Socio-Cultural Constructions of Childhood: Questioning the Existence of an ‘Archaeology of Childhood’ using Island Metaphors: Part 1

November 14, 2015

Happy Children’s Day everyone! And on a more serious note, it is my solemn wish that whatever is happening with the terror attacks in Paris and the world is resolved quickly and peace can prevail again for those who have been affected. I find I have nothing to contribute in words for everything that’s happening in current events, so it is back to my usual blogging…

In honor of Children’s Day, it seems like a good time to share one of my favorite academic pieces to date in a 4 part series. In this paper, I talk about the social construction of childhood, related material culture, and whether an ‘archaeology of childhood’ can exist. It is the first paper I thought of getting published in a journal, but the ideas about ‘childhood’ have probably become a bit old-fashioned and outdated. I wrote ‘Isle of Child’ for my Island Archaeology class taught by Paul Rainbird back in 2007, so the references are definitely on the older side. The whole essay has been divided into 4 blog posts for ease of reading, and the full bibliography of references will be available in the last post.

Please respect my ownership of the words and ideas used herein, and do not use or share any portion of this series, in part or in whole, without my expressed permission. Thanks!

Prompt: Considering the term ‘island’ in its broadest sense, I take a look at ‘childhood’ and critically assess how the  archaeology of this ‘metaphorical island’ informs us about the concepts of isolation and interaction?

**This is Part 1 of a 4-post series**

Isle of Child

Photo by Supreet Vaid

Photo by Supreet Vaid


Many attempts have been made by academics as well as non-academics in the ‘West’ to grasp and define the concept of ‘childhood’ and understand its relevance and history in lieu of societal importance; the lack of distinctly marked boundaries between ‘adults’ and ‘children,’ making it a futile attempt to try and incorporate children fully into the archaeological record just yet. Taking into account the ambiguity of terms like ‘child’ and ‘childhood,’ this essay hopes to fulfil a better understanding of these ideas by making comparisons to metaphorical ‘islands’ and using models, terminology and theories` pertaining to island archaeology to solidify this analogy. However, the often contradictory conceptions involved with the indefinable nature of these labels are an unavoidable consequence of such a study. The reasoning for ­­­­­­­­­­­­associating ‘childhood’ with ‘islands’ comes from the Western idea (and my own personal experience) of childhood as ‘utopia’ resulting in such attributes as innocence and bliss – attributes also used by anthropologists in explaining islands and islanders.  However, the recent Western perception of the ‘lost childhood’ will also be considered as a flip side to this coinage.  Being seen as something ‘distant’ and ‘imaginary’ from the ‘known’ world, the possibility of a ‘separate’ material culture of children and childhood to that of adults and adulthood will be addressed in retrospect. And so, notions of material culture, and in fact the future scope of a possible sub-discipline of ‘archaeology of child(hood),’ will be considered and assessed as a way of understanding people in the past better. This essay, therefore, (while always being informed by my personal experience) aims to adopt techniques used in ‘island’ archaeologies as a way of assessing the archaeology of ‘childhood’ (in the West) and determine the extent of its material culture, in relation to that of adults, taking into account the future possibility for an ‘archaeology of childhood.’

Before looking at the various contradicting and complex definitions of ‘childhood’ and ‘islands,’ my personal background will be briefly explained.  This will be done as a kind of reflexive ‘preface’ to understand how my ideas and thoughts about my own ‘childhood’ have biased or informed the kinds of conclusions I make throughout this paper[1].

Concepts Defined

Born and brought up on the largest Japanese island of Honshu was a wonderful experience.  My memories of Japan as a ‘child’ include an overwhelming sense of safety and security in my ‘bubble of happiness’… my Utopia (for history on ‘utopias’ see Gillis 2003).  I never visited the other three main islands (Hokkaido, Shikoku, or Kyushu) while I lived there and rarely visited places inside Japan (see case of Balearics in Waldren 2002: 4-5).  Instead, summer vacations were spent with family in India or on the beaches of Hawaii.  School, family, and friends filled up my life, as did the yearly trips abroad.

