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You may, as you wish, directly address the questions presented here, or send in a text responding to one or some of them (or taking up some other issue that seems to you relevant). Whichever way, we would be grateful if you could keep your answers to a maximum of 10 pp. (1.5 spaced, 12-point type). Please use the author-date in-text citation system for any references in the format [Smith 2002: 12], i.e. author/date (no comma) in square brackets, appending a list of ‘References’ at the end with full publication details: Author: e.g. Smith M. A.; Article title: e.g. ‘Visual Anthropology’; Journal title: e.g. Ethnology. 2002. No. 3. Pp. 14–19; or alternatively, Author: e.g. Smith M. A.; Book title: e.g. Visual Anthropology. Place: Publisher, date, pages: e.g. London: Anvil Press, 2002. 356 pp. Please send replies by 31 May 2019 to forum.for.anthropology()gmail.com, with a copy to catriona.kelly()new.ox.ac.uk; your email address should be included in any attached file. We hope that the discussion will appear in the autumn of 2019.
Forum 42: Children as Subjects
In the early 1990s, advocates of the ‘new sociology of childhood’ were able to demonstrate that the influence of developmental psychology on sociological theories of child development had led to the conceptualisation of children as inchoate organisms, capable of attaining independence only subject to socialisation within the family or in education institutions [Qvortrup 1994]. The ‘new sociology of childhood’, by contrast, placed the individual personality of the child and his or her personal interests at the centre of scholarly investigation. Despite the significant impact of these discussions, their central presuppositions remain to a significant degree controversial [Lancy 2012], and some scholars question how far one can modify or mitigate the empowerment of the person directing research relative to the child (i.e. adjust the adult perspective) [Dudenova 2014], and, indeed, whether modification or mitigation may be possible in the first place.
The focus on child-centred perceptions in academic work goes in parallel with the drive to overcome discrimination against children and to acknowledge their social agency. On the one hand, awareness of social processes in the present day enhances attention to children’s culture, yet on the other, this can provoke accusations of undue sensitivity to the prevailing ideological moods of the present. And criticism of this order is often well-founded, since adherence to the tenets of the new sociology often fails to go beyond empty gesticulation. Unlike gender studies or women’s studies, the study of childhood still often presents children as the passive objects of acculturation — as observers or those who enact the ideas of others, or, on the other hand, consumers.
The drive to explain the conceptual foundations of children’s subjectivity is fraught with methodological problems. The adoption of methods that allow direct contact with children is likely to run into severe difficulties — legal, institutional, psychological, ethical, among others. If the material used is, say, memoirs by adults of their experiences in childhood, or on the other hand, texts written by children themselves (diaries, letters, and so on), then sources of this kind often inspire scepticism and arguments about their likely lack of objectivity, and/or doubts about the capacity of children to create texts that are free from the ideological and discursive models offered by the world of adults.
In the context of these discussions, you are asked to consider the following questions:
1. Is it possible to overcome the power asymmetry between researchers and their subjects in the study of childhood, or at the very least to reduce the gulf between researchers and the objects of their studies?
2. In which areas (disciplinary, thematic, etc.) of the study of childhood is it legitimate or requisite to accommodate the ‘voice’ or ‘perspective’ of children themselves? In which does this endeavour strike you as dubious or problematic? What value does a child-centered approach hold for your own investigations?
3. Where, in your view, should one see the relation between the attention to children’s subjectivity in academic work and the public acknowledgement of children’s agency as political and legal subjects?
4. Which research materials and methods of investigation/analytical instruments facilitate understandings of children’s culture that are unmediated by adult perceptions and representations?
Thank you very much!
Dudenkova I., ‘“Detskii vopros” i sotsiologiya: mezhdu normativnostyu i avtonomiei [The ‘Children Question’ and Sociology: Between Normativity and Autonomy], Sotsiologiya vlasti, 2014, no. 3, pp. 47–59.
Lancy D., ‘Unmasking Children’s Agency’, AnthropoChildren, 2012, no. 2, pp. 1–20.
Qvortrup J., Childhood Matters: Social Theory, Practice and Politics. Avebury: Aldershot, 1994, 395 pp.
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