Theme 4 – Childhood and youth

Panel discussion:

Dr Kristine Alexander, University of Lethbridge, Canada
Dr Sarah Duff, Colby College, USA
Prof Mischa Honeck, Universität Kassel, Germany
Dr Susan Miller, Rutgers University, Camden, USA
Dr Ishita Pande, Queen’s University
Dr Simon Sleight, King’s College, London, England
Dr Karen Vallgårda, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Dr Ville Vuolanto, Tampere University

Chair: Dr Stephanie Olsen, Senior Research Fellow, Tampere University/HEX

The history of childhood and youth is a key field where questions of agency should play out. After all, children and youth are among the most marginalized actors because of their minority, and also because of various intersecting categories – class, race, gender, sexuality – which often leave them without a strong say in their own lives. Yet, historians of childhood and youth have been some of the most vocal in articulating a discomfort with the concept of agency. Several key interventions by historians of childhood, including Mona Gleason and Susan Miller, have suggested that agency needs redefining or replacing.  This work has built on seminal interventions by historians of race, slavery and gender in particular.

This roundtable features leading scholars in the field, all of whom have problematized agency in their written work from different angles and national and colonial perspectives. We will point to potential pitfalls of agency from various theoretical, methodological and political perspectives and discuss potential alternative routes out of the “agency trap.” The novel category of experience will figure prominently in theorizing these alternatives.

A focused reading list is found here. 

To read the panelists’ bios, please click on the names below:

Dr Kristine Alexander’s bio
Dr Sarah Duff’s bio
Prof Mischa Honeck’s bio
Dr Susan Miller’s bio
Dr Ishita Pande’s bio
Dr Simon Sleight’s bio
Dr Karen Vallgårda’s bio
Dr Ville Vuolanto’s bio

NB! It is no longer possible to post new comments. 



Thanks to you all for a terrific session – lively and informative even as mediated through Zoom. I really appreciated the range of projects, approaches, re-definitions, and push backs I heard you all discuss. I especially appreciated the critical engagement with the recent AHR issue that, I would agree, did not really represent much of the best or most recent work in this arena. This discussion was especially timely for me as I am co-teaching (with an economist) a course on child labor and all the debates that has generated across disciplines and policy realms.

MJ Maynes

29.3.2021 16:51

Thanks so much for your comments. Of course we were all influenced by your own seminal work on the topic! Would love to hear more about the multidisciplinary debates sometime. Until our paths cross again!

Stephanie Olsen

30.3.2021 20:14

I’m late with my comment although I watched this last week. This was an excellent discussion which left me with a huge amount to think about.
I’m now wondering if the way that I’ve started to use agency – following discussions in the field over recent years – has become so broad that it comes close to experience and the varied reasons why children feel and do things and the implications that this has for them and those around them!
My question concerns the way that we can have these discussions with others such as our students (Simon Sleight’s comment on this was important, I thought) In my institutional context – a School of Education in England – I find that concepts of children’s ‘voice’ and ‘agency’ resonate with students who find them articulated (or not articulated) in their professional contexts. I’m concerned that ‘experience’ might not enable me to have the same sort of productive conversations with them? I’d welcome any panellists’ thoughts on this!

Susannah Wright

19.3.2021 18:46

I enjoyed this panel debate very much. Stephanie did a wonderful job of hosting the panel. I found Simon Sleight’s talk particularly lucid. In my PhD I am looking at the lived experience of urban children. The agency of children in where they choose to play is something which I am interested in discussing. However, following discussion on Mona Gleeson’s ‘agency trap’, I will give this subject more consideration as I write. Thank you all.

Helen Franklin

12.3.2021 18:22

Many thanks, Helen! I look forward to hearing more about your research in due course.

Stephanie Olsen

15.3.2021 16:20

Thank you for an informative and thought-provoking panel, as well as for the suggested reading list (which I have to catch up on). Forgive me for not remembering who it was that said this, but at some point one of the panelists brought up the notion of historical significance (essentially, if it’s not about agency, can it be historically significant?). Can panelists point out specific ways (other than what Stephanie mentioned about really shaping this new frontier of an historical approach) in which “experience” in and of itself can be significant? I’m just having a hard time understanding this concept, but I’m intrigued by it.

Stella Ress

11.3.2021 23:21

Hi Stella, thanks for your engagement with the roundtable. The idea of “significance” is brought out in Mona Gleason’s keynote talk. It’s really worth checking out if you haven’t already. Join us for the closing roundtable tomorrow where we will be discussing these very topics. I am sure other panelists want to pitch in here, but a good start to the history of experience in general is Boddice and Smith’s Cambridge Element on Emotion, Sense and Experience (found in the reading list).

