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In the past decades, the ‘new’ sociology of childhood has become increasingly well-established, by committing its core tenet namely, childhood as a social construction. Though the scientific knowledge production on childhood is clearly not restricted to the Global North (see, for instance, Vergara del Solar, Llobet and Nascimento, 2021), it is fair to say that the knowledge produced and circulated globally by researchers from the Global North is dominant in the field (Hanson et al., 2018), and inescapably influenced to some extent by Eurocentrism. The problems of category construction and usage around children and family are underestimated by researchers since these categories primarily treat Western forms of childhood as the ‘normative’ standard while treating non-Western forms of childhood as ‘non-normative’ (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Fiori, 2020). This produces a derogatory and rigid interpretation of non-Western childhood and family forms (Nsamenang, 1999). This blog uses the categories ‘left-behind children and ‘liushou children’ as breakthrough points to invite us to critically reflect on the politics of category construction and usage in this global era. This could stimulate new imagination and thinking, which may provide a more nuanced understanding of the diversity of childhoods worldwide.

Quite often researchers and public media use the category ‘left-behind children’ to describe children whose parents have migrated while overlooking that this presumably universal category reflects an ontological view about an ideal childhood from the Global North which assumes that children should be reared by their biological parents, and that therefore parental migration means that they are ‘deserted.’ Because of this kind of understanding, in the Global North there is more of a critique of migrant parents that results in scholars often looking at this group sympathetically and focusing mainly on the plights of this cohort. This has generated a globally homogeneous image of left-behind children as those who face the same social and emotional challenges across different cultures (Pissin, 2013). As McCarthy and Gillies (2017) remind us, unthought categories refract researchers’ values and moral stance which have permeated research and knowledge claims. Thus, these studies on ‘left-behind children create a paradox: they attempt to recognize childhood as a social construction, but their sympathetic perspectives may also reinforce a universal notion of childhood based on Eurocentric biases.

Nevertheless, an increasing amount of empirical evidence has challenged the connotation of idealized childhoods behind the category ‘left-behind’ children, showing how the above-implied nature of parenting is rooted in the Western-centric model of nuclear families which is prejudicially used in relation to childhoods in other cultures (Sua’rez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco, 2002; Valentin and Meinert, 2009). In addition, current empirical evidence indicates that many ‘left-behind’ children originate from cultures that feature the broad, supportive, and extended family member network (see Thomas-Hope, 2002; Zentgraf and Chinchilla 2012; Jerves et al., 2016) whereby children are provided with sufficient care and emotional support from their grandparents and other family members. Even though such studies have challenged the connotations of the category ‘left-behind children’ knowledge production is still mainly dominated by published work in English from Global North publishers (Liebel, 2020). These global processes of knowledge production have contributed towards promoting the prevalence of the universal English term ‘left-behind children’ worldwide.

The hegemony of English in scholarly knowledge production has meant that studies of indigenous childhoods published in other languages are often overlooked by Western academics. In fact, there is a long and vibrant tradition of studying childhood in socio-cultural and political-economic terms in the Global South. For example, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa’s (CODESRIA) annual Child and Youth Institute has promoted the development of theories and practices on ‘what it means to be children and youth in postcolonial Africa (Hanson et al., 2018: 284)’. However, given the hegemony of English in the academic world, scholars from the Global South have limited contact with the wider field so that the potential impact from the dissemination of their outcomes is highly restricted.

Nevertheless, similar to the nature of childhoods, categories and their usage are also ‘embedded within, linguistic, historical and philosophical processes and world views (McCarthy et al., 2020: 23)’, so that different cultures also develop indigenous expressions of ‘left-behind’ children which often hint indigenous cultural expectations for this group and clues about socio-political context. In what follows, I use the Chinese term ‘liushou’ children (synonym for ‘left-behind’ children) to further interrogate a vital aspect that has not received enough attention by researchers, namely, the problems of universal categories and the complexity of category usage in this era of globalization.

