Theses Doctoral

Emily meets the world: Child agency encounters adult imperialism

Hichenberg, Noah Mencow

Children are endowed with agency, a fundamental trait of humanity which is accomplished through collective striving. This striving occurs as children meet, and create, their world and its expectations of them. I explore how one particular 2-year-old child, Emily, encounters her world. The study focuses on Emily’s agency and power as she meets an adult society which extends control into her life. Through Emily’s life, I illustrate how this extension of control creates confined spaces of childhood which infantilize and regulate Emily. The socially constructed childhood Emily encounters denies and ignores much of her agency. Yet, Emily powerfully and irreparably alters the world she meets, generating novel landscapes as she pushes back against the world. Emily refuses to concede to the world presented to her; she instead takes the world and changes it.

I use ethnographic, idiographic methods to describe the extension of control into children’s lives as adult imperialism and locate Emily’s powerful agency in her transformative dissent and stance of opposition. Field observations occurred over a nine-month period; interviews were conducted with Emily, her parents, and her teachers. The Transformative Activist Stance, a critical expansion of cultural-historical activity theory outlined by Dr. Anna Stetsenko, is used as an orienting framework. All data was audio recorded, transcribed, and analyzed to offer a convincing argument regarding agency and imperialism in Emily’s life.

I argue that Emily’s transformative dissent is the social assertion of her agency and that she, like all children, deserves to be appreciated and celebrated for her capacity to matter in the world-as-it-is-being-made. Social accomplishments are implicated in the research as manifestations of individual agency: Emily matters because of how she engages with others. This research suggests a critical shift away from vertical adult-child relationships, which are presented in the data as defined by regulation and control, and towards horizontal relationships, oriented around recognition and appreciation. A horizontal relationship implies shedding developmental assumptions about children and ceding back to them areas of their own lives.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Curriculum and Teaching
Thesis Advisors
Recchia, Susan
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
July 19, 2019