Pieces and Bits from the Past: Children’s Agency in Migration

Pieces and Bits from the Past: Children’s Agency in Migration

Friederike Kind-Kovács / Bettina Hitzer, Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies (HAIT), Dresden; Swen Steinberg, German Historical Institute Washington/DC with its Pacific Regional Office at the University of California in Berkeley; Sheer Ganor, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Minneapolis
digital (Dresden)
Vom - Bis
02.12.2021 - 03.12.2021
Jonas Alexander Feldt, Institut für Geschichte der Medizin und Ethik in der Medizin, Charité - Universitätsmedizin, Berlin

Research on global child migration has become more visible in recent years. The transnational workshop series “In Search of the Migrant Child: Global Histories of Youth and Migration Between Knowledge, Experience and Everyday Life” provides a space for discussion within this field. The most recent workshop continued the conversation ignited during the first workshop, which took place in May 2021 under the title “‘Extra’-Ordinary Sources of Child Migrants’ Past Lives.”

Prior to the gathering, Bettina Hitzer and Friederike Kind-Kovács had published a blog post reflecting on the use of agency as a historiographical term, especially in the context of children’s migration.[1] As a starting point, they referred to the recent debate prompted by Sarah Maza’s article “The Kids Aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood,” arguing that “children only produce few sources of their voices, have limited agency.”[2] In her welcome remarks, Kind-Kovács summed up the critical points of the debate and pointed out four questions that were meant to be the guidelines of the workshop: What do we understand by the notion of children’s agency? How and whose agency can historians uncover? What notions are socially acceptable, and which are inappropriate? How did migration processes affect, empower, and limit how children could act on their behalf?

The roundtable discussion started with short statements by four panelists.[3] EMILY BRUCE (Morris, MN) emphasized that before the history of children was established, children were mainly seen as objects of history, if seen at all. Therefore, scholars had mistaken children’s agency as unimportant. In contrast, numerous studies have shown that the ways that children exercise power are complex and embedded in social contexts. STEPHANIE OLSEN (Tampere), however, stated that she does not consider agency as a meaningful category of historical analysis in general, and especially so when it comes to marginalized groups like children. To her, the concept does not effectively encapsulate children’s stories. Therefore, the search for children’s agency should be replaced by an exploration of children’s experiences that enables a more meaningful angle to study the history of children’s voices and power/powerlessness. BEATRICE SCUTARU (Maynooth) conceded that she does neither use agency in her own research. Instead, she focuses on the dynamics, structures, and contexts of power in which migrant children live, and everyday life and the limits of and to their actions. LAUREN STOKES (Evanston, IL) pointed out that in a time in which migration is criminalized, agency might be a dangerous term. She also stressed the fact that having agency might come with pressure and responsibility. Migrant children, Stokes added, might take on more responsibilities than some adults and therefore also might have more agency than adults.

Swen Steinberg opened the roundtable discussion by asking about the role of migration contexts when reflecting on children’s agency. Bruce explained that in her research, she often came across the feeling of a different timeline between the new country and the one left behind, depending on the new priorities set by those who migrated. Scutaru stressed the importance of keeping in mind that children often consider the experiences that they live through as ordinary experiences. Olsen emphasized the importance of children’s experiences, stressing that migration becomes a fundamental part of a child’s identity. Susanne Quitmann questioned the binarity of the debate whether a child had agency at a certain period or not. Instead, she proposed examining how much agency a child might have had, and how its agency was constructed. Bettina Hitzer drew attention to the possibility to combine the categories emotion, experience, and agency in conceiving of agency as a kind of emotional experience.

Summing up, the panelists stressed that the concept of agency itself was loaded, primarily when used in the history of slavery, gender, and childhood. It could be a “fraud concept,” as agency is often imposed on subjects without them using agency. They emphasized that agency has become a fluid concept that could be everything or anything. Therefore, other concepts should also be considered depending on the findings in the archives while keeping in mind what might be missing.

The following session discussed Sarah Maza’s recent “AHR” article, and a 2019 article written by human geographers Sarah L. Holloway, Louise Holt, and Sarah Mills.[4] Bettina Hitzer pointed to the significant number of different definitions of agency, including also children’s silence as an act of agency. She stressed the fact that one should discuss which definition of agency to choose, and the consequences of this choice for research and sources. Significant topics of discussion included the question of whether agency is useful for accessing children as research subjects. Some discussants emphasized that it was essential to keep the inconsistency of childhood in mind. The participants agreed that migrant children often produce more sources than other children, which gives them a specific weight when it comes to their representation in history.

SUSANNE QUITMANN (Munich) opened the first round of case studies on children’s migration. Her presentation centered on a scribbled letter of James Winter, a toddler who migrated from Britain to Canada in 1887. To Quitmann, the letter and its possible interpretations revealed that children’s agency can often only be identified in moments of defiance (the “resistance trap” of her title). She argued that two categories of children often remain invisible: Those who were content and those who assimilated to the situation surrounding them.

ANCA CRETU (Geneva) talked about the limits of agency in children in Austria-Hungary’s camps during the First World War. She presented a diary entry from December 6th, 1916, written by Filomena Boccher, a teacher in exile in the Mitterndorf Camp (Austria). Here, Boccher gave insight into the relationships that emerged in the camp. In the entry that Anca Cretu chose for the workshop, Boccher’s female students complained about the food rationing.

The second panel of case studies started with a presentation by EMMA WYSE (Kingston) who shared her insights into the communication of children evacuated from Britain to Canada between 1938 and 1940. Wyse presented four out of eight prewritten telegrams children could choose to send to their parents free of charge. All telegrams had positive connotations. However, Wyse argued that these telegrams would have left a false impression about children’s agency, if one had found them in the archives without knowing the background. Instead, the telegrams reveal what adults thought children wanted to express while controlling the range of expressions.

KELLY CONDIT-SHRESTHA (Mineapolis) focused on sovereignty as a central discursive logic. Her presentation drew from a 1949 African American press, “The Pittsburgh Courier”, news article to discuss postwar U.S.-West German transnational adoption and highlight “sovereignty” as a useful node of analysis through which to reframe discussions of child-migrant agency. From a youth perspective, child separations from their families of birth as in modern-day transnational adoptions of infants – these separations and subsequent adoptions are inevitably forced migrations. For those youths whose voices are simply inaccessible given their circumstances, Condit-Shrestha questioned, who has the right to stay with their families of birth. This point of inquiry is situated within SisterSong's reproductive justice framework to ask: Which individuals and communities have the right to keep their children, to “parent the children [they] have in safe and sustainable communities”?

In the last panel, LAURA HOBSON FAURE (Paris) engaged with the fundamental question whether one could apply the concept of agency among Jewish child refugees during the Holocaust. She asserted a certain tension between powerlessness and existential threat, their victimhood on the one hand and agency on the other. In contrast to Sarah Maza, Hobson Faure did not interrogate agency because she was concerned by children’s (non-)importance in provoking historical change. Ultimately, she argued for the use of the concept of agency since the process of searching for and uncovering the agency of Jewish children enables historians to uncover their humanity.

The last presentation by SWEN STEINBERG (Ottawa/Washington/Berkeley) explored the question of agency in the context of unaccompanied minor refugees in New Yorks’ 1940s. Steinberg presented a questionnaire from a sample of 216, filled by refugee children. In his interpretation, the questions that were posed not only tell something about the children themselves but also about Ernst Papanek, the refugee pedagogue who drafted the questionnaire.

In her final remarks, Sheer Ganor indicated that beyond arguing for or against agency, most discussions formed around how agency could and should be complicated historiographically. There was no simple consensus reached among the workshop participants as to the meaning and usefulness of agency, especially of children’s agency. That takes the term far beyond the binarity of whether children do or do not have agency. Even when not playing a foundational role in children’s history, the question of agency figures always somewhere in the background. Still, it should not be universally applied since the interpretation of the concept varies. Ganor also pointed to the many adjacent concepts such as voice, visibility, or experience addressed during the various presentations. The subsequent and final discussion of the workshop emphasized the moral relevance of giving voice to historical actors. Once again, silence as a form of agency was discussed; a form challenging to identify and to analyze.

This second workshop has left the participants in joyful anticipation of the next workshop, to be held in May 2022, focusing on migrant children’s subjectivities. In addition, the workshop itself provided an excellent platform for debate and offered inspiring international exchange on the history of childhood in migration.

Conference overview:

Welcome / Opening remarks

Friederike Kind-Kovács (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies, Dresden)

Roundtable discussion: Debating and Thinking About Children’s Agency in Migration

Emily Bruce (University of Minnesota, Morris, MN), Lauren Stokes (Northwestern University, Evanston, IL), Stephanie Olsen (Tampere), and Beatrice Scutaru (Maynooth)

Chair: Swen Steinberg (Carleton University Ottawa and German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley)

Text discussion

“Reading and Reflecting on Children’s Agency in Recent Literature”

Chair: Bettina Hitzer (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies, Dresden)

Panel 1: Pieces and Bits from the Past: Case Studies on Children’s Agency I

Susanne Quitmann (Ludwig Maximilians Universität, Munich): The Resistance Trap: Obedience, Silence, and British Child Migrants’ Agency

Anca Cretu (Geneva): Space, Containment, and Limits of Agency: Reflections on the Case of Child Refugees in Austria-Hungary’s Camps during the First World War

Chair: Friederike Kind-Kovács (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies, Dresden)

Panel 2: Pieces and Bits from The Past: Case Studies on Children’s Agency II

Emma Wyse: (Queen’s University, Kingston) “Many Thanks and Happy Love”: Adult Imaginings of the Childs’ Voice in Overseas Correspondence

Kelly Condit-Shrestha (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis): Reframing Child-migrant Agency: Centering “Sovereignty” as a Central Discursive Logic

Chair: Swen Steinberg (Carleton University Ottawa & German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley)

Panel 3: Pieces and Bits from The Past: Case Studies on Children’s Agency III

Laura Hobson Faure (Panthéon-Sorbonne University-Paris 1): Looking for (and Finding) Agency Among Jewish Child Refugees During the Holocaust: Now What?

Swen Steinberg (Carleton University Ottawa and German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley): Whose Agency? Unaccompanied Minor Refugees and Social Work in New Yorks’ 1940s

Chair: Bettina Hitzer (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies, Dresden)

Final discussion and future perspectives

Chair: Sheer Ganor (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Minneapolis)

[1]Bettina Hitzer, Friederike Kind-Kovács, Reflections on Children’s Agency (in Migration), published 29.11.2021, in: https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/2124.
[2]Sarah Maza, The Kids aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood, in: AHR 125, no. 4 (2020): pp. 1261–1285.
[3]See Emily Bruce, Stephanie Olsen, Beatrice Scutaru, Lauren Stokes, Diverse Perspectives on Children’s Agency in Migration, published 5.1.2022 in: https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/2267.
[4]Sarah L. Holloway, Louise Holt, Sarah Mills, Questions of Agency: Capacity, Subjectivity, Spatiality and Temporality, in: Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 43, 3 (2019): pp. 458–477, and Sarah Maza (note 2).