Childhood studies refers to a reorientation in the interdisciplinary study of children and childhood. The study of children and childhood has a long history in many disciplines, including anthropology, but childhood studies seeks to expand and reorient how the study of children and childhood is conceptualized and approached. Anthropology’s role is central to this reorientation because childhood studies builds, in large part, upon anthropology’s traditional interests in understanding culture and society from the emic (insider, participant) perspective. While children have been the object of a long history of cross-cultural research, the emic perspective of children has received less attention than that of adults. Most anthropological research on children has sought to understand children through the adults charged with their care, usually parents, teachers, and other caregivers. This is also true of the social sciences more broadly. There is a tradition of anthropological work, however, that has actively sought the child’s perspective, dating from the foundational work of Margaret Mead (1928) and extending to the present day. This reorientation is similar in some ways to the increased anthropological interest specifically in women that emerged alongside women’s studies in recent decades.
Childhood studies also arises from interests that accompanied the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that by 2004 had been ratified by all but three nations (the United States, Somalia, and Timor-Leste). The UNCRC has three basic principles: protection of children from a range of harms (from intrafamilial abuse to war-related traumas); provision of what children need (from the basic physical needs for food and shelter to emotional needs for love and caring); and participation by children themselves in matters concerning them insofar as their developmental capacity permits (from family dissolution to educational issues). The UNCRC stimulated a reorientation of thinking about children and childhood. It was clear that children around the world suffered from a range of insults to their development and well-being. It was also clear that children’s voices were rarely sought, and thus rarely heard, on issues of basic concern to them. The UNCRC stimulated a body of research, largely in European countries that had ratified the convention, that sought to make children a more integral part of research and to give credence to the child’s perspective.
Basic Principles of Childhood Studies
The following are concepts and ideas that form the basis of childhood studies.
Multiple ChildhoodS: Franz Boas transformed the idea of a singular Culture, with a capital C, to the multiplicities of cultureS, with a capital S. Similarly, in childhood studies, a core assumption is that there is no single version of “childhood,” but that “childhoods” vary across time and culture. Furthermore, the experience of childhood varies within any culture by variables such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Childhood studies, in a reaction against the paradigm of universal child development, argues against privileging any one version of childhood, usually a Western-oriented model of optimal development. Childhood studies, such as earlier work from the Whiting School, recognizes that the experience of childhood may show equal or greater variability intraculturally as interculturally. One of its central missions of childhood studies, therefore, is to describe and explain multiple childhoods.
Distinguishing Among Child-hood, Children, and the Child: Childhood studies distinguishes between terms that are often used interchangeably. Childhood is defined as a position in social structure, children as the group of individuals who occupy that position, and the child as both a whole, complex, and rights-bearing citizen and an idealized entity. Childhood is both a permanent and temporary space in the sociocultural context. It is permanent in that all cultures and societies have a life course stage defined by its immaturity, both physical and social. It is constantly shifting in light of larger sociocultural change. It is also constantly changing because each cohort of children, along with the parents and other adults involved with their rearing, bring with them a set of individual and group differences from the cohort before them. Childhood studies takes as a given that childhoods are culturally constructed.
Children as Competent Social Actors and Active Participants: Childhood studies promotes the idea that children are competent social actors who shape their worlds, take action on behalf of themselves and others, participate in decisions that affect them, and define the directions and processes of their own development. The topic of agency has in recent years also become increasingly prevalent in studies of the child, as reflected by the right to participation in the UNCRC.
The Child’s Perspective: If children are regarded as competent social actors, then they must also be regarded as research participants whose perspectives must be sought. Childhood studies has a central mandate to bring in children’s voices, studying children in ways that reveal the experiences and perspectives of the child, from the child’s point of view, and in his or her own words.
Methods for Studying Children: Methodologically, childhood studies’ interests in the child’s emic perspective stimulated interests in methods to obtain that perspective. Anthropological methods such as participant observation and ethnographic interviewing have been important in obtaining children’s perspectives. Involvement of children and adolescents in the research enterprise has also been an innovation in childhood studies research.
The Social Spaces of Childhood: The field of childhood studies is concerned with how children inhabit, navigate, and negotiate their social worlds. These studies consider a range of both public and private spaces with varying levels of adult control and supervision and varying levels of direct involvement of children in designing and creating those spaces. Peer cultures established independently of adults have been of interest in this regard, for example, in preschools or medical settings, even though there is the wide recognition that no age group is entirely independent. In addition to social spaces, childhood studies has stimulated interests in how children use and regard the physical spaces they occupy.
Children, Childhood, and the Interdependence of Generations: The field of childhood studies, even in emphasizing agency and social participation, has cautioned against going too far in promoting the notion of the autonomous and independent person, as if it were possible to be human without belonging to a complex web of interdependencies. There is much to learn about how generational phenomena are played out at family and societal levels. Trends across these levels need not be complementary, but may be contradictory. A balance of research is needed on both the views of children as well as those who are linked to them.
The Complexity of Contemporary Childhood: Childhood studies recognizes the complexity of modern childhood. For every trend in one direction, there is a trend in another direction, especially when we take a global view. For example, in many parts of the world, a pressing question is how childhood will maintain its space/position in society as the childhood population decreases. There will be fewer children to fill the social space of childhood and a greater proportion of adults, particularly elders. There are also increasing numbers of couples and singles who choose childlessness. What is the impact on childhood of “child-free” housing, for example? While this is often seen as of greater salience for wealthy nations, it will be increasingly important for developing countries seeking to control their populations. Shifting age profiles will have a huge impact on societies and childhoods within them. In a contrasting direction, at the same time, in other parts of the world, children remain a majority, or even increasing proportion, of the population. Demographic patterns as well as warfare and disease have altered the population structure, with wide-ranging consequences for the nature of childhood.
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