The emerging anthropology of childhood

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Having emphasised, in the introductory chapter, the importance of contextualising childhood experiences in the contexts of AIDS and unofficial enclaves of neoliberal capitalism, I now go on to the methodology I used to research the complexity and diversity of childhoods in the era of AIDS through the lens of what I call the ―ecologies and syndemics‖ lens. This lens can be employed to gain a better understanding of childhoods without overlooking the multiple, interconnected, diverse and even contradictory contexts in which contemporary children are growing up in rural Chiweshe. I am not proposing a universal model to understand all forms of childhood agency in extreme contexts, but I developed this model to deal with the current contextually specific complexity of the study of childhoods in Zimbabwe. Thus, I will explain later that the depth and breadth of this particular syndemics and ecologies lens may be its greatest strength whilst, at the same time, also its greatest weakness. My attempt here is not to generalise, but in the true anthropological spirit, to particularise.

Building on ecological anthropologies

I argue that, although the classic literature in ecological anthropology may seem irrelevant and outdated, it still proves very useful in contemporary studies of childhoods that seek in-depth understanding using multilevel analysis. The more I reflected on my data, the more I could see parallels in my attempts to contextualise childhoods with the holism and comparative logic of ecological anthropology and syndemic theory.
Whilst it was clear to me that the fashionable units of analysis were no longer ―cultures‖ and ―systems‖, I was aware that I was attempting to analyse children within particular context specific and contingent systems or cultures. Thus, I reflected on the potential of looking at the contexts of AIDS and neoliberalism as syndemics (partners) within systems or cultures in which children were growing up. Drawing from the terms by Honwana and De Boeck (2005), I formulated ideas of how to view children, as both subjects of neoliberalism and social agents, were ―made‖ and ―broken‖ by the AIDS contexts or AIDS ecologies, whilst they, in turn, acted on those same ecologies. In essence, as much as the children were subjects or (broken) victims of exploitative relationships,, these same extreme conditions in combination with an AIDS context, triggered unexpected forms of agency which gave the children chances of ―making‖ and changing their social realities.
The complexity of the Zimbabwean scenario is that children were both victims and agents. They were broken by the systems and cultures of inequalities formulated and established under the prevailing difficult context in rural Zimbabwe, and, simultaneously, acted as agents with a capacity to come up with innovative responses to the multiple constraints in their contexts. Although no one theory can fully explain the complexity of childhoods in the context of AIDS, theories may provide the building blocks and concepts through which to make sense of complex sets of ethnographically rich but, at times, contradicting data.
I had already collected my data and was struggling to sort it out according to possible recurrent themes and to identify patterns of meaning. Due to the interconnected nature of the issues and the diversity of experiences and contexts revealed by my data, I was quickly frustrated. Thus began my attempt to develop a critical ecological anthropology of childhoods in the era of multiple crises and AIDS in rural Zimbabwe. Since my topic was on childhood experiences of AIDS, it made sense to attempt to develop a disease ecology that would also contextualise childhood agency in Chiweshe.

