New Reviews

The Politics of Childhoods Real and Imagined: Practical Application of Critical Realism and Childhood Studies

The Politics of Childhoods Real and Imagined: Practical Application of Critical Realism and Childhood Studies. Priscilla Alderson. Routledge, 2016. 202 pages. £105.00 (hardback).

This is the second volume of Alderson’s take on critical realism as an entry to childhood studies. The first volume examines the following topics: material relations with nature, interpersonal relations, social relations and structures, and the intrapersonal. Dialectical critical realism has a prominent place in this volume, including its system of "MELD," which can be regarded as an operationalising of critical realism into four stages in the research process: (1) The first moment (M), where the researcher should pay special attention to epistemology; (2) the edge (E), where negations play an important role and where the imperfect is observed; (3) a new level (L) of totality attained by the researcher’s work; and finally (4) a dimension (D) including change for the better. The uses of this system are exemplified in the cases presented and, by working out the MELD process in relation to these cases, the concept of critical realism and its practical application is made comprehensible for the reader. In Volume One, the system is explained at length, and the practical application focuses on the individual and the relations it engages in.

Volume Two is a "practical book on social research" (8), applying ideas of dialectic critical realism to childhood studies, this time focusing on ecology, economics, social structures and ethics. Thus, the book draws political consequences of the more basic observations from the first book. The scope is twofold: Alderson continues the quest to shed light on the predicaments of social science by applying the perspectives of dialectic critical realism. This concept is regarded as "not a version of social science, but a philosophy which does the groundwork and helps to illuminate and clarify theories and underlying assumptions, and to work through contradictions in the social and natural sciences" (4). Dialectic critical realism can clarify research results by sorting out the classical issues surrounding the relations between fact and interpretation, relations between agent and structure and relations between neutrality and values. Volume One expands on the main features of dialectic critical realism, with the main points being recapped in Volume Two. In the latter, the main issue is research on society and its positioning of the child. The numerous cases presented in each chapter are rendered with due attention to detail and relevance, and they are subsequently related to theories that offer means to describe and interpret them. The mode of presentation provides patterns for research for scientists faced with a case and looking for a systematic and responsible approach. Critical realism is described by Alderson as a meta-perspective on theories, and the omnipresent plethora of theories in Alderson’s books demonstrates this aspect of critical realism.

The chapter about ecology (Chapter Nine) opens by asking why we should preserve the planet for the sake of our children; children are already here now, and they are responsible citizens, perhaps more so than many adults. Different views on childhood may impact our ecological behaviour, and researchers have a particular responsibility. The rest of the chapter sums up the general climate debate in detail. The reader is warned that this "is the most dense chapter in this book, and some readers may prefer to look at later chapters first" (19). However, the MELD system is applied to the facts and their interpretation, and there is a paragraph on page 48 that sums up the points.

Chapter Ten, dealing with economics, focuses on health care: Why are commercial ways of relating so dominant despite the many injustices and contradictions they raise? Children are among the most deeply involved and affected groups in many "adult" concerns, says Alderson, continuing by commenting on the conduct of pharmaceutical companies in Africa, child poverty in the UK and mental illness in the US. Commerce and social justice are the two societal logics that are treated in the chapter, and all examples and analyses deal with the situation of children in particular, unlike parts of Chapter Nine.

Chapter Eleven deals with social structures and various market dynamics. Alderson explains the problematic concept of determinism in social sciences and points out diverse understandings of social structures and their roles. The reader is offered a range of interpretations of neoliberalism. The chapter rests on the assumption that over time, "structures far precede and outlast individual agents" (93). Topics touched herein are urbanity, crime rates, price/value and alienation. Alderson also returns to each concept at each step of the MELD process.

Finally, Chapter Twelve delivers inputs about ethics and emancipation, with the author reimagining the politics of childhood. This chapter responds to the hopes and challenges raised in earlier chapters and suggests a "utopian search for more just and free societies" (136). Alderson promotes a reasoning where the utopian may be more achievable than one may think. Narratives play an important role in the power of seemingly set structures, for example in the case of society’s pricing of everything that can be priced and disregarding other values. The gift economy is described, the "work and play democracy" (160) explained, and education indicated as key to change.

The extensive notes and indexes provide useful tools for scholars in the field of childhood studies. Theorists relevant to critical realism, for example Roy Bhaskar and Margaret Archer, naturally make many appearances in Alderson’s texts, but she also refers to numerous other scholars, including Friedrich Hayek and Pierre Bordieu. The Glossary explains general scientific terms, such as endemism and morphogenesis, as well as elements from critical realism (like Eudaimonic Society) and other thought systems (like Transcendental Idealism).

The modest physical format is handy, but the letters are small. The head titles of the volumes need some synchronising to the benefit of first-time readers. It also takes some effort to discover the rhythm of the body text, but the reward is a useful reference book and a thought-provoking read. The two volumes of Alderson’s ambitious and enthusiastic project contain a prodigious amount of knowledge. The narrating voice flows well and aims at visualisation and reflection.

Eivind Karlsson
Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway