On the anthropology of childhood

Yunnan, China.

While I was at the American Anthropological Association’s Annual Meeting in Montreal, Canada, I had the opportunity to hear a variety of inspiring panels given by scholars who work on the anthropology of childhood and like topics.  Two that particularly peaked my interest were one on the intellectual and moral legacies surrounding the theorizing of childhood and children in anthropology and another on cross-cultural challenges to attachment theory.

It’s impossible to summarize the breadth of topics covered by these panels, but I was impressed by the pragmatism uttered by almost all of the panelists who spoke on the anthropology of childhood.  Working in an arena where discourses of human rights and development dominate, these scholars are calling for anthropology to articulate an understanding of children and childhood that takes culture seriously, but also doesn’t shy away from making moral statements and arguments.  It was particularly interesting to hear Jo Boyden and Virigina May Morrow, both of whom work on the Young Lives Project, an international study of childhood poverty that employs both quantitative and qualitative researchers, talk about the importance an anthropological perspective can bring to weighing the complicated cultural costs and benefits of a global framework that touts success as exclusively tied to education.

When it comes to attachment theory, anthropologists have long been critical of the way in which the ethnocentrism evident in this perspective has led psychoanalysts and psychologists to pathologize a great expanse of childrearing practices and subsequent behaviors that don’t fall into this “norm.”  Instead, the papers on this panel gestured to a normative practice in the developing world, childrearing involving multiple caregivers.

Generally, in these collectivist cultures, children are raised to understand that family relations supersede individual feelings, and that there is a social hierarchy, which values elders above youth.  The point is that despite vast differences between Western cultures which value individualism and independence, these children are being socialized to be healthy participants in their own culture, and develop healthy attachments to those relations and values which will allow them to thrive and grow.

Of course, there are exceptions to this happy culturally relativistic picture, but the point that Robert A. LeVine made is that anthropologists can be instructive in not only enunciating these differences, but in curbing unproductive and deductive uses of attachment theory in academia today.  At one point anthropologist Bambi Chapin remarked on the limits of attachment theory, as it has unilaterally been applied to the attachment between the child and the mother, versus the very real attachment and need the mother has for the child.

This comment really struck a cord when it comes to my own research and the acceptance within Chinese culture (of not only multiple caregiving but also) of the parents’ need for the child and the function the child continues to play of caring for his/her parents in old age.  In foster care this means that there is a relative comfort and an understanding that parents have just as great a need for the child as the child does for the parents that isn’t often so apparent or visible in Western contexts.

I’m excited to continue to work with some of these ideas as my own research on foster care and childcare in China unfolds.  It’s encouraging to me to see anthropologists working toward enunciating other discourses beyond development and human rights (which have often failed to take culture seriously), and exciting for me to see where attachment theory can be instructive and also challenged within the context of Chinese families.

All photos courtesy of Evan Schneider

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2 thoughts on “On the anthropology of childhood

  1. Quite a beautiful post. I am very interested in anthropological studies on attachment relationships and this blog post really helped me get some information about that. Thank you!

    1. Thomas, sorry to for the late reply. Feel free to email me if you’re still looking for resources. This blog tends to be a blend of the personal and professional, so I’m glad somewhere in there you found something of substance. Would love to hear about your studies on anthropology and attachment. Best, Erin

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