It was easier to fly around the world than to go across the country (see Rainbird 2007: 54 for fluidity of ‘island boundaries’).  Ironically, even though I watched hours of Japanese television after school and used Japanese on a day-to-day basis, I was educated and spoke to my school friends in English.  Hindi was spoken at home and with my relatives who also lived nearby, and we often watched Bollywood films that we rotated around our community. As I lived in a Jain, (predominantly Gujarati) community in Japan, I grew up with religious and cultural practices quite different from my Japanese neighbours (see Eriksen 1993: 141 for ideas of ‘cultural entropy’ in Mauritius).  Therefore, I equate an island as being no different from any other ‘land’ in terms of boundedness.

As to the question of what exactly ‘childhood’ is, I would say it is the period between infancy and adolescence, or until a big life-changing event occurs (see Lillehammer in Chamberlain 1997: 249 for similar thoughts).  Personally, I bound my own ‘childhood’ between the ages of four and eleven, when I moved out of Japan[2].  Therefore, I equate ‘childhood’ with ‘utopia.’ However, I do believe there are different lengths and experiences of childhood which are all nonetheless still grouped together as being separate from adulthood with clear cut boundaries that cannot be crossed (for more on ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ see Kohn 2002).

Among academics, contrasting viewpoints have been taken for the meaning of ‘childhood’ in a Western context[3].  Two examples are given below. Firstly, childhood is seen to be a stage in life when humans are asexual and in an “ambiguous phase before they reach sexual maturity” even though they are labelled as being ‘male’ or ‘female’ (Lesick 1997: 35). However, it is my opinion that even children are sexual beings, as they are often ‘taught’ about gender responsibilities through media and toys (see Wilkie 2000: 101-102) and are ‘incorporated’ into a gender category soon after birth through dress, name, and various ‘rites of passage’ (see Van Gennep 1960).  According to Sofaer Derevenski (1997: 195), three stages are undergone to understand gender and the last of them, ‘gender constancy,’ when an individual fully comprehends their own gender identity, occurs at the age of five – putting it well within the range of ‘childhood’ and pre-pubescence.  Secondly, children are also seen to be apolitical, which is contested by Sofaer Derevenski (2000) when she looks at military training of children in South Africa. However, in a Western context there is still little found to suggest that children have political rights (see Buckingham 2000: 195).

According to Buckingham (2000), the main point of contention is whether ‘childhood’ is seen to be a ‘natural’ state of being or if it’s a social and cultural construct.  Those who believe that childhood is a biological ‘given’ that is a mandatory phase of life based on aging (Lillehammer 2000: 20 and Buckingham 2000: 14 for psychology perspective) usually side with ‘childhood as being natural.’  Same goes for those who believe in the ‘loss’ or ‘death’ of childhood in recent times (Buckingham 2000: 3).  Arnold Van Gennep (1960: 61) describes childhood as “the period extending from birth to the beginning of adolescence, or to initiation … whose length and number vary among different peoples.”  This shows that even though part of the biological stance, childhood is not rigid and is contextually based.  It is also their perspective that due to electronic media (television, computers, etc…), children are increasingly more in contact with ‘adult’ themes leading to a premature loss of innocence (Buckingham 2000).

To be continued…in Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 (end)


[1] Notably the fact that this is written after having left my childhood and biasing my views of it.

[2] To label my own memories and enclose it within an age range is my bias as an ‘adult’ as are all my statements made about how my childhood was ‘a bubble of happiness’ because while I was living the experiences of my childhood, they were anything but ‘great.’  So, childhood is defined by adults (Buckingham 2000: 12) through second-hand measures.

[3] ‘Childhood’ is a culturally-specific term that is understood differently according to region.  Therefore, it will only be addressed in the Western context unless otherwise noted as it needs to be understood fully in our own society before we project ethnocentric biases onto other societies or into the past (i.e. Sofaer Derevenski 2000: 8).  It will also allow me to verify through my own experiences to see and judge who I believe to be right. Additionally, as this is a comparative study with (island) archaeology as well, which is a Western-centric discipline, I thought this would be the best option. However, having said that, I am probably guilty of making the grave mistake of extrapolating and interpreting other childhoods using the Western view of ‘island’ and ‘childhood’ and making the assumption that this is a universal when it in fact it’s only a Eurocentric one (ibid).


3 Responses to “Socio-Cultural Constructions of Childhood: Questioning the Existence of an ‘Archaeology of Childhood’ using Island Metaphors: Part 1”

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