Appropriating childhood: the current state of play
Location D
Date and Time 12th December, 2008 at 10:30


Rozanna Lilley (Children and Families Research Centre, Macquarie University)
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Short Abstract

This panel explores appropriation and childhood in diverse cultural and historical contexts. Papers deal with colonial and postcolonial appropriations of childhood under the rubric of welfare, as well as 'expert' appropriations of childhood and the creative socio-cultural appropriations of children.

Long Abstract

This panel explores the intersection between forms of appropriation and childhood in diverse cultural and historical contexts. Papers are especially encouraged that interrogate the relationship between the State and indigenous communities being contested in the name of preserving childhood. The recent interventions in Northern Australia are a pressing example of this contestation. Such interventions have a lengthy history both in Australia and elsewhere. Other examples of colonial and postcolonial appropriations of childhood under the rubric of various kinds of civilising projects are directly relevant to this theme. Papers are also invited that explore the cultural logic of other kinds of expert appropriations of childhood. A wide range of medical, psychiatric, educational and genetic discourses and practices all invite anthropological scrutiny in this regard. An increasing body of literature is concerned with expertise as a central phenomenon in modern life. How can anthropologies of childhood contribute both to the production of expertise on childhood and to the interrogation of expert discourse and practice about children? How do parents and children position themselves with regard to such discourses and practices? Alongside the notion of expert appropriations of childhood and of individual children, constructivist approaches that focus on how children appropriate society are also sought. Children and adolescents create their own peer cultures, partly through appropriating cultural conventions and symbols from the adult world. How is this process played out in different cultural contexts and historical periods? Finally, how has anthropology, as a discipline, contributed to expert appropriations of childhood, past and present?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The plight of Malawian orphans: A need for expert appropriations of childhood?

Author: Elaine Donovan (Massey University)

Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper explores the plight of Malawian orphans, investigates whether expert appropriations of childhood could be beneficial and considers anthropology's role in this crisis.


The magnitude of deaths from AIDS related diseases among the most economically productive generation in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, is intensifying poverty and the consequential escalation in the number of orphans is overwhelming the usual childcare arrangements. Taking in orphaned kin places additional pressure on households that are already struggling to find enough food to satisfy their family's daily needs. The tension this creates frequently results in orphans suffering neglect and abuse. Their future potential is also compromised as they are often used for labour rather than attending school. Owing to financial limitations and under-resourced social welfare services, the Malawian government encourages local community-based orphan care projects. This bottom-up approach involves communities identifying their own problems and administering their own programmes. Not surprisingly, the majority of Malawian communities lack the resources and training for such ventures and so most orphans are left without much protection. In summary, mainly due to lack of funds rather than lack of motivation, there is no nationally co-ordinated programme of interventions and thus no attempt by the state to appropriate [or salvage] the orphans' childhood. This paper questions whether a programme of expert appropriations of childhood could benefit Malawian orphans. It reflects on the paucity of anthropological empirical research focusing on these issues and considers the future role of anthropology in addressing this significant social problem with far reaching consequences which feeds the cycle of poverty and deprivation in Malawi.

When Children's Drawings Hail Theories: Enfolding Multiple Accounts as Ethical Anthropology

Author: Vicki Macknight (University of Melbourne)

Short Abstract

Using children’s drawings of ‘imagination’ I argue for a way of theorising using relational epistemology. This sees theorising as bodily and in terms of Althusser’s concept interpellation. I suggest that this is both ethical and accurate to the multiple nature of the world: a way of theorising that is not appropriating.


Sitting with a pile of ethnographic images brought back from the field, I use my eyes and my hands to make piles of sameness and difference. As I do so, I realise that I am remaking theories that I already know: in Althussar's terms I am already/always hailed to recognise data in terms of certain theories. They work to explain what my participants were telling me, because they also already/always know and act in these patterns.

But each way of making sameness and difference is troubling, claiming researcher knowledge that has ethical implications. More, each is partial. I can make these theories differently, just as people at different moments can tell us different things. Because we are always caught up in webs of relations, we can have multiple theories/knowledges that do not contradict but enfold and are dynamic.

I make this argument looking at drawings done by children to express their understandings of what imagination is. I argue that the multiple possible ways of moving from this ethnographic data into theory mean that we need to work within a relational epistemology to make good anthropological theory. Doing so helps us formulate more ethical ways of dealing with other's knowledge that go beyond appropriation.

Hokkaido preschools: appropriating the distant other, ignoring their own?

Author: Rachael Burke (Hiroshima University)

Short Abstract

As Japan's education system embraces internationalisation as part of its curriculum, this paper discusses how preschools in Hokkaido appropriate Western tales and celebrations yet neglect to acknowledge the indigenous Ainu in either pedagogy or practice.


