Center for Interdisziplinary Research

ZiF Workshop

Transformations of Childhood in Contemporary Britain: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Date: 7 - 8 November 2014

Convenors: Ralf Schneider (Bielefeld, GER), Sandra Dinter (Bielefeld, GER)

The workshop situated itself in the interdisciplinary field of Childhood Studies and brought together renowned experts from the social sciences and the humanities to discuss the various conceptions of childhood in contemporary Britain. Contributors came from the fields of education, sociology, political studies, law, history, literary studies, cultural studies, art history and film and TV studies. In the course of the workshop, childhood emerged as a highly ambiguous construction. Childhood is frequently seen as a phase that can, and must, be regulated and whose conceptualisation is subject to shifting political agendas, social and educational policies as well as financial constraints, as the papers by Michael Wyness, Nigel Parton and Angela Davis demonstrated. In a similar vein, childhood is a locus for the projection of social and parental anxieties, as can be seen in regulations concerning school uniforms (Daniel Monk) and extra-curricular tutoring organised by parents in a competitive social climate shaped by a neo-liberal ideology (Ken Jones). Central to these discourses is the assumption that children are vulnerable, in need of adult - and state - "protection", but also require supervision. It became apparent in various papers that investments in school education and child welfare since the 1960s have been linked to ideas of policing an "underclass". In this sense, childhood frequently serves as a means to negotiate other, potentially more controversial, political interests. What is frequently overlooked is the amount of emotional, psychological and economic work children do to negotiate problems in the family, such as poverty and ostracism.

The other side of the social and cultural conception of childhood is sheer instability. As papers by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, Jessica Sage and Sandra Dinter pointed out with regard to constructions of childhood in literary criticism, on book covers and in novels for adults, the need to define and know childhood is apparently both a powerful, if problematic, individual, psychological and a common cultural trope. Fields in which the ambiguity of childhood concepts can be observed include the cultural production for children, as in TV programmes for children (Jonathan Bignell) and books for children (Ellen Handler-Spitz). Here "the child" can be seen as either in need of protection (from ideas supposedly inappropriate for their age) or as an active consumer of cultural artefacts, who will engage creatively and make individual sense of what it is offered. Films featuring child actors imply that childhood is a stage to grow out of (Karen Lury) and at the same time suggest that to watch growth in children is to understand development. In the area of children's and young adult literature, texts have gone against the Romantic and preservationist heritage of idealised childhood, as the paper by Anja Müller demonstrated. Discussing the biography of Marion Daltrop, the contribution by Erica Burman pointed out how (traumatic) childhood experiences can transform into an adult's own relations with children. All in all, constructions of childhood must be conceptualised as a relational category, for childhood can only be thought of as related to, and dependent on, the parents and other adults, other children, including siblings, state institutions as well as both historical conceptions of childhood and society's ideas of the future of childhood.

Another issue that emerged from the papers and discussion was that it is problematic to speak of "British" childhoods. Regional differences in educational and social policies and cultural practices demand a much more diversified approach to childhood on the British Isles. What is more, issues such as gender, class, and ethnicity further undermine any monolithic conception of what "the child" is and how "it" needs to be treated. After two inspiring and engaging days at the ZiF, the organisers and participants look forward to future cooperation.


Jonathan Bignell (Reading, GBR), Erica Burman (Manchester, GBR), Laura Curtis (London, GBR), Ruth Curtis-Talbot (Reading, GBR), Angela Davis (Coventry, GBR), Ellen Handler Spitz (Baltimore, USA), Marcus Hartner (Bielefeld, GER), Ken Jones (London, GBR), Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (Reading, GBR), Karen Lury (Glasgow, GBR), Daniel Monk (London, GBR), Anja Müller (Siegen, GER), Nigel Parton (Huddersfield, GBR), Katharina Pietsch (Bielefeld, GER), Jessica Anne Sage (Reading, GBR), Michael Wyness (Coventry, GBR), Tyll Zybra (Bielefeld, GER)


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