📖[PDF] Childhood in a Global Perspective by Karen Wells | Perlego (2022)

About This Book

This popular book provides a compelling introduction to thinking about childhood in rigorous and critical ways. Karen Wells offers a unique global perspective on children's lives, showing how the notion of childhood varies widely and is continuously being radically re-shaped. Taking children seriously as active participants in society, the book explores key social issues such as how children are constituted as raced, classed and gendered subjects; how school and work operate as sites for the governing of childhood; and how children both shape and are shaped by politics, culture and the economy. Taking an engaging historical and comparative approach, the book discusses wide-ranging topics including children's rights, the family, play, labour, migration and trafficking. In addition to updated literature throughout, this revised third edition includes extensive new material on children's activism, politics and war, and a whole new chapter on juvenile justice. The book will continue to be of great value to students and scholars in the fields of sociology, geography, social policy and development studies. It will also be a valuable companion to practitioners whose work involves or impacts children, as well as to anyone interested in childhood in the contemporary world.

📖[PDF] Childhood in a Global Perspective by Karen Wells | Perlego (1)


This book is about children and childhood in a global context. In it I connect children’s experiences to changing ideas about and practices of childhood, drawing on research about children’s lives across the globe. I show how concepts of childhood shape children’s lives and how children, in turn, shape concepts of childhood. These concepts or ideas about what children should and should not do, of where children are safe and where they are at risk, and of where childhood begins and where it ends have been the central theme of the new social studies of childhood since its inception three decades ago (Jenks 1996; James and Prout 1990; James et al. 1998). These studies have been important in advancing our understanding of how childhood is shaped by cultural and social practices and processes. However, Childhood Studies has continued to focus on national contexts and has been dominated by accounts of North American and European childhoods. In an increasingly globalized world, a focus on national contexts has to be supplemented by an understanding of how local practices are impacted on by global processes and that where people live affects how they live. It is the task of this book to show that where children live affects what kinds of childhood they have and to explore how global flows and structures, including flows of capital, the activities of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and structures of international law, are reshaping childhood.

Is there a global form of childhood?

Although childhood is socially constructed and therefore people may have profoundly different expectations of children depending on the society and culture of any specific time or place, childhood also has universal features because all children, by virtue of their immaturity, have similar needs and limitations. Infants are dependent on others for their physical care: for food, shelter, hygiene and safety. An abandoned infant cannot survive for very long. Children also need emotional attachment and, as with their physical care, how and who forms emotional bonds with the young child can be subject to a great deal of variation, but the forming of strong emotional attachments to close caregivers is a universal feature of human society. Of course, the need for emotional attachment does not end with the end of childhood, but secure attachment is very important, cross-culturally, for the child’s wellbeing. If the infant’s biological immaturity makes them dependent on others for their physical care, the child can also be considered as socially and culturally immature. Children may not be born as blank slates but teaching young humans the whole range of cultural practices, from how to eat their food to living ethically or morally, is a shared concern of all human societies.

The dependency of the young child on others and their biological, social and cultural immaturity is a material fact that places limits on how plastic or constructed early childhood can be. Nonetheless the limits that the infant’s dependency places on the plasticity of childhood can be very broad. Europeans, for example, tend to think of the new-born child as being a ‘tabula rasa’: sometimes the idea of the child as a blank slate might extend back to the baby’s sensory awareness in the womb, but in any case it is the child’s sensory awareness (whether before or after she is born) that is the beginning of making marks on the blank slate of the child. This view contrasts very sharply with the widespread view in sub-Saharan Africa that infants remember the world they came from and indeed that, to stay in this world or even to become properly human, they have to forget that other life (Gottlieb 2004). Similarly, the infant has to be fed but who feeds the infant will vary from culture to culture. In eighteenth-century Europe wet-nursing was a widespread and acceptable practice but changing ideas about what the baby ingested with her mother’s milk made the practice less acceptable. In Amy Gottlieb’s study of child-raising among the Beng people in Cote d’Ivoire any lactating woman may feed the child and the child will only be passed back to her mother if she refuses other women’s milk.

