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Globalization of young people’s lifeworlds and moral concerns

July 4, 2012

In an article about researching children’s agentic participation in environmentalist discourse in Nordic countries (and under the subtitle, ‘Children’s cosmopolitanism’), Bengt Larsson, Magnus Andersson and Christina Osbeck write:”Empirical research shows that national media and American fiction dominate young people’s (age 6–16) mediatized lifeworlds in the West (Drotner, 2005; Livingstone and Bovill, 2001). Nevertheless, we argue that theories of cosmopolitanism could contribute substantially to research on children and sustainable development. We base this assertion on studies of globalization of young people’s lifeworlds, indicating the existence of transnational identifications and moral concerns – even if these studies focus on geographical and cultural rather than environmental issues (Hengst, 1997; Holloway and Valentine, 2000; Valentine and Holloway, 2001). From surveys in Nordic and other countries, the media are known to be a significant source of young people’s attitudes and behaviour regarding environmental issues (Carle, 2000: 141; Grønhøj, 2007; see also Easterling et al., 1995), as may be associations for those who are particularly committed – such as Fair Trade, or in Sweden the  youth organization Fältbiologerna (Biologist in the Field) (Johansson, 2004).

However, many young people in affluent societies are also strongly group-oriented, and influenced by commercial advertising and consumerism (Autio and Heinonen, 2004; Ekström and Tufte, 2007; Moinian, 2007). Such influences may stand in sharp contrast to the assertion that young people are mediators of environmentalism and a global ethical stance, but cosmopolitical factors should not be mistaken for a set of specific individuals, nor an epoch. Rather, they should be seen as a condition that people may enter and leave during the course of daily life (Silverstone, 2007: 12).

A related problem is that ethical reasoning concerning consumption, at least among Swedish children (aged 8–12), is concerned primarily with their own family’s health and well-being. Global concerns are secondary (Johansson, 2005: 208–13). This is understandable, since many young people are rooted in national and local identities (Stald, 2002). Even so, tendencies exist among children (age 8–13) in both Europe and New Zealand to imagine a community stretching beyond the nation – a community that at least includes [-p.134] other affluent and consumer-oriented nations (Drotner, 2005; Hengst, 1997, 2005; Holloway and Valentine, 2000; Valentine and Holloway, 2001). Most Swedish adolescents (aged 15–16) are not only knowledgeable about globalization, but combine a strong national or local identity with a sense of being world citizens (Skolverket, 2004: 70–88). On this basis, one could argue that an environmental interest paves the way for a cosmopolitan perspective. Nevertheless, as discussed earlier, there is a discrepancy between attitudes and action. … [see NOTE 1 below]

There is a strong relationship between the cosmopolitization of children’s everyday life, on the one hand, and the concept of children as citizens, on the other. The inclusion of children in institutional democratic processes, as stated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), has not been smooth, even in countries at the vanguard (Jans, 2004). Empirical studies show that the discourse on child protection regarding children as vulnerable is an obstacle to their inclusion and participation (Cockburn, 2007; Hill et al., 2004; Sinclair, 2004). However, the politicization of children’s everyday lives stretches beyond institutional, political and educational settings, because the boundaries between learning and play are blurred (Buckingham and Scanlon, 2003; Hengst, 2001). It is important to consider contexts beyond school, since children’s political agency may be more salient in leisure activities and the family setting (Du Bois-Reymond et al., 2001: 6ff.). One explicit example of this is the politicization of consumption, which makes purchase a political act. Such a discourse not only empowers children as consumers, but also provides a source of political identification for the young (Bostrøm et al., 2005; Johansson, 2005; Trentmann, 2007). With this in mind, we closely examine in this article political attempts at increasing children’s active pro-environmental consumer practices.” (pp.133-134)

This conversation interested me for several reasons, but also struck me as relevant theory/discussion for the analysis of Des Hunt’s work (which engages so deliberately with local issues of sustainability/ecological awareness)…

Further on, Larsson, Andersson and Osbeck also discuss ‘Children as ‘responsible subjects’ – a political and pedagogical project?’ They write:

“A central aspect of the political expectations that children (and adults) will take responsibility for global environmental issues concerns educational policies. To understand the prerequisites for children to become responsible environmentalists, the prospects and implications of the policies and pedagogies designed to teach children to accept responsibility for their own and their family’s consumption must be considered.

In order to address this issue, we find it productive to change theoretical perspective to the analytics of governmentality, which is specifically designed to analyse ‘advanced liberal’ modes of governing in which liberalization is combined with an emphasis on actors’ capacity to govern themselves (Dean, 1999; Foucault, 1991). This perspective is evident primarily in critical analyses of neoliberal policies in contemporary western societies, aimed at shaping [-p.135] economically rational actors through a ‘conduct of conduct’ – a process of ‘responsibilization’ in which individuals are given not only freedom to act individually, but also the knowledge, techniques and responsibility to be rational (Miller and Rose, 1993; Rose, 1999: 85ff.).

Such a responsibilization may of course include children. Ailwood illustrates this through her critique of preschool education in Australia. According to her, new ways of educating children are ways of shaping the rational market actors needed in knowledge-based economies. The aim is to create ‘childhoods that will produce lifelong learners, self-maximizers – the rational worker/citizens required in neo-liberal and advanced liberal societies’ (Ailwood, 2004: 29). Nevertheless, the analytics of governmentality can also be used for broader transformations of educational policies, such as the ‘societalization of childhood’ in Denmark over the past two decades that Kampmann (2004) describes. Children are given new degrees of respect and freedom, but at the same time, they are more indirectly controlled by being given the responsibility of contributing to their own socialization. This is illustrated by changes in day care/kindergarten pedagogies, which leave more latitude than previously for children to help define their own needs by expressing their wishes, interests and emotions. According to Kryger (2004), this is also a reason why the concept of ‘the competent child’ has become a mainstream idea in education in the Nordic countries.

