Anthropology Childhood Studies
Helen B. Schwartzman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0209


Anthropologists writing in the late 19th and early 20th century did not consider children to be a central focus of their research, which is not to say that children did not appear in some of the earliest issues of, for example, the American Anthropologist. However, when children did appear in these publications it was because they were easy and available to use as specimens for the purpose of developing tests, measures, and comparisons of presumed racial differences; or because they were associated with “curious customs” and artifacts (such as cradleboards), which could be described, collected, and “salvaged” since it was assumed that most extant “primitive” groups would soon vanish; or, because many life-cycle ceremonies that involved children or adolescents could be used to illustrate the dramatic and “bizarre” practices of these groups. Early on, Margaret Mead challenged researchers to consider the study of child behavior as a legitimate topic of study in and of itself. Her interest in using field sites as “laboratories” for putting Western theories of child training and personality development to the ethnographic test contributed to the focus on adult personality development that characterized the culture and personality school that gained prominence in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s and continued with the Six Cultures Study of Socialization (SCSS) in the 1950s. This approach portrayed children as cultural “trainees” subject to the interests and focus of their adult “trainers” or adult institutions (such as schools). Only later, inspired by the development of ethnography of communication studies in the 1960s and 1970s, did researchers like Elinor Ochs, Bambi Schieffelin, and Jenny Cook-Gumperz present a new approach for the study of children that focused on language socialization and everyday interactional practices. This research marked an important shift from viewing children as passive trainees to active participants and interpreters of their social worlds. However, it was not until the 1990s that a new field of Childhood Studies began to emerge that turned away from psychological and psychoanalytic models and toward theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault in sociology and anthropology. This article surveys the field of Childhood Studies in anthropology as it has developed in the discipline since the 1990s. The assumptions that characterize this field, as well as the range of studies that have been conducted across all four fields of anthropology (archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology) are discussed, concluding with a specific focus on research studies of children’s movement (in play and in migration). For further information about the field of Childhood Studies in anthropology, see articles in the Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology “Socialization,” “Language Socialization,” “Culture and Personality,” and the “Anthropology of Childhood.”

The Significance of the 1990s Publications

The work by researchers in the 1970s and 1980s is especially significant because it led to a series of publications which, surprisingly, all appeared in 1990, and had a major transformative effect on anthropological and sociological theorizing about children and childhood. Three books in particular illustrate this approach and the important break they made with the theoretical models and metaphors that earlier had dominated anthropologists’ thinking about children and childhood: James and Prout 2015 offers a new interpretive perspective centered on the assumption that children’s agency must be taken into account in the development of theoretical frameworks for the study of children and childhood; Schieffelin 1990 illustrates the importance of examining the everyday speech and actions of children in all socialization encounters; and Goodwin 1990 underlines the specific importance of analyzing children’s language and communication patterns as they interact with each other in multiple settings. These turning-point studies spurred another transformation in anthropologists’ theorizing about children that is particularly evident in Stephens 1995 and in the edited Scheper-Hughes and Sargent 1999 volumes. In these works the importance of examining relationships between the child, the state, and global economic and political forces is emphasized. Two important developments that have also helped to move the field of Childhood Studies in anthropology forward are the organization of the Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group (ACYIG) of the American Anthropological Association as well as the creation of a special series of books on Childhood Studies by Rutgers Univ. Press.

  • Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group.

    The ACYIG was launched in 2007 as an interest group of the American Anthropological Association. Today there are more than 1,200 members of this interest group with participants located in over ten countries. ACYIG publishes a newsletter Neos, which includes peer-reviewed articles and is an important resource for researchers. ACYIG also hosts a blog and sponsors a biennial conference.

  • Childhood Studies.

    Initiated in 2003, the Rutgers Series in Childhood Studies has now published forty-four volumes that have contributed immensely to our understanding of children and childhoods in locations throughout the world.

  • Goodwin, Marjorie Harness. 1990. He-said, she-said: Talk as social organization among black children. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive analysis, using ethnography and conversational analysis, of children’s use of language within and across specific types of interactional routines and contexts observed and recorded in an urban, black working-class neighborhood in west Philadelphia. An important consideration of gendered play and gendered speech is presented here.

  • James, Allison, and Alan Prout, eds. 2015. Constructing and reconstructing childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. Routledge Education Classic Series. London: Routledge Press.

    First published in 1990. This edition includes a new introduction by the editors to this widely referenced volume that has been so influential in shaping the field of Childhood Studies since 1990. The authors in this volume present a persuasive critique of “developmental” (p. 10) accounts of childhood and contrast this with an interpretive/constructionist “new paradigm” (p. 21) for research.

  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Carolyn Sargent, eds. 1999. Small wars: The cultural politics of childhood. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    An edited volume that analyzes the impact of social and structural violence and the many ways that global economic and political forces put children at risk. Twenty ethnographers examine these issues with research conducted in multiple settings including Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, Croatia, Japan, Cuba, and Spanish Harlem in the United States.

  • Schieffelin, Bambi. 1990. The give and take of everyday life: Language socialization of Kaluli children. Cambridge, UK: Univ. of Cambridge Press.

    A richly detailed analysis of the important role of everyday speech in the socialization of Kaluli children in New Guinea. A model for how to take language seriously in the ethnographic study of children.

  • Stephens, Sharon, ed. 1995. Children and the politics of culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A landmark volume that was one of the first in anthropology to examine how global political and economic forces are transforming children and childhoods around the world. An important analysis of the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the concept of children’s rights is presented by the contributors.

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