Generations as an Analytical Category for Modern Global History

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Sayaka Chatani (HEC MW Fellow 20214-2015)

Does the concept of generations offer a useful analytical category in the same way that gender has? Many historians work on histories of childhood, youth, and the elderly, which suggests its promise. But an explicit generational approach has achieved neither a status of self-evident importance, nor theoretical maturity in comparison to gender analytics. The field felt new to me when I started working on youth mobilization in fascist and imperial Japan and its colonies in the first half of the twentieth century. But to my surprise, analyzing youth as both a social construct and a sector of the population was not only useful but essential in order to grasp rapidly shifting state-society relationships in the modern world. It is not a coincidence that a number of researchers, Max Weber Fellows, and faculty members at the EUI also work on the theoretical and historical meanings of generations in modern society.

The greatest obstacle for generational history is the vagueness of the term ‘generations’. It could refer to different age groups and life stages (children, youth, adults, and so on) as well as groups of people born and raised in specific times and circumstances (‘postwar generations’ and the ‘X-generation,’ for example). Despite the confusion, generations as a historical analytic most powerfully reveal how people conceive time and space in industrialized society. In fact the dual meanings of ‘generations’ are a product of the new sensitivity to rapidly shifting time in the modern world. The generational analytic offers us a means to historicize the ways in which ordinary people in societies, not just intellectuals who theorized time and space, experienced modern temporality. In particular, it sheds light on understudied aspects of globalization or ‘global moments’: In what ways did students across the world share (or not share) the moment of the 1968 uprising? In what ways do people experience global financial crises? Asking these questions quickly reveals that the sensitivity to shifting time and the modern sense of space are interconnected, together shaping how people imagine their worlds. For me, the analytics of generations more adeptly explain people’s identity borders than the current theories of nationalism do.

As a sociological category, generations highlight diversity in society in the same ways that gender, ethnicities, and races do. I believe that generations deserve more serious attention from social scientists and political historians. At the moment, most historians use generations (particularly childhood and youth) as a way to investigate the domestic sphere, affections, emotions, and memories. Historians of childhood tend to search for the historical agency of children, and historians of youth, including myself, often study the identities of young people. These focuses have served us well, but the potential of generational analyses goes beyond them. Mass participation in wars in modern times, in particular, separated populations into different generations. In the Japanese empire, for example, the 1894 Sino-Japanese War, the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, World War I, the 1918 Siberian Intervention, and of course, the Asia-Pacific War in the 1930s and 40s produced diverse generational experiences, despite the fact that the rhetoric of nationalism was incessantly reinforced through mobilization for war. Both the state and various generations, like men and women, tailored their strategies to engage with each other in pursuing the war effort under the unifying banner of ‘one nation’. Such diversity challenges the framework of totalitarian control of the masses and the overwhelmingly state-centered narrative of state-society relationship. Generations are social phenomena –not as tangible as individuals or organizations – and yet they determine collective worldviews and motivations. This has significant political implications waiting to be theorized.

We might go further and argue that emotions, affections, and other cognitive experiences shaped by generational relationships – the current focus in the histories of childhood and youth – are by no means peripheral to grand political transformations. They are foundational in shaping the reality of power relationships, including political dominance, subjugation, resistance, and compliance. In the many major political upheavals in the twentieth century – colonial rule, mass wars, decolonization movements, and the polarization of ideologies, for instance – emotional and psychological elements constituted the large parts of politics. A focus on generations, bridging the domestic sphere and hard political outcomes, could offer us a step towards a more integrative approach to emotions and politics. I strongly believe that the field calls for more studies from scholars of our own generation to develop its depth and breadth.