Our members, Karl Hanson (University of Geneva, Switzerland) and Jonathan Josefsson (Linköping University, Sweden), as well as their co-editors Sarada Balogopalan (Rutgers University, US) and Bengt Sandin (Linköping University, Sweden), talk about their edited collection The Politics of Children´s Rights and Representation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023) (open access).
This book offers an interdisciplinary analysis of the complexities of children’s representation as a site of contestation and power over who represents whom, what, when, and where. Given the intimate entanglement between portrayals, performances, and politics in representing children, the book chapters ask: How do contemporary representations of children and childhood differ from those of the past? What underlies the political representational efforts of young people? What historical shifts within existing modes of representation continue to influence young people’s efforts around greater political representation?
Whereas traditional forms of democratic representation tend to exclude the participation of children and young people, the book chapters explore how the lens of representation can bring new facets into our thinking, different from dominant children’s rights and child participation discourses. By treading on grounds well-travelled by scholars in Childhood Studies in its broadest sense, including those within the disciplines of history, sociology, politics, and geography, we have assembled a set of different scholarly contributions to highlight the critical importance of representation to our understanding of children and childhood.
Our interest in children’s representation also complements a revitalized scholarly debate about the concept of political representation, where theorists have been stretching out our conceptions of when and how political representation takes place. The representation of children and youth, we argue, does not only come with promises, renewals, and hopes, but is also accompanied by risks, reproduction of existing injustices and instability. Given this, questions around who is representing young people and what claims are being made by these representatives become key.
This edited volume arose from “Children’s rights and perceptions of justice, rights, and equality” – a research project that owes its existence to the intellectual and organizational energies of Afua Twum Damso Imoh. Afua played a critical role in gathering together a group of scholars from across the world to speak to the politics of children’s representation.
In order to explore how the lens of children’s representation might be used to enhance our understanding of children, youth, and transformations of societies, we collected in this volume a series of papers based on empirical and theoretical research in over seven countries and across national levels. The chapters address a wide range of current social and political challenges where the representation of children and childhood has become sites of contestation that need further empirical and theoretical explorations.
By collecting essays on several historical and contemporary subjects that affect children’s lives, including migration, democracy, child labour, street children, poverty, welfare, education, and child rights legislation, this volume engages with the challenge of how to represent people in a democratic society, and more specifically, how to represent children and young people.
In the introductory chapter of the volume, we situate discussions of children’s rights and children’s representation in a context of childhood politics. The question of children’s representation is particularly timely in today’s world not only because of demographic shifts and the increase of the generation under 18 years of age but also because of the global challenges we face. Despite making up half of the world’s population, children and youth have in many respects been denied the capacity to represent their interests, particularly on matters of political import. However, it is clear that young people in many contexts have been understood as either competent contributors to politics with a legitimate claim to represent themselves, or in other cases, have been regarded as posing a considerable risk to society and stability. And, while new forms of representing children and their rights have certainly shaped new political avenues through which young people have been represented, these have also been deployed to control and govern the younger generation.
In the chapter we start by outlining three key elements of children’s representation as portrayals, performances and politics. Firstly, we suggest that children’s representation consists of how children as a group, or the child and childhood as a figure, is portrayed or described. Certain populations of children often serve as iconic symbols of poverty with their descriptive, visual and portrayals reinforcing multiple stereotypes and attendant logics of compassion. As has been demonstrated by childhood scholars before, the aesthetic depictions and dominant discourses of children and childhood have throughout the history in various ways been deeply intertwined with major political, social, and cultural processes of change. The portrayals and depictions of children and childhood have in this way always been embedded in institutional and political practices to achieve political or organizational aims and display how emotionally charged images of children can both mobilise popular support and reveal different and conflicting ways of representing children.
Second, children’s representation involves speaking or acting on behalf of children or children’s state of being so represented and thus involves a performative act. Representation in its performative sense, that is, when people ‘speak or act on behalf of’ someone or something, can refer to formal and institutionalised structures as found in for example representative democracies or international organisations, but can also be used in reference to family settings, NGOs and the realms of global politics and social media networks, to name a few. Children often rely on a person or a group of people who speaks on their behalf and who represents them, for instance, in legal or political affairs. Children’s representatives can be influential individuals but they can also be a group of children who represent other children. This aspect of representation is closely linked to children’s rights and participation and to the shifting complexities and dynamics that mark the institutionalization and formalization of children’s voices.
Thirdly, children’s representation is an act of, and the result of, politics and political struggles around childhood. Children’s representation as portrayals and performances reflects existing formalized processes as well as long-term political changes and historical conflicts between different interests and ideologies. Different actors struggle to claim the authority to define the portrayal of children as, for example, dependent or as autonomous subjects, or both, and use these for different political purposes with sometimes unintended consequences. More generally, political conflicts, and for that matter, consensus building, around children and childhood illustrates how children recurrently play a constitutive role as temporary outsiders who present both risk and renewal to the demos. Young people’s involvement in social movements, mass mobilisation and extra-parliamentary action against inequalities and injustices have a long history and speaks to the importance of closer engagement with children’s political representation for our understanding of politics as such. The struggles around securing more accurate or genuine representation of children and youth often entails organizing for self-representation to shift existing regimes of power. It further reveals the intimate interdependence between portrayals, performances, and politics in our understanding of children’s representation.
In the remainder of the chapter we present and discuss the contributions of the volume in relation to the main themes and sections of the book; Childhood politics: from rights and participation to representation (Authors: Bengt Sandin, Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, Sarada Balagopalan, Natalya Tchermalykh), Children’s representation and the international politics of children’s rights (Authors: Edvard van Daalen, Jana Tabak and Karl Hanson), and, Children’s representation in times of inequalities and injustices (Authors: Didier Reynaert, Nicole Formesyn, Griet Roets, Rudi Roose, Yaw Ofosu-Kusi, Frida Buhre, Jonathan Josefsson, Daniel Bray and Sana Nakata).