In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Infancy and Ethnography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Infant Studies
  • Attachment
  • Infant–Caregiver Arrangements
  • Adoption and Circulation
  • Health and Childbirth
  • Infant Feeding
  • Infant Mortality
  • Infancy and Culture
  • Cognition, Communication, and Motor Development

Childhood Studies Infancy and Ethnography
Tobias Hecht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0020


The study of infancy remains mostly the province of the specialists: developmental psychologists, pediatricians, nutritionists, educators. Infants, by definition—if one remembers the Latin root of the word—cannot speak. They also have limited autonomy. How then can one study them ethnographically? The references collected here suggest the richness of available research methods and the gamut of infant-centered ethnographic topics being researched. Infants have captured the attention of ethnographers for about a century, albeit infrequently. Methods of study, culled from a variety of fields and some invented, have been practiced and refined over a long period of time. In some cases, ethnographies are challenging what have been taken as biological certainties, for instance that attachment to a single individual or a small number of individuals is necessary for healthy development. Ethnography allows one to see infants in a somewhat different light because one studies them outside of controlled environments and often spends much more time in their presence. Some of the sources are not ethnographic per se but do present research conducted outside of controlled environments and use ethnographic methods. At the beginning of the 1970s, gender studies had only a tenuous foothold in the humanities. If this once-tiny niche has unsettled disciplines from history to English to sociology, it is partly because it has made us view familiar phenomena and events in a different light. By studying babies within the larger sphere of social life, the ethnography of infants may render new perspectives on social life at large. This bibliography highlights sources that demonstrate both how infants can be studied and how studying them can enrich anthropology, psychology, education, and other disciplines.

General Overviews

The overviews listed here concern a variety of things. Rochat 2001 is a highly readable overview of psychological research with infants. For one who does not know a lot about developmental psychology and wants to know more, this volume is highly recommended. Keller 2007 treats more specifically the meaning of culture in developmental psychology research with infants. LeVine and New 2008 is probably the best introduction to anthropological approaches to infancy, even though the whole volume is not about babies. One of the important features of this volume is that it covers the oft-forgotten early anthropological studies of infants. Small 1998, at the intersection of biology and culture, is a useful starting point to learn about anthropological and other culturally informed approaches to infancy. As her point of departure, Alma Gottlieb asks why infants are of such little interest to anthropologists (Gottlieb 2000). Whiting and Whiting 1975 is a classic of the anthropology of childhood and includes interesting observations about infants. Readers proficient in Portuguese will not be disappointed by Faria, et al. 2002, which offers a helpful overview of the cultural study of infancy.

  • Faria, Ana Lúcia G., Zeila B. F. Demartini, and Patrícia Prado, eds. Por uma cultura da infância: Metodologias de pesquisa com crianças. Campinas, Brazil: Autores Associados, 2002.

    A collection of essays on the culture of infancy and how one might go about studying that culture. The contributions range from a study of the interpretations of drawings and orality to theoretical discussion of Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006). One will also see why Brazil is at the cutting edge of ethnographic studies of infancy.

  • Gottlieb, Alma. “Where Have All the Babies Gone? Toward an Anthropology of Infants (and Their Caretakers).” Anthropological Quarterly 73.3 (2000): 121–132.

    DOI: 10.1353/anq.2000.0006

    Why are infants generally of so little interest to anthropologists? The author suggests six reasons, among them the babies’ apparent lack of agency, their seeming inability to communicate, even their bodily leakages. Others might disagree with the claim that anthropologists have overlooked infants and argue that babies have been written about but that there is little critical writing on that literature.

  • Keller, Heidi. Cultures of Infancy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007.

    An ambitious cross-cultural study that takes developmental psychology into the world of cultural variation. Covering the concept of infancy, research methodologies, cultural modes of parenting, and more, the book investigates how developmental psychologists can carry out culturally informed research.

  • LeVine, Robert A., and Rebecca S. New, eds. Anthropology and Child Development: A Cross-Cultural Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

    For an overview of the anthropology of infancy this is the best place to start. The contents are expertly chosen and the commentary puts the excerpts into context. The authors cover parenting strategies, language education, socialization, play, and more.

  • Rochat, Philippe. The Infant’s World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

    The volume looks at infant research from many angles, some of which have also been studied by anthropologists. An excellent point of entry toward understanding the research of psychologists with babies and how it may be relevant to anthropologists.

  • Small, Meredith F. Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. New York: Anchor, 1998.

    A book that looks at the interface of biology and culture in relation to infanthood and that asks some of the questions that loom largest to parents, such as sleeping, crying, nursing, and walking. The works of biological anthropologists, cultural anthropologists, pediatricians, and psychologists are discussed.

  • Whiting, Beatrice B., and John Welsey Mayhew Whiting. Children of Six Cultures: A Psycho-Cultural Analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

    Still the most ambitious cross-cultural work on children to rely partially on participant observation, the book is mostly about older children––that is, children older than infants. Yet infants are present in this work and interesting observations are made regarding their care by older children and adult interaction with them.

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