Developmental and Anthropological Approaches to Childhood

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Developmental and anthropological approaches to childhood have been paramount to the way people around the world view children. These two approaches have, in their own way, studied children and put forward their theories on childhood. It is important to look further into the key features of developmental and anthropological research of childhood and to determine the similarities and differences of their approaches as well as examine the application of each approach to childhoods across the world. Child development emerged as a scientific approach in the late eighteenth century with the work of Jean-Marc Itard as he set out to study ‘the wild boy of Averynon’ (Woodhead, 2013).

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Within this study, Itard used systematic approaches to determine the ‘normal’ development of the child (Lebrun, 1980). This signifies the main features of the developmental approach to childhood. By applying principles of observation, measurement, and experiment, his approach to studying development became the basis of the scientific practice to follow (Woodhead, 2013). On the other hand, anthropological views on childhood began in the late nineteenth century as anthropologists started to go on expeditions to remote parts of the world. Anthropologists are interested in underlining the connection between the individual and their cultural surroundings (Super & Harkness, 1986).

Participant observation emerged as one of the key aspects of anthropological studies, and it involved data being collected by observations and also from informants. An important feature of the anthropological research is ethnographic writing. This research method was used to try to describe and also explain life and culture. The method also involved long-term intensive field work and attempted to gain the subject’s perspective (Montgomery, 2013). One of the key ideas that the developmental approach is based on is the belief of defining stages in children’s ‘normal’ development and this led to the theory that children’s cognitive development was monitored through a sequence of stages (Piaget, 1964). These stages became a new way to observe children’s development, knowing a child’s age was the basis for understanding where they were in the life phase. With the introduction of mass education, children’s ‘normal’ development was clear to see. These experiments were reproduced around the world to position children within the stages of development. Anthropology developed a new theory with the work of Franz Boas, who worked to disprove that there were stable racial types (Sobo, 2015). Within this work, Boas showed the importance of the environment to development and reiterated that all cultural beliefs need to be studied objectively. This was very important in understanding children around the world. It started debates in other cultures regarding practices used on children. Some practices used in some countries were deemed unacceptable in other countries. Anthropologists needed to suspend judgment in these cases and focus on the way these cultures understood these practices (Zechenter, 1997). One such contentious practice is female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is the removal of the clitoris and other female sexual parts by use of a blade on children aged between the ages of four to twelve (Fishwick, 2018).

According to Fishwick (2018), it is performed and accepted in up to 28 African countries and over 100-140 million underaged girls are believed to have undergone this procedure. FGM is a violation of children’s rights as the child is not viewed as having the ability to consent to such a procedure. Some western cultural anthropologists have contested this view that FGM is a human rights abuse due to cultural relativity. These instances involving cultural relativity are usually complicated and the opinion of the people involved tends to change over time. (Dorkenoo, 2006) These two approaches, and the way they have evolved are important within ‘the new social studies of childhood’ (Montgomery, 2013, p. 178). One evident similarity that the two approaches share is the importance of observing children’s social relationships in a familiar setting. Anthropologists believed it was imperative to immerse yourself in the culture of the subject to be able to understand the child’s understanding of the surroundings (Montgomery, 2013). This is also supported by developmental researchers who believed it was vital to observe children in familiar settings to see stronger evidence of their understanding of other people’s points of view. During the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a new interest in studying children as the peoples started leaning to the application of scientific method to social issues. Considerations about children’s health and growth were magnified. There was a new cultural approach that examined how children’s development was established within certain settings and communities. Vygotsky believed that a child’s development should be measured with regards to specific economic, social and cultural contexts (Bucx, 2018).

Anthropologists also shared this view that the everyday lives of children were important and this led to an increase in the studies of particular aspects of children’s lives (CITE). They were extremely interested in observing different childhoods across the world and looking for evidence that differences in children were influenced by their cultural environment and not only biologically. Some other works by developmental researchers such as Bowlby and Levine showed some correlation with the anthropologists’ view of childhood development being affected by the environment. Bowlby looked at children’s need for care and concluded that some ways for caring for babies are natural and adaptive and others are unnatural and harmful (Bretherton, 1992). His original belief was that children’s need for care focused on one person (Bretherton, 1992). Levine looked further into the connection between universal development and how this was shown in different ways within different cultures (CITE). His work was interested in child-rearing and child development in diverse communities. This highlights that it is important to study child development within different cultures differently. The methods that anthropologists have used to study childhood is in contrast to the scientific methods used in developmental approaches to childhood. Anthropologists favoured the approach of being immersed in the lives of the people with whom they were studying, as mentioned above, and they also used informants to gather information on the people they were studying. These two methods of researching people created problems and sometimes made it difficult to get the accurate findings as they were not always able to participate fully in the lives of those people. Some critics claimed that the information giving by these informants was false and was exaggerated (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982).

When trying to understand childhoods from around the world, it is vital to look at how the developmental approach has been applied. Child development is an important part of every country in the world and most research has been undertaken in minority world societies. This information captured and compared with data has given researchers and scientists the ability to determine the level of child development in these countries and put programs in place to try and improve the child development (Westgard & Alnasser, 2017). The shift in anthropological approaches to view childhood as social construction has been vital in understanding childhoods across the world. The United Nations Convention on the rights of the child (UNRC, year) has been an important component in the influence of anthropologists. It was drafted under the premise that children have rights whoever they are and wherever they live. However, anthropologists have been uncomfortable about the assumption that childhood is universal that was presented in the convention. This has caused problems because of the belief in the convention that everyone under the age of 18 is a child. The difficulties that arise from this problem stem from cultural issues due to the things people of certain ages are allowed to do in different countries. For example, in Malaysia, the legal age for marriage is 18, but girls are allowed to marry at the age of 16 according to Islamic Law (Kim, Longhofer, Boyle & Nyseth Brehm, 2013). The key aspects of the developmental and anthropological approaches to childhood have been discussed and examined. Various methods and theories used within these approaches have been described and explained. Anthropological and developmental approaches are both integral to the study of childhood and can be used to help understand many areas within the spectrum of children and childhood across the world. Although both approaches include theories and methods with are sometimes contradictory to one another, there are also methods and theories which both disciplines use and acknowledge as important to the study of childhood and children.


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