Skip to main content
The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Peter Kraftl about his book, After Childhood

Our member, Prof Peter Kraftl (Birmingham, UK) talks about his book, After Childhood: Re-thinking Environment, Materiality and Media in Children's Lives (Routlege, 2020). 

Kraftl book cover

Q: What is this book about?

The book is an attempt to experiment with and push at the boundaries of different ways of doing research about children's relationships with environmental resources and processes, material things, and digital media. My main concern is to ask what happens if we generate accounts of life that happen about childhoods and children – but where children may be out of focus or, even, absent. I look at a diverse range of geographical contexts and phenomena and try out different styles of writing and presentation to account for phenomena from resource nexuses to online selling platforms to plastics.

Ultimately, however, my reason for generating accounts where children are out of focus or absent – for instance, in the swirling oceanic vortices of plastic waste – is to ask whether such a move might actually enable analyses of childhoods that could be powerful, generative and challenging. What, for instance, should we make of the fact that many oceanic trash vortices contain remnants of (contemporary, Western, privileged) childhoods – items of clothing, shoes, toys, etcetera?

My argument in the book is, then, that it could be possible to tell stories about the environmental, digital and material processes that have largely been hidden from work in childhood studies – perhaps because children's 'voices' about these processes can't tell us the whole story - but which nevertheless matter, profoundly, to children's lives, health, play, socialisation and wellbeing.

Q: What made you write this book?

For me, this book was a culmination of a number of projects – about children and young people's experiences of environmental resource nexuses in Brazil, about the global circulation of children/childhoods through digital media, about young people's experiences of 'energy' in the UK, about children's entanglements with plastics, and far more besides. I had become frustrated that these kinds of vital processes – which affect children's lives profoundly, but for all kinds of reasons are hard to witness through more conventional childhood studies methodologies – had been effaced. I wanted to write a book that was more experimental and provocative, as well as I wanted to try to push at the boundaries of current thinking about materialities and the more-than-human in children's lives.

Work in this area – for instance captured by the amazing Common Worlds collective – is currently diverse and vibrant. Yet, as much as trying to push at boundaries, I wanted the book to be and to feel more modest. I use the term 'after' not so much to signal a paradigm shift or anything like that – I am not that arrogant; rather, as with the chapter on what I call 'infra-generations', it is about uncovering or constructing a sense of that which has been marginalised, hidden, or lies beneath, even in the most exciting recent work in childhood studies. I also wanted to recognise – perhaps more so than some new materialist/post-humanist accounts do – that a focus on children's entanglements with/as more-than-human worlds does not mean ignoring questions of social marginalisation or minoritisation (for instance, chapter 7, which looks at energy, explores our work in a Birmingham school for students excluded from mainstream schools).

Finally, I wanted to highlight new but potentially challenging interdisciplinary approaches to childhood studies, and particularly how we can combine the arts, social sciences and environmental sciences to study the presence of plastics and other chemical matter in children's lives and environments.

Excerpt from Chapter 6 (titled ‘Infra-generations: After-lives, or, what lies beneath’):

A fairly longstanding and familiar – if less common – route for academics wishing to address the centrality of (individuated) children within studies of childhood and age has been to think about age relationally: to think of child-adult relations (Alanen and Mayall, 2001) or inter-generational relations (Hopkins and Pain, 2007). Rooted in Karl Mannheim’s conception of the term, youth is seen as a phase of generation-building, which coheres around political events (in particular), technologies and other aspects of shared experience and generational self-awareness (Burnett, 2016; Worth, 2018; Brown and Kraftl, 2019).

Although influential, in the past couple of decades, a range of scholars has sought to extend Mannheim’s theorisation of generations in some important ways. For instance, arguing that Mannheim’s focus on politics and synchronicity in the birth-order were limiting, it is now evident that generations and their experience are mutable and iterative – constituted via mundane, everyday, embodied and emotional acts, in combination with membership of (post-)subcultures (Woodman and Wyn, 2014), or via the differential take-up of media or technologies both within and between (re)generations, such that arguments about ‘digital natives’ are hard to sustain (Wachelder, 2019). Elsewhere, powerful critiques of the assumed subject-positions of those designated as ‘child’ or ‘adult’ have stressed relations of inter-dependency, where, for instance, acts of care by children for adults have undermined commonplace understandings of the apparent verticality of the generational order (Punch, 2002; Evans and Thomas, 2009). […]

Yet, it is my sense that the notion of generations could do more. The term can be pushed far further, without, as I argued above, dispensing with it altogether, since I firmly believe that – as the opening section of this chapter also demonstrates – it has significant political purchase, if nothing else. Despite a temptation to replace the term with others – like temporality or chronology – the notion of generation offers a kind of specificity that could be vital in thinking and doing after, childhood.

Therefore, in the rest of this chapter, I argue for, and exemplify, a concept of infra-generations that performs two main tasks, and which requires the prefix ‘infra’ – at least at this juncture – to signal the intent and import of those tasks. First, as far as I am aware (despite much recent work in this vein on childhood), for the first time, it offers a systematic theorisation of more-than-social generations. Pushing somewhat the definition of the term, I speculate about the ‘generations’ of objects, like toys; of earthly systems, such as weather, climate, sedimentation or sea-level rise; and of demographic trends and the evolution of the human species (and questions of life and death to which I return in chapter 9).

Second, also, as far as I am aware, for the first time, I place generations within a much longer historical purview. In particular, in combination with original analyses from the Plastic Childhoods project (discussed in depth in Chapter 8), I work with and re-read recent work on the archaeologies of childhood, which extends back (in some cases) far further in time than even the more historical studies known to most childhood scholars.

