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Childhood: politics and moral economies in times of global crises

June 28, 2021 15:00
June 28, 2021 16:30

Global crises are events that tend to overtake the attention of political, economical, moral, philosophical discourses in spite of apparently less important matters. 

The question is how actors react to such crises by reinforcing existing discourses, disrupting them in favor of alternative narratives or even creating new ones. A particularly visible discourse is the humanitarian one (Fassin, 2011) which focuses on the mobilisation of compassion to “help” or “save” those who need it. Children are often at the very center of these concerns and their lives can be strongly influenced by these discourses and how they are being shaped by various actors. 

The onset of “more pressing needs” - a social construct and one of the elements of transaction of the moral economy, a shift on the discourses and focus can easily divert programs and funding from a specific issue such as children in street situations to a “newer” regional or global worry, such as the child soldier. Thus leaving some of the target programs and their beneficiary, if not adapted, to face difficulties. This transformation has been explored in the literature (e.g. Poretti et al., 2014, “The rise and fall of icons of ‘stolen childhood’ since the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child” and Burman, 1996, “Innocents abroad: Western fantasies of childhood and the iconography of emergencies”). 

With this paper session, we will delve into this topic and look at how moral economies (Fassin, 2011) and the politics of childhood are being (re)shaped in the face of global crises as the current coronavirus pandemic.

The three papers selected for this session are linked with different and interdisciplinary perspectives.

Keywords: Childhood, moral economy, politics, crisis

The Cambodian farmers’ moral economy of education facing Sustainable Development Goal n°4

Steven Prigent, Bordeaux University, Faculty of Anthropology and Aix-Marseille University, Asian Research Institute  

This communication will give an account of the “moral economy” shared by Cambodian farmers regarding the subject of children’s education, by highlighting on one hand the importance that the parents place on filial debt, on Buddhist accomplishment of “merits” (guṇ), and on respect for the hierarchy of the ages, and on the other hand the educational prudence which they show with regard to children’s sociability. When the children of Cheung Kok village go “vagabond” (toer leṅ), they are no longer moving on family territory, they no longer contribute to the family economy, they are no longer at school; they take part in a form of social life that is outside the three educational spheres. It is then very common, through educational prudence, to place a negative accent on the social time of “vagabondage” and this is particularly emphasised as far as girls are concerned. I will intend to show that when children wander around, they occupy an uncertain moral margin and are almost outlaws regarding their parents. This communication aims at giving a “general view” of the Khmer peasant educational system, defined as a dispositif that orientates boys and girls’ conducts - a dispositif that is made more complex through the international promotion of democratic educational and children’s empowerment moral values. 

Indeed, in the 1990s Cambodia would see massive investment of international solidarity in the field of education (among other sectors of development). The country, which had been isolated for nearly twenty years, ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and took up the international challenge of ‘Education for All’, launched at the Jomtien conference in 1990 and updated at Dakar ten years later, in the framework of the Millennium Development Goals 2000–15 (now the Sustainable Development Goal n°4, 2015-30). Since 2001, planning of the national ‘Education for All’ started to receive the backing of the Child Friendly Schools programme, initiated by UNESCO and then UNICEF and heavily subsidised by the Swedish Government (SIDA)  to promote the move towards schooling and effective teaching in primary and lower secondary schools. Within the CFS framework, international programmes question local teaching methods that view a deferent and subaltern position in pupils as a prerequisite for learning. These new policies promote active learning, known as ‘student-centred’, by inviting schoolteachers to relinquish corporal punishment and provide benevolent child care, valorising the development of critical thinking, encouraging individual problem solving and cooperation between pupils in their studies, and setting up decision-making groups and pupils’ associations. In other words, children are given pedagogical confidence. How do Cambodian farmers, who share their own moral economy of education, receive these global educational values ?

Keywords: Education, hierarchy, moral economy, Cambodia 

Crisis and the value of public education: (home)schooling and its controversies during the COVID-19 pandemic in Switzerland

Michele Poretti, Haute École Pédagogique du canton de Vaud

Crises are moments of uncertainty, where the social order, the meaning of reality and the value of beings vacillate, moments ripe with questions and opportunities for critique (Cordero, 2017). As such, they are doubly fertile for sociological enquiry. One the one hand, they make visible the conditions of possibility of a certain order, namely by observing the interventions undertaken to restore it or to build a new one (Latour, 2006). On the other hand, crises typically trigger countless controversies, compelling the actors to expose their moral and political justifications, while concurrently weakening previously taken-for-granted conventional norms (Boltanski, 2009; Boltanski & Thévenot, 1991). In this sense, the multiple crises (sanitary, social, economic,…) associated to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic are particularly revealing of the political logic of late capitalist societies and of the moral economies (Fassin, 2009, p. 1257) of contemporary childhoods, that is, of the production and circulation of values, norms, emotions and obligations associated to the young.  

Whilst children and young people’s physical health has been relatively spared by the pandemic, the measures taken to contain its spread have deeply affected their daily lives. Like adults, they have been called, directly or through their parents, to unite in (intergenerational) solidarity to fight the coronavirus and respect “barrier gestures”. In an unprecedented historical move, millions of children and young people have also been constrained, almost simultaneously, into homeschooling for several months, upsetting, despite teachers’ efforts to ensure learning at a distance, their right to education, and highlighting the huge inequalities existing between children and young people of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

This paper aims to shed light on the moral economies of childhood and youth in Switzerland by mapping the transformations of schooling during the pandemic, as well as the associated controversies. Based on the analysis of official documents published by key stakeholders (e.g. cantonal governments, teacher training institutions, unions) and of media reports, as well as on ethnographic observations, it will compare the moral grammars of decisions targeting primary and secondary school pupils (respectively, 4-11 and 12-18 year-olds) in three cantons over a 12-month period (March 2020-February 2021). Switzerland is particularly well suited for such a comparative study, as each canton conducts its own public education policy.

The paper will explore, in particular, how the association between a highly legitimate biopolitical logic (Foucault, 1976), dominant conceptions of childhood and youth and the evolving knowledge about children and young people’s role in the transmission of the virus translated into distinct moral judgements about the relevance of different forms of (home)schooling. It will also explore the effects of the pandemic on the legitimacy of public schooling and of the school form, leading, for instance, to reinstituting the teacher as the essential figure in the transmission of knowledge, to the prevalence of pedagogies of care and compassion, and to the displacement of the school form, namely in the shape of outdoor education.

Keywords: Education, Covid-19, moral economies, justifications