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Until recently, child development was accepted as the perspective through which children were understood and socialization the primary way in which sociologists thought about children. An increasing number of scholars now view childhood as socially constructed and children as actors in their own social worlds rather than simply as incomplete persons who are in the process of becoming adults. Courses using this perspective explore social constructions of childhood held by adults and embodied in institutions through time and across places, and how biology, gender, social class, and social location affect the everyday lives of children in families, schools, and other social contexts.

Author recommends

Johnson, Heather Beth 2001. ‘From the Chicago School to the New Sociology of Children: The Sociology of Children and Childhood in the United States, 1900–1999.’Advances in Life Course Research (Children in the Millennium: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going?) 6: 53–93.

This article reviews the place of children in sociological research during the 20th century. Children were of interest as objects of socialization and when they engaged in deviant behavior, although they were largely ignored as unworthy of serious sociological attention until the last two decades of the century. Debates among recent scholars about what stance should be taken toward children in the ‘new’ sociology of childhood are outlined.

Waksler, Frances Chaput (Ed.) 1991. Studying the Social Worlds of Children: Sociological Readings New York, NY: Falmer Press.

In this classic collection, including several chapters by the editor, Waksler pulled together articles that provides evidence that sociologists’ underestimate the capacity of children to make sense of their worlds and to act on them. Both theoretical statements and empirical research are included, as is a chapter that is the precursor to Waksler's book, The Hard Times of Childhood and Children's Strategies for Dealing with Them (1996, New York, NY: Falmer Press).

Small, Meredith F. 2001. Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Our Children. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Small, an anthropologist intrigued with ‘ethnopediatrics’, brings together scientific research on the capacities of infants and children and evidence of the way childhood is organized in various societies.

Zelizer, Viviana A. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York, NY: Basic Books.

This classic work in economic sociology provides a wealth of detail about how children's lives in the USA were affected by their changing value/social construction, especially in the early 20th century. Many current institutions and beliefs, which are now taken for granted, were developed during this period, for better or worse.

Lareau, Annette 2003. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Findings from Lareau's extensive, ethnographic research on differences between the everyday family lives of middle-class and working-class children are reported in this book. The results of her analysis make clear that adults’ social constructions of children shape the experience of childhood and that even within one society there can be systematic variation in the social construction of children that results in marked differences in children's everyday lives.

Corsaro, William A. 2005. The Sociology of Childhood, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Corsaro has been conducting ethnographic research with preschool children in various forms of care and reporting on it for more than 25 years. His textbook focuses primarily on preschool children and how they interact with one another to form their own peer cultures. The book includes many episodes of interaction among children that ground his arguments.

Adler, Patricia and Peter Adler 1998. Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

This book presents findings from the Adlers’ study of peer culture among elementary school-aged children in a Colorado community. The importance of friendship and popularity to the children is examined, particularly in school, as well as the significance for children of extracurricular activities.

Mayall, Berry 2002. Towards a Sociology for Childhood: Thinking from Children's Lives. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Mayall brings together data from the four research projects she conducted with colleagues in Great Britain in the 1990s to write an overview of what she learned about doing research with children and from listening to their points of view. The book includes children's assessments of their lives and relationships.

Lee, Nick 2001. Childhood and Society: Growing up in an Age of Uncertainty. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Lee focuses on childhood as an institution in the late 20th century and explores the ambiguity of contrasting the social construction of adults as ‘human beings’ with the social construction of children as ‘human becomings’. His perspective is both macro and global and includes information about how decisions made by such institutions as the United Nations and the World Bank affect children in various countries.

Online materials

Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that collects and analyzes data; conducts, synthesizes, and disseminates research; designs and evaluates programs; and develops and tests promising approaches to research in the field. For researchers and educators, this Web site includes a link to research that provides the latest data and information for developing, evaluating, and guiding effective programs and research relevant to the overall health and well-being of children and youth (http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/) and includes key indicators of child well-being.

Kids Count is a national and state-by-state effort to track the status of children in the USA by providing policy-makers and citizens with benchmarks of child well-being. The Social Science Data Analysis Network (SSDAN) is working with professors to introduce Kids Count data into social science courses through course modules, exercises, and access to other data available on their Web site (http://www.ssdan.net/kidscount/).

