A short summary and outlook

This year’s Sydney Anthropology Symposium explored

Young Lives, Changing Times: Perspectives on Social Reproduction.

It was a lively and timely event. Over two days, early career researchers and senior scholars from six Australian and two US universities portrayed the diverse pathways of growing up in the contemporary world. The variety of disciplinary backgrounds (anthropology, sociology, political science, cultural studies, geography) matched the variety of research locales and contexts. The speakers portrayed the lives of African migrant youth in Australia, the meaning of violence for young people in a Colombian barrio, ideologies of parenting in the US, the self-understandings of Aboriginal youth in remote Australian communities, the cultural logic in the ‘unruly’ behaviour of young males in Bougainville, the significance of schools as sites of cultural production, the moral encoding of childhood in the context of transnational adoptions, young Indonesians reworking ‘tradition’ as they become cosmopolitan, cultural identification and inventiveness on Easter Island, and legal and ideological constructions of sex work in the Phillipines.

The two keynote speakers, Professor Cindi Katz from the City University of New York and Associate Professor Gary Robinson from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin, gave us different, but complementary, perspectives. Cindi’s presentation, “Accumulation, Excess, and Childhood: Towards a countertopography of risk and waste”, explored changes in the position of modern children as postindustrial states try to deal with economic crises. She is observing a disconcerting ‘trade off’: if not always directly, the well being of children in some parts of the world is achieved through the deprivation of children in others. Gary’s paper, entitled “The State, Cultural Competence and Child Development: Perspectives on intervention in the North of Australia”, described a parenting program that aims to improve the relationship between children and their caretakers in Tiwi families. The location of culture, he argued, cannot be simply found in a catalogue of traits or elements of reified traditions. Rather, in order to grasp cultural competence, we need to first look at the social and emotional dynamics of concretely lived relationships, especially between mothers and children. And further, the viability of any support program hinges on that – genuine relationships between program implementers and families. This reflects a cultural logic and practice that contrasts sharply with the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention.

Key themes that emerged across papers include suggestions that young people are mobilising elements of their cultural heritage in order to deal with profound contradictions in their lives. Some of these derive directly from global developments that are transforming domestic and market economies as well as images of a ‘good’ future. One of the consequences is the adjustment of parenting. American families from all class backgrounds, for instance, now seek to raise ‘flexibile’ children, both with a view to work and intimate social relationships. Equally important, there is evidence of resistance (political, cultural) and the grasping of new opportunities among young people in different parts of the world. However, social systems are not necessarily equipped to foster such creative self-assertion. A challenging task then is to safeguard spaces for recuperation and creativity in face of ever-increasing levels of interventions into children’s lives. Finally, the need for interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives was captured with this concluding question: by what conceptual and technical means can we capture the intersections between systemic forces and lived experience?


We aim to release the proceedings online towards the end of this year.

Gillian Cowlishaw and Ute Eickelkamp.



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