In China, approximately 61 million children have remained in their hometowns while their parents migrated (ACWF, 2013). The Chinese government, public media, and researchers commonly use the term ‘liushou children’ to describe this type of child. Notably, although ‘left-behind children’ and ‘liushou children’ appear to be similar, the ontological view in these two contexts is significantly different alongside disparate cultural expectations surrounding migration.

As stated earlier, the English term ‘left-behind’ implies that such children are the passive recipients of migration decisions, who have been ‘abandoned’ in the migration process (Mondain and Diagne, 2013). Contrastingly, as influential Chinese sociologist Xiang (2006: 6) indicates, the literal meaning of ‘liushou’ is ‘stay and hold the fort,’ which refers to two intertwined dimensions: ‘stay at home’ and ‘hold the fort’, which both could be seen as a difficult family strategy shaped by the combination of cultural norms and institutional violence such as the hukou system (household registration system). Regarding ‘stay at home’, the hukou system and its associated urban educational system remain invisible barriers for children’s migration, as children who carry rural hukou cannot enjoy equal social welfare and support services such as the capacity to enrol in local public schools in urban areas (Murphy, 2020). On the other hand, an alternative care-taking strategy is rooted in traditional Chinese cultural norms, with grandparents replacing children’s parents as the primary caregivers when children’s parents migrate (Chen and Jiang, 2018), providing security for children’s ‘stay at home’.

Moreover, the combination of the hukou system and the rural-urban dual system compel liushou children to ‘hold the fort.’ Because of the lack of local hukou, most migrant workers are extensively excluded from multiple fundamental civic rights such as employment and welfare benefits, health care (Murphy, 2020), they can be permanently barred from receiving benefits and services in cities, that is, segregation of settlement and citizenship (Chan, 2015). Yet, due to the collective land ownership system, migrants could maintain a basic livelihood through agriculture in their homeland (Wei, 2016). Hence, as Chan (2011) argues, migrants are “in the city but not of the city,” the city is only a temporary place of settlement for them, and most of them will return to their hometown one day. ‘Hold the fort’ means that liushou members perform the role of sustaining the social network, housing, farming, and the sense of home, which are essential for migrants facing marginalization and precarious lives in the city.

The category ‘left-behind children’ presents a disjuncture between this category and lived experiences of Chinese liushou children, since compared to negative and passive connotations of the category ‘left-behind children’, liushou members play an active role in maintaining a sense of home and family rather than being left behind. This disjuncture also drives us to reflect on the extent to which current categories are able to capture diverse experiences of children and childhoods worldwide and what has been erased by a hegemonic and universal category.

Notably, only emphasizing the cultural difference behind the child categories is somewhat simplistic since category usage presents more intricate dynamics in this global era. In fact, it is not just the differences in the usage of categories brought by English and indigenous languages. There are also vast internal divisions in framing particular meanings and discourses around liushou children in China. As mentioned before, migrants express a positive cultural expectation for liushou members given their vital role in ‘holding the fort’. Yet, similar to pathological discourses around left-behind children, Chinese public media and government policies also pathologize and stigmatize liushou families, often associating them with behavioral and psychological problems such as suicide, depression, and campus bullying (Qian and Qi, 2011). This overwhelming focus on their ‘miserable life’ has generated similarly pessimistic stereotypes as left-behind children and has promoted continued othering of liushou children within China.

The internal divergences of category usage of ‘liushou children’ are co-shaped by global processes and local realities. In one vein, the category ‘liushou children’ and its related pathological discourses are rooted in the indigenous socio-political contexts which are the tools for the Chinese central government for the marginalization of this group. By attributing liushou children’s plights to their deviant family life, the Chinese government successfully ‘dodge responsibilities to redress the political-economic structures underlying the challenges faced by these children and their families’ and legitimize policies and actions regulating their pathological family life (Gu, 2021:9). In another vein, the above trend became interwoven with a global and neoliberal discourse that emphasizes a middle-class and modern form of parenting (Naftali, 2016). The Chinese urban middle class imposed on liushou families a normative parenting norm based on urban middle-class experiences that emphasize biological mothering and child-centered intensive parenting, while also naturally labelling alternative family forms such as liushou families as non-normative (Pissin, 2013).