Stephanie Olsen

11.3.2021 23:46

Thank you, a very interesting 2 hours discussing agency, experience, emotions, and dealing with the individual with the collective. From my research on religious hybridity or synergy, the children can choose to identify/ function with one religious tradition or the other, or both, and or the hybrid community. This brings to my mind that agency is more like a verb, a path of actions, dealing with nouns, structures. The nouns bring up behaviourist structure, which in prominent and normative forms, colonizes and marginalizes: setting the boundaries for those in, and establishing the prejudicial and discriminatory boundaries for those who are out. This of course causes social and individual stress, anxiety and fears (phobias). The alternative, therefore, is post-structural, post-modern, post-colonial desires for freedom, individual agency: personal religion, personal nationalism, or multiple complexities of ‘lived’ religion and other structures. Yet, it appears in this humanistic relativistic direction, this can also cause stress – chaos, disorder, lack of clarity, loss of ‘truth’, divisive groupings and also, as these two hours have proven, a struggle for common linguistics and concepts. So, in New Religious Movements research (CESNUR), people react to relativism by seeking extreme authoritarian structures – a part of our modern times. I liked Ishita Panda’s comments in this regard and the ethical journeying thoughts from Saba Mahmood. The individual, the child, learns to negotiate structures. They interpret and act, causing new hermeneutics and forms. Yes, this is individual, but also as we are social beings, and we invest a lot into social interactions and status, especially with family, it is also a collective journey. Therefore, I am wondering what is the middle ground between structure and total free agency? Is it social constructivism? but that leads to a lack of conceptual words to use to describe it. If I use nouns, the discussion becomes about categories and structures, and hence, divisive boxes, that enforce the divisive aspect of multiculturalism (divided mono-culturalism). If I focus on verbs, then that gives us ‘experience,’ yet, it may not help us in securing religious freedom because what exactly is being legally protected? ‘Spirituality’ could be useful, but it can lead to shopping around commercially for products to serve the ego – i-zation, which could be pure agency? Episteme and worldviews are discussed but this is so culturally Western – intellectualised. That brings up a dilemma can the academy be the place to understand social constructivist processes. It has to be, otherwise, how can we inform democratic processes. This then brings up other aspects: memory, people, family, social process, identity journeying; and these are something, which yes can be “consented and accepted,” but also contributed to. Perhaps then the true essence of agency is being part of something that one can negotiate, benefit from, but also contribute to. The problem with structure is that it assumes that “the individual has nothing to say,” whereas we all do have something to say and even something to innovate, which with collective consent, can even shape the collective destiny. This is risky, but risk causes from my data, social bonding to deal with risk. Perhaps, the problem is modern clarifications of structures that are done in order to remove risk, and so to remove individual agency. We, therefore, need a move away from acculturation, that is conforming the individual to structures, and instead towards engaging proculturation. To do this without necessarily being destructive through forms of agency formed by emotions of frustration and injustice: revolution, rebellion, resistance. To be progressive but without dogmatic structural progressives. Meaning to allow greater diversity in the agency, towards the common collective, rather than trying to force frictionally new prominent normative discourses. One person’s rebellion is an imposed structure for another. Thank you, I think your discussions have helped me along in my reflective process.

Richard Croft

11.3.2021 10:31

This was a fascinating panel that made me think very hard about my past work, and my future work. You’ve all given me a lot to think about — thanks for sharing your ideas. Great panel all-around.

Monica Flegel

11.3.2021 00:39

Thanks, Monica. Great to “meet” you – I loved your Conceptualizing Cruelty to Children in Nineteenth Century England.

Stephanie Olsen

11.3.2021 00:51

Thank you to Dr. Olsen and to all of the panelists for this fascinating conversation about the problems and possibilities of agency and experience in the field of childhood and youth history! The discussion of experience and the risk of neglecting power was particularly insightful (and very interesting to me as a PhD student examining girls in juvenile justice contexts).

Lisa Moore

10.3.2021 20:40

Thanks, Lisa! I look forward to hearing more about your own research.

Stephanie Olsen

10.3.2021 20:52

Thank you for a very interesting discussion on agency and childhood & youth!

You discussed a little bit about ethics and sources which is a very interesting theme in relation to agency in different timeperiods. I would like to ask you how you consider the effect of different historical time periods or how the sources that have survived from these periodes (e.g. premodern, modern & postmodern times) influence on the research done on children/youth and agency. Furthermore, does the surviving sources have an effect on the way we study agency and if so what kind of an effect?

Maybe a bit big question, but I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter for in the panel there were researcher whose studies cover a quite vast timeperiod.

Mari Välimäki

10.3.2021 18:10

Thank you, Mari! Putting this very shortly: Yes, there are differences set by the sources. because for the limitations set by the sources, my use of ‘agency’ (in ancient history) is often more about studying the ‘boundary conditions of agency’ more than the agency itself. However, I would consider even this being an important viewpoint in shifting our (or, indeed, my) focus to those people who have often been considered to be ‘uninteresting’ from the point of view of ‘historical significance’. In a way, then, for me ‘agency’ is a tool to do a kind of history from below, and to seek – and to see! – the potential experiences of the past actors.

Ville Vuolanto

12.3.2021 18:07

Many thanks for your question, Mari. I hope the panelists will contribute their own perspectives to this, but in my view, historians of childhood and youth always have to be creative about our sources, to read between the lines and against the grain. In some periods we have too many sources, and in some periods, only a few, but I think the problem remains the same: how to tell the stories of those who were, by dint of their age, their position, and various intersecting categories, not usually autonomous (the same is true for most older people too). For this, and many other reasons, I don’t think that agency is the best concept to use to explore these stories and do justice to young people in history.

Stephanie Olsen

10.3.2021 20:37

Thank you for a great panel. It was very interesting to learn about how all of you have come to terms with the concept of agency – in ways that widen and deepen our engagement with it…but also in ways that makes “agency” unnecessary or harmful. I take away many things: eigensinn (!), moving beyond “providing” agency to youth, agency as still relevant if deployed more thoughtfully, as nuanced and changing, and many more ideas. Excellent panel – thank you for this!

Mona Gleason

10.3.2021 17:46

Thanks so much, Mona! Many of us had a chance to view your excellent keynote presentation before recording the session and were influenced by your thoughts in our discussion.

Stephanie Olsen

10.3.2021 18:05

Thank you very much for your very interesting roundtable about childhood, youth and agency! It was very inspiring and motivating for me (as a Ph.D. student in history of education)!

Emma Papadacci

10.3.2021 12:21

Thanks, Emma! All the best for your own very interesting research!

Stephanie Olsen

10.3.2021 20:54

Fine. Thanks!

Pertti Haapala

10.3.2021 12:15

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