Reflections of Primitivism: Development, progress and civilization in imperial America, 1898-1914

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At the turn of the twentieth century, America’s first overseas imperial manoeuvres launched the nation into a new era of aggressive foreign policy.
Simultaneously, on the domestic front, Progressive reformers fought to rescue its citizens from the dangers wrought by an increasingly urban, sedentary and ethnically diverse urban culture. Both at home and overseas, America was obsessed with civilization: its goal across scales was to transform ‘barbarian’ lands and people into self-governing places and individuals. Within this context, the newly anointed discipline of psychology offered a mechanistic logic to mediate this desire. Drawing from a cocktail of biology, physiology, and evolutionary science, psychologists linked individual development to the long term evolution of the human race. In this equation, childhood was cast as universally barbarian, a prehistoric state of being from which an adult state would emerge if the correct developmental context was provided. Like America’s ‘underdeveloped’ colonies, children were theorised as having to traverse evolution from prehistory to modernity. Postcolonial literature has repeatedly pointed to the tendency of colonialism to lock foreign places in an antique state, and geographers have noted that foreign countries in a state of ’underdevelopment’ are often equated with childhood. My claim in this paper, however, is that theories of child development interpenetrated with notions of foreign underdevelopment and not only informed imperial projects but also informed America’s thinking about itself. By examining the export of American recreation to overseas protectorates during the first two decades of the twentieth century, I argue that America not only barbarized native populations abroad, but universally barbarized all children everywhere.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-28
Number of pages14
JournalChildren's Geographies
Issue number1/2
Publication statusPublished - 01 May 2007


  • childhood
  • recreation
  • psychology
  • underdevelopment
  • American imperialism


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