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Giuseppe Bolotta, Belittled Citizens: The Cultural Politics of Childhood on Bangkok’s Margins

Copenhagen, NIAS Press, 2021, 252 p.
Erica M. Larson
p. 178-179
Référence(s) :

Giuseppe Bolotta, Belittled Citizens: The Cultural Politics of Childhood on Bangkok’s Margins, Copenhagen, NIAS Press, 2021, 252 p.

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1Belittled Citizens examines the varying cultural constructions of childhood emergent in institutions in Bangkok which care for and seek to educate dek salam (slum children), and in the broader context of the religious, political and moral foundation of Thai citizenship. It also reckons with the ways in which dek salam internalize, reject and appropriate these conceptions in their navigation of everyday life and the formation of their sense of self. In his focus on childhood – typically considered relatively apolitical or politically insignificant – Giuseppe Bolotta effectively demonstrates the way in which notions of childhood are indeed central to the Thai monarchy’s moral claims and existing social hierarchies. He argues that childhood is constructed in spaces which are indeed highly politically charged, and that their examination can provide insights into the deployment and potential limits of the state’s authoritarian power. The book, through its focus on religious-adjacent NGOs, also provides insight into the intersections of religion and politics in contemporary Thailand, in the development sector and beyond.

2The author works from the periphery, focusing on ethnically, politically and economically marginalized groups to understand and uncover the moral assumptions of the centre used to consolidate and deploy power. This particular approach has a long history in the field of anthropology as well as Southeast Asian studies. Bolotta describes the implicit assumptions of what constitutes a “Good Thai Child” (chapter 1) according to schools and state institutions as well as religious actors who execute these educational projects. Children are implicated as “small people” in a hierarchical relationship with adults (“big people”), in the same way that subjects relate to the king, in the normative social order, underscored by a Buddhist-inflected “cosmology of kingship” (p. 23). The characterization of a good Thai child is particularly convincing when juxtaposed with the difficulties dek salam face trying to fit within – or ultimately rejecting – this category as poor minority children who live in the slums of Bangkok. The reader is able to encounter these dynamics throughout the book inside the institutions which seek to educate (and often reform) these children, as well as down the narrow passageways of Akhan Daeng, the slum where many of them come from or live.

3Through ethnographic data, we see the how socially-engaged Buddhist aid organizations (chapter 2) might offer a critique of Thai society by disseminating dharmic teachings which do not project poverty as karmic retribution. At the same time, their pedagogical strategies remain focused on transforming the child in ways that ultimately tend to reinforce existing social hierarchies. Clergy members at particular Catholic-run NGOs like Saint Jacob’s (chapter 3) might appear to espouse a more explicitly anti-normative stance by positioning dek salam as “God’s beloved children” and discussing the social injustices these children have faced. Yet, it still operates within an institutional framework and relationship with the state that projects outward an elite “Thaified Catholicism”, exemplifying the historical connections between Catholic missionaries and the monarchy. A clear and concise account of the history of Catholic missions and institutions in the country helps to establish how the process of indigenisation of the religion in Thailand ultimately reproduces normative ideas about Thainess, with impacts for how non-Thai “others” like the slum children are positioned.

4The author’s ethnography of these institutional approaches toward childhood and the education of dek salam provides a nuanced view, locating individual actors within broader organizations and networks of action. For example, it is clear that Father Nicola, the Italian missionary who established Saint Jacob’s Centre as an NGO dedicated to children’s rights, operationalizes a particular theology which is child-centred, focused on serving – and even learning from – those who typically come last. At the same time, we see that it does not always align with the broader role and elite-centred practice of the Catholic Church in Thailand, or even with some individual staff members at the centre who prioritize instilling discipline and work ethic in the children and quietly express exasperation with the way the priest indulges the children. These accounts of how various notions of childhood became deployed within an institutional context effectively project the existing polysemic and at times contradictory conceptions of childhood.

5The book represents a contribution to the study of development in paying attention to the way in which religious actors and organizations play a role in ostensibly secular development networks. Bolotta convincingly shows how a secular children’s rights framework promoted by trans- and supra-national entities like the United Nations becomes central for religious actors in the development sector to advance their own understandings (and associated moralities) related to childhood, poverty and development. In addition, the analysis also focuses on how discourses about slum children as “victims” are interpreted and also utilized by slum residents (children and their mothers) to form strategic relationships and gain consequential social and financial capital (chapter 4). In this consideration of religious actors in the development sphere, the decision to focus on both Buddhist and Catholic related organizations provides an important breadth that is instructive in further uncovering how particular political theologies involving religiously-inflected conceptions of morality become intertwined with transnational discourses about children’s rights and national development goals and projects.

6One of the highlights of the book is the description of the ways in which dek salam negotiate the myriad definitions of childhood as they move from the slums into other social spheres, which is the focus of Part 2. It is in this section, and particularly in chapter 6, that the ethnographic depth and attention to detail come through most prominently, as well as the level of engagement with the individuals, communities and institutions that such a nuanced and longitudinal account requires. The impact of marginalization as non-Thai minorities and the strategic use of code-switching in different social environments emerges as youth contend with conflicting identities and aspirations and their accompanying affective registers, told through these individual life stories. Integrating these life stories or presenting them earlier in the book could have furthered the author’s stated intention of taking a “child-focused approach” (p. 12). These in-depth life accounts are extremely important, particularly in exemplifying the diversity of outcomes for slum children, preventing any blanket statements or assumptions about their uniformity, and bringing the individual agency of slum children, however constrained, into full view.

7The book’s overall project and stated goals is to demonstrate the importance of childhood as a political category (p. 179), which brings insights to the overall context of Thai political culture and its underlying political theologies. While the discussion about the militarisation of society more broadly and the way it is exemplified through educational institutions is instructive, I also question whether this lens might reduce the disciplinary aspects inherent in educational projects (which are also moral and religious) in linking them so directly to militarisation. Although it is generative in bringing up concerns about power, if the argument is taken too far, it also runs the risk of being reductive in ways that the book’s analysis itself is not. Throughout the manuscript, childhood is examined as not only a political but a moral category, and the author seeks to understand how it actually plays out in terms of self-identity and affect among dek salam.

8In short, this superb ethnography – based on a decade of research – provides an enriching and refreshing perspective that challenges straightforward understandings of childhood and the intersection of religion and politics in Thailand, with theoretical insights that speak beyond the individual case.

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Référence papier

Erica M. Larson, « Giuseppe Bolotta, Belittled Citizens: The Cultural Politics of Childhood on Bangkok’s Margins », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 200 | 2022, 178-179.

Référence électronique

Erica M. Larson, « Giuseppe Bolotta, Belittled Citizens: The Cultural Politics of Childhood on Bangkok’s Margins », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 200 | octobre-décembre 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/assr/68333 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/assr.68333

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