domain. They are constituted in representations that position them in ways that help serve the interests of those with the power to win out in struggles over recognition, over what counts as political and what 'kind of person' they are.

What we see, as writers from Jenks (1996) and Prout (2000) to Hartung (2016) have argued, are some of the contradictions that endlessly circled around the figure of the child and youth. It seems that children and young people have always been caught in various politics and political controversies whether as unwitting victims, purposeful political actors, or as objects of anxieties and fantasies.

It seems whatever you are or want to be, if you are a child or a young person you are caught in this cross-fire of contradictory representations. As Bray and Nakata argue, these contradictions in the representation of children and politics reflects how, in spite of what has been said about keeping children out of politics, this has never actually been possible (2020: 1).

Whatever the debates about whether children should, or should not be, part of political processes, the fact is that children and young people are already political, whether as political 'objects' or as political 'subjects.' This indicates there are more substantive normative and theoretical questions to explore in the ways children and young are represented, and in the ways young people react to, or push back at some of these representations.

This book is about modern politics and young people. More specifically it is about the politics that informs how children and young people are represented. I attempt to address the following questions.

  • What value is there in inquiring about how young people and children are represented?
  • What do we mean by representations?
  • What is meant when we refer to political representations of young people?
  • What is politics and what is political?
  • Who makes these representations and why?
  • Do the representations change over time?
  • Do these representations provide an accurate account of what children and young people are doing?
  • Do these representations influence how young people variously represent themselves and experience their lives?
  • How should we understand these often paradoxical ways young people have been represented and how can their often conflicting nature be understood?
  • Do young people push back against these representations and if so how?
  • How have young people represented themselves and how have they interacted and responded to representations of them?
  • Could those interactions change representations?

This book observes there is, and has long been a gap between how children and young people are represented politically, and the realities of those young people’s lives. I also see that gap between reality and representation as a political artefact, as something that is itself part of a political process.

Talking about representations is to talk about how experts, intellectuals, writers, journalists, policy-makers 'make up' certain kind of people. This is why I refer to the idea of 'making people up.'



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