In This Article Anthropology of Childhood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Classic Ethnographies of Childhood
  • Gender and Childhood
  • Life History Theory
  • Play
  • Work

Childhood Studies Anthropology of Childhood
Heather Montgomery
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0002


Children and childhood have long been studied in social and cultural anthropology and have been central to the overall development of the discipline, as well as to more specialized areas such as socialization, kinship, language, and gender. In recent years, a distinct “anthropology of childhood” has emerged, closely related to new ideas in “the sociology of childhood.” The many ethnographies that make up this subfield suggest a great diversity in definitions of, and ideas about, childhood and the different roles and expectations placed on children according to their cultural background. They also highlight the heterogeneous nature of childhood and the impact that gender, age, birth order, and ethnicity have on children’s experiences and daily lives. It is worth noting, however, that there is a difference in the ways that European and American anthropologists have approached childhood. The former have tended to focus on ethnographies of children, using children as active informants as well as analyzing indigenous notions about childhood. American anthropologists, in contrast, have linked the study of childhood to “life history theory” and drawn heavily on theories and ideas from evolutionary anthropology. This entry concentrates in particular on social and cultural anthropology, although it mentions psychology and biological and evolutionary anthropology under Life History Theory, Child Development, and Child Rearing and Socialization.

General Overviews

As the anthropology of childhood has coalesced into a distinct field, various overviews have appeared that look at how this has happened and how this theorization might progress in the future. LeVine 2007 and Montgomery 2008 provide the best historical backgrounds to the subject, and both look at how studies of childhood have changed over the past 150 years. Schwartzman 2001 complements this work by focusing on the way childhood was portrayed and discussed during the same period in one particular anthropological journal, American Anthropologist. Eickelkamp 2010 looks at how theories and ideas about anthropological approaches to childhood have changed in relation to Aboriginal childhoods. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an upsurge of interest in childhood among anthropologists and a realization that children had been somewhat marginal to previous anthropological work. La Fontaine 1986 and Benthall 1992 persuasively set out the case for why the anthropology of childhood should be its own field. While they saw neglect in the past, however, Hirschfeld 2002 saw animosity, and the question asked in the title (Why don’t anthropologists like children?) has been much debated ever since. The controversies over anthropological accounts of children have now died down somewhat, and Bluebond-Langner and Korbin 2007 and James 2007 look to the future, examining the methods and ethics of bringing children into the anthropological mainstream.

  • Benthall, Jonathan. “A Late Developer? The Ethnography of Children.” Anthropology Today 8.2 (1992): 1.

    DOI: 10.2307/2783490E-mail Citation »

    One of the first mainstream articles demanding more ethnographies of childhood. Accessibly written, it identifies gaps in the study of childhood. While many of these have since been filled, this served as a rallying call for anthropologists wishing to devote attention to children’s lives. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Bluebond-Langner, Myra, and Jill Korbin. “Challenges and Opportunities in the Anthropology of Childhoods: An Introduction to ‘Children, Childhoods, and Childhood Studies.’” In In Focus: Childhood, and Childhood Studies. Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner and Jill Korbin. American Anthropologist 109.2 (2007): 241–246.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2007.109.2.241E-mail Citation »

    Part of a special issue of American Anthropologist dedicated to the anthropology of childhood, which also includes James 2007 and LeVine 2007. This article looks at the specific issues faced by anthropologists specializing in childhood. An excellent introduction for undergraduates to contemporary thinking in the field. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Eickelkamp, Ute. “Children and Youth in Aboriginal Australia: An Overview of the Literature.” Anthropological Forum 20.2 (2010): 147–166.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent, comprehensive overview of anthropological literature on Aboriginal children. Deals with classic and more recent ethnographies and is an essential starting point for all work on Aboriginal childhoods. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hirschfeld, Lawrence. “Why Don’t Anthropologists Like Children?” American Anthropologist 104.2 (2002): 611–627.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2002.104.2.611E-mail Citation »

    A controversial and much-disputed article that argues that anthropologists have systematically ignored and sidelined children because of the embarrassing parallels drawn by early anthropologists between primitives and children. Argues passionately that children’s daily lives in the United States and elsewhere should be taken seriously. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • James, Allison. “Giving Voice to Children’s Voices: Practices and Problems, Pitfalls and Potentials.” In In Focus: Children, Childhood, and Childhood Studies. Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner and Jill Korbin. American Anthropologist 109.2 (2007): 261–272.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2007.109.2.261E-mail Citation »

    In the same special issue as Bluebond-Langner and Korbin 2007 and LeVine 2007, this looks at the specific issue of children’s voices in anthropology, how children can best be used as informants, and the problems of interpretation faced by adults when working with children. A clearly written overview. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • La Fontaine, Jean. “An Anthropological Perspective on Children in Social Worlds.” In Children of Social Worlds. Edited by Martin Richards and Paul Light, 10–30. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by one of the pioneers in the field of anthropology and childhood, this chapter sets out why children need to be studied by anthropologists and other social scientists and why they have not been properly discussed in the past. An essential starting point.

  • LeVine, Robert. “Ethnographic Studies of Childhood: A Historical Overview.” In In Focus: Children, Childhood, and Childhood Studies. Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner and Jill Korbin. American Anthropologist 109.2 (2007): 247–260.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2007.109.2.247E-mail Citation »

    In the same special issue as Bluebond-Langner and Korbin 2007 and James 2007, this looks at the study of childhood within anthropology over the last 150 years, paying particular attention to studies of socialization and child rearing. An excellent, comprehensive guide to the history of the subject. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Montgomery, Heather. “Childhood within Anthropology.” In An Introduction to Childhood: Anthropological Perspectives on Children’s Lives. By Heather Montgomery, 17–49. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Covers much of the same ground as LeVine 2007 but also focuses on the difference between American and European studies of childhood. Starts with the evolutionary parallels discussed by Hirschfeld 2002. It is brought up-to-date with a discussion of child-focused anthropology. A good introduction for undergraduates.

  • Schwartzman, Helen B. “Children and Anthropology: A Century of Studies.” In Children and Anthropology: Perspectives for the 21st Century. Edited by Helen B. Schwartzman, 15–37. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A detailed analysis of the articles that appeared in American Anthropologist between 1898 and 1998 that focused on aspects of childhood. She argues that anthropologists used children to explore other issues such as socialization or kinship but rarely looked at them as worthy of study in their own right.

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