In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postcolonial Childhoods

  • Introduction
  • Framing the Postcolony
  • Conceptual Shifts Necessitated by the Postcolony
  • Reflections on the Postcolonial State
  • Child Development and Sociocultural Studies
  • Children as Citizens
  • Children and Schooling
  • Children and Technology
  • Children and Work
  • Categorization of Children
  • Children and Fiction
  • Postcolonial Geographies of Childhood

Childhood Studies Postcolonial Childhoods
Sarada Balagopalan, Clovis Bergère
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0182


Drawing on postcolonial theory, this article uses the term “postcolony” to trace imperialism’s lasting and continued influences on the lives of children in ex-colonial countries. It does not attempt to be exhaustive in representing all of these countries nor is it comprehensive in its chronological mapping of these new nation-states. In addition, by engaging the postcolonial as an epistemic field, it is not suggesting a simple substitution of the currently used phrase “countries of the global South” with “postcolonial.” In fact, one of the challenges of putting together these entries has been the recognition that although research on the everyday lives of children and childhoods in ex-colonial settings has been growing, this research rarely engages postcolonial theory and the conceptual shifts it has made available. Although historians have explored colonial childhoods, and anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists have studied the current lives of children in postcolonial societies, they have made little effort to study the continued effects of imperialism on these contemporary lives. Equally, postcolonial theorists have foregrounded the continued and lasting effects of colonialism on the formation of subjectivities, modernity, and sociality offering a strong critique of the normative assumptions that underlie Western modernity. Yet, children have seldom been a central object of concern within postcolonial theorizations, despite its substantial focus on formal education, language, legal sphere, and identity categorization. In recent years, childhood studies researchers have also interrogated a normative Western childhood and highlighted the power imbalance that underwrites its global circulation; however, they have done less in terms of developing broader theorizations that draw on children’s lives. This article should be viewed as an attempt to bring these two sets of writing together. It begins with a broad introduction to postcolonial theory, highlighting some of the field’s most seminal texts starting with The Wretched of the Earth by Fanon 1961 (cited under Framing the Postcolony), one of the first texts to mobilize a specifically postcolonial theoretical lens. That section also presents some of the field’s key theoretical shifts, such as conceptualizing the “subaltern” condition and interrogating liberalism. The remainder of this article draws on existing work on children and childhoods in majority world countries and is organized according to categories that the authors feel contain the potential for bringing empirical research on children, childhood, and postcolonial theorization into conversation with each other, a work that in large part remains to be done.

Framing the Postcolony

This section provides a broad overview of the field of postcolonial theories. We begin with Franz Fanon’s seminal The Wretched of the Earth (Fanon 1961), a foundational text for postcolonial theory. Also stressing the long-lasting effects of colonization on the colonial psyche, Memmi 1965 is necessary for understanding the early postcolonial movement. Perhaps one of the most iconic text of postcolonialism, Said 1978 exposed colonialism as a system of knowledge to lasting effects. The concepts of mimicry and hybridity discussed in Bhabha 1994 are central to debates about postcolonial identities and subjectivities. Chatterjee 2004, Mbembe 1992, and Mbembe 2003 bring attention to postcolonial politics, providing virulent and pointed critiques of contemporary forms of power, narrowly defined Western understandings of democracy, and children’s rights. Santos 2006 is useful in thinking about postcolonialism within the Latin American and Portuguese-speaking sphere, in particular.

  • Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

    This book provides a new and expanded reading of questions of identity and the need to focus on processes that allow for a different articulation of selfhood that is not tied to original subject positions. In his reading of cultural production, Bhaba is interested in how subjects are formed “in-between” and are always more than the sum of their distinct identities. The author introduced a critical conceptual architecture in thinking about difference, including the terms “ambivalence,” “mimicry,” “hybridity,” and “interstices.”

  • Chatterjee, Partha. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

    By drawing together political modernity and popular politics, Chatterjee forces us to rethink the terrain of ethnic and identity politics in the postcolonial world. He opens up an interesting analysis on democracy that explores both its ethical and its strategic dimensions. His discussion on democracy can be extended to discuss more broadly children’s rights in postcolonial contexts.

  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1961.

    A psychiatrist from Madagascar, Fanon exposes the impact of economic, political, and cultural colonial domination on the colonized subject and its psyche. An anticolonial manifesto, it exhorts postcolonial subjects to realize their own future away from the European project, stressing the need to decolonize the alienated individual subject.

  • Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon, 1965.

    As a Tunisian Jew, Memmi discusses the mutual need that binds the colonizer and the colonized. In this fatal relationship, made possible by the exercise of power and the related position of subservience, the “iron collar” of colonialism is national liberation. Like Fanon, Memmi uses several personal and powerful examples of the long-lasting psychic effects of colonialism on both the colonizer and the colonized.

  • Mbembe, Achille. “Provisional Notes on the Postcolony.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 62.1 (1992): 3–37.

    DOI: 10.2307/1160062

    Mbembe addresses postcolonial state power as a distinctive symbolic system and regime of violence based on a fraught relationship between postcolonial states and their subjects. Domination in the postcolony works through the performance of the obscene and grotesque, which undermines action and resistance. For him, both states and subjects have no power; they are “zombified” and impotent.

  • Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 11–40.

    DOI: 10.1215/08992363-15-1-11

    Traces the origins of the current “state of exception” and racialized forms of subjugations to the slave plantation and colony. For Mbembe, Foucault’s notion of biopower is not enough to account for contemporary forms of power that subject many to conditions of life akin to the status of “living dead.” Instead, we need to understand power as “necropower.” The “war on terror” and occupation of Palestine provide examples.

  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 1978.

    This is a key text that exposes “Orientalism” as a system of knowledge that opposes the West (understood as the land of reason, science, and logic) to the East. This dominant discourse constructs non-Western people as gullible, childlike, unable to speak, and in need, thus justifying colonialism and continued Western interference in the postcolony.

  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. “Between Prospero and Caliban: Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Inter-Identity.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 29.2 (2006): 143–166.

    Explores colonialism and postcolonialism within the Portuguese sphere. Argues that Portuguese colonialism was semi-peripheral to more efficient colonial forms, British colonialism in particular. A review of trends in postcolonialism is followed by a defense of oppositional postmodernism, a critical stance that urges us to move beyond reductionism notions of the colonial in postcolonialism in order to engage with differences in neocolonial relations of power and domination.

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