University of Sussex
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‘Won’t somebody think of the children?’ The discursive construction of ‘childhood’: marketing, expert knowledge and children’s talk

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posted on 2023-06-09, 01:06 authored by Sarah Johnston
In the context of current fears about ‘toxic childhood’, and a marketing industry’s celebration of children as empowered by consumerism, this thesis asks where does this leave children themselves? Theoretically the thesis adopts a Foucauldian approach, with its understanding of the relations between power, knowledge and subjectivity and methodologically deploys a discourse analysis. The latter is used to scrutinise ‘the child’ and consumption as understood by ‘experts’ on the one hand and ‘marketing’ on the other. For the ‘experts’ the corpus for research is made up of a disparate set of populist and academic articles and books from the UK in 2007/2008, engaging with the ill effects of consumerism on children. Also included here is a transcript of the UK parliamentary debate on ‘junk food advertising’ from 25th April 2008. For ‘marketing’, materials were collected from one emblematic event: the annual British Toy and Hobby Association Toy Fair 2014, where marketing professionals promote their wares by ‘selling’ the benefits of (toy) consumption for children. What emerges as a commonality from these two very different discourses is the child as ‘subject’ (and ‘object’), placed in a homogeneous childhood. To investigate the authenticity of this construct, the third strand of research is focused on some children talking about consumption. Children from a local school, aged between nine and ten, were divided into focus groups of boys and girls, facilitated by a teacher but with the children able to discuss ideas relatively freely. This provides the final corpus of research for analysis. What the children’s talk reveals is a distinctiveness in their interactions with each other and their teacher, in which they utilise their own ‘methods’ – what I refer to as ‘dynamic bricolage’ and ‘collaboration’. Through these they perform an ‘identity work’ to resist or evade certain knowledges about them and create others to integrate into an individual and group ‘childhood’ identity, which is relished by them as not-adult. I argue that these childhood practices complicate contemporary understandings of childhood: the child is neither innocent victim nor savvy consumer.


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  • eng


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