Giuseppe Bolotta, Belittled Citizens: The Cultural Politics of Childhood on Bangkok’s Margins, Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series, No. 154, 2021. 250 pp. ISBN: 978-87-7694-301-1.
According to the Aristotelian conception, a child is an immature human who possesses the potential to develop into a mature specimen once deficit capacities have been overcome, stage by stage, through parental nurturing and institutionalised support. Children’s innate capacities and capabilities hold prospects of a vista of possibilities for personal development, but this is typically steered, even constrained, by the social, cultural and political context into which a child is born and the socialisation paths that are largely conditioned by normative structures. Childhood, thereby, is a construct; the birth of a child is a political event; in a national context, a child is a not-yet-complete subject who is to be moulded into a normative social, economic, political and cultural citizen. This is the cultural politics of childhood.
Belittled Citizens plays on the ingrained hierarchies in the Thai socio-cultural context, which at a variety of levels and in a medley of situations draws a distinction between phûu yài (big people) and phûu nói (little people) and codifies the behaviour expected (in both directions) between senior and junior, parent and child, teacher and student, monks and laypeople, king and subjects, leaders and followers, and so on. The belittled citizens on whom Giuseppe Bolotta’s research focuses in this engaging and sophisticated exposé are the children of Bangkok’s slums, the dèk salàm, who are phûu nói in most respects—socially, relationally, geographically, ethnically and politically. Born into a politics of marginality, discrimination, relative poverty and constrained opportunity, these children epitomise the deficiencies in life conditions and circumstances that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child aims to address and rectify, and which Thailand ratified in March 1992. An economic, political, social and institutional monolith that has delivered marginality and disadvantage to many Thai children cannot readily be reshaped to nurture the best interests of all children, as the Convention decrees, not least in an authoritarian political environment that is heavily resistant to challenges to the established order. Thus, it has fallen to an array of actors and organisations largely lying outside the formal state apparatus to reach, help, emancipate and empower these ‘belittled citizens’. It is this grassroots and bottom-up activism that provides the central storyline for Bolotta’s extensive ethnographic research.
Belittled Citizens focuses principally on the role of religious organisations (Christian and Buddhist) and the education system (state and private) in the lives of children from one particular Bangkok slum. The research is based on six years of naturalistic participant observation, mainly in Bangkok, which was preceded by two years as a volunteer with one of the Catholic organisations which provided the main conduit for the investigation and fieldwork. The book is divided into two parts: the first looks at the cultural politics of childhood in Thailand, and the institutional and normative setting within which slum-oriented humanitarian organisations operate, most notably in the context of children and education, the hegemonic state ideology of the good, or ideal, Thai child (dèk Thai dii), which often provides the rubric against which the children of the slum are judged; the second part looks in depth at the lives and identities of the dèk salàm themselves, the struggles of the poor and marginalised, and the agency they possess, both in their spontaneous coping mechanisms and through the assistance and self-belief given to them by compassionate outsiders. The narrative is a mixture of impressive academic engagement with debates about ‘Thainess’, belonging, subject positions and inequality, and sometimes quite touching insight into the lives, identities and behaviour of the sixty or so youngsters with whom Bolotta spent several years, sharing almost inseparably their everyday moments and experiences, both in their marginal settlements and in the homes and schools to which they were given (sometimes reluctant) access through the leverage of engaged Buddhist and liberation Christian organisations, which collectively contributed to the ‘transnational governance of childhood’ through globalised humanitarianism. This qualitative research, which provided the basis for Bolotta’s doctorate, the depth and range of which I cannot do justice to in this short review, reveals slum children not as a uniform and singular category of passive victims of marginalisation, lacking agency, hope and prospects, but as social chameleons who are creatively adept at adjusting their lives and their projected identities to the multiple circumstances and settings in which they find themselves, both in and outwith the slum. What may, and usually does, look to the outside observer, pre-programmed by a normative cultural politics, to be deviant, disrespectful and anti-normative behaviour by ‘not-good-enough’ slum children—who therefore need to be supported, governed, corrected and/or saved—masks a savvy and socially situated capability among the peer groups and gangs of slum children to negotiate for themselves multiple positionalities which allow them to operate with remarkable ease within highly diverse social situations. Bolotta thereby advocates a child-centric, as opposed to an adult-centric, understanding of childhood based on their peer cultures, which would help to reveal the constraints imposed upon them by adult (and authoritarian) social, political and educational structures.
This book makes a most valuable contribution to Thai Studies and our understanding of the lives and life prospects of marginalised children, but there are one or two tropes or motifs that Bolotta uses in the structuring of his argument which would benefit from more critical scrutiny and greater expositional nuance. A Thai/non-Thai binary is used throughout the discussion to draw a distinction between, if you like, the core and periphery of ‘Thainess’, which in turn provides the foundation for the ‘not-Thai-enough’ depiction of the key protagonists in this story which needs rectification to achieve the normative dèk Thai dii. The ‘non-Thai’ in this caricature are those emanating from beyond Bangkok and the Central Region of Thailand. Given their migration histories, slum dwellers are thereby depicted as ‘non-Thai’, or ‘not-Thai-enough’ in the idealisation of ‘Thainess’, even though by his own admission on page 17 this is a very dated view of the slum, and indeed of Bangkok, and of Thailand as a whole. I don’t think it particularly helps the analysis to persist uncritically with such a simplified and readily problematised framework. Likewise, the frequent use of the term ‘militarisation’ to depict the organisation of the education system, and indeed that of Thai society as a whole in the present juncture, is a little contentious, perhaps conflating regimentation with authoritarian politics a little too strongly? Nonetheless, the book ends with a Coda which highlights and praises the way that the country’s ‘small people’—not just the belittled citizens of the slums but youths from all echelons of Thai society—are taking a collective stand against the powerful ‘big people’ who for so long have defined the paths their lives should take and the cultural politics that determine their place in the established order. A child-centred riposte to an adult-centred world.