Colonised by the Japanese state in the 1860s, the isolated island of Hokkaido is both geographically and culturally distinct from Japan's other main islands. While anthropological research within and about Hokkaido has predominantly concerned itself with studies of the indigenous Ainu, this subject has largely been ignored by the nationally standardised Japanese education system. Despte neglecting ethnic groups within Japan, the Ministry of Education has embraced a vigorous 'internationalisation' programme which promotes the study of foreign cultures and English language skills. This paper examines how this approach has impacted on the early childhood sector in Hokkaido. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at five preschools, it discusses how early childhood educators have appropriated Western fairytales and rituals for pedagogical purposes, yet neglect to examine 'the other' in their midst. Through exposure to foreign teachers, Hokkaido children are learning to perform the Maori haka or make Canadian totem poles yet they cannot recognise the distinctive patterns of an Ainu robe. Christian celebratons like Christmas and Easter are seen by preschools as an arts and crafts opportunity, while children carve Halloween pumpkins and attend collective birthday parties. Throughout the preschool experience any reference to the Ainu is noticeably absent. While cultural appropriation is often harshly critiqued, the lack of any appropriation of local indigenous culture in Hokkaido preschools contributes to a situation of almost total obscurity and invisibility of Ainu identities.

Boarding school and the appropriation of childhood? Longhouse children in Sarawak, East Malaysia

Author: Jennifer Alexander (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

This paper explores the 'expert' appropriation of childhood in the context of postcolonial State Boarding schools in Sarawak, East Malaysia. Boarding school, an inevitable precursor to acquiring an education, is assessed from the point of view of the indigenous populations and the anthropologist.


Under the Bakun Resettlement Scheme in Sarawak East Malaysia, timber, land and water have undoubtedly been appropriated. In this paper I explore the issue of whether childhood also has been and continues to be appropriated. I focus on the implications of the boarding school experience for longhouse children, their parents and the fieldworker. The State and its representatives in the education system have encouraged children at primary, junior and senior high schools to live in boarding school quarters while attending school. In the past this made sense as schools, particularly the junior and senior high schools, were located at some distance from the children's longhouse homes. But in the recent past (1980s) and again in the present (2000s) parents have been persuaded to allow their children to become live-in students during the week on the grounds that in the longhouse conditions are inappropriate for learinng to cope with life in the modern world. In some respects both the State and longhouse parents are in unison in regards to the conflicts between work and formal education. Despite the presence of alternative caretakers, the swidden cultivators of the past and market gardeners of the present have acquiesced in the State's proposal to incorporate upriver peoples into mainstream Malaysian society and provide them with the education to move beyond the longhouse setting. I conclude with a section on the civilizing project of the State and the expert 'appropriation' of childhood from the point of view of both the fieldworker and the education system.

Traditions of Childhood and Normativity in Australia's Western Desert

Author: Ute Eickelkamp (University of Sydney)

Short Abstract

This paper explores how Aboriginal children in a remote community create their own understandings of 'tradition'. Using phenomenological and psychoanalytical forms of interpretation, it is argued that an ethnography of children's experience of tradition illuminates the production of normativity.


How do children in a remote Aboriginal community experience 'tradition'? Rather than focusing on knowledge transfer from the older to the younger generation, this paper explores how children create their own traditions and understandings of the term, especially in their play and through group dynamics ­ for themselves, in relation to their local community, and with a view to non-Aboriginal Australia. Brief consideration is also given to the memories and paradigmatic views of childhood held by adults, thus highlighting some aspects of continuity and change.

It is argued that an ethnographic analysis of children's experience of tradition in the context of their everyday life is of considerable epistemological value: it can shed light on the production of normativity. Specifically, and drawing on phenomenological and psychoanalytical techniques of interpretation, I outline how an analysis might proceed that shows how children perceive time and power, and generate history, authority and a collective identity. An understanding of children's normative practices ­ and by implication 'deviance' - seems especially needed at a time when the Australian Government has launched far-reaching 'crisis interventions' with the declared aim of combating child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities. The discussion is based on an ethnographic study over three years of children in a remote Aboriginal community on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the eastern part of Australia's Western Desert.

Children, sexuality and corporeal appropriation in Kimberley Aboriginal settlements

Author: Anthony Redmond (ANU)

Short Abstract

This paper addresses the appropriation of Aboriginal childhood and children in two senses: in the 'Aboriginal reality show' (Langton 2008) for the wider public imaginary and how children's sexualised, corporeal resources are actually appropriated and exchanged in these particular life-worlds.


