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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    My main engagement here is with sociologists who study broad theoretical questions without considering children at all. I leave aside the large and interesting body of work by demographers who are interested in the impact of social phenomena on children’s outcomes (e.g., Musick and Meier 2012; 2010; Carlson and Corcoran 2001; Carlson and Berger 2013; Bianchi 1999).

  2. 2.

    In this article, I refer to the social studies of childhood and childhood studies interchangeably, to signify the large interdisciplinary field dedicated to the active child subject.

  3. 3.

    It is beyond the scope of this article to document the presence of these ideas in other fields, such as psychology or education, where some scholars have long taken issue with socialization, or have begun to complicate the universalizing characteristics of the developmentalist paradigm. Instead, our task here is to sketch out the constructionist views that unite the social studies of childhood, to make note of the intractability of essentialist visions of children—even within sociology, a discipline dedicated to mapping the social construction of inequality—and to outline at least three areas where that myopia has engendered costs to theory.

  4. 4.

    Yet there are also many other factors—beyond the insularity of the scholarly community—contributing to the intransigence of the ideology of projected childhood. Among these we might point to demographic changes as crucial, especially the decrease in children as a percentage of the population in developed nations, and the massive participation of mothers in the paid labor force. Both of these changes arguably contributed to a hyper-symbolization of children as the last vestige of home, the private sphere, of sacralized domesticity and all of its attendant cultural power (Zelizer 1985; Pugh 2009). The increasing homogeneity of adult life—in which women’s schedules increasingly look like men’s, as working hours converge—may serve further to demarcate children as the Other, those who continue to embody dependence even after more women are leaving that derogated status behind (Hochschild 2003; Fraser and Gordon 1994). In addition, adults surely find the ideology of projected childhood useful for their own ends, thus contributing to its longevity. Both passivity and innocence, for example, are entangled in the notion of children as victims, and, as Thorne (1987, p. 90) notes, media accounts of child victims often successfully deflect victim-blaming discourse, allowing for journalists to “convey the severity of problems that adults often face as well.” A full accounting of the reasons for the imperviousness of sociology to the insights of the social studies of childhood is beyond the capacities of this article.

  5. 5.

    Using “independence” thus to mean free of others’ influence, he argued that this new life stage contributed to increasing numbers of same sex and interracial partnerships (Rosenfeld and Kim 2005; Rosenfeld 2007). Critics largely ignored the cultural implications of this work, and focused on his empirical claims, contending that Rosenfeld may have underestimated the degree to which children formed transgressive unions earlier in history (Furstenberg 2007; Chananie-Hill 2008).

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Acknowledgments

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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Pugh, A.J. The theoretical costs of ignoring childhood: rethinking independence, insecurity, and inequality. Theor Soc 43, 71–89 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-013-9209-9

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Keywords

  • Childhood
  • Inequality
  • Insecurity
  • Independence
  • Social theory
  • Culture