When combined with environmentalism, such policies of responsibilization are manifested in pedagogical projects making children into the conscious consumers and world citizens needed in our times – a policy to create self-disciplined and caring, ethical ‘ecological selves’ (Bonnett, 2006; Kemp, 2005; Sandell et al., 2003: 213ff.; Vandenbroeck and Bouverne-De-Bie, 2006).” (pp.134-135) Further on again, the authors assert that “The approach suggested by the analytics of governmentality is important in studying these tendencies, not only by raising the issue of what kind of ‘subjects’ are produced – and what kind of childhoods – but also questions whether such projects are productive and effective.” (p136)

Assuming children are able to influence their family’s consumption

The authors also address the issue of whether (and how) children might influence their family’s consumption practices, noting that: “A third assumption underlying the expectation on children to learn to take responsibility for their own and their family’s consumption is that they are able to influence their parents and family. From a research point of view, such suppositions must be transformed into questions concerning the actual and potential influence of children on their own and their family’s consumption, and the specific prerequisites for an increase in children’s influence in late modern societies.

Theories and research on family life in late modernity describe a development in which negotiations have become a permanent feature of child–parent relations. This space of negotiation is formally created through the political development of children’s rights, and substantially through the institutional change of the family in the western world: its depatriarchalization, deinstitutionalization and democratization, as well as its decline in size and growth in diversity (Beck, 1995; Corsaro, 1997: 69ff.; du Bois-Reymond, 2001: 69; Giddens, 1992; Therborn, 2004: 102–6). These changes are of course intertwined with the expansion of the welfare state, and with its tendency to ‘defamilialize’ individuals; that is, to lessen dependency on family and kin.” (p.137)

“The loosening of traditional gender roles and family norms, manifested in the diversity of family forms – nuclear, binuclear, extended and singleparent families, cohabitation and homosexual partnerships – is said to make way for a democratization of the family. New post-traditional roles and relations must be shaped and reshaped through identity work and negotiations (Beck, 1995; Giddens, 1992). In addition, there are empirical studies from the Nordic and northern European context that support these theories. The right to individual freedom and to negotiate, even for children, is today being taken for granted in family life (Bäck-Wiklund and Johansson, 2003; Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Björnberg and Kollind, 2005; du Bois-Reymond, 2001; Sellerberg and Thorsted, 2007).

This increasing emphasis on negotiations and learning in the family is also accentuated in research focusing on informal learning through the media and the Internet (Buckingham and Scanlon, 2003; Drotner, 2005; du Bois-Reymond et al., 2001). As a general starting point, learning is viewed as anunavoidable, constantly ongoing process: it is what individuals collectively appropriate from social situations (Säljö, 2000). The point is that the boundaries between play, learning and expertise have become blurred. Therefore, research must more comprehensively appreciate children’s and families’ everyday life (Hengst, 2001).” (p138)

“According to Williams and Burns (2000: 69), there are at least seven dimensions of influence effort among children (age 8–11): ‘ask nicely, bargain, show affection, just ask, beg and plead, show anger, and con’. There exists, however, research stating that children tend to overestimate their influence, as well as studies showing that parents tend to underestimate children’s influence, and that they have their way more often as they get older. Researchers on family decision processes explain that the influence of young people is stronger on the initiation of purchase, and choice of retail outlet, than on final decisions (Gunter and Furnham, 1998: 18ff., 53ff.; Wilson and Wood, 2004).” (p139)

“Not only age and class, but also family structure and parental style are decisive in children’s influence on family negotiations. It has been shown that their influence on family consumption is greater in affluent families than in less affluent ones, yet they are more influential in egalitarian family types or families with a permissive parental style, and in one-parent families, than in families with stereotypical gender roles or an authoritarian parental style (Ekström, 1995; Gunter and Furnham, 1998).” (p139)

Questions posed by Larsson, Andersson and Osbeck

“From what sources do children develop their concepts and evaluation of environmental issues and consumption?” (p.140)

“What is the role of information and discourses mediated through school, the media, peers and parents?” (p.140)

“How may the processes of family decision-making be described, and what negotiations and influences characterize such processes?” (p.140)

“What strategies do the individuals use in their negotiations, and how do they elaborate knowledge and values?” (p.140)

“How are productive and effective discourses on environmentalism, children and families spread and translated into practices of self-government?” (141)

“In what ways do these discourses problematize routine everyday conceptions and practices, and what techniques for discipline and self-government do they imply?” (141)

“What kinds of ‘subjects’ are produced?” (141)

Ref: Bengt Larsson, Magnus Andersson and Christina Osbeck [on behalf of Norwegian Centre for Child Research (NOSEB)] (2010) Bringing Environmentalism Home : Children’s influence on family consumption in the Nordic countries and beyond Childhood 17: 129

NOTE 1: earlier, Larsson, Andersson and Osbeck had written: “one must keep in mind the gap between knowledge, attitudes and behaviour (Lindén, 2004). Even if educated or young people report environmental attitudes, and perform pro-environmental activities, factors related to income are often most significant when measuring households’ negative effects on the environment in affluent societies. These include owning private houses and cars and travelling abroad, as compared with living in an apartment, relying on public transport and holidaying at home.” (p.133)


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