The dialectic of childhood is not only, then, in the play between social structures and children’s agency; it also involves the movement between the materiality of the child’s body (its immaturity, size, vulnerability) and the sociality of the child’s lifeworld (Prout 2000; Wells 2018). This also means attending to age as an important element impacting both on how children experience the world and on what the social world expects of children. A young child, for example, will have a very different experience of the physical and the social world from a young teenager, and yet both might be discussed in the category of ‘child’ (Holloway and Valentine 2000: 7).

The new social studies of childhood: childhood is socially constructed and children have agency

While the biological capacities of young humans shape their capacities, this still leaves room for great plasticity and variation in how childhood is lived. Childhood is socially constructed, and children’s lives are profoundly shaped by constructions of childhood – whether in conformity, resistance or reinvention. The new social studies of childhood, whether from a historical, spatial or social perspective, have established that children’s lives are shaped by the social and cultural expectations adults and their peers have of them in different times and places; what concept of childhood prevails in any specific time or place is shaped by many factors external to a child, including the complicated intersections of age with ‘race’, gender and class.

Sociology of childhood

The new sociology of childhood established a field of inquiry about children (the lived experiences of children) and childhood (the concept that informs expectations and attitudes towards children) that sought to understand children’s lifeworlds as they were lived (Jenks 1982, 1996; James and Prout 1990; James et al. 1998). This focus on children as they are, rather than how their childhood experiences might shape the adults they may become, differentiates the sociology of childhood from other social science disciplines, particularly education and developmental psychology, that have been most engaged with the academic study of children and childhood. James and James contend that ‘“childhood” is the structural site that is occupied by “children” as a collectivity. And it is within this collective and institutional space of “childhood”, as a member of the category “children”, that any individual “child” comes to exercise his or her unique agency’ (James and James 2004: 15). They argue that the term ‘child’, which is often used, especially in policy discourse, in place of ‘children’, as if all children’s experience could be collapsed into a singular, uniform experience, dismisses the multiplicity of childhoods. The use of the term ‘the child’, as for example in the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child, implies that the child is an individual lacking collective agency.

In Constructing Childhood James and James claim that only the sociology of childhood recognizes children’s active agency, in contrast to ‘the more structurally determined accounts of childhood change offered by historians of childhood and the family, by developmental psychologists, social policy specialists, socialisation theorists and others’ (2004: 17); but perhaps this is overstating disciplinary differences. Histories of childhood and children are not only ‘structurally determined’, they also attempt to record and account for the interplay between children’s agency and the social structures that organize and constrain their lives. Similarly, the sociology of childhood has to consider how social structures constrain or at least shape the lives of contemporary children (Corsaro 2005). Nonetheless, they are right that a focus on children’s agency has been a defining feature of Childhood Studies.

Indeed, making children’s agency visible has been one of the core goals of the paradigm of Childhood Studies. David Oswell (2013) has argued for an understanding of children’s agency as always the product of social relations between children and other actors (human and non-human). This approach moves away from a liberal framing of agency as the capacity for action following from the will of an individual agent.

Another approach to theorizing children’s agency, articulated by Berry Mayall (2002) in her book on the lives of London children, is to approach children’s lives from a ‘child standpoint’. Standpoint theory, an approach developed by feminist scholars, claims that a subaltern social group, say women, or children, have a deep understanding of the structures of feeling developed through the experience of living within a patriarchal or agepatriarchal (Hood-Williams 1990) society. This experiential understanding enables a social group to theorize society more robustly precisely because they approach it from a particular standpoint. Feminist standpoint theory has been criticized for its implicit assumption that women’s life experiences are not radically fractured or cut across by other social locations, particularly race and class. The same critique can be made of child standpoint theory – that it emphasizes the common, age-based and generational experience of being a child over the way that experience is shaped by the raced and classed identities and locations that children occupy. Furthermore, child standpoint theory shares with participatory methods of child research the problem that the researchers working with children are not themselves children, a fact that undermines the credibility of applying standpoint theory and fully participatory methods to research with children.