The choice of the prefix ‘infra’ is strategic, for several reasons. I dismissed ‘extra’ or ‘super’ since they felt somehow arrogant and dismissive of previous work on generations, affording some kind of sensibility of being ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ that would, in particular, be counter to the ways in which critical race and queer theories thread through this book in ways that mitigate against forms of grand claims-making. Instead (a bit like the term ‘after’), the prefix ‘infra’ denotes something below or beneath; something secondary rather than originary (and therefore definitely not structural or foundational); something perhaps slower (as in the term ‘infra-sonic’); something perceived as inferior, perhaps marginalised (as children often are); that which sits behind (rather than beyond, as in many dispositions to the future); and, crucially, somehow after – even if, as I will show, in chronological terms, infra-generations refer to that which predates the present, often by many centuries.

My prefixing of generations with ‘infra’ is also inspired by Latour, via Hultman and Lenz-Taguchi (2010: 536), in accounts of post-qualitative, post-human forms of reflection:

“[w]e can never reflect upon something on our own; to reflect means to inter-connect with something. This corresponds to Latour’s concept of infra-reflection that takes into account that reflection is always done in the midst of a complex network and thus immanent to a wide variety of forces and never the product of an isolated individual that reflects upon something from an external point of view (see Latour 1988). Thinking is not something that is grounded on a decision or a rational cataloguing of different external objects: rather, it is an event that happens to us – it ‘hits us’ or ‘invades us’.”

A question guiding this chapter, then, is what might happen if we replace the word ‘reflection’ in Hultman and Lenz-Taguchi’s words with ‘generation’? What might be the conceptual, political and methodological effects and affects of such a move? Importantly, the quote above signals a form of immanance (note, not imminence) that is both beyond/beneath the individual but not ‘grounded’ on a view of the more-than-human as somehow external-to, or resources-for, human action.

Building on previous chapters, this is a provocation and a political act as well as a conceptual one: it is to foreground those aspects of what are or might be ‘childhoods’ and, especially, ‘generations’ that have routinely gone ignored in chief social-scientific accounts of children and young people; it is to call out those facets of childhood that have quite simply been thrown away – including skeletal remains and the artefactual traces of long-gone childhoods; and, it is to literally and figuratively scratch the surface of Object-Oriented Ontologies (discussed in Chapter 4) – to explore what lies beneath when we encounter the after-lives of children’s objects and bodies, and when those objects and bodies are fragmented, shattered, broken, scratched, only to be discovered later in archaeological assemblages.

In a chronological sense, this chapter is partly about finding ways to recognise children many years after they not only become-adult (and no longer child), but after they have lived. In a less straightforward sense, and inspired by Meillassoux (2010), it is a recognition of childhoods anterior to even the modern notion of childhood that is the frame of reference for most social-scientific scholarship – because, in a slightly odd and perhaps macabre twist of Meillassoux’s argument about fossils (which looks after human finitude), the material-cultural and skeletal remains of Roman and even earlier childhoods are evidence of (human) childhoods that are, ostensibly, anterior to our contemporary phenomenological horizons.

In chapters 3 and 4 I argued for arts of not noticing (following Tsing), and the ‘pull focus’ (following Hitchcock and Morton), as strategies for apprehending the impulse to decentre childhood (Spyrou, 2017). In response, this chapter focuses on three ways to find children (and childhoods) in historical and archaeological records. This phrase is chosen deliberately to reflect over two decades’ worth of work by archaeologists that not only promotes the study of children and childhoods, but which has, explicitly, sought to develop innovative methodologies for finding (Crawford, 2009) and discovering (Ember and Cunnar, 2015) them amongst archaeological and archival assemblages. As Alvarez (2017) succinctly asks: “how are children manifest archaeologically?”

Although explicitly mirroring social-scientific approaches to childhood – for instance in attempts to uncover children’s agency – archaeologies of childhood also offer ways to challenge, de-centre and extend those approaches. They do so through what I term the ‘after-lives’ of children and childhoods, exemplified by a key paradox in archaeological work on toys (Crawford, 2009): that is, that despite a focus on children, one must always start with assemblages containing a vast array of stuff – stuff that is usually classified according to adult function (e.g. weaving or cooking), but which, once classified as a plaything, is often discarded and deemed insignificant.

Therefore, any attempts to ‘find’ children must always be characterised by a willingness not (only) to start with children – and the almost uniform absence of that mainstay of childhood studies, children’s ‘voice’, makes this a particular challenge. Rather, ‘finding’ children requires a painstaking (re)construction and collaging of evidence from multiple-sources, an open, generous and creative mindset that enables inquiry into how particular objects might, after all, have been ‘toys’ or other traces of childhood (and neither ‘adult’ objects nor simply ‘waste’), and a fastidious approach to the very physicality of objects themselves – to where they were deposited, and how, to how they have been worn, or scratched, to how bones have been marked by the wear and tear of lives lived and the ongoingness of lively processes after death.

In this analysis, the notion of the ‘cut’ – first introduced in chapter 3 – re-emerges and figures highly as an analytical device. Thus, drawing on original findings from the Plastic Childhoods project, and upon a critical, synthetic and creative re-reading of historical and (especially) archaeological literatures on childhood, this chapter outlines three ‘cuts’ through which it might be possible to ‘find’ children and childhoods: through after-lives of ‘toys’, of an online selling platform, and, of bones.



Back to top