Learning about Culture from Children: Lessons from Rural Sri Lanka

  • Bambi L. Chapin
Part of the Culture, Mind, and Society book series (CMAS)


In this chapter, Chapin argues that research with children is crucial for developing a more robust theory of culture. Drawing on her ethnographic work with Sinhala children in a predominantly Buddhist village in central Sri Lanka, Chapin makes five points about culture. (1) People develop and assemble personal versions of cultural models through culturally patterned experience beginning in childhood, where this largely occurs through everyday interaction with important others. (2) As cultural models are derived through this kind of experience, they are imbued with emotions and motivations. (3) It is also through this process that pieces of culture may acquire psychodynamic underpinnings, giving them unconscious force. (4) As people grow and age, the human developmental life course presents varying opportunities for cultural lessons to be learned differently; at the same time, the course of that development is fundamentally shaped by culturally patterned experience. (5) Understanding these lessons about how people acquire culture beginning in childhood helps to explain both cultural patterning and cultural variation and change. Chapin illustrates these points with observations in Sri Lankan homes about hierarchy in everyday caregiving, responses to children’s demands, and the development of attachment and autonomy.



The research presented in this chapter would not have been possible if it were not for the willingness, generosity, and patience of the research participants in Sri Lanka and my assistant, Inoka Baththanage. I would also like to thank Cindy Del Clark and the Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for the invitation to develop a paper for their 2015 conference session on “Understanding Culture Better via Child Research” that has evolved into this chapter. I have also benefited from the astute insight of Naomi Quinn, editor to this volume, and conversations with fellow contributors, especially following the session at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the AAA where we presented preliminary versions of several of our chapters.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bambi L. Chapin
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Health Administration & PolicyUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)BaltimoreUSA

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