Socio-Cultural Constructions of Childhood: Questioning the Existence of an ‘Archaeology of Childhood’ using Island Metaphors: Part 2

November 15, 2015

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 2 of a 4-post series**

Isle of Child

Read Part 1 here

Concepts Defined (continued…)

On the other hand, childhood as a ‘construct’ that is variable on many factors, such as history, time, culture, region, etc…. makes the childhood ‘experience’ anything but a ‘homogenous’ one, according to Buckingham (2000: 6, 63).  It more fully allows for influences from different areas, including (in the Western concept/notion): children’s perceptions of each other/themselves; conceptions throughout history/past; adults’ views on their own childhoods; and adults’ views of ‘children’ at present (Lillehammer 2000: 20-21). This diversity also tolerates the possibility of having ‘unequal childhoods’ (Buckingham 2000: 76) or the ‘absence’ of one and justifying the ‘experiential’ gap between the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ (ibid: 55). In the ‘social construct’ stance, childhood is portrayed in mutual relation to adulthood as they “give rise to one another” (Rapport and Overing 2000: 30). They are relative to each other because when ‘children’ become associated with ‘adults’ through drugs, sex, voting, work, etc… they are no longer classed as being in their ‘childhood’ (Buckingham 2000: 7). Therefore, it’s not possible to be both ‘mature’ (adult) and ‘immature’ (child) at the same time (Sofaer Derevenski 1997: 193), which gives the perception of there being a distinct ‘boundary’ between the two.  However, this is not entirely the case (Anderson 2004: 254).

This essay will follow the approach to ‘childhood’ as promoted by Sofaer Derevenski (2000: 8-12) who argues in favour of a separation between ‘child’ and ‘childhood’ which are not ‘interchangeable’[1], and a fusion of the two opposing sides of ‘construction and biological/natural’ stances[2].  Therefore, ‘childhood’ is said to be a ‘structural category’ while the ‘child’ is the ‘physical body’, making it a difference between the ‘imagined’ and ‘real’ (see Buckingham 2000: 9 and Rainbird 2007: 24 for island comparison).  As Sofaer Derevenski (2000: 11) says, “The body may have varying importance in different constructions of childhood and the ideology of childhood cannot be mapped directly onto the body.” This separation between ‘child’ and ‘childhood’ becomes crucial when talking about a sub-discipline for archaeology of childhood.

Islands prove to be ‘powerful metaphors’ (Lape 2004: 223, 229; Eriksen 1993: 133) that can help enlighten on the topic of ‘childhood’[3]. Islands have often been seen to be remote, ‘out of time’, ‘holiday’ getaways that are exotic, mysterious, and paradise-like (Kohn 2002: 39, Waldren 2002: 3, Rainbird 2007: 66-67, 168 and Gillis 2003: 19). In terms of ‘utopia’, as I saw ‘childhood’ to be, Gillis (2003) states that utopias were often believed to be islands (in the West) that were as of yet undiscovered on the map until the 18th century, at which point “Island Utopias” were “detached from its spatial location and moved into the realm of time, into the future for safekeeping” (Gillis 2003: 25).  This resulted in the end of childhood being a ‘real’ island to one that was ‘imagined.’

 ‘Islands’ have since been included into several academic disciplines, notably anthropology, because of perceptions of islands as advantageous settings to do ethnographic fieldwork as each island was seen to be singular ‘units of analysis’ (Eriksen 1993: 134; McKechnie 2002: 127; and Lape 2004: 226).   The idea of an island as something that can be studied on its own, itself makes it ‘isolated’ as a ‘unit’ of investigation (Eriksen 1993: 134, 140) while ‘geographical’ isolation of the sea, led to further studies of islands as ‘laboratories’ for containment, which has since been contested and disproved due to the impossibility of ‘total’ cultural isolation (see Fitzpatrick 2004: 4, 6; Lape 2004: 229; Gillis 2003: 29; Edmond and Smith 2003: 2-3).

And so, island metaphors have been useful in Western notions of thinking about ‘isolation’, either due to lack of interaction or choice (natural/forced), and ‘boundedness’ (physical/mental) (Eriksen 1993: 133, 144-145; Rainbird 2007: 54, 169; Edmond and Smith 2003: 2; Marlone and Stoddart 2004: 95; Lape 2004: 223) because of the “assumption that land is isolated when surrounded by [the barrier of] sea” (Gosden and Pavlides 1994: 162). Isolation and boundedness are to be understood in relation to ‘interaction’, similar to ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’ where both are needed for society to progress, as no island can be fully isolated (or fully connected) – all have ‘partial isolation’ and partial boundedness (Anderson 2004: 255; Waldren 2002: 3; Eriksen 1993: 134, 142-143; Lape 2004: 224; Fitzpatrick 2004: 4, 7).  Same holds true for boundaries – a few are always present because “a society must have boundaries in some respect or other in order to be a society” (Eriksen 1993: 140). In terms of childhood, this idea of partiality can be maintained by saying that there are literal and physical boundaries (i.e. beaches) that have their own ‘spheres of influence’ (Fitzpatrick 2004: 224; Anderson 2004: 254) within the ‘one island’ that include:

(1) those children who are ‘experiencing childhood’ at present,

(2) everyone in direct contact with these children (parents, teachers, doctors, children’s authors, children’s television producers, etc…) and adults who are trying to find their ‘inner child’ (see Buckingham 2000: 14) and finally,

(3) the rest of society (people whose only connection with children is that they themselves were once ‘children’ who were participants in their own ‘childhoods’ and that they co-inhabit the world with existing ‘children’), becoming a synthesis between the historical and metaphorical (Denning in Edmond and Smith 2003: 7-8).

Each ‘sphere’ (also visible on the Venn Diagram in the next post) impacts the others and information is ‘diffused’ in a complex three-way manner (see Rainbird 2007: 172) within our society, making it a very broadly connected ‘island.’  According to Edmond and Smith (2003: 5), this is “the paradox of the island – its simultaneous boundedness and limitlessness.”  Therefore, it is usually said that an ‘island’, ‘childhood’ in this case, has ties to outside contacts and networks even while preserving it’s ‘insular’ status (McKechnie 2002: 129 and Gosdena and Pavlides 1994: 162-163). It is also worthy to note, finally, that while ‘outsiders’ may conceive an island to be ‘exotic’ or ‘separate’, the same does not necessarily hold true for many ‘islanders’, including myself, who may not feel ‘bounded’ by their surroundings.  Additionally, it is also possible that they may be trying to portray themselves and the island as a place of (manmade) insularity (Kohn 2002: 39, 41; Rainbird 2007: 18-19, 24; and Waldren 2002: 3, 5; Eriksen 1993: 143).

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


[1] This split between child and childhood has occurred recently due to industrialization in the mid 1800s as children have been taken off the streets and put into schools, making a forced separation between adults and children (see Edmond and Smith 2003: 10; Buckingham 2000: 7-8).

[2] Therefore, it is natural to be a ‘child’ but a ‘childhood’ can be absent based on different circumstances. Material ‘ingredients’ are needed for a ‘childhood’ and without them it cannot be had (Cunningham in Sofaer Derevenski 2000: 5).

[3] Malone and Stoddart (2004: 94) critique the overuse of metaphorical ‘islands’ in their article and say that islands are steadily moving away from physical reality.  They say that islands have “become predominantly conceptual and individual (i.e. a personal phenomenology), rather than based in reality” (Malone and Stoddard 2004: 101)


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