Approaches, Choice of method and The NaChiLit Matrix

In order to solve the current climate crisis we are dependent on children and young adults and on the language they inherit or develop to express their knowledge about environmental challenges. The educational system should respond to this challenge and provide children and young adults with opportunities to “reflect on philosophical issues linked to nature and culture, life and death, right and wrong [and to] discuss … ecological responsibility” (LK13, KRLE), to “examine and discuss the use and abuse of resources” (LK13, Social Sciences) and to “observe and exemplify how human activity has influenced a natural area” (LK13, Natural Sciences).

To develop environmental awareness and a competence for change, we claim that a different and more nature-sensitive language is needed (Goga 2016) – a language that implies a move from an anthropocentric perspective towards an ecocentric perspective that connects man and nature, and that includes the great circle of life. “Ecocentric” is here understood as “ecosystem or ecosphere-centred”, a perspective “which emphasizes the intrinsic value of the interrelated ecological system of which humans are part” (Quinn et al. 2015: 3).

The strategic challenge facing the NaChiLit project is accountability in relation to the various ways in which studies of literature can examine and concretize the role verbal and visual texts play in conceptualizing nature. In NaChiLit, children’s and YA literature is understood as digital and analogue literary texts, including picturebooks and graphic novels primarily addressed to children and young adults.

Responding to the identified need for critical analysis and scrutiny of the intertwined concepts of nature and child, a main methodological aim of the NaChiLit research group has been to develop a methodological tool (a matrix)for analyzing, comparing and discussing our primary texts and findings. It is based on the joint readings and discussions within the group of key eco-critical texts and on our knowledge of children’s and young adult literature and our combined expertise within these fields.

The matrix has the form of a system of coordinates where cultural expressions can be discussed against a vertical continuum between a celebrating and a problematizing attitude towards nature, and against a horizontal continuum between an anthropocentric and an ecocentric perspective on nature. In addition to these two axes the matrix is circumscribed by a third dimension, that of techne. The concept of techne relates to rhetorical theory and is here understood as the art of shaping and manufacturing in an “intentional crafting of self, world, and society” (Boellstorff 2008). The dimension of techne signals the fact that all children’s and YA texts are already mediated, hence crafted, representations of nature. Furthermore, it calls to attention recent developments within bio-technology, where nature to an ever increasing extent becomes subject to cultural influence and human manipulation. The concept of techne also signals the group’s engagement with the posthuman debate.

The vertical axis is grounded in the dominant view that a tight and positive relationship exists between children and nature within both the field of children’s literature research and of environmental humanities. This position is designated nature celebrating and implies an idea of the pure child or child of nature as a key figure in the cultural and pedagogical tradition based primarily on the reception of Rousseau. As a consequence of the environmental pollution becoming more noticeable and a growing engagement in ecocriticism in children’s literature, an increasing number of texts demonstrate a critical and problematizing awareness of nature. This position is designated nature problematiszing.

The axis between an anthropocentric and an ecocentric perspective on nature refers to a shift between a human centered way of understanding towards a more integrated understanding of all life. In accordance with Quinn et al. (2015) we understand anthropocentrism as “human-centeredness”, that is “as conferring intrinsic value only to humans, with non-human entities viewed as only instrumentally valuable”. Consequently, ecocentric is understood as “ecosystem or ecosphere-centered”, a perspective “which emphasizes the intrinsic value of the interrelated ecological system of which humans are part” (Quinn et al. 2015: 3). While the matrix has been developed as a tool for analyzing the eco-critical dimensions of literature, researchers in the NaChiLit group have also used it to analyze the perceptions of nature that real children express during outdoor didactic practices, as well as the cultural discourse tied to a contemporary children’s TV-series, thus demonstrating its range of applicability. This extension of use suggests that the matrix may be a profitable tool for analyzing a wide range of cultural expressions concerning nature and the environment.

It is important to underline that the matrix is an organic figure of thought that has developed and continues to develop in the encounter with new texts, both literary and critical, as well as in the encounter with other researchers as we present our works and findings at conferences and in other critical fora. It is always subject to much interest wherever we present our work, and it distils theoretical thinking into an applicable methodological format.