Why We Need a New Approach: Emotions and the Global Politics of Childhood

This post continues Karen Vallgårda‘s post on Chapter 2 in Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives. It argues that we need a new history-of-emotions toolbox to deal with central questions in the history of childhood and youth.

By Stephanie Olsen

Several of the chapters in Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives focus at least in part on children’s own emotional experiences, while others explore the emotional valance of children and their symbolic value. Other contributions explore adults’ efforts to cultivate or control children’s emotions, and the effects these had on children. Several chapters deal with the relationship between children and parents, or children and other authority figures. As the book’s contributors show, across time periods and in different geographical settings, young people have had to learn to navigate diverse emotional spaces and collectives. Children have learnt that the emotional standards in school or in the orphanage differed from those in the playground or that the types of emotional interaction in the factory were dissimilar to those at home. It is up to historians to lend specificity to, and point to the historical contingency of, these important questions of emotional cultivation, but the questions themselves have a global relevance.

Cover Palgrave Olsen

The chapters taken together have global reach. Wit this in mind, Karen Vallgårda, Kristine Alexander and I got together to come up with something we thought was needed within the history of childhood: a new analytical toolbox to open up the question of childhood emotions in a global context. How could we make seemingly ‘closed’ case studies ‘talk’ to one another? How could we deal with the complexities of transnational encounters, both in terms of dissonant concepts of childhood and their attendant emotions, and in terms of the experiences of children in a diversity of contexts? Could we not find a key to bring our research into line, making for viable comparative analysis without flattening out the richness of discrete cases?

These questions have led to the somewhat novel organization of this book. Chapter 2, “Emotions and the Global Politics of Childhood,” is the essential starting point. While each of the remaining chapters can be read individually, they will all be read more deeply through the lens of Chapter 2. We have provided a new theoretical approach for the combined fields of the global history of childhood and the history of emotions, which supplies the analytical key for navigating other chapters, both individually and as they interrelate. As Karen Vallgårda pointed out in her blog post, at the centre of this chapter are the concepts of ‘emotional formation’ and ‘emotional frontiers’, which repurpose existing history-of-emotions tools – the emotional community, emotional regimes, emotives – for the history of childhood. I did not, however, want to impose our constructions on the individual contributors to the book. They have brought their own research and their own sets of questions to the fore, and it only makes sense that the interpretations they make remain theirs. Chapter 2 provides a framework that binds the chapters together to forge a new historiographical direction.

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