Sociology and Anthropology of Childhood

Prior to the 1980s children were on the margins of sociology (an academic discipline that focuses on social relations and


institutions) and anthropology (a neighboring field that emphasizes the study of culture). When children did come into the view of anthropologists, they were primarily studied as learners being inducted into the social and cultural worlds of adults. In the 1930s the anthropologist MARGARET MEAD wrote about cross-cultural variation in child-rearing practices, which, she argued, shape cultural differences in adult personalities. Over the next four decades anthropologists continued this line of inquiry in places as diverse as JAPAN, Samoa, New Guinea, Bali, AFRICA, Russia, and the United States.

Sociologists also have a long tradition of studying children as learners or as adults-in-the-making, using the concept of socialization. Talcott Parsons, an influential sociologist of the 1950s and 1960s, theorized social systems as smoothly functioning wholes. When children are born, he wrote, they are like pebbles thrown into a social pond. First the family and then schools and other institutions shape the growing child, who comes to internalize the values and rules of adult society. Sociologists in this time period focused on children not only as learners but also as threats (research on juvenile DELINQUENCY emerged in the 1950s) and as victims of adults (child physical abuse became a topic in the 1960s, and child sexual abuse in the 1970s).

The New Social Studies of Childhood

In the 1980s, a growing number of European and American scholars called attention to the relative absence of children in the knowledge of the social sciences. They argued that children should be studied in their own right, as full social actors, rather than being framed primarily as adults-intraining or as problems for the adult social order. In an early critique, Enid Schildkrout observed that children rarely entered descriptions of social systems and proposed that they should be understood as children rather than as the next generation of adults. Reversing the familiar equation of children with dependence, Schildkrout asked, "What would happen to the adult world (other than its extinction) if there were no children?" and "In what ways are adults dependent upon children?" Drawing upon fieldwork among the Hausa, a Muslim society in Nigeria, Schildkrout described children's contributions to sustaining the religious institution of purdah, which involves the spatial seclusion of women. Among the Hausa, married men earned income away from their households as butchers and artisans; women earned money by cooking food and embroidering hats and trousers to sell at the local market. Confined to their households by purdah, income-earning women depended on children to purchase materials and to deliver and sell the final products at the market. Up until PUBERTY, both girls and boys were free to move between households and the market. These arrangements–with spatially mobile children actively contributing to economic and religious institutions–reverse late-twentieth-century Western assumptions about children's place, highlighting varied constructions of both childhood and adulthood.

The "new social studies of childhood," as scholars began to call the movement to pay closer attention to children as social actors with varied lives and experiences, gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s. This critical approach to adult-centered frameworks was enhanced by increasing criticisms of knowledge organized around the outlooks and interests of the powerful. Scholarly attention to women and people of color helped inspire calls for research that would bring children more fully into knowledge. Critical examination of age relations, childhood, and categories such as child and adult was also spurred by a theoretical approach called social constructionism, which involves digging beneath categories that are taken for granted to examine the varied ways in which they have been organized and given meaning. A unitary category like the child is especially ripe for examination because it encompasses a wide range of ages and capacities, with an ambiguous and often disputed upper boundary.

Sociologists of childhood often credit the French historian PHILIPPE ARIÈS with opening conceptions of age, the child, and childhood for social and historical analysis, beginning in the early 1960s. Viviana Zelizer, a historical sociologist, also highlighted changing views of children and childhood in an influential 1985 book on the transition in late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century America from the "economically useful child" to the ideal of an "economically useless, but emotionally priceless" child, removed from paid labor and located in the protected spaces of families and schools. Historians of childhood have helped other social scientists gain critical perspective on contemporary Western assumptions about children's place, including the definition of children by processes of learning and development.

International political and economic changes of the late twentieth century also heightened awareness of the varied lives and circumstances of children. Global economic restructuring strengthened ties among geographically distant nations, with increasing circulation of commodities, labor, information, and images. In many parts of the world, these changes forced children into new conditions of poverty and increased their numbers among refugees and among those who work in highly exploitative conditions. Televised images of children living in situations of war, violence, poverty, and famine have undermined the assumption that children are an innocent and protected group, safely ensconced in families and schools. In the late twentieth century, the global cultural politics of childhood became an area of contention as well as a focus of anthropological and sociological research.

