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  • Agency and Emotion Work
  • Kristine Alexander (bio)

How can we understand the thoughts and experiences of young people in the past? This question lies at the heart of my scholarship and my teaching. It is also one that can be difficult to answer using conventional historical methods and archival research. The challenges involved in doing children’s history have led me to embrace the methodologies and insights offered by a number of other fields, including feminist theory, sociology, and geography (see Alexander, “Can”; Alexander, “Picturing”). Thinking across disciplines, I have learned, forces us to consider carefully and to articulate our methods and interpretative frameworks. It also highlights the limits and the possibilities of concepts and keywords that have influence across disciplinary borders.

It is as a historian of childhood with interdisciplinary leanings, then, that I want to use this essay to argue that “agency,” a term embraced by child and youth scholars from a range of fields, needs to be rethought and used far more critically than it is most often. I also want to make a case for the intellectual potential offered by the concept of “emotion work.”


The Oxford English Dictionary defines “agency” as “action, [or the] capacity to act.” Often associated with freedom, individual selfhood, intentionality, and choice, the term is ubiquitous in approaches to the study of young people within the humanities and the social sciences. A keyword search for “agency” in the journal Children’s Geographies, for example, brings up 340 articles published between 2003 and 2015, on subjects including “the role of agency in the support networks of child-headed households in Zambia” (Payne), “young people’s agency in the active negotiation of risk and safety in public space” (van der Bergt), and Moroccan children “between agency and repression” (Vacchiano and Jiminez).

The popularity of the term “agency” in Children’s Geographies and other scholarly publications about [End Page 120] young people owes much to the cross-disciplinary influence of the “new social studies of childhood.” Established in the 1990s by British sociologists Allison James, Chris Jenks, and Alan Prout, this approach to the study of children and youth rejected developmental frameworks by emphasizing the socially constructed nature of childhood, insisting that children’s cultures and relationships are worth studying in their own right, and claiming that young people must themselves be understood as agents and social actors. This emphasis on valuing children’s voices, recognizing their agency, and seeing them as “beings” rather than “becomings” also had particular salience in the years following the passage of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989 (see Tilleczek).

Like the understanding of agency that continues to spur the production of dissertations, articles, and books in child and youth studies, the notion of rights that underpins the UNCRC has its roots in European Enlightenment thinking about the individual. Along with freedom and progress, “agency” (the individual choice and capacity to act) underlay the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century liberal and utilitarian thinking of men like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill.

The concept of agency influenced twentieth-century thinking as well, perhaps most obviously in the efforts of social historians to uncover and to understand the lives of women, workers, and colonized people. The archetypal example of this type of scholarship, of course, is E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a monograph through which Thompson aimed to “rescue” Luddites, handloom weavers, and stockingers from “the enormous condescension of posterity” by focusing on working-class cultures and agency (12). In this and many other respects, Thompson owed a clear debt to Karl Marx, most particularly to Marx’s insistence, in his 1852 essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” that “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past” (89).

The idea that all humans exercise agency but are constrained in doing so by a variety of forces has inspired a range of scholars to analyze and to recentre the lives and the narratives...


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pp. 120-128
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