Growing up Global: Economic Restructuring and Children's Everyday Lives by Cindi Katz


Cindi Katz , Growing up Global: Economic Restructuring and Children's Everyday Lives . Minneapolis , MN : University of Minnesota Press , 2004 . ISBN 0-8166-4210-9 ( paper ), ISBN 0-8166-4209-5 ( cloth )

Global Development and the Politics of Children's Play

In Growing up Global, Cindi Katz provides a lucid and moving assessment of global capitalism in a book focused on the everyday geographies of children's work and play. Indeed, one of the major contributions of the book lies in the clarity of its central message: to understand contemporary capitalism, with its attenuate processes of uneven development, environmental degradation, and labor exploitation, we have to turn our attention to the mundane realm of the everyday. For it is in the corners of people's daily lives and in their seemingly minor interactions where we find the stuff of global capitalism, the geographic spaces of its flows and the creative ways that people engage and defy its relentless exigencies. Katz gives this lesson particular precision as she homes in on the ordinary of children's lives in a Sudanese village she calls “Howa”, located in the country's central-eastern region. Through richly textured ethnographies of children's activities, as they fetch water, herd cattle, grind meal, mind (or not) their elders and play with each other, Katz weaves a story of global capitalism that is at once a story of children and families and the communities they create.

At the heart of this tale is the generation of environmental knowledge and how it passes, or fails to do so, from one generation to another within Howa. Katz focuses on the concept of environmental knowledge as a way to open a lens into multiple processes occurring in the village in relation to its integration into the global economy. In the decade before beginning her research in the mid 1980s, the Sudanese government, with the assistance of international development institutions, inaugurated the Suki Agricultural Development Project, which brought the “green revolution” to Howa. This project, with its emphasis on the cultivation of cash crops over food crops, led to the supplanting of sorghum for local consumption with cotton and groundnuts for the global market. In the process, Howa experienced tremendous deforestation to clear land for crop cultivation as households became more dependent on global capital market flows to make their daily ends meet, and children's labor grew into a more essential part of this equation. As such, the Suki project altered the makeup and meaning of children's work and play as they learn less about how to cultivate the crops that had formerly sustained their communities for generations and more about how to participate in the wage economy. Katz likens this shift in knowledge regimes to a “deskilling”, evocative of Harry Braverman's thesis regarding the deterioration of industrial labor skills. Similarly, in Howa, as elders teach children less about how to sustain themselves through agricultural activities and more about how to participate in the big business of agricultural production, the children lose the artistry of self-sufficiency in a context that provides them little recourse in the event of an economic mishap, where one bad crop can mean any number of disasters for a Howa household and especially for its children.

Yet, as Katz illustrates, a refreshing quality of children is that they do not always do as they are told. Such refusals, whether directed against their family members or against the strictures of their school or work, often materialize within the behaviors that are usually called “play”, those assorted activities in which children make up their own rules. Integral to their rule-bending is a blurring of binaries that separate work and play, learning from training, discipline from resistance, since as children play, they commonly draw upon what is familiar in their worlds while simultaneously distorting this familiarity within games that can turn the relations of power on their heads. Likening such activities to small rebellions, Katz finds some promise within children's play for imagining some creative concepts of resistance to capitalism and its attendant miseries. These possibilities, she writes, “together with the elemental nature of the work of social reproduction, inspired my project” (xi). And so with an ethnographer's delight in the details of the everyday, Katz teases out the subversive possibilities found within children's work and play as a way to expand the geographic imaginary of what global capitalism means and how it might be contested.

Toward this end, she organizes the book around three key themes, each designed to illustrate the significance of the mundane for capitalism and resistance to it. The first, called “Fluid dynamics”, begins with “an errand”. The errand is Ismail's, a 10-year-old whose daily responsibility upon waking is to procure meat for his family. As we read of how Ismail squeezes among the other children who try to outshout each other to gain the butcher's attention, we enter the world of Howa through Katz's thick description of its daily rhythms of boys getting meat and herding goats, of girls fetching water and shelling groundnuts, of women preparing food and eating separately from men, and of children inventing games that simultaneously mimic the social–spatial relations that organize their lives as well as subvert them. With a flourish that resonates with some of the most accomplished ethnographers of our times, Katz then expands our perspective to a larger focus that reveals how Howa's children are caught up in the flows of capitalist production and exchange, as reflected by Ismail whose feet trace a path from his home to the butcher, from whom he purchases meat with money, and by which global capitalism circulates through the deforested village.

