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The Sociology of Childhood

Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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The sociology of childhood is one topic that can come up in the exam. It’s usually one of those topics that teachers cover over a bit quickly and you tend not to find too much about it in the textbooks.  So when it does come up, everyone - across the whole country - does badly at it.  The next year, teachers, ever ready to lock the stable door, do it to death. And the year after that. Then they slip back to their old ways.  Then it comes back again!  Who know’s, maybe it will return again this year.  Well, if you want to make sure you’re prepared for anything, check out these notes of mine. I’ve thrown in a couple of studies which aren’t so commonly used. This will be in two parts - another chunk tomorrow.

The Social Construction of Childhood and Age

Age is an important aspect of stratification which has a crucial bearing on our status and identity since it determines whether and what sort of employment we can gain, whether we can marry, as well as things such as the sort of leisure activities we can join in, whether we can go into pubs and clubs, and the sorts of films we can watch.

Sociologists would argue that they way western societies mark age chronologically (in terms of time, years, etc) is culturally specific, and indeed a particular characteristic of industrialised societies.  Thus we talk about ‘eighteen year olds’, and ‘seventy year olds’.  We also have many implicit assumptions concerning the age at which a person can be considered an adult, when they are middle aged, and what counts as ‘old’.  This is how our culture describes and measures age.  Concepts of age are however, not fixed, not natural, and not universal.  They are socially constructed.  Simple cross-cultural comparison bears this out.  As Jane Pilcher points out, in many cultures, such as the Hausa and the Chisunga of Africa, it has been puberty which marks the beginning of adulthood, not age in years.

Hockey and James argue that the western view of age is something which largely came about with the development of industrial society.  In pre-industrial society, where the family could be considered to be a unit of production, a person’s age was not such a crucial determinant of their ability to work.  Children for instance, were less likely to lead such a privileged existence as they were to acquire in industrial society, and were more likely to join in and help in productive activity.  Hockey and James, drawing on a wide range of historical evidence, argue that industrialization led to the exclusion of children, women, and the elderly from paid employment. 

Hockey and James argue that the exclusion of these categories of people from paid employment was the result for a desire for status which started amongst the aspiring middle classes and worked its way down to the working classes.  This was a result of the middle classes desire to emulate the leisurely lifestyle of the aristocracy, and it became desirable and indeed symbolic of a persons social status, to demonstrate that they did not need to work.  This view was also adopted by the working classes, and expressed through the trade unions as a demand for a ‘family wage’ for male workers.  In the nineteenth century, the trade unions succeeded in this demand, thus helping to construct childhood as we know it, by excluding children from work and instead sending them to school.

Hockey and James claim that the young and the old are infantilised – that is, they are turned into helpless infants dependent upon the support of adults (and particularly adult males – see social policy), in our society.  At the same time, children and childhood are often romanticised; children are seen as innocent and childhood sexuality is generally denied.  As Margaret Mead’s cross-cultural studies of the Samoan islanders in the 1950s indicated, this is not inevitable, and different societies have very different rules and views about children’s sexuality.  Mead conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the Samoans, and she found the islander’s culture was much more tolerant of children’s sexual curiosity, rather than treating it as a disciplinary matter, as was the case in 1950s America.

 



 

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