Socio-Cultural Constructions of Childhood: Questioning the Existence of an ‘Archaeology of Childhood’ using Island Metaphors: Part 4 (The End)

November 17, 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 4 of a 4-post series**

Isle of Child

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this paper here

Material Culture

If childhood is seen to be an isolated or ‘special phenomenon’ then, at least in terms of archaeology, it is important to assess if there is a ‘Material Culture of Child(hood)’, as archaeology is most importantly a discipline involved with material culture.  ‘Childhood’ being more of a structural and imaginary concept, inferences have to be made from what children use and have as their material culture to gain a better understanding of childhood.  As said by McKechnie (2002: 130), islands usually have ‘monumental extremes’ that are said to be a result of isolation.  Therefore, it would be a good starting point to think from this angle with children.  Schools and places like Toys’R’Us are predominantly for children, as are different kinds of media aimed at children (see Buckingham 2000). Then there are also car seats and strollers or child-discounted services (i.e. tickets) which are ‘special’ to only children.  According to Wilkie (2000: 100), a whole range of products for children were being made (by adults) since the 1850s and it has been realized recently that children are also active ‘consumers’ in society (Buckingham 2000: 76). However, these are only the beginning of the list – it goes on and on.  According to the Venn Diagram (shown in the previous post), this is only classed as phase (1), which is the most isolated of all.

Much more exists but as one delves deeper, the boundaries become hazier between child and adult.  Therefore, clearly defining a material culture of children then interpreting and extrapolating to a material culture of childhood can be very problematic.  The next phase (2) can include stuffed animals, animation, and brands like Hello Kitty and Playboy Bunny, which all transgress and are found among the possessions and interests of both adults and children.  Toy replicas are found everywhere of cell phones, and guns (see Sofaer Derevenski 2000: 4). In the same way that islands are not alone and are  influenced by other islands and peoples around them – so children’s material culture influences and is influenced by other children and adults (see Lillehammer 2000: 21) due to us all inhabiting the same space and co-existing at the same time.

An Adult Childhood (Jaded ism 2007) A child laborer in India. His smile is beautiful....but do we know for sure if he is having a ‘childhood’ or not?

An Adult Childhood (Jaded ism 2007)
A child laborer in India. His smile is beautiful….but do we know for sure if he is having a ‘childhood’ or not?

So is there a material culture of children? If so, it is a very confusing category. If childhoods are diverse and variant, then so are the material cultures associated with these childhoods (see Sofaer Derevenski 2000: 11). One extreme case is that of child genius’ and prodigies whom, at early ages, take on roles that are very unlike those associated with ‘children.’  Talented children are treated no different from adults, other than an age-difference. The transgression is so vast that it becomes difficult to say whether the material culture is that of a child or adult. The point being made is that – unless clearly stated, age and status (Lille 1997: 223, 225; Sofaer Derevenski 2000: 11) are not determining factor to tell apart material culture of a child or adult.  Sofaer Derevenski (2000: 3) makes a good point of showing that we are biased against children when thinking about army uniforms and guns as well as sex in an example from South African children. Therefore, it is a paradoxical and complicated quest to try and find a separate ‘material culture’ of children as there is no such ‘separateness’ between the two (Lillehammer 2000: 22,24), especially in archaeological contexts.

However, it becomes even more of a fractured picture if archaeology makes a distinction between childhood and adulthood in the past.  It can make sense to have an anthropology of children but to have an archaeology of children will be a handicap as it will only give a one-dimensional view of this ‘utopian idea of childhood’ and miss out on the majority of the blurred margins that are more commonly found around the world’s children.

Archaeology of Childhood?

In archaeology, children have been passed by without much attention given to them (Sofaer Derevenski 2000: 8), like ethnic minorities and women (Buckingham 2000: 75; Wilkie 2000: 111).  So can there now be an archaeology of childhood? Well if it is not possible to have one of children, then it becomes near impossible to have one of childhood, at least today.  As Rapport and Overing (2000: 31) note, it would be problematic to study “research subjects whose being is a continuous becoming.”  Additionally, there is also the archaeologist’s bias to think of since they were once children as well and so misinterpretation is unavoidable (Lillehammer 2000: 23).

Even if it were possible to have such a sub-discipline, should there be one? Instead, more importance should be put on including children rather than excluding them (Hurcombe 1997: 17), but not necessarily to the extent of a separate branch within archaeology.  Children and adults should be studied in unison as having a separate specialization will only widen the gap between them.  Incorporation is the best course of action.  If anything, I have shown the interconnectedness and relativeness of children to adults so that paying more attention to the youngsters in the past societies will increase our understanding of the people and make clearer such interactions and values (Lillehammer 2000: 22).  We are on the road to including children and making them ‘visible’ in the archaeological record, but “there is still a long way to go before children become fully visible in archaeology” (Chamberlain 1997: 250).

Childhood: Island or Not?

Islands work as powerful metaphors of isolation in the Western world.  However, attributing islands with isolation is a social, rather than a natural, construct as island archaeologists have found that islands are not entirely isolated or bounded off from the rest of the world.  This is due to the notion that the sea acts as a ‘pathway’ rather than a ‘barrier.’ Similarly, childhood has also been depicted as an ‘isolated utopia’ in recent times.  However, this is also not a biological, but a social construct as it has been uncovered that there are many diverse ‘childhoods’ around the world.  Many factors influence its construction, including parents, who try and direct it, and children themselves, who use individual agency to re-define what kind of childhood they want.  Therefore, childhood can only be an island if there is fluid interaction with adulthood present.

The End!


Bibliography

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