Socio-Cultural Constructions of Childhood: Questioning the Existence of an ‘Archaeology of Childhood’ using Island Metaphors: Part 3

November 16, 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 3 of a 4-post series**

Isle of Child

Read Part 1 and Part 2 here

Island Terminology: specific examples

This feeling of ‘island-ness’ as explained by both Kohn (2002) and McKechnie (2002: 128) is often consciously done, adding to the feeling of ‘islanders’ as being very closed and ‘inward-looking’ peoples who distance themselves from all outsiders (Rainbird 2007: 18-19; Waldren 2002: 5). However, this is a very Western idea and non-Western ideas quite differ from this perspective.  The Tongan writer Hau’ofa describes the Western view of Utopia as a sort of ‘romantic exclusion’ while his people would more see it as ‘romantic inclusion’ full of connections and interaction (Edmond and Smith 2003: 12).

What is important to take into account is individual intention and agency involved in portraying an island identity (Eriksen 1993: 140-141; Lape 2004: 229).  This idea is of importance to ‘childhood’ as children and adults alike consciously act, display, or re-define their individuality and group identity through associations with peers and media (Rapport and Overing: 32; Buckingham 2000: 7).  It is even possible that adults who are children’s writers or make children’s television programmes present ‘childhood’ knowingly, as something quite different to themselves. Buckingham (2000) makes clear that these mental boundaries being erected are slowly crumbling down.  However, Hau’ofa above has shown that the relationship between children and adults should focus on the mutual understanding and co-existence among them.  Therefore, in Tonga terms at least, childhood can and is an island if the island is to mean anything other than isolation (see Lape 2004 and Venn Diagram below). Therefore, it now becomes important to re-address the original definition of ‘island’, followed by the possibility of ‘seascape’ as a solution to all the contradictions.

Manjree's Blog - Isle of Child Venn Diagram

Definition ‘Island’. Island themselves are only ‘land surrounded by water’ (Edmond and Smith 2003: 9). If so, then how does this simple straight-forward word come to mean or symbolise anything else? For Westerners, the contrast between land and sea makes for a sharp barrier… a point at which the ‘land-scape’ ends.  Fully enclosed in boundaries, islands have been notoriously seen as becoming infused with meanings of isolation (Lape 2004: 223; Kohn 2002: 39; McKechnie 2002: 131).  Therefore, it is through human intervention that a word or concept gains a multitude of meanings. Whether ‘island’ or ‘childhood’, both are social and cultural constructs (Sofaer Derevenski 2000: 8; Wilkie 2000: 100-101; Rainbird 2007: 5) minus the given facts that every island is barricaded and that every human being is a child at one stage.

Size Matters. If it was so simple to attribute ‘isolation’ to ‘island’ and ‘barrier’ to ‘sea’ then that does not explain how continents and huge land masses fit into this formula.  Consequently, it has been said by island archaeologists that islands such as Australia do not fit the criteria of an ‘island’ and so have been labelled as ‘continents’ instead (Fitzpatrick 2004: 6; Rainbird 2007: 20; Edmond and Smith 2003: 2).  Therefore, people’s constructs overpower the natural definitions of both terms.  Clearly speaking then, childhood is not an island as promoted or believed to be (Island Utopia) but has been made to be one by Westerners[1] – possibly because a child and an adult are oppositional and distinct from each other but childhood and adulthood are more fluid.

With reference to size, the population of childhood is indeterminable but there is no correlation between children and childhoods experienced. And in the past, as there was high infant mortality and at least 50% of the living were children (see Chamberlain 1997: 249-50), it would be a hindsight to say they could be separated from adulthood.  Isn’t it then possible that a place with less danger and more security can boast more ‘childhoods’ while ‘having to survive’ required them to have a more blurred relationship which resulted in fewer ‘childhoods?’

‘Seascape’.  Islands are sometimes (falsely) said to be ‘self-sustainable’ with no outside help (Eriksen 1993: 135).  If this is true, then children cannot be islands because they are always shown in relation to adults (Sofaer Derevenski 2000: 8).  Therefore, they cannot sustain themselves without adult influence.  However, I’d like to point out a fact hidden from many geographers and island archaeologists….as Model A shows, an island is said to be surrounded by water but what is underneath the water? It is land and soil (idea influenced by Rainbird 2007: 145-155 on ‘drowned landscapes’).  Therefore, the sea is not endless but does have a ‘bottom.’  And so, more realistically islands are surrounded by land (See Model A).

Manjree's Blog - Isle of Child Model A

Therefore, what was once thought to be an isolated island – a single unit of analysis, has recently been re-defined into this idea of sea as ‘pathway’[2] (Rainbird 2007: 57; Lape 2004: 223-224; Gosden and Pavlides 1994: 162; Anderson 2004) or a “sea of islands” (Hau’ofa in Edmond and Smith 2003: 8-9). If these different ideas were to be joined – this would lead the notion of ‘land as pathway’ and a ‘pathway of islands.’  Similarly, if children and adult are separate, this does not negate the fact that there is a ‘path’ between the two.  Same goes for childhood and adulthood.  Due to the influences that work both ways (see Rainbird 2007: 172), and the existence of this ‘path,’ it becomes difficult to put boundaries around the categories, leading to blurred margins and merging (see Buckingham 2000).

