Emotions and the Global Politics of Childhood

This is the second post in a series about a new volume, Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives, which sets out a novel agenda, both for the history of childhood and for the history of emotions.

By Karen Vallgårda

In what ways might insights from childhood history help us rethink our research questions and methodologies in the history of emotions? How does a focus on emotional formation deepen our understanding of childhood history? And how does a global perspective prompt us to rethink established truths within both of these fields?

Tomorrow Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History, edited by Stephanie Olsen, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. The volume presents a variety of case studies each demonstrating how to write a childhood history of emotions in vastly different of geographical and political contexts.

Cover Palgrave Olsen

I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce some of the central ideas of the second chapter of the book, in which Kristine Alexander, Stephanie Olsen, and I think through together a number of themes that have preoccupied each of us over the past years.

Discussing the state of the art, we suggest that combining the history of emotions with childhood history requires a more consistently global analytical framework than what is generally employed. Such a perspective not only reveals parallels, entanglements and profound differences in the emotional histories of childhood. It also helps us grasp the subtle and explicit ways in which childhood emotional formation is tied to different and often competing political agendas.

The history of modern childhood and its associated emotional formations is a global story, shaped by imperialism, transnational networks, circuits of consumer culture, mass migration, and war. Yet most histories of childhood and the emotions focus on single national contexts, an approach that can obscure or fail to take into account important patterns, similarities, connections and points of difference. Wherever they lived, young people both shaped and were shaped by processes, events and exchanges that crossed cultural, national and imperial boundaries.

When as historians of childhood and the emotions we begin to take this seriously, we are bound to ask new questions as well as to revise and reframe old ones. In what ways, for example, did childhood become a means of forging emotional communities predicated on race, gender, religion and nationality in various contexts? How universal was the imagined child whose emotional, physical and spiritual well-being and development motivated reform efforts around the world during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries? How did childhood – and the emotional practices related to it – figure in the construction of social hierarchies?

Rather than providing ultimate answers to questions such as these, our chapter introduces two new analytical concepts to help us do global emotional histories of childhood: emotional formations and emotional frontiers.

An emotional formation refers simultaneously to a pattern and a process, both of which are of equal importance. On the one hand, an emotional formation is a set of emotional structures ordered in a particular pattern. Such a configuration exists at an overarching societal, national or even regional level, and the boundaries between emotional formations may be either murky or clear. On the other hand, an emotional formation only exists through the reiterated everyday emotional practices of individuals and collectives. Therefore, it is also a process that depends on each individual learning the imparted codes of feeling. The concept thus signals forcefully that emotion structures are never fixed, but rather are continually consolidated or altered as individuals acquire and seek to align themselves with – or contest – given hierarchies of emotion.

By examining the emotions of children and youth in a global-historical framework, we have found that many children share the experience of having to traverse various emotional frontiers and that, compared with adults, they are especially charged with such a role. An emotional frontier is a boundary between different emotional formations. It may be encountered in various ways, from a minor misunderstanding to a seemingly insurmountable conflict. In encounters between people raised in different emotional formations, emotional frontiers are likely to be particularly difficult to traverse.

Our chapter and the book as a whole provide numerous examples of patterns, processes, and experiences that might fruitfully be understood as emotional formations and emotional frontiers. Our hope and ambition is that this will help stimulate new kinds of genuinely global emotional histories of childhood.

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