The Economic and Social Research Council Research Programme on Children 5–16: Growing into the 21st century, under the direction of Alan Prout from 1995–2000, funded 22 different research projects that examined children's lives by treating children as social actors. The Web site includes a description of the programme, research findings, and an extensive bibliography.

The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics is a working group of federal agencies that collects, analyzes, and reports data on issues related to children and families. The forum's annual report, America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, provides a summary of national indicators of child well-being and monitors changes in these indicators over time.

The UNICEF Web site focuses on the well-being of children in countries around the world, particularly on their health and their mothers’ ability to provide for them.

Sample syllabus

Course Outline and Reading Assignments

1 Recognizing the capacities of newborn children

Meredith F. Small, Chapter 1, Kids’ World, and Chapter 2, The Evolution of Childhood, in Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Our Kids.

2 Social construction of childhood in different times and places

a Children's place in the past

Coldrey, Barry M. 1999. ‘“... a Place to Which Idle Vagrants May Be Sent”: The First Phase of Child Migration during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.’Childhood and Society 13: 32–47.

deMause, Lloyd 1974. ‘Infanticide and the Death Wishes toward Children;’‘Abandonment, Nursing, and Swaddling.’ Pp. 25–39 in The History of Childhood. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

b Children's place in other societies

Schildkrout, Enid 2002 [1978]. ‘Age and Gender in Hausa Society: Socio-Economic Roles of Children in Urban Kano.’Childhood 9 (3): 344–68.

c Changing value of children in American society in the 20th century

Zelizer, Viviana 1985. Selected chapters from Pricing the Priceless Child.

d Children's place in American society in the 21st century

Zelizer, Viviana 2002. ‘Kids and Commerce.’Childhood 9 (4): 375–96.

Cook, Daniel Thomas 2000. ‘Childhood is Killing “Our” Children: Some Thoughts on the Columbine High School Shootings and the Agentive Child.’Childhood 7: 107–17.

3 The ‘new’ sociology of childhood: Agency and competence

Waksler, Frances Chaput 1986. ‘Studying Children: Phenomenological Insights.’Human Studies 9 (1): 71–82.

Alanen, Leena 1988. ‘Rethinking Childhood.’Acta Sociologica 31 (1): 53– 67.

Matthews, Sarah H, 2007. ‘A Window on the “New” Sociology of Childhood.’

4 Collecting data from and about children

Christensen, Pia Haudrup 2004. ‘Children's Participation in Ethnographic Research: Issues of Power and Representation.’Children and Society 18: 165–76.

Davis, John M. 1998. ‘Understanding the Meanings of Children: A Reflexive Process.’Childhood and Society 12: 325–35.

5 Inside the black box of early childhood socialization

Clawson, Dan and Naomi Gerstel 2002. ‘Caring for our Young: Child Care in Europe and the United States.’Contexts 1 (4): 28–35.

Corsaro, William 1979. ‘“We’re Friends, Right?” Children's Use of Access Rituals in a Nursery School.’Language in Society 8: 315–36.

Corsaro, William and L. Molinari 1990. ‘From seggiolini to discussione: The Generation and Extension of Peer Culture among Italian Preschool Children.’International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 3: 213–30.

6 Children's participation in everyday life

aFamily

Lareau, Annette 2002. ‘Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black and White Families.’American Sociological Review 67: 747–76.

Dodson, Lisa and Jillian Dickert 2004. ‘Girls’ Family Labor in Low-Income Households: A Decade of Qualitative Research.’Journal of Marriage and Family 66: 318–32.

Nettleton, Sarah 2001. ‘Losing a Home through Mortgage Repossession: The Views of Children.’Children and Society 15: 82–94.

b School

Sherman, Ann 1997. ‘Five-year-olds’ Perceptions of Why We Go to School.’Childhood and Society 11: 117–27.

Adler, Patricia A., Steven J. Kless, and Peter Adler 1992. ‘Socialization to Gender Roles: Popularity among Elementary School Boys and Girls.’Sociology of Education 65: 169–87.

Adler, Patricia A. and Peter Adler 1995. ‘Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion in Preadolescent Cliques.’Social Psychology Quarterly 58 (3): 145–62.

c ‘Free’ time

Lareau, Annette 2000. ‘Social Class and the Daily Lives of Children: A Study from the United States.’Childhood 7 (2): 155–71.

