States of play: Irish childhoods, race and belonging

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McDonnell, Susan A.
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University College Cork
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This thesis explores the meaning-making practices of migrant and non-migrant children in relation to identities, race, belonging and childhood itself in their everyday lives and in the context of ‘normalizing’ discourses and spaces in Ireland. The relational, spatial and institutional contexts of children’s worlds are examined in the arenas of school, home, family, peer groups and consumer culture. The research develops a situated account of children’s complex subject positions, belongings and exclusions, as negotiated within discursive constructs, emerging in the ‘in-between’ spaces explored with other children and with adults. As a peripheral EU area both geographically and economically, Ireland has traditionally been a country of net emigration. This situation changed briefly in the late 1990s to early 2000s, sparking broad debate on Ireland’s perceived ‘new’ ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity arising from the arrival of migrant people both from within and beyond the EU as workers and as asylum seekers, and drawing attention to issues of race, identity, equality and integration in Irish society. Based in a West of Ireland town where migrant children and children of migrants comprise very small minorities in classroom settings, this research engages with a particular demographic of children who have started primary school since these changes have occurred. It seeks to represent the complexities of the processes which constitute children’s subjectivities, and which also produce and reproduce race and childhood itself in this context. The role of local, national and global spaces, relational networks and discursive currents as they are experienced and negotiated by children are explored, and the significance of embodied, sensory and affective processes are integrated into the analysis. Notions of the functions and rhetorics of play and playfulness (Sutton-Smith 1997) form a central thread that runs throughout the thesis, where play is both a feature of children’s cultural worlds and a site of resistance or ‘thinking otherwise’. The study seeks to examine how children actively participate in (re)producing definitions of both childhood and race arising in local, national and global spaces, demonstrating that while contestations of the boundaries of childhood discourses are contingently successful, race tends to be strongly reiterated, clinging to bodies and places and compromising belonging. In addition, it explores how children access belongings through agentic and imaginative practices with regard to peer and family relationships, particularly highlighting constructions of home, while also illustrating practices of excluding children positioned as unintelligible, including the role of silences in such situations. Finally, drawing on teachers’ understandings and on children’s playful micro-level negotiations of race, the study argues that assumptions of childhood innocence contribute to justifying depoliticised discourses of race in the early primary school years, and also tend to silence children’s own dialogues with this issue. Central throughout the thesis is an emphasis on the productive potentials of children’s marginal positioning in processes of transgressing definitional boundaries, including the generation of post-race conceptualisations that revealed the borders of race as performative and fluid. It suggests that interrupting exclusionary raced identities in Irish primary schools requires engagement with children’s world-making practices and the multiple resources that inform their lives.
Childhood , Race , Migration , Belonging , Space
McDonnell, S. A. 2015. States of play: Irish childhoods, race and belonging. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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