Gosden and Pavlides (1994) coined the term ‘seascape’ in order to make it more easily understandable what kind of factors influence a ‘seascape’ setting, making it possible for boundaries to go beyond the physical land (Lape 2004: 228-229). The factors that can influence the life of an islander are studied.  This only reinforces the fact that all of it is ‘landscape’ although, because of the sea, it is called ‘sea-scape.’ For childhood, the seascape can mean a multitude of things such as political and institutional pressures as well as children’s rights (Buckingham 2000:5), etc…  all of which influence (like ocean currents) how a childhood will be.

Physical boundaries are different from the ‘social boundaries’ made mentally by people due to human agency (Lape 2004: 224). Therefore, these boundaries do not necessarily happen on the outskirts of an ‘island’ – many boundaries being made inside each island or alternatively in the middle of the ocean around a whole series of islands (Eriksen 1993: 141, 144; Rainbird 2007: 54, 66).  Biogeography of island is changed by human ‘intervention’ (see Rainbird 2007).  As mentioned already, the main internal boundaries for childhood would be between the rich and poor as well as girls and boys (Buckingham 2000: 77-78) and may go so far as to incorporate families (parents + children) which cross across both categories, etc…  So saying the sea is a barrier is a bit outdated.  It would be more understandable to say that the “sea can create a sense of community” (Gosden and Pavlides 1994: 163) and be just as ‘familiar’ as the land (Rainbird 2007: 66), especially when speaking about children because they are in contact with ‘others’ for the majority of the day.  This could mean that they are more familiar with this ‘sea path’ than land. The connecting nature of all this land/sea is a clear indication that islands are not isolated – any more than continents, big landmasses, or mountains and volcanoes are – and are definitely not simple based on the complexity of studying seascapes (Lape 2004: 228).  And so I return to my argument that childhood can be an island as long as they are not termed as being isolated, because of the vast amounts of information that passes between children and adult on a daily basis.

Control or Agency. One vital part of the seascape of childhood is the fact that children, although separate, are influenced and ‘controlled’ by the authoritative ‘winds’ of parents/adults.  In the same way that people are restricted by their environment, similarly children are directed through ‘parental controls’ (see Wilkie 2000: 101; Buckingham 2000: 5)  Due to their dependency on adults to care for them, children are usually under the guardianship of their elders, which is a reason why they must be respected (see Toren 1996: 92).  As Model B shows, adults envelop the lives of children and are in ‘control’ of them from before ‘childhood.  For example, it is an uniformitarian principle that adults give birth to children.  Adults set up institutions such as schools where children are ‘taught’ how to become part of society and it is seen to be the duty of parents to ‘show’ children how to behave.  Everyone from children’s writers to toys manufacturers are run by the adult world (see Buckingham 2000: 8-9, 12).

Manjree's Blog - Isle of Child Model B

This idea of being ‘taught’ is easily comparable to the idea of ‘sailing nurseries’ in island archaeology (Irwin in Rainbird 2007: 66).  Sailing nurseries are somewhat enclosed areas of sea that can be used for experimentation and “development of maritime technology and navigation” (Rainbird 2007: 66) under supervision which would then result in sailing outside the boundaries of the nursery.  Now, complications are already visible when comparing these to the ‘control/taught’ factor of children by adults…the main problem being that there is nowhere ‘outside to go’ as shown by Model B.  Therefore, in order to clarify, I would like to term this as a “playground for child development.” This playground is a protected nursery for experimentation where one can then graduate out to from ‘childhood’ to ‘adulthood’, meaning from the realm of ‘child’ to that of ‘adult’ in a type of rite of passage (Vann Gennep 1960) through the ‘sea path.’ The Model also allows for interaction between the two groups and shows the blurred nature of this relationship like (3) in the Venn Diagram.

However, this relationship is not all passive from the side of children; their rebelliousness (see Buckingham 2000: 7) and agency are well known among anthropologists (see Toren 1996: 94). As Rapport and Overing (2000: 32) say, “To be a ‘child’ is to be both an agent and part of a world of socio-cultural structures run by adults.”  Therefore, dependence does not equate passiveness. As with sailing nurseries, experimentation is key…. and experimentation is only possible if children have agency.

To be continued…in Part 4 (end)


[1] Made into an ‘artificial island’

[2] Also said to be a ‘corridor’, ‘bridge’, ‘highway’, ‘route’, etc… in the literature.  To most this bridge is visible, but for those in the (1) phase of the Venn Diagram (like myself) it was of little consequence (see case study of Balearics people in Waldren 2002: 4-5; and Rainbird 2007: 22).


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