Global Comings of Age: Childhood, Youth, and Social Re-generation in a Time of Global Flows

Advanced Seminar

April 17–23, 2004

What can be learned about the current moment of globalization and neoliberalism from looking at the lives of children and youths around the world? This question provided the impetus for an April advanced seminar co-chaired by Jennifer Cole (University of Chicago) and Deborah Durham (Sweet Briar College). An interdisciplinary group of nine scholars explored “Global Comings of Age: Childhood, Youth, and Social Re-generation in a Time of Global Flows,” drawing from research in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and history. They examined the shifting and often contested nature of childhood and youth as part of the transformations wrought by globalization. Mostly urban-based, the research of the seminar participants spanned the United States, Africa, East Asia, and Latin America.

The broad social changes associated with globalization have highlighted the role and experience of youths and children because “neoliberal economic reforms and international capital have both targeted youth as consumers and made them particularly vulnerable to exclusion from social and economic opportunities,” observed the co-chairs. As emerging new technologies of communication have fostered new ways of imagining and organizing collective identities, the collective identities of youth and childhood have become particularly problematized. “The exploration of three key domains of social life structured our inquiry,” said Cole and Durham, “these were: changes in the economy, the circulation of images, and the role of states and human rights discourses.”

An important thread that ran through the seminar was the observation that the move toward neoliberal markets has whittled away many of the institutions that structured childhood and youth in the past, so that young people negotiate a space “on the cusp of success and failure.” The organizers noted, however, that the sense of a “youth crisis” has surfaced repeatedly throughout history; their goal was to examine what was specific to the current juncture. They also wanted to explore the everyday struggles experienced by marginal or dramatic groups—street children and child soldiers, for example—as well as more ordinary groups such as middle-class Japanese children, urban Malagasy youths, and immigrant school kids in Oakland.

One everyday struggle is linked to changing patterns of production, consumption, and modes of self-fashioning. “Individuals and groups seek the promise of a prosperity marked in the consumption of goods that are circulating in steadily increasing quantities, but they do so from highly unequal relations to global systems of production and the goods themselves,” stated the co-chairs.

The new economy has challenged old ways of attaining adulthood, often reducing job opportunities for men while giving young women more diverse, if contested, ways of entering the culture as adults, Cole noted. Childhood is deeply affected as well. For example, in China, parents feel they must produce “quality children” for a competitive world stage. As they struggle to do so with advice manuals from around the globe, they mourn the inapplicability of their own childhood experiences for their children.

The seminar participants found that in each of their research projects, youth or childhood became a flashpoint for retheorizing certain aspects of the social sciences. Contemplating how young people encounter the current moment, participants scrutinized concepts such as class, social agency, value, imagined community, age, self, and globalization. Cole and Durham observed that “understanding the predicaments faced by youth and children—and their responses to them—is a critical part of understanding the social process, from household to state to global community.”

Jennifer Cole, Chair Committee on Human Development, University of Chicago Fashioning Distinction in Urban Madagascar: Youth and Class in the Context of Globalization
Deborah Durham, Chair Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Sweetbriar College Apathy and Agency
Anne Allison Department of Anthropology, Duke University New Age Fetishes, Monsters and Friends: Pokemon Capitalism at the Millennium
Ann Anagnost Department of Anthropology, University of Washington The Child’s Body
Paula S. Fass Department of History, University of California, Berkeley Childhood and Youth as an America/Global Experience in the Context of the Past
Constance A. Flanagan Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, Pennsylvania State University Private Delusions and Public Hopes in a World of No Long-Term Commitments
Tobias Hecht Independent Scholar Globalization from Way Below: Brazilian Streets, a Youth, and Word Society
Barrie Thorne Department of Sociology and Women's Studies, University of California, Berkeley “Chinese Girls” and “The Pokemon Kids”: Children Negotiating Differences in Urban California
Brad Weiss Department of Anthropology, College of William and Mary Chronic Mobb Asks a Blessing: Apocalyptic Hip-Hop in a Time of Crisis

Follow us: