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AQA Sociology Book 1 (Including AS Level) - written by Webb, Westergaard, Trobe, and Townend

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Childhood as a Social Construct

Social Construct - something created by society, constructed from social meanings and definitions

Sociologists see childhood as socially constructed, arguing what people mean by childhood/ the position children occupy in society is not fixed but differs between different times/places/cultures.

We can see this by comparing the western idea of childhood today to childhood in the past and in other societies. 

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The Modern Western Notion of Childhood

Today, childhood is thought to be a special time in life. Children are thought of as fundamentally different from adults, regarded as physically and psychologically immature, not competent to run their lives.

Children's lack of skills/knowledge means they need a protected period of nurturing/socialisation before moving into adult society. 


  • Pilcher notes that childhood is seen as disticy life stage and children in our society occupy a separate status from adults, e.g. there are laws regulating what children are allowed/forbidden to do; differences in dress; products and services especially for children etc. 

A 'Golden Age'

  • In western societies, childhood is also seen as a 'golden age' of happiness/innocence, yet this means children are vulnerable, needing protection, their lives thus lived in the sphere of the family or education. 
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Cross-Cultural Differences in Childhood

One way to illustrate the social constructuion of childhoos is to look at how children are seen/treated in other times and places than our own. 

Benedict (1934) suggests 3 ways children from non-industrial societies are treated differently:

1) They take responsibility at an early age - expected to work in the home/community. Tasks are taken on without question or hesitation

2) Less value is placed on children showing obedience to authority - Firtch found among the Tikopia of the western pacific, doing as told by a grown-up is regarded as a concession, not a right to be expected by the adult.

3) Children's sexual behaviour is viewed differently - Malinowski found that among the Trobriand Islanders of the south-west pacific, adults took on an attitude of 'tolerance and amused interest' towards children's sexual activities. 

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The Globalisation of Western Childhood

Some argue that Western notions of childhood are being globalised. 

Humanitarian/welfare agencies have exported western norms of what childhood should be to the rest of the world - essentially separateness and childhood as a golden age (see previous cards). 

E.g. campaigns against child labour/concerns about 'street children' in developing countries reflect western views about how childhood ought to be - yet such activity may be the norm for the culture and seen as important preparation for adult life. 

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Aries: Historical Differences in Childhood

The position of children differs over time as well as between societies:

Pre-Industrial Society:

  • Aries argues that in the Middle Ages, the idea of childhood didn't exist. Children were not seen as having different needs from adults once they passed physical dependency during infancy. 
  • He uses paintings from the time to illustrate this: they often show children and adults dressed the same, working together and playing together - suggests they aren't all that different. 
  • Aries claims young people were regarded as 'little adults' - toys, games and clothes, especially for children did not exist. Youngsters were seen as an economic asset with the family a unit of production - working the land or engaged in crafts. In these processes, children were expected to help their parents from a very early age. 
  • Parental attitudes towards children were very different - Shorter argues high death rates encouraged indifference and neglect, especially towards infants. 
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Aries: The Modern Cult of Childhood

According to Aries, the modern notion of childhood began to emerge from the 13th Century:

  • schools came to specialise purely in the education of the young: there was a growing distinction between children's and adults' clothing; by the 18th century, handbooks on childrearing were widely available. 

According to Aries, these developments culminate in the modern 'cult of childhood' - a world obsessed with childhood. He describes the 20th century as 'the century of the child'.

However, ******* criticised the suggestion that there 'was no childhood in the past' - it is more correct to say the Middle Ages simply had a different notion of childhood than from today. 

Moreover, there are problems with using paintings as evidence, as paintings may only express the interpretation of the artist (subjective) and not of society as a whole. 

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Reasons for Changes in the Position of Children

  • Laws excluding children from paid work
  • The introduction of compulsary schooling in 1880
  • Child protection legislation - e.g. 1889 Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act
  • The growth of the idea of children's rights - e.g. the Children Act defines parents as having responsibilities rather than rights in relation to children 
  • Declining family size and lower IMR - have encouraged parents to make greater financial/ emotional investment in the fewer children that they now have
  • Children's development became the subject of medical knowledge - with theories of child development from the 19th century onwards stressing children need supervision and protection
  • Laws and policies that apply specifically to children - e.g. minimum age for sex and smoking have reinforced the idea that children are different from adults
  • Industrialisation - the shift from agriculture to factory production - underlies many of the above changes, e.g. modern industry needs an educated workforce and this requires compulsary schooling of the young. Higher standards of living and better welfare provision that industry makes possible then lead to lower IMRs
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The Future of Childhood

The Disappearance of Childhood

Postman argues childhood is disappearing, pointing to children being given the same rights as adults, the disappearance of children's unsupervised games, the similarity of adults'/children's clothing, and children committing 'adult' crimes such as murder. 

