Portrait of scientists: Prof. Dr. Lars Alberth - Invisible children

2020-11-23 The sociologist researches mechanisms of domination: How are age groups defined in society? Who is excluded by this? Children are marginalised and in many places there is a lack of space for them.

Lars Alberth at the Leuphana Campus ©Leuphana, Marvin Sokolis
In social analyses the role of children is often not given special attention. Yet children do have many socially relevant skills, explains Lars Alberth.

"Imagine I was sitting in the mensa, someone came in, threw my tray off the table, hit me and yelled at me. Everyone would think it would be appropriate for me to call the police," says Dr. Lars Alberth and refers with the example to the US-American social scientist David Finkelhor from the University of New Hampshire. But what would happen if the same argument between children broke out? "Violence between children is judged differently than between adults. Very often children fail in seeking help. Repeated complaints are often dismissed with a ,It’s enough,’" explains the professor for theories and methods of childhood research. The sociologist conceives children as a social group: "Childhood is highly framed by kindergarten and school, yet children are often marginalised. Participation in society is seen as a result of their education," explains the scientist. At the same time, children do indeed have many socially relevant competences: they are empathic, for example, they can look after siblings or support their friends. "Even snitching can be a way of restoring justice," explains Lars Alberth.

The scientist is researching public and private spaces and mechanisms of domination: Where do children become visible, where are they made invisible? He became a DAAD Research Fellow at the University of New Hampshire in 2014. There he was able to observe the representation of children in family courts: "All the parties involved had their own defined place, only the children did not. Although a child's rights were negotiated at this place: Their presence was made superfluous," explains Lars Alberth. Because the children's perspective is not recognized, violence oftentimes remains undiscovered.

Currently, Lars Alberth is developing a new research project on violence in families. For this purpose, he is collecting self-descriptions of adults who were physically or sexually abused in their childhood and now demand compensation for their victimization. "In many cases, the Youth Welfare Office was already in these families during the assaults, but still the violence was not seen," says Lars Alberth. The research assumes that the situation for the child will improve, if they disclosed violence to the authorities: "One assumes that this is the best thing for the child. In reality, those affected had already raised the issue of abuse on several occasions, but nobody listened properly or took necessay steps," explains Alberth. Moreover, child protection is not primarily about children at all: "Social workers focus on the parents when it comes to violence against children and decide on measures. Their approach is rooted in the discipline of lower classes. The definition of a good childhood is strongly centred on the middle class. Reading a book together, for example, is considered a sign of a good childhood. But there is quality of relationship between children and parents are rarely addressed".

Early next year, the anthology "Materialities of Childhood" will be published, for which Lars Alberth is co-editor. It shows to what extent materialities contribute to the formation of certain social childhood patterns and experiences. For example, if children are supposed to sleep, their parents sing a song or wind up a music box. "An object is used to help separating the children and to enforce sleeping through the night according to the rules of the adults. There is no discussion", says Lars Alberth. In general, children have little freedom: They have no control over who they have to spend their time with, when and what they have to eat or who is allowed to touch them. Their right to independence is far less respected than with adults: "Children can scream, but they are not free to negotiate," says Lars Alberth.

Lars Alberth studied social sciences at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal, where he earned his doctorate on the fabrication of European culture. This was followed by a research and teaching stay at the Department of Sociology at Umeå Universitet Sweden and a DAAD Research Fellow at the Crimes against Children Research Center/Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire. Before his appointment to Leuphana, he did research at the Institute of Sociology, Work and Organisation Unit, Leibniz Universität Hannover.