In the subsequent section, “Social reproduction”, Katz draws upon Walter Benjamin's view of children's play as “the crux of revolutionary consciousness” in order to lay the groundwork for her own approach to children's play as socially productive. Here, Katz shows how the economic and environmental tolls of the Suki project have deepened already existing social divisions within the village and left the mass of vulnerable people, among whom children figure prominently, even more susceptible to the powerbrokers in their midst. Children are working more and with less return. Yet, they still play. And it is within the children's refusal to surrender their play, even under the pressures of intensified labor, that Katz finds what she calls “a resilience, a reworking and a resistance” to the meanness of global capitalism. “The essence of social relationships”, she writes, “and material social practices are distilled and brought to light in the course of play. In playing, children are also able to imagine, enact, and transmogrify “becoming other” with fluidity and grace” (98). Children, in short, make new worlds all of the time. While these new worlds may exist only in their games, they reflect the possibilities that the children see within the resources that they have combined with their own aspirations. And in questioning the boundary separating fantasy from reality within children's play, Katz is asking us to see their possibilities as she does, as productive engagements that offer the promise of new topographies, another concept that she develops throughout the text, and some alternative mappings to global capitalism and the kind of Suki development tested on Howa.

The rub, of course, is that for such possibilities to develop beyond the realm of childhood games, the children themselves must be nourished in all of the ways that will help them turn into adults with the confidence and ability to take progressive action. And so in the final section, “Displacements”, Katz's mastery with description sometimes works against her political desire to find hope, since through her compelling descriptions and attention to detail, the landscape of Howa emerges as convincingly harsh. Perhaps such a realization underlies her comparative research that puts the children of Howa in context with children in Harlem. Explaining from the outset that she makes this move in order to de-exoticize Howa for a western audience that might be tempted to think of children's deskilling or the maladies of global capitalist development as a “Sudanese” or “African” or “Third World” predicament, Katz brings the problem closer to her presumed audience's home and to the center of one the west's crowning cities. The deterioration of public education in the urban US is her focus as evidenced by the events she chronicles in Harlem, where she details a deterioration of the public school system and correlates this trend with a deskilling of youth in inner city and minority neighborhoods. Katz's journey from Howa to Harlem mirrors her own itinerary as she travels from her field site to her institutional (and home) site, a trip that she does not experience as one between oppositional geographies.

In this comparison drawn between Howa and Harlem, I was hoping for a fuller explanation into how her personal choices affected her decision to put the two sites together in this book, as I think this discussion would shed some much needed light on the actual practice of research in the contemporary academy and some of the challenges facing scholars, especially ethnographers, of global capitalism. The rigors of multi-sited ethnography have attracted more attention in anthropology than in geography, although the topic seems well suited to our discipline. However, I’m not sure where Katz would put the discussion as the book is packed as it is, and I think the comparison is important to make for the reasons she details even if the methodological decisions are less transparent. For in examining the worlds of children's work and play, Katz successfully bares a topography in which the children of Howa are in relation with the children in Harlem as they all face uncertainties for which their elders have no ready answers while capitalist restructuring destroys the educational foundations of their communities, either through the restructuring of rural labor or through the underfunding of inner city education. And they are connected also through their refusal to stop playing.

As readers of Katz's significant contributions in political economy, feminism and methodologies will certainly recognize, her work in this book does not rest on abstractions and theoretical symmetries to make points that only sound terrific if one is not trying to explain how people really live. Instead, she keeps the people front and center in her narrative as she grapples with imperfect theoretical tools that provide some help but nothing fully suited for deciphering the significance of life's routine commotions, especially as caused by children whether in Howa or in Harlem. In some places, the book is extremely thick with empirical and theoretical description, a byproduct of Katz's dogged commitment to be as faithful to the people who allowed her to study them as she is also to the theorists she draws upon, and so the book demands a commitment also from its readers in much the same way that slow food requires patience from its customers, who, once they take the time, can then savor every morsel. I do find this book to be a sort of nourishment for an academic soul that seeks commitments to grounded research, to telling stories developed through the patience of engaged fieldwork (which rarely leads to quick conclusions), and to employing theories for what they are meant to do: to serve as the means of explanation rather than the ends.

Growing up Global is a must-read for students of critical theory, social justice, grounded research, knowledge production (particularly with regard to environmental knowledge and its intergenerational diffusion), children's geographies, and the vagaries of global capitalism. In other words, Katz speaks across disciplines and exposes the intersections of myriad topics in the shifting topographies of the lives and events she chronicles. Well-deserving of the Meridian Award that it received in 2006, I think the value of this book will continue to prove itself over time as well-worn copies pass through generations of scholars who wrestle, like Katz, with the urgent need for action posed by the everyday geographies of global capitalism.