Migrant Knowledge

Reflections on Children’s Agency (in Migration)

Bettina Hitzer
Friederike Kind-Kovács

Crosspost from Denken ohne Geländer by Bettina Hitzer and Friederike Kind-Kovács, November 29, 2021 (updated on December 2, 2021), at https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/2124, with minor updates to the introductory text and omitting the detailed workshop plans at the end.

The global research network “In Search of the Migrant Child: Global Histories of Youth and Migration Between Knowledge, Experience, and Everyday Life” held its second digital workshop on December 2 and 3, 2021, focusing on the theme “Pieces and Bits From The Past: Children’s Agency in Migration.” Founded in 2020 as a cooperation between the GHI Washington with its Pacific Regional Office at Berkeley and the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Research at TU Dresden,1 this network brings together a group of historians from the United States, Canada, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom whose scholarship examines the nexus of childhood and migration from various perspectives and in different historical contexts. In this second workshop we took up the challenge of reflecting on children’s agency in times of migration in the 20th century.

In winter 2020, the American historian Sarah Mazah prompted a heated international debate on the state of the art in the history of childhood. The trigger was an article she had published in the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of American historiography. In her article, entitled “The Kids Aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood,” she addressed what she identified as major theoretical and methodological shortcomings of recent childhood history. The appropriation of the term “agency”, widely used in other fields of history, was one of the topics she touched upon. She argued that “agency is a more problematic concept for the young than for any other category of human actors because children are incommensurable with other marginalized and voiceless groups,” one fundamental difference being that “children obviously don’t make history.”2 To justify this rather blunt statement, she explained that it was “nearly impossible to find examples of children acting effectively on the world without stretching beyond recognition the definition of autonomous action or that of childhood.”3 Children as “neither autonomous actors nor passive recipients of the top-down agendas of their elders” have, so her argument, no political agenda but are solely performing the adult script.4 But that was not all Maza had in mind when challenging the use of “agency” in the history of childhood. Part of what she described as children’s “political impotence”5 was predicated on their particular “relationship to the future”, the fact that any political struggle initiated by children would be meaningless as it would be a struggle “for a time in which their defining identity will cease to exist.”6

In addition to these more theoretical problems, Maza identified an almost insurmountable methodological challenge to uncovering “agency” in the history of childhood. She claimed that the larger part of sources would speak mostly “about children”7 and “evidence . . . what children make adults do.8 This lack of sources produced by children themselves would invalidate any attempt at investigating children as agents in history from the very beginning. According to Maza, there was no way in circumventing this absence, not even by relying on recollections of former children through autobiographies or interviews since those documents could not bridge the time gap between what children once had experienced and what they remembered as adults many years after the event. While some historians would consider it “the holy grail” to recover “the voices of children themselves in the past,” Maza only conceded that it was in some cases possible to “locate child-generated sources.”9 She did not back away from her more fundamental argument against “agency” in childhood history. Instead, she called for a change in perspective, from “writing the history of children to writing history through children.” This shift would also significantly increase the impact and interpretative power of childhood history by enabling it to address larger questions beyond the more narrow realm of children’s worlds.

Maza’s fundamental skepticism of children’s agency resulted in a number of responses by childhood scholars.10 Bengt Sandin took up the methodological challenge and pointed to the fact that “children must not always do something to be agents; remaining silent, passive, or invisible is also a social action that has very real effects in the world.”11 In their role as “the imagined child” children make adults act on their behalf. Hence, for the study of children’s agency we do not always need to search for and uncover children’s very own voices and subjectivities; through children’s everyday lives, their material worlds, their care institutions, their play, and children’s literature we can identify pieces and bits of children’s agency in the past. Sandin thus postulates to not narrowly seek for children’s genuine voices but rather “connect children’s experience—past, present, and remembered—to political and social transformations of central importance.”12 And most importantly, he argues, agency should not be (mis-)used to “establish the distinction between adulthood and childhood”, because not only children but also adults “alternate between autonomy and interdependence” during their lifetime.13 Just “like their elders,” also Steven Mintz observed in a response to Maza’s article, “children assume roles, take actions, make choices, respond emotionally, and develop autonomy and an ability to collaborate, all crucial components of the concept of agency.”14 Agency is thus one way to determine how children affected and influenced their surroundings.

Therefore, it may come as a surprise that “agency” would not be part of the endeavour to increase the relevance of childhood history if one was to follow Maza. This is all the more surprising as ‘agency’ had been used throughout its own history to empower those who had been assigned with agency. This is true for the conceptual history of agency going back to the Enlightenment as well as for the usage of ‘agency’ as analytical tool in historiography. While the notion of the autonomous individual being entitled to civic rights had been invented at the crossroads of the modern era, ‘agency’ as a historiographical concept had first been used on a larger scale by the New Left historiography in the 1960s. It was exactly to the previously unseen power to change their world, to the meaning-making capacities of those deemed powerless that agency’s lens pointed when adjusted by historians like Edward P. Thompson in his classic study The Making of the English Working Class (1963). This form of analytical empowerment through attributing agency has since remained a consistent feature in the history of agency: from the working classes to slaves, to women, to subaltern and to indigenous people.

There were two more to come until today: children and eventually non-human actors. Both were discussed much more fervently than previously introduced actors. Historians of children and childhood began discussing agency in the 1980s. This was by no means coincidental, as the 1980s witnessed a fundamental uplifting of the child’s legal position. In 1989, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted what it then called the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a legal document which has been ratified by 196 countries as of today. The 1989 Convention established a much more robust and comprehensive protection of children than former legal documents such as the Geneva Convention on the Rights of the Child from 1924. But its genuine peculiarity resides in the fact that it acknowledged the child’s subjectivity and granted the child agency on its own behalf. Article 12 of the 1989 Convention thus requested that “1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. 2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child.”15

This coincidence in time indicates that—as in other historiographical fields—political determination to empower children as actors of their own life worlds and theoretical considerations on the subject position of children overlapped at this point. The purpose of implementing the concept of agency was, as David Oswell has noticed, “to rebalance the perceived inequalities of power or to find ways of researching children that did not reproduce the prejudices of power.”16 Therefore, children’s agency was conceived of as something inherently good, liberating from powerlessness, bettering the children’s worlds and the societies they lived in.

Yet, even when it comes to children, agency is not automatically tied to good impulses and to morally sound actions. Julia Grant stressed the fact that children’s agency is diverse and complex. She argued that “children are unruly, unpredictable, complex and cannot easily be encapsulated in a historical narrative.”17 Sarah L. Holloway, Louise Holt and Sarah Mills criticized in a similar vein the widespread “presumption that children’s agency is positive,” raising the question about such types of agency which are often considered child-inappropriate and their consequences for those children whose agency and thus also their “childhoods fail to reflect culturally valued notions of childhood innocence.”18

Migration very often creates circumstances that are widely considered as inappropriate for raising children and that contradict notions of an ideal childhood. In the course of migration processes, children are taken out of their homes, become uprooted, often lack secure housing, continuous care, an appropriate standard of living, are exposed to unknown–at times life-threatening–dangers on migration routes and, in the recipient country, face interrupted schooling, have to navigate different cultural and language environments, lack leisure and necessary rest, and lose many of their social ties. Yet, despite all the challenges posed by migration, children on the move are more than victims. Holloway, Holt and Mills make us aware that even under the harshest of circumstances we have to inquire about the agency of children facing and living through migration.

Thus, it is valuable to investigate the ways in which child migrants and refugees lived, managed and experienced their own migration in various historical circumstances. To what extent did and could migration in the past also empower children by teaching them to be on their own, to become resilient, to search for solutions, to navigate various cultural settings, and to pursue and defend their very own ‘best interests’ as children. At the same time, it is equally important to explore challenging and traumatizing experiences of migration which often deprived juvenile migrants of special protection, endangered their well-being, and exposed their particular vulnerability. Here it is necessary to scrutinize under which circumstances the transnational movement of children prevented them from safeguarding their own interests and rights and from becoming agents of their own life. What factors in past migration processes limited children’s agency?

The debate Maza’s reflections on children’s agency initiated provided important impulses to rethink the possibilities and limits of children’s agency in recent history. We take up this challenge in the second digital workshop of our global network “In Search of the Migrant Child.”  The workshop aims to tackle among others the following questions: How can migrant children express their agency, how are they limited by the agency of others? How did notions of childrens’ agency alter or change over time?

To this end, the workshop examines various historical and social constellations in which children were either enabled or hindered to act on their own behalf, exploring a multitude of settings with regard to family situations, care institutions, networks, and ressources before, during and after migration. The workshop asks for the circumstances which empowered/disempowered children to shape their daily lives and to make decisions pivotal for their upbringing, their care and their well-being in present and future times. By means of diverse case studies, this workshop aims to scrutinize how children’s agency came to be seen as the child’s right. . . .

See also “Diverse Perspectives on Children’s Agency in Migration” by Emily Bruce, Stephanie Olsen, Beatrice Scutaru, and Lauren Stokes at Denken ohne Geländer, January 5, 2022.

Featured image: Untitled photograph by John Vachon, ca. July 1940, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017720389/.

  1. The network was founded by Sheer Ganor (University of Minnesota), Bettina Hitzer (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies at TU Dresden), Friederike Kind-Kovács (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies at TU Dresden) and Swen Steinberg (Carleton University in Ottawa / German Historical Institute Washington/Berkeley). ↩︎
  2. Sarah Maza, “The Kids Aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood,” American Historical Review 125, no. 4 (2020): 1261–1285, 1263 and 1268. ↩︎
  3. Maza, “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” 1268. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 1272. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 1271. ↩︎
  6. Ibid.↩︎
  7. Ibid., 1264. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 1263. ↩︎
  9. Ibid., 1263. ↩︎
  10. See for this the responses in the American Historical Review 125, no. 4 (October 2020). ↩︎
  11. Bengt Sandin, “History of Children and Childhood—Being and Becoming, Dependent and Independent,” American Historical Review 125, no. 4 (October 2020): 1306–1316, 1310. ↩︎
  12. Sandin, “History of Children and Childhood,” 1310. ↩︎
  13. Ibid., 1311. ↩︎
  14. Steven Mintz, “Children’s History Matters,” American Historical Review 125, no. 4 (October 2020): 1287–1292, 1291. ↩︎
  15. Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989. ↩︎
  16. David Oswell, The Agency of Children. From Family to Global Human Rights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 38. ↩︎
  17. Julia Grant, “Children versus Childhood: Writing Children into the Historical Record, or Reflections on Paula Fass’s Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society,” History of Education Quarterly, 45, no. 3, 468–490, 471. ↩︎
  18. Sarah L. Holloway/Louise Holt/Sarah Mills, “Questions of Agency: Capacity, Subjectivity, Spatiality and Temporality,” Progress in Human Geography 43, no. 3, (2019): 458–477, 462. ↩︎
  19. Panel Discussion “Childhood and Youth”, Tampere University 24.02.2021, https://events.tuni.fi/historyofexperience2021/panels/theme-4-childhood-and-youth/ [last access: 25 November 2021]. ↩︎
  20. Holloway/Holt/Mills, “Questions of Agency.” ↩︎