Young children's perceptions and constructions of social identities and social implications: promoting social justice in early childhood
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This thesis explores young children's constructions of social identities and the implications these may have in young children's everyday lives at nursery. One of the unique elements of this thesis is the multiple and intersectional approach that it adopts while exploring very young children‘s social identities and peer relations. It also explores the links between children's experiences and views with educators' social justice and equity pedagogies. Recent attention has been given to the importance of early childhood and young children's rights and participation in theory, research and policy. In the field of social identities, there has been a growing need for further research to explore the contextual, fluid, complex and intersected nature of young children's social identities, moving away from 'static' and 'fixed' notions of identity. Particular gaps have also been identified in relation to exploring age as part of social identity, to exploring cultural aspects of ethnicity and lastly to exploring multiple understandings of parts of social identities (e.g. multiple 'masculinities' and 'femininities') in early childhood. There has also been a need for further research to explore how young children‘s intersected social identities may impact on pedagogies. This thesis, therefore, seeks to explore the above, basing the analysis on a one year ethnographic and participatory approach which was conducted in two nursery settings in Scotland, one predominantly white and one multi-ethnic. It draws on a plethora of rich and in-depth conversations and experiences with young children, educators and parents/caregivers to suggest the complex, dynamic, context-specific, fluid but also 'experientially fixed' and intersected nature of children's social identities and relationships, and to acknowledge the challenges that are raised both for early childhood practice and policy. It suggests that children construct multiple and complex social identities which are both fluid and experientially 'fixed', engage in dynamic social relationships and express complex and multiple implicit/explicit discriminatory attitudes, which educators are unaware of or choose to disregard. In most cases, age and gender were part of an overt and explicit identification, and were explicitly and overtly discussed as factors of exclusion by both educators and children. In contrast, ethnicity involved a much more complex process. Although ethnicity was often part of an 'ethnic habitus', variations occurred in relation to the extent to which children developed a strong, explicit and overt ethnic identification. Ethnicity was also considered a rather 'taboo' subject of reference regarding exclusion. Moreover, this thesis suggests that discourses of ‗sameness‘, ‗normalities‘ and difference linked to constructions of social identity were salient in children's lives. Common social identities often promoted positive feelings of belonging and reinforced positive feelings of group membership and self identities between children. Strong and positive feelings of self and group identity and difference, or else ‗the other‘, although not exclusively, were very much considered the basis for exclusion and discrimination. However, complexities arose when the concept of the ‗other‘ changed, depending on the context. Difference was seen more positively by children when it constituted part of what was considered 'norm' or dominant. Traditional developmental approaches and children‘s rights-based approaches seem to influence educators‘ practice; however, irrespectively of the educational approach, educators tend to disregard implicit/explicit discrimination that is evident in children's lives. 'Too young to notice' and 'no problem here' attitudes seem to dominate educators‘ practice and raise limitations in dealing adequately with social justice and equity issues. Firstly, this thesis suggests the need to move away from 'dualistic' and oppositional dichotomies that seem to have dominated contemporary research and theory, both in relation to theorising children‘s social identities (e.g. 'fixed'/fluid) and theorisations of childhood (e.g. agents and mature / interdependent and immature). Secondly, there is a need for early childhood pedagogies, practices and policy to 'listen' more actively and closely to young children and to engage with the complex and dynamic nature of their social relationships. It is thus suggested that current early childhood practice should actively promote children-rights based approaches. At the same time, this thesis considers whether we should be moving towards a children‘s human rights-based approach, which promotes children‘s rights and goes beyond children's participatory rights, engaging more actively with issues around fairness, unfairness and respect. This thesis also argues for proactive, anti-discriminatory, reflexive and interventionist social justice and equity approaches in early childhood. Thirdly, there is a general challenge both in policy and practice regarding balancing between universalism (collective identities) and specificity (diversity).
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