The roots of ecological anthropology

Baer and Singer (2009:13) define ecology as ―an approach in critical medical anthropology employed in understanding the factors that impact and result from environmental-society interactions and interdependencies‖. This approach recognises the fundamental importance of the political economy, including capitalist production, market driven distribution of resources, migration and population growth and this resonates well with my attempts to understand childhoods within the context of AIDS and associated factors. One of the earliest proponents of ecology in the social sciences, called for a political ecology ―…inspired by insights from the political economy…‖ and that ―…considers the relation of people to their own environment in all its complexity‖ (Turshen, 1977:48).
Like Mayer (1996:446), I examine ―the total environment‖ or the ―total context‖ in its broadest sense, as an inclusive term to cover the various contexts, or multiple ecologies in which childhood is experienced, reconstructed, and negotiated. My overall aim is to locate and understand childhood in its broader global, local, political economic, historical and symbolic contexts. I then relate childhood to the political economic and AIDS crises contexts at both local and global scales to show how global power is expressed in local social relations, the political economy, the cultural, and the health and illness contexts, to demonstrate the diversity and complexity of the experiences of growing up in the context of AIDS. Abel and Stepp (2003: 1) and Kottack (1999:23) note that older ecological anthropologies were too simplistic in their assumptions of environmental determinism. These theories ignored the capacity of individuals to respond to their contexts, and their ability to actually co-construct ―contingent‖ contexts.
I employ the focus on the human agency to children`s agency as a feature of the new ecological anthropology which was lacking in the original formulations of ecosystem ecology and cultural ecologies by Steward (1955), Rappaport (1968) and others whose work focused on the functions and adaptations of cultures and systems.
In this sense then, the context is constructed and reconstructed through its interaction with the child, and both the child and childhood are reconstructed through the interactions with the total context. Thus, both childhood and the context are contingent products of interactions with each other, echoing the ideas of Honwana and De Boecke (2005) on how children are ―made and broken‖ by their contexts, and how they, in turn, make and break their contexts.
Grzywacz and Faqual (2000) argue that paradoxically, one of the main criticisms against ecological analysis is also its greatest strength. Although ecological analysis has been criticized for ―lacking a coherent theoretical basis‖, this lack of coherence makes this area of study much more flexible and open to development in contemporary fields of study. Its current ―two pronged‖ approach to analyse both the environment and the individual has been said, however, to make research difficult, expensive and ambiguous.
Abel and Stepp (2003:12) contend that unlike its predecessor, the new ecological anthropology suspended the focus on functionalist assumptions, adaptation, equilibrium systems, climax communities and simple deterministic models to understand phenomenon. The old ecosystem ecology adapted by biological anthropologists was mainly concerned with quantifying the internal flows of food and goods to people. They expected to find efficiency between energy spent and energy captured. These ―efficiency‖ biases were carried over into the social analysis of events like rituals. A classic case is that of Rappaport‘s (1968) ―pigs for the ancestors‖ where symbolic or ritual behaviour was explained away as if it functioned to improve these ―efficiencies‖ and thus helped maintain social order and homeostasis (Abel and Stepp, 2003). Cultures were seen as optimizing human adaptation and maintaining social order, so the old ecologies lost significance because they treated the environment in which people existed as isolated, static ―niches‖ with little outside contact (Kottack, 1999).
Biersack (1999:5) was the first to suggest the idea of new ecologies which I drew on to come up with a multi-ecological framework represented in Figure 1. informed by literature on transnationalist flows and local-global articulations, to which I turn in my next chapter on the childhood studies literature. I became aware of the transnationalist flows in and from Chiweshe, as well as how local childhoods in Chiweshe have linkages with global processes. In the new ecologies, the environment‖ is a contingent product of the interaction of the child with the historical, political and economic ecologies. Therefore, as the total environment is a contingent product of interaction, environmental determinism, which was a feature of the old ecologies, falls away.

