In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonization and Nationalism

  • Introduction
  • Issues
  • Ethnographic Methods
  • Childhood in the Construction of Colonized and Colonizers
  • Schools for Overseas Colonies
  • Colonialism in the Lives of Children
  • Childhood in the Construction of Nations
  • Schools for New Nations
  • Viewing the Nation on Television
  • Immigrant Children and the Boundaries of Nations
  • Children’s Knowledge of Nationalism
  • Peace Education

Childhood Studies Colonization and Nationalism
Anthony T. Carter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0152


Colonialism and nationalism consist of linked sets of diverse projects that construct colonies, nations, and the relations among them. Colonies are territories that are commanded and/or settled by foreign powers. The nations that fill the world today are imagined communities that emerged from and/or were shaped by the colonial empires that dissolved in the years following the Second World War. A handful were imperial powers that commanded or settled other territories. Most are former colonies that have now attained independence. Childhood and children appear in colonial and nationalist projects in several ways. Debates about colonial and national identities, the legitimacy of colonial rule or national independence, the boundaries of colonies and nations, and relationships between the colonized and the colonizers and among nations frequently turn on claims regarding the character of childhood, categories of children, the well-being of children, and modes of childrearing. Efforts to create colonial or national cultures commonly involve projects such as schools in which it is imagined that the identities of children may be formed. Children may participate in, and not infrequently are harmed by, violent anti-colonial and nationalist conflicts. Much of the research on these relationships focuses on things that adults do and say: debating the character of childhood, establishing educational policies, creating schools, presiding over school rituals, teaching, producing television programs, etc. Children typically appear in generic capacities—for example, the members of the second-grade class—without particular identities and histories. They are seen but not heard, or not heard very much. Much less common is research that focuses on what children do and say: playing with their peers, getting through the school day, learning to read, moving about their neighborhoods, watching television, discussing political issues, etc. In research of the latter sort, children appear as specific human beings, in particular situations, and with their own life histories. They are heard as well as seen. To study children in this way is difficult. It requires researchers to put themselves in children’s shoes, to see the world through children’s eyes, to hear what children have to say. It also requires a great deal of time and patience because colonial or nationalist projects are not the only issues with which children may be concerned. For all its difficulty, however, more research of this sort is required if we are to have a fuller understanding of colonialism and nationalism in the lives of children.


Stephens 1995 and Stephens 1997 outlined many of the issues involved in research on colonization, nationalism, and childhood. The papers are stronger on nationalism than colonization. They are stronger, too, on what adults do and say than on what children do and say. The papers emphasize the place of ideas about childhood in colonial and nationalist projects and the effects of such projects on childhood and children. Less attention is given to the ways in which children engage with, or make use of, colonial and nationalist projects in their own lives.

  • Stephens, Sharon. “Children and the Politics of Culture in ‘Late Capitalism.’” In Children and the Politics of Culture. Edited by Sharon Stephens, 3–48. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    Outlines program for studies of colonization, nationalism, and childhood. Draws on concepts of culture as ongoing debates about meaning and of childhood as a cultural construct. Written in context of 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Emphasizes adults’ ideas about childhood and children more than children themselves.

  • Stephens, Sharon. “Editorial Introduction: Children and Nationalism.” Childhood 4 (1997): 5–17.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568297004001001

    Sets the agenda for work on concepts of childhood in modern nation-states; the role of education systems in shaping national identities; how nationalism becomes, or fails to become, part of children’s “everyday psychology” (p. 12); the experiences of children outside the mainstream; and the character of emerging transnational childhoods and children.

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