Researching Children in the Anthropocene

Nothing epitomizes the precarious nature of the planet for me, then the view as you fly from the high mountain plateaus of the Altiplano towards the El Alto airport and see spread out in front of you the immense sprawling valley where the city of La Paz is perilously situated. The image of a vastness of crowded slum communities perched on the high reaches of the escarpment and spilling down into the steep, treeless, ravines and gorges of the valley are breath taking. The Anthropocene, a human imprint at a global-scale. A fragility of children and their nonhuman companions engaged in a dance of daily survival with shared vulnerability. The unsettling that the naming of the Anthropocene has administered – and will continue to administer – is a massive jolt to our collective imagination of ourselves. the irony we as a species, amongst others, find ourselves: both as the monster and maker. The concept of the Anthropocene assumes a generalized anthropos, whereby all humans and nonhumans are equally implicated and all equally affected. Through my research I seek to bring attention to the way the environmental crisis accentuates rather than diminishes differences between the privileged and the not so privileged. Because we are not all in the Anthropocene together, the children are far more in it than others. Wealthy humans have cultivated a global landscape of inequality in which they find their advantages multiplied in these highly fragile times. Philosophically, it is a concept that works both for us and on us. In its unsettlement of the entrenched binaries of modernity (nature/culture; object /subject), and its provocative alienation of familiar anthropocentric scales and times, it opens up a number of possibilities for exploring concepts such as assemblages, relations and kin. The research project Children in the Anthropocene is premised on the import of making kin, the ‘situatedness’ of being child relative to, and combined with ‘other’ kin. That we are all beings in common, entangled, sharing ecologically our posthumanist selves.

Stories that Matter
Throughout the past 20 years I have listened intently to children’s stories by noticing and paying attention to their experiences of growing up in relation with others (human and non-human). The research was both ethnographic and participatory in its methodology. To be responsive, place-based participatory research engaged by the researcher with children is attentive to noticing the fine grain differences and similarities, it seeks to encourage complexity rather than simplicity. When engaging with children in precarious environments this responsiveness supports opportunities for children from a variety of ages and genders, diverse lives, interests and experiences to take up and make choices of their responses to the possibilities that exist to engage with the research.

Children I researched with on the higher reaches of the valley of La Paz were aged between 5 and 15 years old. They volunteered to be co-researchers using visual, oral and mobile place-based research activities including photography, interviews, focus groups, drawings, mapping and walking interviews. The project focused on incorporating a research perspective through their everyday experiences of being curious, creative and playful in their place so supporting a range of possibilities for children to document relational encounters. For some communities in La Paz the children’s research workshop included opportunities for families to be involved. Parents or grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins especially in the beginning, came along to watch, ask questions and even help out. Ethical considerations of negotiating children involvement meant working in outreach children’s centres in the community where months in advance social work students had provided information workshops and small meetings for children and their parents. As a feminist onto-ethnographer, I have also inserted myself in the research studies by documenting my experiences through a field diary, photographs and videos.

Theoretically, I have adopted an onto-epistemological research stance that assumes epistemology and ontology are mutually implicated ‘because we are of the world’, not standing outside of it. The theory of ecological posthumanism I have adopted contests the arrogance of anthropocentric/humanistic approaches, by enabling a multiplicity of ecologies where humans are neither exempt or exceptional, we are all beings in common. By adopting a stance of vital new materiality, I have sought to acknowledge the aliveness of matter; that it is always more than mere matter: it is active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable. I have employed the theoretical device of ‘intra-action’ and ‘diffraction’ as used in new rmaterialism to support the documenting of the messy, heterogeneous relations between children and their nonhuman world. By enacting a posthumanist and new materialist reading of the Children in Anthropocene project, I have shifted away from the child as the central object of my gaze. I am being attentive to and noticing the non-human entities through which the children’s world is being encountered, where relational entanglement with material matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers. I am attuning to matter, where all of it matters.

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with;
It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with;
It matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties.
It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories (Donna Haraway, 2011, p. 4)

We have much to learn from children about their everyday encounters with the humans and nonhumans they co-inhabit cities with. Emerging as an assemblage of naturecultures their stories are stories that matter, they are located at a range of times, enmeshed in complex spaces and are deeply vital at a molecular level. By sharing an imagined future, that supports an ecological posthumanist collective and senses the value of considering others as kin and beings in common, children have much to contribute in our shared stories of the Anthropocene. After all they have the most to lose, if we do nothing.

References
Haraway, D 2011, SF: science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, so far’, viewed 30 January 2014, <http://people.ucsc.edu/~haraway/Files/PilgrimAcceptanceHaraway.pdf&gt;.

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