Dependence, independence, and negotiated agency: notes from our September roundtable discussion

By Sarah Weakley

Our September meeting was dedicated to a roundtable discussion of the concept of ‘dependency’ in childhood and youth research. As expected, getting a group of smart people together to talk about a big concept like dependency gave me a lot of new theoretical ideas to think about. I am not ashamed to say I was invigorated.

It was no surprise that when speaking about how our work interacts with the concept of ‘dependency’ (or being ‘dependent/independent’) that the conversation steered towards the issue of agency. I think I can safely say that for any research engaging with youth and children in their work, this concept is paramount. Here’s what struck me:

As we discussed in the roundtable, promoting agency in children and young people is where many researchers choose to focus. Indeed, in the case of childhood studies, promoting children’s agency in society is part of why the field was founded in the first place: a direct backlash against dominant ways of thinking about children as lacking (in a variety of facets).

As the discussion progressed, this dichotomy of agency and dependence became a point of commonality. This idea appears when we mention ‘key’ ages or life milestones that disciplines use to mark when independence ‘should’ be achieved. For example, as one network member shared, in terms of medical treatment, 12 years seems to be the ‘magic’ age when children are considered capable of making independent decisions. In my own work on youth transitions, independence and thus adulthood in the West has been historically marked by leaving home, leaving school (at either secondary or university level), getting married, getting a full time job and becoming a parent — demographic markers that are culturally determined rather than by the young person.

Framed in this way, independence appears to be ‘granted’ by adults, or by the state; taken out of the hands of a child or young person and instead either withheld or foisted upon at the choosing of someone else (however big that someone is).

We all agreed, however, that the agency/dependency dichotomy is far from useful in our disciplines (as most dichotomies are) because children and young people’s lives are always being shaped by their environment, institutions, and peers while they also make their own choices about their lives. One of the interesting ideas that came about while we discussed bridging this false dichotomy was the idea of ‘negotiated agency’.

While I haven’t fully come to a definition of this yet, what I love about this concept first is the idea that is denotes a relationship. Agency, along with independence, is something that I think has to be negotiated with those you relied on in your youth (like your parents or guardians), authority figures in a variety of settings, and perhaps negotiated with your self – your own understandings of your cultural roles, expectations, and values.

A brilliant example that got me rolling on this idea was when one network member shared her research with girls in the traveller community in Britain. Their independence and agency was greatly tied up in – and at times at odds with —  what their community expected of them.

For some other issues the negotiation isn’t quite so dramatic, but it is there. For a young person navigating their early adulthood, they may exercise agency to make decisions about their career paths and employment, but they may still be dependent upon their family for residential or financial support. The negotiation here is with their family of origin, as they are fully agentic/independent in one aspect of life, but hopefully also aware that their agency is not all-encompassing.

In your work, what does this negotiation look like? Who is in the relationship? Does ‘full’ agency exist? Is it equated with independence? Is it something to even be desired?

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