People & Research: Kirsi Yliniva explores the limits and possibilities for political agency of the child in the era of the Anthropocene

The AGORA Research Centre brings together a wide diversity of researchers and research groups interested in current issues of social justice and equality in education. Here we will present their research. This time, we introduce PhD Researcher Kirsi Yliniva, University of Oulu.

What are your research topics?

My PhD focuses on the  limits and possibilities for political agency of the child in the era of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is of course the era we are living in now – one of global climate emergency - but it more fundamentally concerns the future, because the crisis which it represents is anticipated to become much worse in the future. For this reason, my PhD is especially interested in the future of education.

What do you mean by political agency?

By political agency I mean the individual and collective capacity to transform the world, for example through resisting and dismantling structures of power built on injustices. I am especially interested in what kinds of political agency of children are construed as ideal in discourses connected to the Anthropocene and the future of education. Discourses are understood here as socially and culturally produced forms of knowledge, commonly accepted as ‘truth’, which set limits to what is possible to say, think and write in certain times and places, and also to what kinds of agencies and subjectivities are possible. I’m especially interested in the subjectification effects of discourses connected to the Anthropocene and the future of  education. By subjectification effects I mean subject-making implications; what kinds of subjects and agencies are produced through these discourses. My approach to these problems is informed by Foucauldian accounts of power and neoliberal governance.

How does your research relate to issues of social justice and equality?

It is well established that the phenomena of the Anthropocene, such as global climate change and the environmental emergency, are going to drastically worsen inequality and injustice. These problems impact most on the people who have least produced them, such as children, indigenous people and the global south. The Anthropocene also increases inequality between humans, nonhuman animals and plants. These problems are well attested to in science and politics. In my research I am focused on the dangers of the ways in which educational science and intergovernmental educational policies function to sustain the power structures causing inequality and social injustice. I argue that the political agency of children is being erased instead of fostered by these policies. Political agency is much needed, if children are to be able to resist unequal and harmful power structures which produce and maintain the violences caused by the Anthropocene.     

Tell something about your latest/​​​​​current research?

Right now I am writing my first paper together with Kristiina Brunila. This paper is part of the Interrupting Future Trajectories of Precision Education Governance (FuturEd) project. In this paper we ask what kind of agencies of children are produced in discourses connected to the Anthropocene and the future of education. We examine such discourses in recent educational scientific publications and intergovernmental educational policies. We argue that powerful discourses here are those of ‘distributed agency’ and ‘resilience’. We also argue that both of these discourses produce a form of agency designed to be adaptive and resilient to environments in ways that deny the ability of the subject to seek security itself in the world. We argue this is problematic because adapting subjects to environments also sustains the neoliberal status quo from which the dangers of that environment derives. As importantly, it denies the ability of subjects to resist. Resistance would need more political forms of agency, which has to mean not just teaching children to transform their own self to become more adaptive, but transforming the world around them and the relations of inequality and injustice which shape it.

What kind of discussions would you wish to initiate with your research?

I wish to initiate discussions about the political dimensions of childhood and education, especially in this time of multiple eco-crises. I think that often, especially in the fields of early childhood education and childhood studies, the child is stripped of its political dimensions, agency and voice. I think in past decades there has been very important work done, from example by Foucauldian and critical feminist scholars, to foregound the discussion of political agency for different groups and peoples, and also for nonhumans, who have never been granted agency in modern Western societies. In childhood studies, discussions about the child’s voice, participation and agency is becoming very rich. My concern is that problems related to the Anthropocene, such as climate change, paradoxically suffocate and erase these discussions and their political dimensions. This is because human agency is seen as so problematic in the Anthropocene, and logically so, because human action has of course caused many of these problems. I think political agency is nevertheless more essential than ever, and rather than working further to erase political agency we should seriously discuss how to raise it, so as to address the serious problems of neoliberal governance and order. I believe transforming and changing the way we govern ourselves and the world is still possible, and that we should be able to both criticise and create different forms of political agency.

Published 12.5.2022