Exploring childhood through geographies of imperialism and development

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

Contrary to enduring representations across the Global North, childhood is a socially constructed concept experienced diversely across varied sociospatial and temporal settings. You, the reader, may think of your childhood as one bound up in education, in family, in play, and perhaps nostalgically yearn for a time without the work worries or financial stresses that being a child is assumed to negate. However, in reality this is a narrow imagination that is product of European imperialist agendas since the 14th century. Such conceptualisations increasingly gained traction throughout the prolific periods of European colonialism and Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries and are still pervasive today through discourses of development and humanitarianism in the global South that fail to account for or celebrate heterogeneity within the life course. I will explore how childhood became conceptualised as innocent and vulnerable through imperialist axes of race and ethnicity, and the ways these Othering discourses remain relevant through the rhetoric of Rights and Education.


Termed Global Linear Thinking, the division of the world into Old/New, East/West, and eventually Third, Second and First World countries has been instrumental within conceptualisations of the Child as vulnerable, innocent, in need of regulation and as a symbol of futurity. The racist Othering of non-European colonial subjects as deviant, sexually immoral and capable of corrupting the minds and bodies of Europeans, as explored by Foucault in The History of Sexuality, became lauded through discourses of the European child. The children of white bourgeoise families in the colonies were seen as at risk from Native children and servants who were constructed as sexuality immoral and troublesome- a contrast to their white charges. Imperialist concerns of a colonial child that blurred racial divisions through their mannerisms or relationships, and who was an inappropriate patron of the nation, meant European children were often removed from colonial settings to attend boarding schools or be governed, as exemplified in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s portrayal of Mary in The Secret Garden.


This imperial child became an instrument of power, demonising the Native Other whilst embodying the future of the nation through their whiteness and loyalty to the metropole, reinforcing racialised perceptions of the appropriately innocent and loyal child that requires institutional protection. Through European imperialism, imaginations of racial and biological difference alongside the need for a specific type of imperialist and nationalist education where projected onto both European and Native children, creating a binary between children who were considered appropriately innocent, and those designated as embodiments of corruption.


Furthermore, the historical Othering of non-Europeans as backwards, childlike and in need of help and regulation has endured within the language of Rights and Education that posit colonisers as Saviours. Using a postcolonial lens to analyse how the Global North attempts to construct universalising notions is valuable in reflecting the ways childhood in the Global South is problematised today. Historical European constructions of childhood have been a major influence in contemporary universalising understandings across the Global North, in turn impinging on childhoods in the Global South. Traditions of celebrating innocence, protection and education have been privileged in modernist discourses of development as the only way childhood should be experienced. Rhetoric advanced by organisations such as the ILO and UNICEF, whilst intending to improve quality of life for children and young people across the world such as through ILO policies of eliminating child labour by 2020, have the adverse impact of devaluing working children from diverse communities as victims who are the objects of aid programmes, and waiting to be saved, as well as promoting a narrow, Westernised idea of what education should be.


Describing such individuals as ‘children without childhoods’ ignores the models of childhood that do not subscribe to the adult-child dichotomy that is quotidian in the Global North, and that work to engage within their community. For indigenous children, working is often fundamental in becoming active members in the social, economic, cultural and political lives of their communities- something constructions of childhood in the Global North would label as being ‘unchildlike’ and thus detrimental. Whilst it often feels taboo to critique perceived well intentions, it is necessary to afford voices to the most marginalised in society- a label that regularly is stamped on children within the Global South, as individuals whose agency is removed through the pervasive discourses of humanitarianism and development.


Further reading:

  1. Aitken, Stuart C. "Global crises of childhood: rights, justice and the unchildlike child." Area 33, no. 2 (2001): 119-127.

  2. Katz, C. (2004). Growing up global: Economic restructuring and children's everyday lives. U of Minnesota Press.

  3. Mawdsley, E., 2007. China and Africa: Emerging challenges to the geographies of power. Geography Compass, 1(3), pp.405-421.

  4. Mignolo, W.D., 2011. The Global South and world dis/order. Journal of Anthropological Research, 67(2), pp.165-188.