Throughout 2007 the widespread reports of the sexual abuse of children in the Kimberley Aboriginal settlements of Hall's Creek, Kalumburu and Fitzroy Crossing erupted as a major public issue when scores of men from these communities were arrested and charged with a range of sexual offenses. These arrests seemed to confirm a public and official alarm that such abuses were widespread across the Aboriginal communities of Australia, an alarm that instituted the dramatic major Federal government intervention in neighboring Northern Territory settlements. This paper, continuing on from my discussion paper of late 2007, addresses the appropriation of Aboriginal childhood and children in two senses. Firstly, it is helpful to contextualise the current child abuse furore issue in regard to what Marcia Langton (2008) has called the 'Aboriginal reality show' in the wider public imaginary. However, despite its long history, there is no sense in which coercive sexual appropriation is simply a product of the racial imaginary in Australia -it is undoubtedly a reality as well as a 'reality show'. The second part of this paper looks at how sexualized, corporeal resources are socially and individually appropriated and exchanged in these particular life-worlds.

Culture as Therapy: Improving Aboriginal Children in Western Sydney

Author: Gillian Cowlishaw (University of Sydney)

Short Abstract

The multicultural social dynamics in Western Sydney include programs to improve Aboriginal children's educational achievements by 'giving back their culture.' What this idea implies, what it ignores and the practices it spawns will be examined as an example of 'the remediating state' in action.


This paper is based on a study of multicultural social dynamics and the governing of Aboriginal people in the alleged cultural desert of western Sydney. Aboriginal culture is frequently being called upon to solve what are known as 'severe social problems', especially those of reluctant, recalcitrant or delinquent Indigenous school children. The notion of culture as therapy has proliferated in institutions, bureaucracies and organizations, and materializes at numerous public sites, promulgated by what Tess Lea calls 'the remediating state', including academic, educational and corrective services. In the face of the statistical evidence that Aboriginal children are seriously underperforming in schools, a series of ad hoc programs have been implemented, founded in the popular understanding of suburban Indigenous people as having lost their cultural roots. Indigenous children are being 'taught their culture' with some extraordinary and interesting consequences. Moreover, it is alleged that it works!

Narratives of (mis)appropriation, a paediatric hospital and the cultural logic of the child protection unit

Author: Cynthia Hunter (The University of Sydney)

Short Abstract

This paper analyses the process of the narrative as it is utilised by a Child Protection Unit clinical team of a tertiary level paediatric hospital that handles child patients who have been (mis) appropriated by adults. The cultural logic thus underpinned enhances the quality of care provided.


Co-auhor:Dimitra Tzioumi

Each year children present to Child Protection Units in tertiary level paediatric hospitals because their childhood has been irrupted. They are children whose lives and bodies have been (mis)appropriated by adults - adults in the children's lives or in the community. The nature of child protection work within a paediatric hospital focuses on restoring health to child victims and their families after psychosocial trauma. Physical and sexual abuse, and neglect of children may be present. Physical abuse and neglect by definition are perpetrated by people who have responsibility of the child, i.e. 'by the people who care for them'. The clinical team of a CPU includes staff specialists, trainee specialists (registrars and fellows) and therapists who are clinical psychologists and social workers. A consulting child psychiatrist provides the team with external clinical consultation. Other government agencies and NGO agencies are involved in the provision of services to families. Confidentiality is highly respected.

This paper, based in ethnographic fieldwork, analyses the process and focuses on the narrative (the incident or story) after the (mis)appropriation is disclosed by the child or young adult to friends, family or responsible adult/s who notify or present at medical services. The narrative form is well known in diagnostic clinical consultations (Mattingly and Garro; Cox). We argue that the telling and retelling of the story by child protection clinicians in their everyday work practices underpins the cultural logic that facilitates the handling and management of children in need of child protection and enhances the quality of care provided.

The ABC of Autism: Parents and Pedagogy in Australia

Author: Rozanna Lilley (Children and Families Research Centre, Macquarie University)

Short Abstract

This paper draws on the narratives of mothers of children diagnosed with autism in contemporary Australia. This analysis investigates the conflict and collusion between professional and maternal discourses and practices as various agents and agencies struggle to (dis)own autistic children.


The field of autism interventions, as well as advice given to parents on educating children with autism spectrum disorders, is characterised in Australia by competing ideological visions of childhood, parenting, community and citizenship. This paper compares two events targeted at parents, both of which were staged on the same weekend in Sydney in 2007. One centred on Applied Behavioural Analysis, holding out the promise of potential normalisation for autistic children and their families. The other, mobilising civil rights rhetoric, pushed for the educational mainstreaming of all children with disabilities. This paper investigates the assumptions of these seemingly polarised positions and assesses some of the ways in which parents, especially mothers, make sense of and situationally negotiate these emotionally charged claims and counter-claims.