APSA 2017 Conference Presentation: “Illegitimate Children: Critical Theory and the Recovery of Childhood Agency”

“Illegitimate Children: Critical Theory and the Recovery of Childhood Agency,” American Political Science Association (APSA), San Francisco.


In the early-20th century, theorists associated with the Frankfurt School incorporated Marxist emancipatory ideals and Freudian psychoanalytic theory to develop a research program centering on how patriarchal childhood socialization could produce subjects, and therefore a public, disposed to support authoritarianism, fascism, and empire. This first generation of critical theorists viewed the formative experiences of childhood as key to understanding the rise of violent, racist political movements and institutions. As Theodore Adorno lamented, “In fascism the nightmare of childhood has come true”. In this paper, I examine what led subsequent generations of critical theorists to abandon a focus on childhood and socialization and why, in the present context of political crisis, normative theory would benefit from critical analyses of children’s agency and experience. I begin by identifying and exploring three key influences on postwar critical theory: (a) the erasure of childhood agency prevalent in most psychoanalytic frameworks; (b) the priority granted to adult deliberative agency in American traditions of liberalism and rationalism, and (c) the reaction of normative theorists to the emergence of positivist and behaviourist approaches in political science. I proceed through an explanation of how these pressures encouraged political theorists to abandon children to fields such as developmental psychology, returning only when psychologists confirmed adulthood and capacities for abstract reason as the pinnacle stage of moral agency. I argue that to the extent that critical theory and normative political theory more generally return to childhood in ways that affirm childhood agency and assert a more balanced prioritization of adult and childhood agency, theorists will produce a more accurate and serviceable analysis of authoritarian currents in contemporary politics. This shift can be facilitated initially through an engagement with vigorous critiques of psychoanalysis and developmental psychology coming out of critical childhood studies as well as the history, sociology, and geographies of childhood.