Key Concepts in Childhood Studies


Allison James & Adrian James

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    About the Authors

    Allison James is Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth at the University of Sheffield. She is also Professor II at the Norwegian Centre of Child Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. Allison James has worked in the sociology/anthropology of childhood since the late 1970s and has helped pioneer the theoretical and methodological approaches to research with children which are central to childhood studies. Her work focuses on children as social actors and her empirical research has included exploring children's language and culture in relation to theories of socialisation, children's attitudes towards sickness and bodily difference and children's experiences of everyday life at home and at school. Recent funded research has examined children's perceptions of hospital space and children as participants in family food practices. Currently, she is developing a child-centred approach to understanding socialisation. Key publications include: Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (1990/1997). Basingstoke: Falmer (with A. Prout); Theorising Childhood (1998). Cambridge: Polity (with C. Jenks and A. Prout); Research with Children (2000). London: Falmer (with Pia Christensen); Constructing Childhood: Theory, Policy and Social Practice (2004). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (with A.L. James); Children, Food and Identity (2009). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (with A.T. Kjørholt and V. Tingstad).

    Adrian James is Emeritus Professor of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. He trained and practised as a probation officer and was subsequently extensively involved in their training. After becoming an academic in 1978, he researched and published widely in the field of socio-legal studies, including the completion of two major ESRC-funded projects on child welfare and divorce. Appointed as Professor of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Bradford in 1998, he became Professor of Social Work at the University of Sheffield in September 2004, during which time he was also Professor II at the Norwegian Centre for Child Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. He was a Special Adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department when it scrutinised the work of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) in 2002–03. His recent books include: Constructing Childhood: Theory, Policy and Social Practice (2004). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (with Allison James); The Child Protection Handbook (3rd edn) (2007). London/Edinburgh: Elsevier/Ballière-Tindall (with K. Wilson): and European Childhoods: Cultures, Politics and Childhoods in Europe (2008). Basingstoke: Palgrave (with Allison James). The first edition of Key Concepts in Childhood Studies (also with Allison James) was published by Sage in 2008.


    We are delighted to have had the opportunity to revisit our Key Concepts in Childhood Studies in the second edition of this book. This has given us the chance to add some new concepts that, somewhat mysteriously, we did not think to include first time round. Or perhaps it is the case that, with increasing interest being shown in childhood studies, as well as the changes occurring in childhood and for children themselves globally, these concepts have come into more prominent view since the first edition was published and now need to be given greater attention? Whatever the reason, we have now included 12 additional entries to make good this omission, though no doubt we could have added even more and some may yet disagree with the choices we have made about what, exactly, constitutes a key concept in childhood studies! However, we have also taken the opportunity to revise the original entries, updating them by including additional or new references where we have felt these were needed and, in some cases, expanding our original definitions through further material and cross-referencing.

    We hope that, like the first edition, this volume will continue to prove a valuable resource for those who are new to childhood studies.


    The title of this book is to a large extent self-explanatory – it seeks to define, introduce and explain to the reader in straightforward terms the key concepts that underpin the social study of childhood. In this sense, this book is intended to be a useful reference source for anyone wanting to study children and childhood in a social context. However, in the process of defining these key concepts, we have also sought to make clear the evolving political and social arenas in which childhood studies is located and the epistemological roots that support it. This is important, since the ‘concepts’ we explore are neither fixed nor free-standing; rather, they are embedded in particular social, cultural and historical contexts. This book represents, therefore, our own evolving understanding of children and childhood; the concepts we discuss are what, at this moment, seem to us to be the most important and influential ideas.

    Many of the concepts we have identified and written about are not unique to childhood studies; they ‘belong’ to particular disciplines, such as sociology or psychology, or to the wider discourses of the social sciences, or even to the language of daily social life. As a consequence, we sometimes found that it was no easy task to define them before explaining them, precisely because, in many cases, their meaning is so widely understood. In framing the definitions we eventually decided upon, we occasionally struggled to find a new or different way of defining the relatively commonplace. On some occasions, we resorted therefore to standard sources of reference, such as dictionaries, for inspiration about where to start; on others, we found that the concepts had been so thoroughly deconstructed, refined and rehearsed in various public arenas that it proved almost impossible not to draw upon definitions about which there is now a wide consensus. In each and every case, however, we have sought to build upon the common meanings or definitions of these terms, in order to identify what is different or problematic about them and how they are used and understood in the context of childhood studies.

    This, too, tells us a lot about childhood studies. Part of the challenge confronting the pioneers in this field has been to problematise that which is self-evident – namely, children and childhood. Children and childhood are so integral to the human experience and the human life-course that we can all claim to be ‘experts by experience’, many of us as parents and all of us as children. However, rather than being an advantage, this prior, everyday knowledge complicates the process of studying children and childhood because we may find it difficult to set this knowledge aside. One of our aims in the book has been, therefore, to enable the reader to think carefully and reflexively about concepts which they may think they already know by casting new light on taken-for-granted ideas about children and childhood.

