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Childhood Studies Class
Gillian Evans
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0023


Social class is not generally studied in terms of childhood, but there are good reasons for doing so. A significant proportion of relatively poor children and young people living in capitalist economies are likely to reproduce the social and economic conditions of their parents’ lives, and indeed, to experience deterioration in their living and working conditions relative to those of their parents. This means that social class remains a relevant category for understanding the structure of hierarchical relations in industrial and industrializing societies, explaining the inequalities of economic and social status in contemporary life and making sense of the different cultural values that class distinctions engender over time. Many studies of the effects of social-class difference and the experience of particular kinds of classed lives focus on children and young people. There are rich, multidisciplinary literatures to engage with on the topic of class, but the imbalance among sources focusing on working-, middle-, and especially upper-class children is disappointingly stark. The majority of studies focus on the problems and limitations associated with poverty rather than the possibilities provided by or alienation arising from the privileges of wealth. The literature is diverse enough, however, to get a real sense not just of the limitations associated with material deprivation but also of the limitations associated with the social wealth and creativity of working-class childhoods. The inequalities of social class pertain not just to employment opportunities and wealth but also to quality of life in housing and health, life expectancy, and educational attainment. The high and increasing incidence of child poverty in relatively rich countries, such as Britain (30 percent of children) and America, means that the advantages and disadvantages associated with social class remain relevant and critically important. This is the case despite recent academic and government claims to the contrary that suggest that social class is now empirically and analytically redundant, based on the following factors: increasing social mobility, an ideology of meritocracy, the demise of socialism, the move to postindustrial economies in the Western world, and the growing evidence of eclectic individualism, such as the freedom to choose one’s identity as one pleases regardless of limitations concerning family/social history. Doubtless, these contemporary social, political, and economic conditions form a vital backdrop against which the ongoing prevalence of social class must be understood, but to abandon an analytical focus on class altogether would be shortsighted and politically naïve, especially when capitalist conditions of production are increasingly effecting significant life changes for many of the world’s children.

General Overviews

Most of the general overviews in the new (post-1980s) sociology and anthropology of childhood, such as those of Corsaro 2011, Lancy 2010, and Montgomery 2008, provide the theoretical framing for understanding what it means to be a child in any time or place and for beginning to appreciate how hierarchies of age/development are differentiated by social and economic factors related to social class. These more general texts set the scene for specialized study that will account for the universality of human processes of learning and becoming; children’s active participation in making sense, for themselves, of their relations with each other; and the processes by which children accommodate and resist the culturally diverse social worlds of adults. All inquiries into the relationship between childhood and social class, including those found in the less well-known psychological literature such as Argyle 1995, should be considered in the context of a rich and developing body of theoretical and empirical work in the anthropology and sociology of childhood, youth, and babyhood, including Blades, et al. 2011 and Handel, et al. 2007. These works challenge widely held assumptions that the universal form of childhood is the white middle-class Western one and that children are the passive recipients of adult ideas. Indeed, classic studies such as Ariès 1988 and Cunningham 2011 reveal that the area of childhood is where we can discover that the histories of what it means for humans to “grow up” are incredibly diverse across time and place and in cultural content and social process.

  • Argyle, Michael. The Psychology of Social Class. London: Routledge, 1995.

    NNNThis psychological approach to the study of social class contains many references to children and forms a contrast and complement to the wealth of sociological literature on the subject. It focuses on the United Kingdom and the United States and proposes that a social-psychological approach offers a distinctive understanding of perceptual/behavioral issues concerning relationships, sex, work and leisure, religion, crime, speech, values, and social mobility.

  • Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. London: Random House, 1988.

    NNNA seminal text first published in English in 1962, it challenges the notion of childhood as a naturally occurring universal life-cycle phase and charts the change from medieval perceptions of children (as little adults fending for themselves soon after infancy and contributing to extended familial economic relations) to 17th- and 18th-century (modern) ideas of children-as-innocents who are the precious focus of a more privatized family life and education for a segregated elite class.

  • Blades, Mark, Helen Cowie, and Peter K. Smith. Understanding Children’s Development. 4th ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011.

    NNNProviding a comprehensive overview of the psychology of child development, this research-based text balances recent advances in knowledge on the subject with core themes related to the study of human development. The useful section “Deprivation and Enrichment: Risk and Resilience” (pp. 553–580) explores the effects of disadvantage and deprivation typically associated with social-class inequalities.

  • Corsaro, William A. The Sociology of Childhood. Sociology for a New Century Series. London: SAGE, 2001.

    NNNRenowned for placing children’s peer relations center stage, Corsaro relates a general overview of the sociology of childhood to challenges of social change in the United States. Part IV (pp. 225–281) focuses on the effects of disparity in wealth, violence toward and among children, and transforming family structures.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education, 2011.

    NNNA complement to Ariès 1988, but focusing as much on continuity in structures of feeling in parent/child relations as change in ideas of childhood. This book has two useful sections: “The Development of a Middle Class Ideology of Childhood 1500–1900” (pp. 41–80) and “Family, Work and School 1500–1900” (pp. 81–113).

  • Handel, Gerald, Spencer E. Cahill, and Frederick Elkin. Children and Society: The Sociology of Children and Childhood Socialization. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    NNNChapter 9, titled “Social Class,” is dedicated to a consideration of social class and its influence on the socialization of American children and young people. Particularly relevant is a consideration of the relationship between the middle-class socialization of children and making sense of the American idea of the person as an individual.

  • Lancy, David F. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    NNNChallenging the Western myth of the “cherub-like” innocent child of modern childhood, Lancy explores the diversity of childhood experience around the world. Especially useful is the cross-cultural comparison of adolescence, which makes the American middle-class form of a prolonged and protected adolescence seem exotic relative to the resilience that is required of young people growing up under different socioeconomic conditions in the United States and elsewhere.

  • Montgomery, Heather. An Introduction to Childhood: Anthropological Perspectives on Children’s Lives. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    NNNSynthesizes and evaluates the most-important anthropological work on childhood. From classic ethnographic texts to studies of culturally varying and social-class-specific structures of conversational exchange between parents and children and within peer groups, Montgomery provides a wealth of references and a useful complement to more-sociological overviews.

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