Theory and Society

, Volume 43, Issue 1, pp 71–89 | Cite as

The theoretical costs of ignoring childhood: rethinking independence, insecurity, and inequality

  • Allison J. PughEmail author


Childhood scholars have found that age inequality can be as profound an axis of meaningful difference as race, gender, or class, and yet the impact of this understanding has not permeated the discipline of sociology as a whole. This is one particularly stark example of the central argument of this article: despite decades of empirical and theoretical work by scholars in “the social studies of childhood,” sociologists in general have not incorporated the central contributions of this subfield: that children are active social agents (not passive), knowing actors strategizing within their constraints (not innocent), with their capacities and challenges shaped by their contexts (not universally the same). I contend that mainstream sociology’s relative imperviousness has led to theoretical costs for both childhood scholars—who must re-assert and re-prove the core insights of the field—and sociologists in general. Using three core theoretical debates in the larger discipline—about independence, insecurity, and inequality—I argue that children’s perspectives can help scholars ask new questions, render the invisible visible, and break through theoretical logjams. Thus would further research utilizing children’s perspectives and the dynamics of age extend the explanatory power of social theory.


Childhood Inequality Insecurity Independence Social theory Culture 



This article has been through many iterations, including as the Jackson Memorial Lecture in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the “Childhood and Diversity—Multiple childhoods?” conference of the International Association of Francophone Sociologists –Research Committee on the Sociology of Childhood and the Canadian Sociological Association, as well as talks at a thematic session on children and childhood at the 2012 annual meetings of the American Sociological Association and at the University of South Florida. In addition to these helpful audiences, I am very grateful to Barrie Thorne, Jennifer Petersen, Jennifer Rubenstein, Jalane Schmidt, Jennifer Silva, Denise Walsh, and the Theory and Society reviewers for their comments on earlier versions. As editor, Raewyn Connell was particularly cogent and insightful in guiding revisions. This article was written with support from the United States Study Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia; the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Work-Family Career Development Grant; and the University of Virginia’s Faculty Summer Research Award in Humanities and Social Sciences.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA
  2. 2.United States Study CentreUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia

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