The Cultural Politics of Childhood

The United Nations highlighted the varied, sometimes devastating, circumstances of the world's children when the General Assembly declared 1979 the Year of the Child, followed, in 1989, by the adoption of the UN CONVENTION ONTHE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD. By 2003 the Convention had been ratified by every country except Somalia and the United States. This document was developed by representatives of forty-three nations, who wrestled with cultural and political differences as they sought to articulate worldwide moral standards for the treatment of children. The convention is organized around four core principles: nondiscrimination, the best interests of the child, the rights to survival and development, and attention to the views of the child (a principle that recognizes children as somewhat independent of adults). Critics, including many anthropologists, have argued that the UN Convention assumes and imposes Western ideas about childhood, family, and individual rights, and that it is insensitive to other cultural understandings of children and morality. Defenders have responded to these criticisms by noting the widespread effects of global economic and political change and by arguing that ethical action should be forged between the two extremes of universal claims about individual rights and the refusal to judge other cultures (cultural relativism).

A growing body of research on children living in contexts of extreme poverty, forced migration, and war has extended the study of childhoods far beyond the worlds of families, neighborhoods, and schools, situating children within processes of political and economic change. For example, scholars have studied children who live and work on the streets in cities in LATIN AMERICA, Asia, Africa, and EASTERN EU-ROPE. The term street children is often used to describe these children, but researchers and activists have argued that the term is misleading since the circumstances and social relations of these children vary a great deal and many of them continue to sustain ties with their families. Scholars such as Tobias Hecht have charted the economic, social, and political forces that draw or push children into living and working on the streets; their social networks and varied relationships with urban environments, including both the opportunities and risks that street life poses for survival; and governmental and other efforts to control and reform this stigmatized group. Some activist researchers have sought access to the perspectives of street children themselves, working with them to change the conditions of their lives. Others have examined the hypervisibility of street children, whose lives have become fodder for journalists, researchers, and even a Michael Jackson video about a favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro. They have argued that the sensationalizing of extreme poverty obscures the situations of the chronically poor–a large proportion of children and adults in countries like BRAZIL.

The many types of research on street children illustrate three central theoretical approaches in the new social studies of childhood: (1) comparative analysis of the political economy and social structuring of particular childhoods; (2) the study of symbolic or discursive constructions of children and childhoods; and (3) attention to children as social actors and as creators and interpreters of culture. Although these approaches overlap, each draws upon a distinctive set of theoretical tools and research methods.

Comparative Research on the Structuring of Children's Lives

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jens Qvortrup, a Danish sociologist, coordinated an ambitious comparative study of the living conditions of children in thirteen European countries plus Israel, Canada, and the United States. The researchers relied, in part, on the techniques of demography–that is, the use of statistical methods to study the size, structure, and distribution of particular populations. Defining children as a category spanning the ages of birth through fourteen, the research team compared the age structuring of national populations. They found, for example, that from 1950 to 1990 the proportion of children declined in all sixteen industrialized countries, with the greatest decline in Finland and the least in ISRAEL. They also analyzed comparative information about the size and composition of the households in which children resided, patterns in the employment of children and in children's daily duties at home, the amount of time children spent in school and in organized activities outside of school, the legal and health status of children, and the proportion of social resources, such as income and housing, that were allocated to children in each national economy. Guided by a view of childhood as a position in social structure, this comparative study emphasized relations among legal, political, economic, health, educational, family, and other institutions.

Qvortrup and his colleagues found that available statistical information about children was highly uneven, since parents or households, rather than children themselves, have often been the categories used in the gathering of statistical information. When demographic information is gathered with children at the center, the picture shifts, sometimes dramatically. For example, Donald Hernandez found that in 1988, 18 percent of U.S. adult parents but 27 percent of children lived in poverty. Thus the distribution of children's economic status differs from that of the parents.

What accounts for national variation in the proportion of children who live in poverty? To shed light on this question, sociologists have examined relationships among families, states, and markets. States assign responsibilities to parents, limit their power, and define the ages at which children can legally engage in wage labor. States also provide resources for children, but to varying degrees. Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden, which assume that the state will cooperate with and support families, have traditions of generous and universal state provisioning for children through paid parental leaves and state-funded child and health care. The United States is at the other end of the continuum, with a privatized family system, which assumes that parents will purchase services such as health and CHILD CARE and that the state will step in only when the family and the market are deemed to have failed, as in federal child-care subsidies to very low-income families. In the United Kingdom, which is in the middle of this continuum, there is movement from a welfare state toward a privatized family system. These different institutional arrangements help account for variation in rates of child poverty.

The Symbolic or Discursive Construction of Childhoods

Research on the social construction of childhood has focused not only on the institutional arrangements that shape children's lives but also on beliefs about the nature of children or particular groups of children, such as infants or girls entering PUBERTY. Anthropologists and sociologists often use the term discourse to refer to ideas and images that convey a particular view of the world or, in this case, a particular view of children and childhood. For example, street children in Brazil have been portrayed as threats to the social order (a discourse the police have used to justify arrests), as victims (the discourse of social welfare agencies), and through a discourse of CHILDREN'S RIGHTS used by activists who argue that children should participate in changing the conditions of their lives.

