Anthropology of Childhood
- LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0002
- LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
- 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 European and American anthropologists have approached childhood in different ways. 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 article 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.
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. 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 persuasively sets out the case for why the anthropology of childhood should be its own field. While some 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 and is disputed in Lancy 2012. 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. Work has also been done recently on the intersections between cultural geography and anthropology and the role of children in space and place. This is well covered in Olwig and Gulløv 2003 and Taylor 2013.
Bluebond-Langner, Myra, and Jill Korbin. “Challenges and Opportunities in the Anthropology of Childhoods: An Introduction to ‘Children, Childhoods, and Childhood Studies.’” In Special Issue: In Focus: Childhood and Childhood Studies. Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner and Jill Korbin. American Anthropologist 109.2 (2007): 241–246.
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 by subscription.
Hirschfeld, Lawrence. “Why Don’t Anthropologists Like Children?” American Anthropologist 104.2 (2002): 611–627.
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 by subscription.
James, Allison. “Giving Voice to Children’s Voices: Practices and Problems, Pitfalls and Potentials.” In Special Issue: In Focus: Children, Childhood, and Childhood Studies. Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner and Jill Korbin. American Anthropologist 109.2 (2007): 261–272.
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 by subscription.
La Fontaine, Jean. “An Anthropological Perspective on Children in Social Worlds.” In Children of Social Worlds: Development in a Social Context. Edited by Martin Richards and Paul Light, 10–30. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1986.
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.
Lancy, D. F. Why Anthropology of Childhood? A Short History of an Emerging Discipline. AnthropoChildren 1.1 (2012).
A brief and engagingly written history of childhood in anthropology. Critical of Hirschfeld 2002, and from a US perspective, but a useful overview of previous work.
LeVine, Robert. “Ethnographic Studies of Childhood: A Historical Overview.” In Special Issue: In Focus: Children, Childhood, and Childhood Studies. Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner and Jill Korbin. American Anthropologist 109.2 (2007): 247–260.
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 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.
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 in Hirschfeld 2002. It is brought up to date with a discussion of child-focused anthropology. A good introduction for undergraduates.
Olwig, Karen Fog, and Eva Gulløv. “Towards an Anthropology of Children and Place.” In Children’s Places: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Karen Fog Olwig, and Eva Gulløv, 1–17. London: Routledge, 2003.
Combining insights from cultural geography and anthropology, this article usefully places children in space and place in examining their place in the social hierarchy as well as the places they inhabit. Excellent introduction.
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.
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.
Taylor, Affrica. Reconfiguring the Natures of Childhood. London: Routledge, 2013.
On the intersection of anthropology and geography, Taylor’s book brings feminist perspectives to the study of childhood. She emphasizes children’s everyday experiences, and their relationships with the environment, nature, and animals (see separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Childhood Studies “Common World Childhoods”).
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