In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Childhood and Empire

  • Introduction

Childhood Studies Childhood and Empire
Mahshid Mayar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0265


Since at least the 1990s, scholarship within and beyond the disciplinary boundaries of history, cultural studies, and literary studies has systematically attended to the coming together of childhood (both a biosocial stage of life that conceives of childhood as lived experience and a set of concepts and models that view childhood as a malleable, sociocultural construct) and empire (the largest-scale constellation of political and economic governance, with a history that stretches back at least two millennia). Often perceived as a state of dependency and relative powerlessness, childhood frequently meets empire as a site and an apparatus of power. This encounter happens mainly thanks to the latter’s dual dependency on the former, not only to justify the nature of its praxis (exploitation of and governance over “childlike” communities) but also to guarantee longevity (which depends on socializing children into devout, future stewards of empire). Second, childhood meets empire at some foundational level where they both connote cultivation and rearing in the shadow of governance and subjugation. Furthermore, marked as bastions of desire, mutability, and ambition, both childhood and empire are fraught with intersectional concerns with gender, sovereignty, race, religion, age, literacy, and various forms of belonging. And finally, thanks to the wealth of theoretical and methodological contributions made by postcolonial studies, new empire studies, and childhood studies, the study of childhood and empire in the twenty-first century attends to practices, movements, and texts that seek to dissolve such rigid binaries as civilization-savagery, culture-nature, domestic-public, powerful-defenseless, and even child-adult. As the entries in this essay show, childhood and empire meet and depart in oral cultures, children’s and adult’s literature, reproductive and parenting practices, state and private archives, slave markets, schools and orphanages, spatial and conceptual battlefronts, brothels and classrooms. This body of works thus puts on display dense political, cultural, and economic exchanges at work among and across families, nations, empires, and colonies. Putting on display a wide range of at-times antipodal experiences and exposures across the board, this essay annotates books, edited volumes, individual book chapters, memoirs, and scholarly articles about the multiple ways childhood and empire overlap, particularly since the “Age of Empire.”

Broad Overviews

Categorized according to their geographical focus, the works listed in this broad overview investigate the codependencies of childhood and empire, namely the many ways colonial practices have idolized, damaged, or irreparably reordered colonial childhoods and the conditions under which children grew in, under, and despite empires in Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the Americas, and Eurasia. The final subsection indexes works that discuss these issues either across the globe or without any specific geographical focus.

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