Reading Response 

Engage critically with 2 or more of the weekly readings and present your sociological perspective on the themes covered in the texts. 

Identify and articulate clearly the author’s argument/s and the material covered in the text.

Make your voice heard, don’t simply reiterate what the authors are saying. Discuss your thoughts, ideas, perspective, and insight of the readings. That being said, don’t monopolize the discussion around your opinions alone. Don’t sideline the written text, they are a critical and integral part of this assignment.

  • Use evidence from the readings to support your analysis whether you agree, disagree, and/or want to expand on the authors’ arguments and/or the examples and concepts covered in the literature.

Explanation & Answer length: 2 pages2 attachmentsSlide 1 of 2

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3 The historical construction of childhood Diana Gittins Introduction Over the past decades more and more books have been published that seek to analyse, describe, reconstruct and represent childhood in the past. Some say childhood used to be more painful and cruel; others claim the reverse. Some argue that all children are essentially the same in the way they develop and that therefore childhoods do not differ in basic ways, while others contend that childhood is always socially and historically constructed. The very notion of a history of childhood, as with the concept of childhood itself, can be, and often is, contested. Approaches to studying the history of childhood vary quite considerably, but generally fall into three broad categories: first, the study of the changing material conditions of families and households through time, focusing primarily on their socio-economic situations; second, attempts by ‘psychohistorians’, drawing on Freudian theory, to reconstruct and try to understand the emotional and psychological changes in child-rearing and the experience of childhood in the past; third, the study and description of legal and political changes in governmental attitudes to childhood, child-rearing and children by those interested in the history of social policy. Increasingly, however, and particularly with the development and influence of postmodernist theory, some historians have become interested in what children and childhood have meant to adults, how those attitudes changed and developed, and ways in which they can be analysed, particularly drawing on representations of childhood over time. It is this aspect I want to focus on primarily here, while at the same time acknowledging that all the categories outlined above are to a great extent interrelated in any discussion. First, however, it is necessary to consider what exactly is meant by childhood. 36 DIANA GITTINS What is childhood? Because each and every one of us has been a child, we all believe we know what childhood is – or was. Yet as adults, it is always something past and lost, invariably filtered through memory. Memories of our own childhoods inform our ideas about who we think we are, who we think we were, and what we believe childhood should be for others. Yet memory is a slippery fish and operates often simultaneously at different levels, arguably being reconstructed over time. Early memories can be affected by later images, narratives and experiences. Some seem clear, rational and conscious, while others lurk largely unacknowledged at an unconscious level. The trickeries of memory, of course, can be manipulated by those who do not want children to remember abusive acts. How can the truth and rationality of a memory ever be decided, and by whom? Arguably we use images to a great extent to express real feelings and experiences which the images/memories represent. Furthermore, there are discourses within our culture that define what childhood should be, and these may be as influential in forming our ideas of an image as our own memories. While we like to think of ourselves as logical and rational beings who behave consistently and coherently, more and more it is accepted that we are fragmented, contradictory and complex beings. As a result, what we would like to think of as clear and rational ideas of what childhood is, and was, is arguably a tangled web of ideas, often illusory, which disguise much more complex meanings. It could be said that childhood, rather than a real and material state of being, is more an adult construction that, while apparently simple, in fact disguises a multitude of contradictory memories, desires and myths: Childhood, the invention of adults, reflects adult needs and adult fears quite as much as it signifies the absence of adulthood. In the course of history children have been glorified, patronised, ignored, or held in contempt, depending upon the cultural assumptions of adults. (Walther 1979: 64) How can childhood be invented by adults? Surely, it is a fact that a baby is a biological reality, an embodied being that is entirely physiological? Indeed, a baby is a material and biological reality. Yet at the same time, every baby born is born into a social world, a linguistic world, a gendered world, an adult world full of discourse, with complex and contradictory meanings. The helpless and totally dependent human infant, without control or language, is given meaning by adults from the first minute its parent(s) start to interact with it in the context of a wider culture. THE HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION OF CHILDHOOD 37 The concept of ‘child’ concerns an embodied individual defined as nonadult, while the notion of ‘childhood’ is a more general and abstract term used to refer to the status ascribed by adults to those who are defined as not adult. How that status is conceived – by adults – varies and changes: sometimes it has been defined by physical and/or sexual maturity, sometimes by legal status, sometimes by chronological age alone. The state of being a child is transitory and how long it lasts is culturally and historically variable; in Western countries a child may become economically active now at the age of 15 or 16, while in the past, and in some Third World countries still today, children as young as 5 or 6 go out to work. In the UK a child may drink alcohol at home from the age of 5, but not in a public house until the age of 18. The age of criminal responsibility was 7 in the UK before 1933; now it stands at only 10, while in Spain it is 16. This means that in the UK a child of 10 can be treated as an adult in the legal system, while still treated as a child in almost every other aspect of its life. ‘Child’ has also served to define social groups perceived as inferior: colonized people, slaves, women: Even as late as the eighteenth century, the French and German words garçon and Knabe referred to boys as young as six and as old as thirty or forty. In part, such confusions stemmed from the fact that such terms also denoted status or function . . . among Irish