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

  • Introduction
  • The Posthuman(ist) Turn in Childhood Studies
  • Postdevelopmental Childhood Studies
  • Childhood Studies and Decolonization
  • Posthumanist Childhood Studies and Curriculum
  • Childhood Studies, Philosophy with Children, and Posthumanist Education
  • Childhood Studies and the Critical Posthumanities

Childhood Studies Posthumanism and Childhood Studies
Karin Murris, Rose-Anne Reynolds
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0269


The current move in childhood studies toward posthumanism, new materialism, and agential realism articulates a broader transdisciplinary paradigm shift in the academy. Philosophically reconfiguring who and what counts as (fully) human, challenges dominant views of child as an economic resource and education as an individualizing, teleologically humanizing project. The ontological turn away from the individualized human allows other than dominant psycho-socio-cultural-linguistic and biomedical perspectives to be included in childhood studies and argues why this matters epistemologically, ethically, and politically. Posthumanist childhood studies engages affirmatively with research that challenges the limited and exclusionary focus on representational language, the discursive and the culture-nature binary that keeps the world at an ontological distance and has brought deficit figurations of child into existence. Moving away from attempts to define the essence of what an entity is (including “child”), new materialists engage with the materiality of a world that does not sit still; they focus on what bodies (including human ones) can do. In their nonrepresentationalist theories and methodologies, posthumanists and new materialists draw mainly on Western philosophers (e.g., Latour, Massumi) and feminist thinkers (e.g., Bennett, Braidotti, Manning), whose anti-Cartesian project includes troubling the heteronormative, ableist, classist, racist humanist subject. Instead, they reconfigure subjectivity, voice, intentionality, and agency inspired by the philosophies of Descartes’ contemporary Spinoza, and 20th-century French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. Agential realism is mainly attributed to Karen Barad who diffracts through quantum physicist Niels Bohr, French philosophers Derrida and Foucault, and American feminist colleagues Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, and others. Agential realists focus on phenomena (not bodies) as basic ontological units for material-discursive analyses involving a different relationship with space and time (“hauntology”). Methodologically distinct from other posthumanist approaches to child/hood studies, agential realists acknowledge that the human is entangled with/in all research relations and cannot be “decentered.” Instead, what counts as “human” or “child” is a central part of the analysis and cannot be assumed as given. The exclusive sourcing of Western thinkers has been called into question by Black, antiracist, and Indigenous childhood scholars. Moreover, the primary sources posthumanist childhood studies’ scholars draw on are also remarkably silent about child/hood and age, and many claims made about the (White, male, able-bodied, hetero-sexual) “human” assume the “adult human.” This adult-centrism resonates with the invisibility of Indigenous peoples—a connection more recently taken up by child/hood studies scholars.

The Posthuman(ist) Turn in Childhood Studies

Childhood studies and children’s literature are intricately entangled disciplines structured by the concepts of child, childhood, and the adult-child binary. See the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies article “Children’s Literature.” Sparrman 2020 shows how the figure of the child in Alice in Wonderland can inspire genealogies, while Burton 2019 argues for the deconstruction of children’s literature as a Baradian “apparatus” enabling the posthumanist child figure to appear. As works of art, children’s fiction powerfully exposes tensions between the adult human and the young human—referred to as “aetonormativity” or adult normativity. Literature socializes children in humanist hierarchical binaries, although ironically, children’s literature in a sense has always been posthuman. For Jaques 2015 a posthuman theme in children’s stories is the animistic notion that objects are alive, speak and move with narrative characters whose bodies are both organic/human and cybernetic/technological (Harawayian cyborgs). Other posthuman figures are animals and plants that dress, talk, and think like (adult) humans. However, posthumanist childhood scholars make a distinction between “posthuman” and “posthumanist.” Posthumanism as a critical discourse is relatively new in academia, rejects aetonormativity, and as Spyrou 2017 points out decenters both “the” child and childhood. Books such as Olsson 2009 and Lenz Taguchi 2010 in the Contesting Early Childhood series (see under Book Series) have been groundbreaking in helping materialize this “third wave” in childhood studies: the material and ontological turn with the figuration of the posthuman(ist) child introduced by Murris 2016. Often grounded in their experiences of philosophical approaches to early childhood education, such as Reggio Emilia, they trouble human exceptionalism in their practices and embrace relational ontologies. Cutter-Mackenzie, et al. 2019 shows how these ontologies call into question Western binary logic and disrupt the culture-nature dichotomy. Couplings of child-with-nature and of adult-with-culture (a mechanism by which child has been found wanting) have been contested for some time in childhood studies, for example, by Prout 2005 (drawing on actor-network theory) and Taylor 2013 (drawing on Haraway’s and Latour’s notion of “common world”). The philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari, Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, and Jane Bennett—who do not explicitly refer to age, or child—are other prime philosophical resources for the “third wave.” Opening up to disciplines other than psychology (first wave) and sociology (second wave), and by allowing philosophy to make its mark, childhood studies is more than ever diverse in its theories. For Kraftl 2020 it inspires a re-thinking of childhood studies “after” childhood.

  • Burton, Lindsay. “The Posthumanist Child: Pharmakon and Collodi’s Pinocchio.” Oxford Literary Review 41.2 (2019): 202–218.

