Summary by Dr. Ute Eickelkamp:
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, and 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?
Dr. Ute Eickelkamp
Opinion Piece by Ms Elisa Warner:
Young Lives, Changing Times
It was an absolute privilege to attend the Young Lives, Changing Times anthropology symposium. The sincere passion of each speaker, the discussion they inspired, the links between the papers, and the interdisciplinary focus allowed this conference to weave a dazzling web of ideas. The papers were diverse, yet they all focused on very specific topics. I believe that there was one omnipresent insight that threaded the discussion together, that being a conscientious appreciation for how the details of children’s lives can teach us about broader global issues. As Ute Eickelkamp made clear in her introductory speech, ‘children tell us of the social constructions of reality at large.’ The discussion at the symposium showed that the social world is constantly changing, and that children often reflect these changes, as they themselves exist in a juncture. Children exist between dependence and autonomy, and therefore between the world of their parents and the continuous imaginative and material construction of their own future world.
This common conceptual thread was firmly anchored by a range of ethnographic evidence. Such examples included how children can become entwined in dehumanising transnational economies such as adoption and sex trafficking (as discussed by Sonja van Wichelen and Rosemary Wiss), to identifying the subtly powerful way in which ‘play’ can imaginatively construct an enslaved child’s ideal world, as discussed by Cindi Katz.
There were especially interesting correlations between different papers that focused on the experiences of migrant and refugee children in Australia. Laura Moran and Kirk Zwangobani’s talks showed that young migrants and refugees exist between dependence and autonomy, and this may be honed by an additional juncture: that of their homeland and that of Australia. We can see through Laura’s paper, ‘Youth on the Move’ that young people can be active shapers of meaning in their own lives, which was reinforced by Kirk’s paper, ‘African Australian Youth and Dynamic Identity’. Both groups of children that Laura and Kirk worked with often appropriated stereotypes and ‘hybridized terms’ such as ‘African style’. Both Laura and Kirk interpreted this as the attempt to create a collective, unified identity as ‘the other’.
Laura showed us how the lives of migrant and refugee youth represent larger national issues. Laura said that we see Australia as a multicultural society, but it is actually ‘a more contested reality’, and gave a pertinent ethnographic example. The school she worked at says ‘race is not an issue here’ and have encouraged their refugee students to perform traditional dances and songs as a part of cultural integration. Laura’s keen perception revealed the irony of this situation. The children feel pressure to deliver an authentic example of difference, yet the school authorities have presumed that they know ‘traditional dances and songs’. This kernel of ethnographic data is a microcosm of a much bigger issue that myself and other undergraduate students have been opening our minds to the past three years. Does tradition exist? Why do we call some things ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ as opposed to ‘inauthentic’ and ‘adulterated’? Anthropology’s intent focus upon the details constantly points us towards larger issues that permeate our social world.
Maria Florencia Amigo offered a contrasting example in her paper, ‘Young Lives in a Foreign Land: Experiences and roles of migrant school children in Australia’. She shared an observation she had during her fieldwork. Children in the particular school she worked at are told that they are all the same, but the children themselves might actually feel that they are different. There is a gap between the discourse of multiculturalism in schools, and what actually happens in children’s lives. This can be seen as a small representation of what may be happening across Australia. While multiculturalism actually manifests itself in pockets, it can’t be said that Australia is a ‘multicultural’ country. There is still clear division that we can even see in Sydney. Again, the details of children’s lives microcosmically encases the broader picture of refugees’ lives in Australia – – that is, the rift between the government’s discourse of multiculturalism and the lived reality of policy making, such as detention centre detainment.
Maria stated that ‘migrant children are at the crossroad of expectations’, living between the expectations of their parents and their schools. Through their eyes we can see the dynamic interplay and tensions that are occurring between different cultures and expectations. From becoming bilingual to eating the food of their homeland that their parents cook, as well as ‘vegemite sandwiches’, Maria showed that it is the children who literally embody the junction of cultures in the era of globalisation.
High levels of immigration to Australia will surely continue into the future. Through ethnographies focusing on immigrant children, anthropologists can attempt to understand how identity is created among migrant and refugee children, and chart the changes of personal and collective identities. Ute also noted in the symposium’s introduction, that creativity and the making of meaning in personal and collective identities do not arise out the social system, but ‘we need a system to realize and facilitate its full potential.’ Children of migrants exist between worlds, and careful attention to the day-to-day reality of this situation can harbour understanding about both the tensions and freedoms that this entails. Such anthropological attention could help schools make these children’s transitions as smooth as possible.
