Children – Anthropology – Key concept


The child is, in many ways, the paradigmatic ‘other’: ‘the child’, its attributes and identity, is something that adults and anthropologists have constructed in dialectical relationship to their own senses of world and self. Perhaps for this reason, anthropological work on children and childhood has been extremely diverse and long-lived without being particularly coherent (cf. James and Prout 1990). In conjunction with a common conceptualization of the child as an asocial or pre-social putty (a throwback to Durkheimian notions of animalistic human individuals who are perforce socialized into a collective moral consciousness), the study of children and childhood has, until recently (cf. James et al. 1997), reflected approaches and problematics from other anthropological spheres rather than generating its own theorization. Over and above this, however, the study of ‘the child’ presents us with a problematic of its own (which is at the same time exemplary): how to apprehend a research subject whose being is a continuous becoming? More generally, the study of children and childhood raises the vital question of how anthropologically to approach and accommodate the continuities of existential identity which lie beyond the reductive stasis of socio-cultural categories and classifications.

Children as indices

The appearance of children as indices of extraneous (adult), anthropological concerns makes for a long list. Among the latter concerns might be included the following:

Cultural relativism: Mead (1928) and Benedict (1938) both employed children and youth in an argument in favour of privileging the influence of culture over biology. Hence, less adolescent stress and more altruistic (nurturant—responsible) behaviour were to be found in ‘other cultures’ than in the competitive and egoistic (self-seeking) West. Derek Freeman (1983) succeeded in casting aspersions upon a Meadian approach, but controversial claims continue to be made, such as that women may withdraw from the mother—child bond in the event of the cultural estimation of scarce resources (Scheper-Hughes 1985).

Neo-Freudianism: Childhood practices in different societies have been compared, sometimes in large numbers (Whiting and Child 1953), in terms of Freudian assumptions concerning the way adult character is a reflection of childhood conflicts (cf. Erikson 1977). In an extended study, Du Bois (1944) argued that maternal neglect of young children on Alor was responsible for affective shallowness, suspicion and instability among Alorese adults, for a folklore which stressed adult-child frustrations and hatred, and a cosmology of suspect deities. Spiro similarly introduced Freud into Trobriand and kibbutz childhoods (1958, 1982).

Neo-Darwinism: Child-rearing practices have been studied from the point of view of their instantiating a customization of environmental pressures and features. Parental investments in large numbers of children, then, may reflect life-threatening instabilities in the environment, whereas having fewer children and investing more time and energy in each (allowing each to be more demanding) furthers their survival chances in more socio-economically complex environments (cf. LeVine 1982).

Developmental psychology: From Piagetian notions of universal stages of human cognitive development, anthropologists have explored how children constitute their understandings of the world first through a manipulation of concrete objects and then through more abstract, logico-moral reasoning (cf. Dasen 1994). While from Vygotskian notions concerning how universals of developmental biology are mediated through particular historico-cultural contexts and everyday social processes, anthropologists have produced ethnographies of: Hausa children learning purdah (Schildkrout 1978), Tahitian children learning gentleness (Levy 1978), and Japanese children learning homesickness (Goodman 1993).

Role play: In studies of the relational nature of social life, of the way identities are elicited in terms of a mutuality of interconnected instrumentalities, ‘children’ and ‘adults’ are explored anthropologically as roles that give rise to one another. Through children, adults learn to be parents (Harkness and Super 1996); by fostering children, adults learn to be kinsmen (Goody 1982); by feeding children, adults learn to be covillagers (Carsten 1991). Relatedly, of course, the differential attributes of parenthood give onto very different ‘children’.

Self-consciousness: Consciousness, according to Ong (1977) is something that grows through time. This is true both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. Hence, with each succeeding generation, humankind relates to the cosmos and to itself with more conscious control, while the child enlarges its storehouse of conscious experience and knowledge as it moves from primitive unconsciousness to adult reflexivity.