peasants it is still common to call unmarried, propertyless men ‘boys’, regardless of their age, because this denotes their low status in a community where marriage and inheritance mark one of the most important social boundaries. (Gillis 1981: 1) ‘Child’ therefore defines not just physiological immaturity but also connotes dependency, powerlessness and inferiority. Childhood, however, focuses more on the general state of being a child, does not refer to an individual child and suggests the existence of a distinct, separate and fundamentally different social group or category. It only has meaning in the context of a binary relationship with adulthood and implicit in it is the idea that it is universal. Yet the very idea of childhood has not always been there, and has changed over time, just as definitions of it, and when it ends, vary between different cultures. For boys in most Western countries, for instance, beginning work full time was usually a mark of transition into adulthood, while for girls it has usually been marriage (or childbirth) that marked the transition, regardless of the age at which they married. Only in recent years has this begun to change. Childhood, therefore, is arguably a construction, a fiction interwoven with personal memories: cultural representations that serve to disguise difference between children – whether in terms of gender, ethnicity, class or physical ability. It hides power relationships and inequality. In short, childhood has 38 DIANA GITTINS been historically constructed and needs to be understood in relation to ideas about what children should be and have meant to adults over time, and why such ideas and beliefs have changed. All history is arguably a reconstruction from what little remains of fragmentary sources over the ragged course of time: records are burned, lost, shredded (if written); forgotten and distorted if passed on orally; gravestones offer only names and dates. Whole cultures are wiped out by invaders and colonizers who for political reasons will often choose to destroy and ignore their predecessors, to deliberately help them become lost to time. There may be detailed and rich records for royalty and the aristocracy at certain times, but little or nothing to give accounts of those who worked for them or lived nearby, toiling hard to survive. A good historian looks for silences and gaps as much as for that which is stated and recorded. Records exist in places for school attendance and have often been used to make sweeping generalizations about childhood, but at a time when only boys went to school, what do they tell us of girls? Some sermons from centuries past survive in which preachers pontificate about how children should be brought up – but do parents in real life follow the words of preachers verbatim? Have they ever? How can we possibly know? Ariès and representation Philippe Ariès, a social historian, first drew attention to the idea that childhood is socially and historically constructed, not biologically given or fundamentally ‘natural’. He argued that attitudes to children have changed over time, and with these changing attitudes a new concept developed: childhood. He claimed that in the Middle Ages children mixed freely with adults, and although adults were not indifferent to children, they were less concerned with their development and well-being than has been, arguably, the case in modern European society. Children were seen more as little adults, as adultsin-the-making, than as separate individuals forming part of a distinct social/ age group: In mediaeval society the idea of childhood did not exist; this is not to suggest that children were neglected, forsaken or despised. The idea of childhood is not to be confused with affection for children: it corresponds to an awareness of the particular nature of childhood, that particular nature which distinguishes the child from the adult . . . In mediaeval society, this awareness was lacking . . . as soon as the child could live without the constant solicitude of his mother, his nanny or his cradle-rocker, he belonged to adult society. (Ariès [1960] 1986: 125) THE HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION OF CHILDHOOD 39 Ariès’ work has had an enormous impact on how historians and social scientists think of childhood, even though there has been much debate as to the reliability of his methods and sources. Ariès based much of his theory on the lack of representations of children in medieval art, thereby drawing attention to the central importance of representation and how it is integral to the construction of meaning. ‘Representation’ refers to both texts and images, but for the purposes of this discussion I will only refer to visual representation. The idea of representation is basically that images cannot be accepted as true reflections of their sources, but are always reconstructed in such a way that they are separate from, distinct from, and other than, those sources. A painting of the Christ child, for example, does not convey a ‘true’ picture of Christ as a child: the artist would have used an ordinary baby as a model; the background and details would have been specific to his culture at that time or come from his imagination; details such as a halo and a lamb were part of a range of symbols used to connote meanings and messages seen as central to Christ – innocence, holiness and so on. Most importantly, as Chaplin (1994: 1) argues, representation can be understood as articulating and contributing to social processes. Paintings of Jesus were part and parcel of Western values and beliefs and this in turn informed and affected patterns of interaction and behaviour in the wider social and political world. Images are immensely powerful and more easily recalled than words, but it is important to remember that they are material products which have been constructed by (invisible) others for a specific purpose. According to Kappeler representations: are not just a matter of mirrors, reflections, key-holes. Somebody is making them, and somebody is looking at them. They have a continued existence in reality as objects of exchange; they have a genesis in material production. They are more ‘real’ than the reality they are said to represent or reflect. (Kappeler 1986: 3) In the twenty-first century we are so inundated with and totally used to images wherever we go and wherever we turn that it is hard to remember that the proliferation of imagery is a historical development, and a very recent one at that: photography, cinema, videos, television and advertising are all historically very recent and as a result the impact of one single image is arguably much less than it would have been in the past. Images – representation – are a very powerful means of communication, and a particular kind of communication. Images do not convey empirical information in the way that words in a text can, and often do. Images often convey emotion, trigger associations