Although the prevalence of the universal category ‘left-behind children’ is largely influenced by Western hegemonic knowledge productions whereby an ideal childhood based on European bias has promoted a globally pathological image of children whose parents’ migrated, the construction of a globally pathological stereotype of this type of children could not be simply understood as a Global North imposition. Indeed, the intertwining of global processes and local realities has created complex and layered dynamics about Western and indigenous category construction and usage of children whose parents migrated.

To sum up, this blog demonstrates that the universal category ‘left-behind children’ and its connotations imply that Eurocentrism still influences childhood studies, so we need to keep reflecting on the differences between childhoods in the Global North and South  which are being erased by universal categories. Nevertheless, as stated before, values based on Eurocentrism have permeated research and knowledge claims which have created the rigid and oversimplified image of children across the world whose parents migrate. Hence, exploring the diversity of childhoods is not only ‘adding in the missing children’ (Kesby et al., 2006: 186) or simply revealing the different cultural understandings of childhoods worldwide, such as ‘left behind’ or ‘liushou’ children, but re-examining unthought value assumptions from the Global North. These value assumptions have guided childhood studies, continually producing, to some extent, a Eurocentric bias, which could be regarded as a form of neo-colonialism (Slavova and Phoenix, 2011; McCarthy and Gillies, 2017).

However, as this blog has emphasized, a single-minded focus on the cultural differences between childhoods only presents partial images of childhoods in the Global South. Rather, a similar pathological discourse towards left-behind children and liushou children based on nuclear family ideology refracts some connections or commonalities between different childhoods in the interdependent global era. Thus, in considering Eurocentrism and critically approaching its presuppositions, we should also avoid the trap of reproducing the Global North and South world binaries about childhood and family forms. Instead, we must carefully re-examine every aspect of knowledge production rather than uncritically embrace all the critiques towards the universality of childhoods worldwide. Yet, at the same time, we should also resist the temptation to oversimplify these commonalities, since these commonalities are still firmly rooted in the local social structure which creates a more nuanced difference such as, for instance, the pathological discourses for liushou children generated by the Chinese government. Therefore, as Twum-Danso Imoh (2016: 464) suggests, ‘care must be taken not to draw simplistic parallels between such childhoods and those in the North in our search for commonalities.’

Lastly, though the ‘new’ sociology of childhood is no longer a new academic trend, we still face emerging challenges in the process of overcoming fixations with particular figures of the child. In line with the mission of ‘Reimagining Childhood Studies’, we try to evoke new thinking of childhood studies by challenging and reflecting on some prevailing assumptions about childhoods, for example, in another blog posted in this website, Fatyass (2021) attempts to re-interrogate the universal concept of working childhood by putting it in contexts of persistent social inequality in Latin America, or as this blog re-examines the global category ‘left-behind children’ and reflects on complexities of knowledge production and category usage in this global era. As Spyrou (2021) suggests, we hope to evoke and develop new dialogues and discussions by these efforts, which should be critical, reflective and collective.

References

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Cite as: Kaidong Guo, ‘Reframing ‘left-behind’ children: Normative understandings, local practices and socio-economic hierarchies,’ in Reimagining Childhood Studies, 19 January 2022, https://reimaginingchildhoodstudies.com/reframing_left-behind_children/

  • Kaidong Guo is a doctoral student at the UCL Social Research Institute. His doctoral project explores the dynamics of family relationships and power relations in Chinese families where parents have migrated internally. He focuses particularly on ‘left-behind’ children’s perspectives. Prior to joining the UCL, Kaidong was awarded an MA Degree in Global Advertising and Branding with distinction from the University of Southampton and a BA Degree in Communications. Outside of academia, Kaidong is a freelance photographer. He has photographed more than one hundred cities worldwide, and his works have been exhibited in many exhibitions.

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