Social policy: In a number of works dealing with deprivation and disadvantage in contemporary societies (and often oriented towards their alleviation), anthropologists have focused upon children’s lives as markers of levels of social welfare and manifestations of social care (cf. Ennew 1986). Here are studies of disadvantaged children in school situations (Lacey 1971; Heath 1983), of social support systems beyond the school (Weisner 1989), of sibling caretaking (Weisner and Gallimore 1977), and of children with developmental abnormalities (Weisner et al. 1996).

Social critique: After Gramsci or Bourdieu, children figure in a range of works whose intent is a disinterring of the reproduction of hegemonic discourses of socio-cultural inequality. Inasmuch as hierarchical structures of socio-cultural milieux are seen as being reproduced through the agency and the false-consciousness of individual actors—even those with least to gain by the hierarchy—the teaching and learning of children to maintain exploitative relations is an important process. Here, then, are children who learn to live with poverty (Jenkins 1982), who learn to labour (Willis 1978), and who learn to die (Scheper-Hughes 1992). Seemingly, the best such children can hope for is escape into a subculture of abandonment or denial (Jenkins 1983; Hebdige 1979).

Children as agents

Something of a revolution in the anthropological study of children has been recently brought about, however, by the rise of more interpretive, phenomenological and literary approaches. Here is a realization that children might be looked to for their own accounts of experience, of participation, activity and relationship in socio-cultural milieux and beyond, as distinct from an adult‘s construction or interpretation of these (cf. James 1993). Children’s social and emotional dependence do not mean that they may be regarded as mere passive recipients of adult expectations and knowledge—pawns in a process of conditioning socialization—or that adult assumptions and preoccupations provide the best basis for entering into or understanding worlds which may be built upon very different premises (cf. Amit-Talai and Wulff 1996). Unlike other ‘exotics’ whom anthropologists study, children might not have a formally distinct language (although this too is debatable), and they are taught to know and tell of themselves in (conventional) adult terms. Nevertheless, this ought not to detract from an appreciation of the way that children’s utilization of conventional forms and meanings is reformatory and idiosyncratic; whether through innocence (ignorance) or expertise (rejection), it is as much a matter of creation as of learning (cf. Bruner and Haste 1987).

In an important pair of studies, for instance, Briggs (1970, 1998) elucidates how, far from being givens, ‘Inuit children’ make ‘Inuit culture’, its institutions, rules, practices, values, habits of interaction and meanings, through processes whereby individuals experience themselves as agents engaged in emotionally charged conflicts with others. Individual Inuit children and Inuit culture are thus mutually created. Moreover, the process is ongoing; Inuit individuals never stop being ‘children’ creating their culture and their identities (Briggs 1992). Adult cognitions, in other words, can be expected to be as fluid, and contextually embodied, as those of children (Toren 1993). Rather than treating fixed socio-cultural categories, then—‘child’ and ‘adult’, ‘society’ and ‘culture’—what needs to be anthropologically examined are those interactions in which concepts, behavioural forms and meanings are created, recreated and acquired, and individuals become committed to their acquisitions (cf. Bluebond-Langner 1978). Pertinent studies of children as dynamic agents who learn (create) culture and society in interaction with other children and with adults would then include how Nepalese children’s understandings of caste, gender and the future at once reflect, resist and reinterpret adult conceptions (Skinner and Holland 1996), and how English children learn how to ‘belong’ to an English village milieu by creating public but individual identities for themselves (James 1986).

As Hockey and James conclude (1993), to appreciate children as actors in their own right is to convey a sense of individuals partaking in a number of ongoing tensions. To be a ‘child’ is to be both an agent and part of a world of socio-cultural structures run by adults: to be both an actor with an identity of its own and something which comes into its own only by a recognition of its difference from certain consociated others; to be both a symbol of change in a socio-cultural milieu and an aspect of continuity in socio-cultural reproduction; and to be both a phenomenon of local diversity in the world and one of global generality.


Nigel Rapport and Joanna Overing (2000), SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY :The Key Concepts, Routledge,  London and New York.