Rasmussen, Kim 2004 ‘Places for Children – Children's Places.’Childhood 2004: 155–73.

7 Children's rights/parental rights

Smith, Anne B. and Nicola J. Taylor 2003. ‘Rethinking Children's Involvement in Decision-Making After Parental Separation.’Childhood 10 (2): 201–16.

Van Krieken, Robert 1999. ‘The “Stolen Generations” and Cultural Genocide: The Forced Removal of Australian Indigenous Children form Their Families and Its Implications for the Sociology of Childhood.’Childhood 6 (3): 297–311.

8 Current global issues

a UN rights of the child

Jans, Marc 2004. ‘Children as Citizens: Towards a Contemporary Notion of Child Participation.’Childhood 11 (1): 27–44.

Roche, Jeremy 1999. ‘Children: Rights, Participation and Citizenship.’Childhood 6 (4): 475–93.

b Children's place in the 21st century

Penn, Helen 2002. ‘The World Bank's View of Early Childhood.’Childhood 9 (1): 118–32.

Bey, Marguerite 2003. ‘The Mexican Child: From Work with the Family to Paid Employment.’Childhood 10 (3): 287–99.

Aptekar, Lewis and Behailu Abebe 1997. ‘Conflict in the Neighborhood: Street and Working Children in the Public Space.’Childhood 4: 477–90.

Films and videos

A Baby's World

A Whole New World (ages newborn to 1 year)

 The Language of Being (ages 1–2 years)

 Reason and Relationships (ages 2–3 years)

This series of videos, each approximately 1-hour in length, summarizes and illustrates evidence of the remarkable and often misinterpreted capacities of infants and toddlers.

The Orphan Trains

This video is a good companion to Viviana Zelizer's book Pricing the Priceless Child. In addition to depicting conditions for some urban children in US cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, interviews in old age with the last children who were shipped West in the 1920s highlight the vulnerability of children in societies that are unprepared to take responsibility for them when their parents are unable to provide care.

Michael Apted's 7 Up through 49 Up

This documentary film series, which began in 1964 with 14 7-year-olds whom Apted has since revisited every 7 years to produce a new film, raises questions about the relationship between childhood and adulthood.

Project ideas

1. This assignment is intended to make students aware of the presence (or absence) of children in their daily rounds – when, where and under what conditions they share space with children.

Choose two days on which your daily schedule is different (e.g., a weekday and a weekend day) and record every instance in which you come in contact with children. Do not go out of your way to encounter children. Just go about your daily rounds. Record the time, place (including who is present if it is not obvious), age of children, your relationship to the children, and what you and the children are doing. Include children whom you know well, children with whom you are acquainted, and children who are strangers. Concentrate especially on the last category because it is the one that you probably attend to least in your daily rounds. Also be sure to indicate what your role in each setting is. Once you have collected these data, write a summary of your contact with children in your daily life. What children do you encounter, how often, under what conditions? What is your relationship to the children in your life?

2. This assignment is intended to explore how children are constrained by adult rules and power.

Observe children in an ‘adult’ setting and identify adults’ rules for children in that setting. Justify the choice of setting as ‘adult’, e.g., children are not ‘supposed’ to be there (a bar/pub), children are a disturbance (an exclusive expensive restaurant). Consider both adults’ rules for children's behavior in the setting and children's options and resources. Address the questions: Where do children fit in adult worlds? What roles are they expected to play?

3. This assignment is used in conjunction with Annette Lareau's work on differences in the way working and middle class children are treated by adults.

Students choose two school districts whose borders correspond to a community and that have widely different percentages of children who passed the fourth-grade proficiency test in a specified year. In Ohio, this information is available on the website of the Department of Education. Students then retrieve demographic data from the Web site of the US Census about the two school districts/communities, including but not limited to:

  • (i) 
    Proportion of School Age Children = Percentage of population age 5–17
  • (ii) 
    Community Stability = Percent of rental occupied housing units
  • (iii) 
    Community Education Level = Percentage of population aged 25 and over with Bachelor's Degree or higher
  • (iv) 
    Community Income Level = Median family income
  • (v) 
    Poverty Level = Percent of families below poverty level

In a paper, students summarize and interpret the findings. In addition, put the data from all the districts/communities into one table with the percentages of students who passed the exam in the first column in descending order.