During the discussion after Cindi Katz’ keynote speech, ‘Accumulation, Excess and Childhood: Towards a countertopography of risk and waste’, Grant McCall responded to Cindi’s concluding thoughts on the power of children’s play. He asserted that ‘culture is play’, and I agree. Play is not only about enjoyment, but also about mimetically representing how we see the world and how we want it to be. Cindi claimed that by saying ‘let’s play’, children are showing us that we invent life, and that we can make it different. She explained how Sudanese children who are indentured to their parents and other adults and forced to do the incredibly dangerous work of dismantling of old ships would create an alternative world through play. Through pretending to be farmers, shop owners and tenants with broken pieces of china as money, they would distribute wealth equally, in what she termed as ‘a gesture to utopia.’ She emphasized that culture is a made-up thing, and performative, just like play, and that they are both very powerful acts of creativity. I would argue that our identities are performative as well. Judith Butler has long asserted this about gender identity, and her example of drag queens shows that play is for adults as well as children.
The last two topics I would like to raise are related to the presentations of Hae Seong Jang, Josie Douglas, and Gary Robinson’s keynote lecture. In her presentation, ‘Social Identities of Indigenous People in Their Twenties in Contemporary Australian Society’, Hae Seong Jang brought up an idea that I have been mulling over lately as an anthropology student. She often mentioned the idea of ‘cultural loss’ as something that defines the consciousness of the indigenous people she worked with in Yarrabah, Queensland. In recent anthropology classes I have taken, we have been encouraged to question the idea that it’s even possible to ‘lose’ culture, as culture is a non-static thing to begin with. Yet if indigenous youth themselves feel that they have ‘lost’ something, then what I have been taught must be questioned too. This was acutely emphasized by Josie Douglas’ paper, ‘Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and the Younger Generation in Central Australia.’ Josie showed us that it is not just specific cultural knowledge that is important in itself; it is the way the sharing of this collective knowledge connects people as a group.
Gary Robinson’s paper, ‘The State, Cultural Competence and Child Development: Perspectives on intervention in the North of Australia’, gave a detailed description of a parenting program designed to improve the relationship between Tiwi children and their parents. I found this presentation to be very inspiring, yet again I found myself questioning things I have learned. As an undergraduate anthropology student, it seems to be almost a rite of passage to be confronted with the idea that ‘helping’ with social issues or minority groups is highly complicated, not always beneficial, and can be presumptuous. However, this group seems to have risen to the challenge. Despite being small, it is providing a sensitive and effective alternative to the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention, through a multi-disciplinary team of psychologists, occupational therapists, anthropologists and more. Perhaps we need a number of small, effective, dedicated multi-disciplinary groups such as this, instead of the broad blanket solution of the NTER?
Anthropology should continue to emphasise the importance of youth in ethnography. Each of these papers has shown the central importance of children and youth as both active constructors of their future and victims of present influences and systems. The details of their lives can be seen as lenses through which to view where we are at and where we are going in terms of social systems, values and the effects of globalisation. Considering this, the title of this symposium was apt, as the ‘Young Lives’ of children directly reflect the reality of our ‘Changing Times’.
I would be very interested to hear thoughts about any of the topics I have raised, in particular, the following:
1) How do children make global changes tangible and identifiable in other ways?
2) Discourses of ‘cultural loss’, ‘tradition’, and ‘authenticity’
3) The power of imaginative play and if it can help change the future.
4) Anthropology as a means of helping different crises, and the role of the state and NGOs.
Young Lives Changing Times
A review by Jayden Spillane
‘Young Lives Changing Times: Perspectives on Social Reproduction’ brought together a number of stimulating insights on the role and condition of the youth in the process of social reproduction. Across the diversity of interpretations, approaches and ethnographic material, a common theme pervaded almost all of the papers – instability. In depicting the transformation and growth of young lives in an ever changing “globalised”, “postmodern” and “neoliberal” world, children were repeatedly shown to occupy liminal spaces within which they were made to constantly reposition themselves amongst diverse and contradictory influences from “external” forces such as parents, teachers and the state.
