Degree Name

Doctor of philosophy


Faculty of Education


The discourse of children’s participation in decision-making on all levels of society, from community and environmental development to their ‘everyday lives’, has received increasing interest in recent decades, developing into an almost universally fashionable rhetoric. Within the literature, however, there is a growing concern that much of this rhetoric fails to seriously engage in a wide-ranging and rigorous theoretical critique of its own policies and practices; policies and practices which have in some respects fallen short of their intended purpose to ‘empower’, to foster ‘agency’, to ‘give a voice’ and to ‘make change’. In addressing some of these issues, this doctoral thesis constructs a poststructural genealogy of the present state of children’s participation based on a discourse analysis of literature and semi-structured interviews with eleven key informants associated with the field of children’s participation. The informants were selected based on their experience and reputation within the field, with the majority interviewed during international children’s participation conferences and workshops which were attended by the researcher during the doctoral candidature. To reflect the global nature of the field, informants were selected from a variety of different contexts, both geographically (informants were based in Australia, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Nicaragua, the United Kingdom, Finland, the United States and Italy) and institutionally (informants were associated with the United Nations, NGOs and/or national tertiary institutions). Analysing the ways in which power operates through this text and talk, the study highlights the less visible ways in which children are governed and invited to govern themselves in the name of participation. It also asks what practices, positions and spaces are made available to children, as well as those that are not, and how these challenge or reproduce particular conceptions of the child. Drawing on Foucauldian understandings of power/knowledge, the subject and governmentality, the study maps the discourses of children’s participation through a twophased poststructural genealogy. Phase one involves: a) an analysis of the ‘new times’ in which children’s participation is positioned, characterised by notions of globalisation, individualisation and democratisation; b) an analysis of key discourses of children’s participation related to the intersecting areas of children’s rights, children’s citizenship and childhood studies; c) an analysis of four key sites of power/knowledge within the field of children’s participation, namely the United Nations, the non-governmental organisation, the state and the academy; and d) an analysis of three key spaces involved in the circulation of power/knowledge within the field, namely international journals, conferences and the Internet. The second phase of the genealogy then draws more specifically on the language and ideas which are ‘ritually reiterated’ within the informant interviews and literature to interrogate the ways in which relations of power/knowledge operate within the field. More specifically, this includes reiterations of ‘agency’, ‘voice’ and ‘change’. Through this two-phased poststructural genealogy I bring into question some of the humanist tendencies underscoring the field of children’s participation. More specifically, I argue that these tendencies reify ‘the child’ rather than focusing on ‘children’ in the messiness of context. I argue that these tendencies can play inadvertently into neo-liberal discourses which produce a child that is somehow responsible for his or her own development. Finally, I argue that in shifting the objective of children’s participation from challenging power inequalities to transforming children into democratic citizens, the field runs the risk of reinforcing the very relations of power it sees as oppressive for children. Building on these arguments, phase two of the genealogy also offers suggestive ways forward using the ideas of Butler to demonstrate how the ‘constitutive instabilities’ within the dominant discourses might provide alternative ways of theorising and practicing children’s participation. These constitutive instabilities are presented in a selection of examples from the literature and interviews which reflect instances of non-compliance with dominant ways of thinking. Linking the study back to the original research questions and suggesting ways in which thinking about children’s participation may expand and diversify in the future, the thesis then concludes by arguing for a messier more context-dependent understanding of participatory practice.