James and James do note that childhood is a specific moment in the life course with common experiences that also has differences embedded in it that fracture or cut across the shared experiences of children and shared concepts of childhood in any particular time or space (2004: 22). Whilst this is clearly the case, the challenge of depicting and analysing how childhood is shaped by other social identities, including race, class and gender, has not been actively or extensively taken up within the contemporary sociology of childhood. Research on the childhoods of white and middle-class children are still the main focus of most Anglophone research in the sociology of childhood and frequently these children’s experiences are then extended to develop a general theory of childhood. This is to some extent, perhaps, connected to the emphasis on children’s agency within Childhood Studies and the concomitant underplaying of how structures (economy, the state, racism, class) overdetermine children’s lifeworlds.

This is not to say that the sociology of childhood pays no attention to social structures. The structure/agency binary is one of the classic binary structures that frame the discipline of sociology, and Childhood Studies is engaging with that binary (and not only the agency part of it) when it insists on the importance of children’s agency. Given the importance of school and family as structures of power in the lives of children, this means that the sociology of childhood runs alongside the sociology of education and the sociology of the family (BĂŒhler-Niederberger 2010). What made the sociology of childhood distinct from these two disciplines is its emphasis on children’s agency on the one hand, and on the other its identification of a set of processes, captured in the neologism ‘generationing’ (Huijsmans 2016), that produce adults and children as distinct subjects comparable to the way that racism and racialization produces race and sexism and gendering produces gender. These theoretical concepts suggest that there is such a thing as a global form of childhood, although in practice research on the exercise of agency by children in the Global South and practices of generationing has mostly been done by anthropologists, reproducing the classic divide of sociology’s interest in industrial and post-industrial societies and anthropology’s in rural or sub-cultural groups.

The sociology of childhood also emphasizes that childhood is a relational category that cannot be understood, in any time or place, without an understanding of the expectations of adulthood. Mayall identifies this as a ‘structural sociology of childhood’, contrasting it to ‘a deconstructive sociology of childhood’ and also to a ‘sociology of children’. It is within the ‘structural sociology of childhood’ that Mayall places her own work and that of Jens Qvortrup, both of whom deploy Mannheim’s concept of generation to understand how childhood is conceptualized and lived by cohorts of children (Mayall 2002: 27; see also Alanen 2001). It emphasizes the shared experiences of children. A deconstructive sociology of childhood, by contrast, attends to local constructions of childhood whilst the sociology of children stresses ‘children’s relations with adults in their daily lives’ (Mayall 2002: 22). These distinctions seem to me to be overdrawn. Qvortrup does argue for the use of the singular ‘childhood’ rather than the multiple ‘childhoods’, but his work is confined to the European context, in which there is a normative childhood against which the actual lived experiences of children are understood as being ‘normal’ or ‘pathological’ (Ovortrup 1994). Within any particular historical and social context there will be a normative and hegemonic concept of childhood against which children themselves are compared as individuals and collectives. Finally, although Mayall places her own work in the ‘structural sociology of childhood’ (2002: 23), elsewhere in the same book she argues for the importance of understanding children not only as actors but also as agents (2002: 21).

History of childhood

In 1960 Philippe Aries published his seminal study L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien rĂ©gime. This book, first published in English in 1962 as Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, has been the key reference point for the debate on whether the concept of childhood is an invention of the modern period. Aries’s argument was essentially that in the Middle Ages in Europe there was no concept of children as a separate category of people requiring special or distinctive treatment from adults. He argued that as soon as children left the dependent state of early childh...

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APA 6 Citation

Wells, K. (2021). Childhood in a Global Perspective (3rd ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2328885/childhood-in-a-global-perspective-pdf (Original work published 2021)

Chicago Citation

Wells, Karen. (2021) 2021. Childhood in a Global Perspective. 3rd ed. Wiley. https://www.perlego.com/book/2328885/childhood-in-a-global-perspective-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Wells, K. (2021) Childhood in a Global Perspective. 3rd edn. Wiley. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2328885/childhood-in-a-global-perspective-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

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