In her keynote lecture, Cindi Katz captured many of these elements by illustrating that as neoliberalism causes insecurity toricochet across contemporary life, these insecurities come to be manifest in the realm of the young. Children as a result become the weapon of choice to naturalise dispossession, which she observes in the subversion of the image of the child as “innocent” to the image of the child as “waste”, whereby the rhetoric of disposability and personal responsibility is heavily thrust upon the child. Epitomising this shift were examples of schools in the U.S. that may not be able to afford toilet paper or doors on toilet cubicles and yet have the money for expensive surveillance equipment such as metal detectors and
cyber-cams, as well as examples from ‘developing’ countries such as Sudan, where due to economic downturns, indentured child labourers are drawn upon as a cheap means to dismantle ships for scrap metal by hand. In both of these cases we see children positioned in the world as detached and disposable objects. What happens to these children as they grow up with the knowledge that they are disposable? As Cindi later noted in a more optimistic tone, it is not necessarily the case that children passively accept these externally driven images of themselves. Instead, she emphasized the capacity of children to engage in imaginative play as a potential means by which they can reappropriate and in fact resist these external identifications. Drawing on an example of a group of herd boys who created a game of tenancy and shepherding in which everyone got a turn at being in charge, Cindi observed that children’s playtime allows youth to toy with the meanings of their world in a way that is both identity and world making. By creating a realisation that life is “made-up” and malleable, children find at least some autonomy in creating a place and identity for themselves.
This concept of “play” was similarly deployed by a number of speakers as a means of exploring the ways young people creatively negotiated their way through the contradictions of their social worlds. Laura Moran provided the example of young refugees in Australia who creatively “play” with cultural stereotypes in order to navigate between the conflicting discourses of assimilation and integration – representing an “oscillating emphasis between sameness and difference” – that dominate Australian society. Kirk Zwangobani offered a similar depiction of the ways in which the youth of Canberra’s African diaspora shift between identifying with and dissociating from a unified African identity. Other papers further elaborated on this, illustrating the various different types of mirroring that occur in different contexts as a force that shapes young people’s identity, as well as the ways young people use the cultural images of their identity in instrumental ways for their own ends. These papers quite notably seemed to present the “fluidity” and manipulability of identity expressed by these young people as signs of their autonomous resistance against the enormous social changes occurring around them. But we should possibly not view this fluid playfulness as purely originating in the youth themselves. Allison Pugh demonstrated in her paper about families in Virginia, U.S.A. that, with job security at record lows and divorce rates at record highs, the whole concept of “flexibility” – of not holding any real attachment to one place or identity – is a quality that parents increasingly try to instil in their children as a means to either defend against or take advantage of the insecurities of the modern world. With this in mind, it might be important when observing young people’s apparent fluidity to ask to what extent is this creative fluidity a means of resisting or manipulating the dominant views of the world presented to young people and to what extent is it merely a means of coping with and adapting to an unstable world? What happens when reality supersedes the imagination?
Whilst we can certainly celebrate the creativity and resilience of young people in the face of the often traumatic contradictions in their lives, the symposium also offered scope to explore the sources of strife for young people that may in many ways be beyond their control. Culture is not only play – a creative engagement with images, meanings and identities – but is deeply embodied as a lived set of human emotions and relationships. The fluidity of identity – the sense of rootlessness – expressed by these young people can itself be just as much a site of trauma as resistance. Maria Amigo’s paper illustrated this by describing the ways migrant children in Australia deal with the tension between the often radically different cultural worlds of home and school. She noted that this experience can position children between the tug of “multiple belongings” in a way that creates challenges for many of their social relationships and as a result causes a great deal of stress. Gary Robinson’s keynote address about the challenges of supporting Australian Aboriginal children through intervention programs also elaborated on this theme, arguing that any attempt to improve the lives of young people must work on a basis of reciprocity and must act to build and strengthen relationships.
In light of these points, I would like to pose a couple of final questions about what the perspectives offered by this symposium might tell us about the present and future of childhoods and youth. This symposium offered a rich array of insights into how young people are experiencing and acting in the world today, but in order to understand exactly what these experiences tell us about our “changing times”, we should carefully ask: what aspects of these present experiences of childhood are characteristic of childhood in general, and which aspects are truly unique to our (post)modern world? And if we are to find, as this symposium suggests, that childhood today is particularly distinctive in the prevalence of instability, fluidity and contradiction, then what do we see as important for the development of the youth in this contemporary landscape? Should our emphasis lie in allowing children to creatively and fluidly carve their own place amongst the chaos, or should there be more focus on strengthening “pre-existing” cultural ties? Or is it perhaps not even our place to prescribe one or the other?