    Another of our starting points has been the acknowledgement that childhood is a complex phenomenon, which therefore requires complex understandings that cannot be arrived at by looking through a single disciplinary lens. This, too, has been a challenge for us. Given our own disciplinary backgrounds, it is inevitable that we have tended to favour the perspectives of sociology and social anthropology in exploring the various concepts we have included in this volume. We are clear, however, that even though it might be argued with some justification that childhood studies owes most in terms of its theoretical development to sociology, childhood studies must be conceived of as an area of interdisciplinary scholarship. Our choice of key concepts recognises that history, geography, psychology, economics, medicine, social policy, law, pedagogy, art and literature have all also made important contributions to the study and understanding of children and childhood. Taken together, these provide a multi- and interdisciplinary framework within which the different parameters of childhood and the lives of children can be studied.

    This does not mean that the concepts explored here are exhaustive, for there are other players in the childhood field that receive less attention in this volume. For example, there has been a long-standing research interest in the field of early childhood studies. Primarily, this work is concerned to study young children during the early stage of the life-course to enable adults in general, and teachers in particular, to be more effective and efficient in terms of child-rearing and social pedagogy. In this sense, this work can often have a very particular and instrumental framing. Childhood studies, as represented by the concepts included in this book, is conceived of in much broader terms; it is concerned with the social study of all childhoods and all children of all ages, in their own right and not just as a means to an end.

    It has also been important for us in identifying what are, indeed, the key concepts in childhood studies, to acknowledge the contribution made by the children's rights ‘movement’, which has a very different, although arguably complementary, agenda. The growth of interest in children's rights received a major boost from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) 1989, which has provided the focus for much debate and research into the lives of children. This has become an important focus of the research carried out by many non-governmental organisations around the world and has made use of the research and theorising done in the field of childhood studies more generally. Childhood studies has, in turn, also come to draw on the conceptualisations of children's rights, capabilities and participation developed by researchers from these organisations, which has led to some blurring of the lines between ‘research’ and ‘action’.

    However, although childhood studies has many overlaps with both the agenda of early childhood studies and the children's rights movement, as an area of scholarship its aims are rather different. The primary concern of childhood studies is to extend our knowledge and understanding of childhood and its complexities, rather than to engage directly in social or political interventions in children's lives. This is not, of course, to suggest that the study of childhood is or should be entirely self-referential and that its sole purpose is its own theoretical development; it is both proper and desirable that the insights and understandings gained from such research should be applied in the social world. It is possible, however, to argue that childhood studies must be able, and must safeguard its capacity, to look beyond application for its raison d'être. Thus the concepts we have chosen to explore reflect this aim and purpose and, in this sense, they do not constitute a comprehensive reference source for all the research work and interest that there is in children and childhood today.

    This, then, is the perspective on childhood studies that is presented through the key concepts explored in this volume. Defining any developing field of study in this way is an inherently risky venture; precisely because it is developing, there will be those who disagree with our selection of what we believe to be the key concepts, or our understanding of these, or both. In our view, this is a risk worth taking, not least because if our attempts to define the social study of childhood do lead to challenges and disagreements, this will lead to debate and to further clarification. And it is through such a process that new fields of academic endeavour evolve and mature and eventually come to realise their full potential. This, ironically, provides us with a metaphor for childhood itself, as a developmental stage in a process of growth towards maturity. Only in retrospect, and at a later stage in the life-course of childhood studies, will we eventually be able to judge the adequacy of the key concepts that we have chosen to describe in terms of their contribution to the growth of this important area of study.

    HOW to Use this Book

    The concepts are arranged alphabetically and each begins with a very short definition. However, often the concepts are not straightforward in the sense that there may be differing views about their range and application, or the concepts may be controversial in other ways. The explanations that follow therefore set out these issues and seek to highlight, for example, the different sides to a debate or to chart the changes in the ways in which a concept has developed over time.

    In addition, many concepts are interrelated. It is sometimes necessary, therefore, to refer to other concepts in discussing their meaning and relevance for childhood studies. Where this happens, we have cross-referenced to these other concepts by emboldening them in the text, so that you can look up these other entries to get a fuller picture.

    At the end of each section you will find a list of the references used in the text plus some further reading. This list includes some of the key classic texts that have informed the development of the concept as well as more up-to-date references. It is, however, in no way exhaustive, since it is only intended to provide a brief indication of the range of available material. You should use this list as a springboard to explore more widely the ways in which any particular concept has been informed by research.

    As you read about the concepts, you will notice that we have tried, wherever possible, to offer an international perspective, drawing examples of the relevance of the concept from places outside of Europe and the USA. In particular, we have been keen to explore the relevance of our key concepts for childhoods outside of the West for, in terms of the global population of children, the western experience of affluent childhood – despite its dominance over our thinking – is a minority experience. For this reason, when we draw comparative examples of childhood in Africa or Asia or other poorer regions of the world, we refer to these by using the description ‘the majority South’, which is the preferred terminology now used by NGOs who work in these regions.

    Finally, although we set out to explore concepts that cover not only the key themes within childhood studies, but also ones that are pertinent to understanding all children's experiences of childhood everywhere, there will be instances where we have failed. We urge you to use this book not as an authoritative text that closes off discussion but rather as a reference point, a springboard of ideas that enables you to think through the relevance of these key concepts for the particularities of the childhoods that you are seeking to understand.

    Allison JamesAdrian JamesDepartment of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield
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