An 'Information Hierarchy'

  • Postman  argues this is caused by television culture. Previously, most people were illiterate, speech was the only skill needed for participation in the adult world, allowing children to enter it at an early age.
  • Childhood emerged as separate along with mass literacy, from the 19th century on, because the printed word created an information hierarchy: a sharp division between adults, who can read, and children, who cannot. 
  • However, TV blurs this distinction as it does not require specialist skills to access it

Opie argues childhood is not disappearing, citing research into games/rhymes as evidence of a continued existance of children's separate culture. Postman also exaggerates the importance of TV in the development of childhood. 

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The Future of Childhood

Childhood in Postmodernity

  • Jenks believes childhood is changing, not disappearing. In modern society, childhood was seen as a preparation for adult life. Vulnerable, undeveloped children thus needed to be protected and controlled. 
  • However, Jenks argues that childhood is now undergoing change as society moves from modernity to postmodernity. In postmodern society, relationships have become more unstable, so parents' relationships with children become more important as a source of adults' identity and stability. Adults therefore become more fearful for their children's security, resulting in even more surveillance and regulation of their lives. 

However, evidence used by Jenks comes from small, unrepresentative studies, meaning he is guilty of over-generalising. 

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Has the Position of Children Improved?

March of Progress View 

...argues that the position of children has been steadily improving, and today is better than ever before

Aries and Shorter argue that today's children are more valued, cared for, protected and educated, pointing to laws against child abuse/labour, and the many specialists who cater for their needs. Better healthcare/standards of living mean babies have a better chance of survival now too. 

The Child-Centred Family

March of progress sociologists argue that the family has become child-centred. Children are now the focal point of the family - whereas in Victorian times they were 'seen and not heard'. Parents invest a great deal in their children emotionally/financially, having high aspirations for them. It costs approximately £227,000 to raise a child to 21. 

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'Toxic Childhood'

As against the view that the position of children now is better than it has ever been, some writers suggest that children in the UK today are experiencing what Palmer (2007;2010) calls 'toxic childhood'.

She argues that rapid technological and cultural changes in the past 25 years have damaged children's physical, emotional and intellectual development. These changes range from junk food, computer games, and intensive marketing to children to the long hours worked by parents and the growing emphasis on testing in education. 

A UNICEF survey in 2013 ranked the UK 16th out of 29 for children's wellbeing. 

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Conflict View

Conflict sociologists argue that the march of progress view of modern childhood is based on false and idealised images that ignore inequalities.

They criticise the view on two grounds:

1) There are inequalities among children in terms of the opportunities and risks they face

2) The inequalities between children and adults are greater than ever

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Inequalities Among Children


  • Children of different nationalities experience different childhoods/ life chances. 90% of the world's low birth-weight babies are born in developing countries. 
  • Hillman argues boys are more likely to be allowed to cross or cycle on roads etc. Bonke found girls do 5x more housework than boys. 
  • Brannen found Asian parents were more likely than other parents to be strict towards their daughter. 
  • Poor mothers are more likely to have low birth-weight babies, linked to delayed physical/ intellectual development
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Inequalities Between Children and Adults

Firestone and Holt argue adults ude their greater power to oppress children, not benefit them. Firestone argues 'protection' from paid work is a form of inequality - making them more powerless and subject to adult control. Adult control takes a number of forms:

1) Neglect and Abuse - e.g. Childline receives 20,000 calls a year from children saying they have been abused, indicating a dark side to the family.

2) Controls over children's space - children's movements are highly regulated, e.g. in 1971, 86% of primary children were allowed to travel home alone compared to 25% in 2010. 

3) Controls over children's time - adults in modern society control children's routines and how quickly they grow up. They define whether a child is too old or too young for this or that.

4) Controls over children's bodies - e.g. clothing, how children sit or wear their hair; parents also restrict the way children may touch their own bodies, e.g. they may be told not to pick their nose, **** their thumb, or play with their genitals. 

5) Controls over access to resources - in industrial societies, children have a limited chance to earn money, remaining dependent on adults, e.g. labour laws/ compulsary scholing. 

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Age Patriarchy

'Age patriarchy' is the term used by sociologists Diana Gittins (1998) to describe inequalities between adults and children. 

She argues that there is an age patriarchy of adult domination/child dependency - seen through violence against children. For example, Humphreys and Thiara found that 1/4 of 200 women left their abusing partner because they had feared for their children's lives. 

Despite this, some adult control over children's lives is justified - children being unable to make rational decisions themselves - and although children remain under adult supervision, they are not powerless as might be claimed...

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The New Sociology of Childhood

There is a danger of seeing children from an 'adultist' viewpoint, as merely passive objects with no part in making their own childhoods. The 'new sociology of childhood' doesn't see children as simply 'adults in the making'; instead it sees children as active agents who play a major part in creating their own childhoods

The Child's Point of View

  • Smart says this new approach aims to include the views/experiences of children themselves while they are living through childhood. 
  • E.g. Mason and Tipper show how children actively create their own definitions of who is 'family'. Similarly, Smart's study of divorce found that children were far from being passive, children were actively involved in trying to make the situation better for everyone. 
  • Such studies make use of informal, unstructured interviews, which empower children to express their views and allow researchers to see the world from the child's point of view. 
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