Synergising towards a contextualised understanding of childhoods

In developing my thesis, I employed the syndemics theory to consider the experiences of contemporary childhood‘s contexts and the ways they may synergise with the AIDS context to produce particular forms of childhood agency despite multiple constraints. Merril Singer, an anthropologist working at the intersections of anthropology and public health, coined the term ―syndemics‖ in the mid 1990s and later developed the concept to refer to:
…the various interactions among co-morbid diseases and other health conditions that increase the burden of suffering in populations and the encompassing social relations and conditions that amplify the likelihood of adverse disease interactions occurring. (Singer 2010, 2008, 2009).
―Syndemics‖, explains the synergy or the partnering of two negative variables, or two infections working together to increase deaths, illness, or suffering. The idea of combinations of infections and inequalities evokes the ideas of Paul Farmer (1992) where variables such as poverty and disease, tuberculosis infections and HIV worked together in rural Haiti with other negative variables such as the lack of medical and transport services, resulting in deaths that could have been prevented in different contexts.
Singer employed the concept of ―syndemics‖ in his research conducted in Southern Africa. He found notable synergism between the AIDS pandemic and food insecurity that significantly threatened the health and well-being of diverse populations in the region (Singer, 2010:8 ff). I extend this idea in suggesting that the AIDS syndemics context in Chiweshe created extreme conditions that resulted in extreme forms of agency from the children. I employ the ―syndemics and ecologies lens‖ to attempt an account for the extreme forms of agency that children in Chiweshe displayed. Their responses to the negative syndemics or multiple constraints which, manifested as contexts of increasing inequalities, represented the children`s efforts to survive.
Recent interpretations from studies on childhood agency argue that forms of agency triggered by negative contexts of childhoods may work against the children themselves. This may worsen the negative circumstances that children, particularly those from under-developed countries, including Zimbabwe, are trying to deal with and result in some form of ―negative agency‖ (Leifsen 2009; Valentine 2011). However, as Leifsen warns, one must be aware not to reproduce the classical bias in studies of childhood agency which result in the assumption that it is only children from ideal contexts who have the capacity for agency.
Burman (1994) supports this view arguing that, due to the philosophical and psychological foundations of studies in classical child development theories, a fallacy arose that children in less than ideal contexts, such as the Third world, have no capacity to develop agency because the fight to survive becomes their preoccupation. My study challenges this fallacy by showing that, even in extremely precarious conditions, children in Chiweshe were able to demonstrate surprising forms of agency through creative and strategic ways of dealing with contextual constraints and use those strategies for survival.
Medical anthropologists such as Singer (2010), and Singer and Baer (2009) have utilised ecological approaches to assess how multiple interactions in the ecosystem, such as the political economy, cultural systems, and biosocial interactions, worsen the nature, concentration, and entwinement of health problems in human populations. My conceptions here differ slightly. I adopted this approach as an analytical guide in this thesis in an attempt to explore the interconnected nature of AIDS contexts and other contextual factors affecting children, and to explore the various ways children exercise their agency within contexts characterised by negative syndemics.
I employ the ―syndemics and ecologies‖ lens to demonstrate that a synergistic relationship often exists between the political economy, pandemics and other factors to produce particular illness distributions, responses, outcomes and fatalities. My research reflect factors including poverty; political economic decline; increasing unemployment; deterioration of education and health services; gender, age and rural-urban inequalities; droughts; food insecurity; orphan-hood; environmental degradation; and withdrawal of the support of NGOs, the state and family; as well as other exploitative social relations, may form syndemics with the AIDS pandemic to create the extreme conditions under which children grow up in Chiweshe. These multiple factors trigger extreme forms of agency as the children try to deal with the negative syndemics working against them.
I adopt this approach and recognise the impact of inequalities and the AIDS pandemic to develop a more critical analysis of childhood agency, focusing on whether children benefit from their personal and group agency against these negative syndemics. Asymmetrical power relations shape reality and the particular contexts under which child agency develops, and the constraints to it emerge. These negative syndemics within those particular contexts can either enhance or paralyse childhood agency when they act as structural constraints which limit agency, or result in negative agency which may further victimise the child (Leifsen, 2009 and Valentine, 2011).
The ―ecologies and syndemics lens‖ enabled me to contextualise and locate both the positive and negative agency of children to existing positive and negative syndemics within their contexts of growing up; demonstrated that syndemical contexts and the forms of childhood agency that emerge may mutually affect each other. I was able to consider how the co-presence of power differentials, inequalities, the epidemics and context of political economic decline form syndemics that combine to create the contexts in which negative child-environment interaction occurs.
According to Singer (2010) these syndemics can either be positive or negative and hence I argue that the agency of children can also either be positive or negative. The children‘s accounts also reveal an inverse relationship where negative syndemics can trigger unexpected, positive agency, and show the capacity of children to be social actors who can effect change. I attempt to illustrate that these syndemics are not simply environmental insults to which children must adapt to survive, but are largely products of stratified broader social, political economic, symbolical, colonial and biological relations at global and local levels.

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1.1 The AIDS pandemic, political economic decline and socio-cultural changes in Zimbabwe
1.2 Political and economic history of neoliberal reform
1.3 A context of AIDS and political-economic decline
1.4 The AIDS pandemic, changing family roles and collapsing family structures
1.5 The significance of the study
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Childhood(s)?
2.3 Antecedent paradigms: socialisation and child development
2.4 The emerging anthropology of childhood
2.5 Childhoods, and the medical anthropology of health, illness and healing
2.6 Children as learners and tactical, competent social actors
2.7 Children as agents within the family
2.8 Conceptualising and accounting for childhood agency
2.9 Being and becoming in globalised local contexts
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Building on ecological anthropologies
3.3 The roots of ecological anthropology
3.4 Synergising towards a contextualised understanding of childhoods
3.5 Neoliberalist legacy as part of the syndemics and ecologies in Zimbabwe childhoods
4.1 Locating childhood ethnographies within wider debates in anthropology
4.2 Doing native anthropology in a context of an epidemic
4.2 Research design
4.4 The study site
4.5 Methods and sample selection
4.6 Ethical issues
5.1 Introduction
5.2 The foundation for Zimbabwe‘s multi-crisis context: Historical ecology
5.3 Chiweshe, a paradoxical history of affluence and loss
5.7 Shona childhoods
5.8 Conclusion
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Children‘s voices: Whispers from the periphery
6.3 Notes on children‘s metaphors
6.4 Metaphors, silences, indirect speech and AIDS
6.5 The politics of indirect talk on AIDS
6.6 Conclusion
6.1 Introduction
6.2 The AIDS context, crises and working children
6.3 Gendered childhoods, child work and appropriate places for children
6.4 Children‘s survival bands in Chiweshe
6.5 Survival bands: An historical ecology
6.6 Working children‘s own accounts
6.7 Conclusion
8.1 Introduction
8.2 Preserving local traditions or enacting the complex contradictions of childhoods in late modernity and AIDS contexts
8.3 Childhood innocence, AIDS, and sexuality in Zimbabwe
8.4 Performances and anthropology
8.5 Conclusion
9.1 Conclusion

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