Ethnographic Studies of Childhood: A Historical Overview



In this article, I briefly survey the ethnographic research literature on childhood in the 20th century, beginning with the social and intellectual contexts for discussions of childhood at the turn of the 20th century. The observations of Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead in the 1920s were followed by later ethnographers, also describing childhood, some of whom criticized developmental theories; still others were influenced initially by Freudian and other psychoanalytic theories and later by the suggestions of Edward Sapir for research on the child's acquisition of culture. The Six Cultures Study led by John Whiting at midcentury was followed by diverse trends of the period after 1960—including field studies of infancy, the social and cultural ecology of children's activities, and language socialization. Ethnographic evidence on hunting and gathering and agricultural peoples was interpreted in evolutionary as well as cultural and psychological terms. The relationship between ethnography and developmental psychology remained problematic.