and memories, and can evoke multiple meanings, some of which may not even be 40 DIANA GITTINS recognized by the viewer. Seeing a picture of a small child, for example, may evoke feelings of empathy or vulnerability, stir unconscious memories of fear or anxiety, or suggest ideals of innocence and a wish to protect. If that child is also designated as representing Jesus, a whole extra body of messages and assumptions imbues it. None of these, however, is necessarily explicit to the viewer. Charles Peirce put forward a theory that outlined the importance of visual art as a form of communication, and in this he proposed a typology of signs: iconic, indexical and symbolic: The iconic sign proposes a ‘fitness’ of resemblance to the object it signifies, as a portrait represents the sitter. The indexical sign has a concrete, actual relationship to the signifier – usually of a sequential, causal kind – in the sense that smoke is an index of fire. The symbolic sign signifies by virtue of a contract or rule . . . It therefore requires the active presence of the interpretant to make the signifying connection. In this triad, the iconic, indexical and the symbolic signs are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are three modes of a relationship between signifier and object . . . which co-exist in the form of a hierarchy in which one of them will inevitably have dominance over the other two . . . While an image of a table may propose a ‘fitness’ of resemblance to the table it signifies (iconic signal), this is not the only message that the image gives off. It may symbolise upper-class affluence and dinner parties (a large, well-polished, ornately carved table) or it may symbolise poverty and toil in the kitchen (a small, plain, rickety, scratched table). Colour often signifies symbolically. (Chaplin 1994: 88–9) What interested Ariès in medieval art was that painters at that time did not portray childhood as in any way distinct from adulthood. Children, he maintained, when and if they were represented in art, were painted as little adults. They were not represented as if they were perceived as ‘other’ or forming part of a distinct social group set apart from adults. Yet from the late Middle Ages children did begin to be differentiated from adults in paintings. In Western art they became an important subject for representation alone as well as in family portraiture. Paintings are usually commissioned by a particular person for a particular purpose. If the painter wants to be paid (usually indisputable), he or she needs to produce work that pleases the patron. To do so may often mean creating a representation which flatters, disguises or in some way enhances the impression/memory/appearance of what and who is being represented. During the Middle Ages, paintings were overwhelmingly created for churches and religious purposes; they illustrated religious themes and drew heavily on symbolism. At a time when the majority of the population was illiterate, they told THE HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION OF CHILDHOOD 41 visual and symbolic stories to congregations to bring home the message of Catholic ideology. They were not concerned with representing a reality of the material world and certainly had no interest in portraying everyday life and ordinary concerns. Any children who were represented in medieval iconography were almost invariably in the context of religious teaching and beliefs; they did not purport to stand for any embodied child, but were used as a symbol of the soul, or to represent the idea of a holy childhood: The touching idea of childhood remained limited to the Infant Jesus until the fourteenth century, when . . . Italian art was to help to spread and develop it . . . At this time the theme of a Holy childhood developed and spread. It became more profane. Other childhoods were portrayed. From this religious iconography of Childhood, a lay iconography eventually detached itself in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (Ariès [1960] 1986: 33, 35) From the fifteenth century onwards, however, there was an increasing division in the way children were represented, arguably as a result of the influence of the humanism of Renaissance art, but also undoubtedly part of wider and farreaching changes in the socio-economic world: the growth of capitalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie and new ideas and ideals about families and family life. Historians agree that profound changes occurred around the sixteenth century that affected ideals of, and most probably behaviour concerning, families, family life and childhood. It was a time when capitalism was developing and the feudal order, especially in England, was crumbling; it was a time when new religious beliefs affected how people thought of their world; a time when discoveries, technological and scientific changes were all contributing to profound changes in Western culture. Exactly how such changes affected families, households, child-rearing and childhood, however, is very much open to debate. Families, households and childhoods already varied and differed widely according to class and region, and speaking of them as if they were universal is highly misleading; data and resources are scarce and what theories and generalizations are, and have been, made are by definition provisional, uncertain and liable to contradiction. Historians of the modernization school have argued that there was a revolution in child care and attitudes to children in Early Modern Europe, notably during the sixteenth century, with the rise of Puritanism. Their theories have been based largely on the recorded sermons of preachers at that time which, they argue, show how parents were exhorted by religious leaders to be severe with even the youngest of children in order to eradicate the sin that they believed was innate in everyone from birth. Protestantism, but especially Puritanism, stressed the importance of 42 DIANA GITTINS individual responsibility to God in the sense that individuals could not obtain forgiveness from sin just through confession or, as was common in medieval Catholic Europe, through the purchase of indulgences. Instead, women and men were instructed to strive to live out the precepts of a Christian life on a daily basis in the everyday world. To put such emphasis on correct behaviour in daily life as well as maintaining a lifelong commitment meant that a rigorous training and socialization in Christian values and behaviour was essential. Such behaviour had to be taught. Not surprisingly, these new religious beliefs brought about a shift in attitudes to child-rearing and, by implication, to the importance of childhood generally. Arguably, childhood during this period became a battleground where parents fought to inculcate morality and good behaviour in a committed struggle to save the souls of their chil…

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