    DOI: 10.3366/olr.2019.0279

    Drawing on Donna Haraway’s diffractive methodology, Derrida’s deconstruction of pharmakon is read through Maria Nikolajeva’s conceptualization of aetonormativity. The superposition created, sheds new light on Carlo Collodi’s character of Pinocchio and opens up possibilities to distinguish between posthuman child and posthumanist child with only the latter destabilizing the boundary between adulthood and childhood.

  • Cutter-Mackenzie, Amy, Karen Malone, and Elizabeth Barratt Hacking, eds. Research Handbook on Childhoodnature: Assemblages of Childhood and Nature Research. Springer International Handbooks of Education. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019.

    This international handbook, the first on childhood environmental education, provides a compilation of research in Childhoodnature as a major reference work. It includes twenty-two section editors across multiple fields including children’s geographies, environmental education, research methodology, early childhood education, environmental philosophy, cultural studies, posthumanism, and poststructuralism. It also includes a Companion authored by children and young people. It has 109 chapters and over two hundred authors.

  • Jaques, Zoe. Children’s Literature and the Posthuman: Animal, Environment, Cyborg. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203581490

    Using well-known texts from the Western children’s literature canon, the book shows how humanist messages about the hierarchical relationships between humans and animals socialize children into particular kinds of identity. Decentering the human ecologically, these texts with evidence from children’s fantasies enable new identity formation and different interspecies relations that acknowledge agency of the cyborg, the environment, and animals.

  • Kraftl, Peter. After Childhood: Re-Thinking Environment, Materiality and Media in Children’s Lives. London: Routledge, 2020.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315110011

    Drawing on diverse methods including social media analyses, environmental nanosciences, visual arts, and participatory research, this book offers a suite of conceptual and methodological resources for thinking “after” childhood. It outlines new ways in which children move in and out of focus in thinking about how they are placed within flows of resources, energy, plastics, and more-than-human (“intra”) generations.

  • Lenz Taguchi, Hillevi. Going Beyond the Theory/Practice Divide in Early Childhood Education: Introducing an Intra-active Pedagogy. London: Routledge, 2010.

    First educational research text that integrated Karen Barad’s agential realism as the onto-epistemological force in knowledge production about higher education (two last chapters) and early childhood education. Clear comparisons are made between a humanist and posthumanist analysis of empirical data from researching with children. It makes key concepts in agential realism accessible for a wider audience. Translated to Swedish in 2013 and Korean in 2019.

  • Murris, Karin. The Posthuman Child: Educational Transformation through Philosophy with Picturebooks. New York: Routledge, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315718002

    A monograph drawing the radical implications of posthumanism for educational transformation, not only in schools, but also in higher education. As practitioner research with her own students, teachers and primary school learners, and grounded in academic philosophy, the text shows how posthumanism makes us think differently about (in)formal educational relationality and draws out the practical implications for concepts such as power, authority, identity, agency, and voice. Translated into Korean.

  • Olsson, Liselott. Movement and Experimentation in Young Children’s Learning: Deleuze and Guattari in Early Childhood Education. London: Routledge, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203881231

    One of the first books to connect apparently disparate subjects; researching very young children’s movement and experimentation and the complex philosophical thinking of Deleuze and Guattari. Early childhood education gets a thorough theoretical framework for questioning our assumptions about pedagogical relationships and the representational logic of schooling. At the same time, Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy is made accessible through powerful assemblages from a Swedish preschool.

  • Prout, Alan. The Future of Childhood: Towards the Interdisciplinary Study of Children. Abingdon, UK: RoutledgeFalmer, 2005.

    Foundational text—one of the first to build on the prevailing social constructionist theories of the 1990s, but also critiquing them by drawing on Latour’s actor-network theory. It reformulates ideas of children’s agency by pointing to it as an effect of socio-technical and material networks, thereby announcing the so-called “third wave” childhood studies.

  • Sparrman, Anna. “Through the Looking Glass: Alice and Child Studies Multiple.” Childhood 27.1 (2020): 8–24.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568219885382

    Original article using the metaphor of the looking-glass to explore and challenge the theoretical categories taken for granted in what Sparrman calls “Child Studies,” such as size, age, and temporalities. Through the iconic child character of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and the performance of her body, multiplicity as a core concept is argued for. Alice-the-child-figure generates new concepts of the child about age, growing, agency, dependency, innocence, etc.

  • Spyrou, Spyros. “Editorial: Time to Decenter Childhood?” Childhood 24.4 (2017): 433–437.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568217725936

    Editorial in the journal Childhood that argues for the need to decenter childhood studies’ object of inquiry, namely the child. It argues for the value of moving beyond the field’s child-centeredness at a time when it is necessary to search for more nuanced approaches to theorize the human subject through ontological relationality.

  • Taylor, Affrica. Reconfiguring the Natures of Childhood. London: Routledge, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203582046

    This groundbreaking book queers human/non-human (and more specifically human-animal) relations. It traces the history of the various meanings of “nature” (as essence, inherent force, and the material world itself). Concentrating on how nature as a concept works normatively to limit how we think about childhood(s). Grounded in social geography as a discipline, and Australia’s White settler’s geopolitical context. One of the founders of the Common World Research Collective (See the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies article “Common World Childhoods”).

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