Social scientists who study discursive constructions of children and childhoods have analyzed not only the ways in which meanings are made but also their effects in the world. For example, sociologists and anthropologists often puzzle about the gap between the stated goal of public education in industrialized countries–to open equal opportunity for all children–and the reality that schools, by and large, reproduce social class and racial inequalities. Although teachers may try to use even-handed practices and to focus on children as individuals, assumptions about social class and race are embedded in processes of sorting and tracking. In the United States, for example, some schools provide special resources for children deemed to be gifted, a discourse that appears to represent an objective and natural difference but that embeds social class and racial assumptions. Ann Ferguson studied the consequential use of another discourse–"bad boys"–in the daily world of a multiracial middle school in California. Assuming that low-income African-American boys were especially prone toward misbehavior, teachers monitored them more closely than other students. To sustain a sense of dignity in the face of this negative control, the boys sometimes engaged in acts that the adults saw as defiance. The spiral of labeling, conflict, and discipline reproduced patterns of inequality.

Children are discursively constructed not only by experts and by the media, but also by corporations that design and sell goods to an expanding child market. Marketing campaigns target groups that are narrowly defined by age and gender, promoting particular conceptions of childhood. For example, in the 1990s corporations began to sell distinctive styles of clothing, such as platform shoes and rock music by groups like Hansen, to a new market segment they called tweens–eight to thirteen year olds ("ten going on sixteen," as they were often described). Market-driven ideas about the pace of growing up enter into negotiations between children, parents, and teachers over issues such as what clothing can be worn to school. Ann Solberg, a Norwegian sociologist, coined the term social age to refer to negotiated conceptions of being older or younger, a more flexible construction than chronological age.

Children as Social Actors

The fields of anthropology and sociology share a theoretical interest in the relationship between structure and agency. Karl Marx framed the issue in 1852 when he observed that people make their own history, but under circumstances shaped and transmitted from the past. Structural theories emphasize the external circumstances–economic forces, institutional arrangements, systems of belief–that have shaped the lives of children in particular times and places. These approaches, like the traditional socialization framework, imply that children are relatively passive, and that their lives are molded from the outside. Seeking to modify this image, the new social studies of childhood emphasize children's agency, that is, their capacity to help shape the circumstances in which they live.

The concept of children's agency has been used in varied ways. A flourishing body of research on children's everyday lives emphasizes their capacities as experiencing subjects who are capable of autonomous action and cultural creation. (Researchers who observe or interview children wrestle with questions about the capacity of children to consent to being studied, and about adult power as a barrier to access and understanding.)

William Corsaro has observed preschools in the United States and in Italy, documenting children's use of ideas from the adult world as they created distinctive peer cultures. He coined the term interpretive reproduction to emphasize children's participation in cultural production and change. Marjorie Harness Goodwin, an anthropological linguist, tape-recorded and analyzed the conversations of a mixed-age group of AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHILDREN in an urban U.S. neighborhood, showing how they used talk to constitute and disrupt social bonds and to mark social hierarchies. Barrie Thorne did fieldwork with children in U.S. elementary schools, highlighting their marking and negotiation of gender divisions, for example in playground games where boys chase the girls.

Social scientists have also interviewed children about their experiences of and perspectives on varied subjects, such as consumption, daily activities, divorce, and childhood itself. Solberg found that ten-year-old Norwegian children and their employed mothers had quite different perspectives on children taking care of themselves at home after school. The mothers worried that their children came home to an "empty house," but some of the children spoke instead of coming home to a "welcoming house," with independent access to food, television, and the telephone.

There is no doubt that children have agency in the sense of the capacity to experience, interact, and make meaning. But when Marx wrote that people make their own history, he used agency in a stronger sense, referring to collective efforts to change existing power arrangements–for example, by challenging patterns of exploitation. Do children exercise this kind of political agency? It partly depends on one's deÆ-nition of children. In the 1970s and 1980s children as young as twelve were arrested for their participation in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. But infants and three-year-olds are clearly not capable of this kind of action.

The division between children and adults or teens is somewhat arbitrary and continually negotiated. But is it wholly misguided to study children, especially younger children, with a different set of frameworks than one uses in studying adults? The quest to rescue children from a conceptual double standard and to include them in frameworks, such as theories of agency, that emphasize autonomous social action may have been overdrawn. Issues of dependence, interdependence, vulnerability, need, and development should also be in focus. And not just in the study of children, since these are also strands in the experiences of adults.

See also: Comparative History of Childhood; History of Childhood.


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