Belittled Citizens

The Cultural Politics of Childhood on Bangkok’s Margins

Giuseppe Bolotta

Book cover Bolotta

  • Published: 2021
  • Pages: 252 pp.
  • 9 illustrations (all B&W), 1 map
  • Series: NIAS Monographs
  • Series number: 154
Available worldwide
ISBN Hardback: 978-87-7694-300-4, £70 (May 2021)
ISBN Paperback: 978-87-7694-301-1, £22.50 (October 2021)
ISBN EBook: 978-87-7694-718-7, £22.50 (May 2021)

About the book

  • A splendidly original, multi-situated ethnography of marginalized children in Bangkok, the first of its kind.
  • Explores the intersection between Thai politics, urban poverty, religion, and global humanitarianism from the perspective of “slum children” in Bangkok.
  • Demonstrates that “childhood” is best understood in Thailand as a political category.
  • Offers startling new insights into how ideas of “parenthood” and “infantilization” shape Thai political culture.
  • Its child-centered analysis has the potential to produce fresh understandings of contemporary Southeast Asian societies.

This fascinating study explores the daily lives, constraints and social worlds of children born in the slums of Bangkok. It examines how slum children define themselves – and are defined by others – in relation to a range of governing technologies, state and non-state actors, and broad cultural politics. It does so by interrogating the layered meanings of ‘childhood’ in slums, schools, Buddhist temples, Christian NGOs, state and international aid organisations, as well as in social media.

Giuseppe Bolotta employs ‘childhood’ as a prism to make sense of broader socio-political, religious, and economic transformations in Thai society. His analysis demonstrates that Bangkok slums are political arenas within which local, national and global social forces and interests converge and clash.At the same time, it highlights poor children’s roles in processes of sociopolitical change, considering how young people’s efforts to achieve social mobility and recognition reflect the broader tensions facing the urban poor in this complex moment of Thai history.

Belittled Citizens reveals that ‘childhood’ is best understood in Thailand as a political category, offering startling new insights into how ideas of ‘parenthood’ and ‘infantilisation’ shape Thai political culture in an era of resurgent military authoritarianism. It also shows how attention to children, typically excluded from national politics and therefore invisible in most political analyses, has important potential for producing fresh understandings of contemporary Southeast Asian societies.

About the author

author image not supplied

Giuseppe Bolotta is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies in the Department of Asian and North African Studies at the Cà Foscari University of Venice. His research interests focus on the history and cultural politics of childhood and youth in Thailand; development, religion, and humanitarianism in Southeast Asia; transnational governance of childhood; and the politics of children’s rights in the Global South.

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by François Robinne
From journal: Moussons
“It is precisely because they constitute from one end of the book to the other the focal point of the analysis that it turns out to be of more global scope, offering a hitherto unexplored light on the impact of the “cultural policies” of contemporary Thailand with regard to the poorest. It is a tour de force – bet won – to have shown how these sons of slums reveal a model of growing infantilization generated by authoritarian governance and monarchical paternalism. The interest of the book does not stop there. It also resides in the demonstration that, beyond the simple process of Thaiization of which the children of the slums are the toys, an ascending cosmopolitical process or “bottom-up cosmopolitanism” which unfolds in these transnational arenas where the children are essential actors. We must salute G. Boletta’s feat of having succeeded in articulating this double game of scales which are on the one hand the implementation of educational policies with strong ideologies, on the other a network of mutual aid as well both informal and illegal, leading these children from the margins to other urban margins from the global city.”
by Irina Savu Cristea, Thomas Stodulka
From journal: Anthropological Forum
“Based on meticulous historical investigation and six years of ethnographic research in a plethora of ‘institutional geographies’ (4) inhabited or transited by dek salam (slum children) in Bangkok, this book is an excellent contribution to psychological anthropology, sociohistorical psychology, anthropology of childhood and self, and Southeast Asian studies more broadly”
by Harold R. Kerbo
From journal: International Sociology
This book presents some very needed and fascinating research including fieldwork over a span of 10 years by Professor Bolotta.[…] As the title suggests, his focus was on the children in the slums to better understand how they cope and how they view themselves as one of the lowest ranking humans in this tough situation in Bangkok. This focus on the poorest children, to my knowledge, has not been done in the way he has done so. […] I highly recommend this book to all who want an accurate understanding of Thailand today. There are few books about Thailand which give such a rather complete presentation of children in the Thai society throughout history and conditions today.
by Pim Wangtechawat
From journal: Mekong Review
Throughout the years, I have seen many foreigners, mostly missionaries, try to engage with these children and depict their experiences accurately. But rarely do the results match up with the reality. In contrast, Bolotta’s research should be lauded for its attempt to capture and unpack their experiences with as much subtlety as possible.
by Michael Parnwell
From journal: European Journal of East Asian Studies
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 … This qualitative research … 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 … This book makes a most valuable contribution to Thai Studies and our understanding of the lives and life prospects of marginalised children.
by Heather Montgomery, Professor of Anthropology and Childhood
From journal: Children&Society
The book is unusual in that it looks at the wider contexts and struggles for change for those growing up poor in Thailand. Childhood in Thailand has tended to be seen through the lens of sexual exploitation and abuse by Westerners and Thai children seen as uniquely vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. While Bolotta never underplays the difficulties these children face, and their risk of multiple forms of exploitation, his book is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting one and the children emerge from its pages as resilient, resourceful agents of change, albeit ones negotiating a tough and challenging world, where freedom and success remain perilous. Bolotta paints a vivid picture of life in the poor, informal settings of Thailand.
by Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University, author of Siege of the Spirits
From journal:
This splendidly original and meticulously documented exploration of the constricted life chances of Bangkok’s slum children illuminates the problems of youth and class in a world shaped by karmic concepts of destiny and hierarchy. Gracefully written and resonant with compassionate insight, it deserves a wide readership.