Revisiting the meaning of participation in residential child care: embracing the forms of agency and lifeworld of children
During the last decades, an increasing interest in the issue of participation of children in shaping child welfare and protection services emerged on an international level. At a policy level, governments reinforced the participation rights of children, a development being grounded in the Children’s Rights Convention of 1989. Also at a practice level, child welfare and protection services aimed to strengthen the participation of children. In social work research, this emphasis on researching children’s participation has been endorsed. However, a rather rational, pre-structured and technical approach to participation is frequently promoted and implemented in child welfare and protection practices, leading to instrumental and tokenistic forms of participation that reproduce rather than question the generational order between adults and children. In my presentation, however, I will argue that pre-structured and technical participation approaches fail to embrace the children’s actual meaning-making and their lifeworld. In my social work research, the interdisciplinary field of childhood studies serves as a source of inspiration to theorize and revisit the meaning of children’s participation in residential child care. In childhood studies, adult-centered notions of childhood receive sharp critiques that construct children as not-yet-rational, not-yet-social, or in-the-process-of-becoming-social, which implies that children are typically treated as being dependent of adults, professions and institutions, who take care of them while being responsible for organizing their living conditions. In that sense, childhood is often constituted as a period of socialization during which children have to be educated but more recently also need to learn how to participate in broader society. This presentation is based on my extensive step-in-step-out-ethnography that was carried out in a residential child care unit in Italy from June to May 2015. The research study relies on the concept of agency that is developed by Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische (1998), that allows to explore how children co-construct and exercise their agency in a specific social arena constituted in this case by a residential care unit. According to Emirbayer & Mische (1998, p. 1012) “Actors are always living simultaneously in the past, future, and present, and adjusting the various temporalities of their empirical existence to one another (and to their empirical circumstances) in more or less imaginative or reflective ways. They continuously engage patterns and repertoires from the past, project hypothetical pathways forward in time, and adjust their actions to the exigencies of emerging situations”. In the analysis, a variety of children’s modes of expressing agency (observing, acting, shouting, falling in silence, rebelling) are considered and illustrated. I will argue that if adults and social workers want to enter in a dialogue with children and give them space to participate in giving meaning to their past, present and future lives, they should question their own “adult” assumptions and sharpen their capacities for grasping and recognizing the subtle interests, concerns, desires and unspoken questions of children as a starting point.