Re-staging Childhood

Re-staging Childhood
Bear Lake, Utah
August 6-10, 2009
conference web site

Organizers: David F. Lancy (Utah State University), John Bock (California State University, Fullerton), and Suzanne Gaskins (Northeastern Illinois University)

Most anthropologists—even those who study marriage, kinship and family—often ignore children, in spite of the fact that one of the principal components of culture is the production of each new generation whose agenda, in turn, includes the transmission of that culture into the future. Within anthropology, scholarly interest in childhood has been rather like five blind men describing an elephant. There are vital, but isolated, scholarly communities studying children and their development, including psychological anthropology. Hence, a comprehensive, holistic view of childhood has not yet emerged. We convened a group of scholars whose research perspectives span the entire spectrum of scholarship on culture and childhood and spent four days examining the stages and transitions in childhood.

We identified three basic topics that offered a meeting ground for scholars of children from a variety of fields within anthropology: 1) what are the nature and uses of immaturity by individuals and cultures? 2) how does immaturity express itself at different stages of childhood and what processes construct the characteristics of those stages?, and 3) in the contemporary world, are we seeing both increasingly long and increasingly short periods of immaturity, overall and within specific stages?

I. Traditional Uses of Immaturity Across Cultures: What are the nature and uses of immaturity across childhood? Questions that were debated include: Is childhood designed, primarily, to enhance the parents’ inclusive fitness? Is childhood a funnel into which culture is poured to produce a culturally competent and active adult or do children construct their own understanding? Is a lengthy period of immaturity necessary because there is so much to learn or because it allows the physical and cognitive growth prerequisite to the assumption of adult roles? Do children participate only in those activities that can accommodate their immaturity or are they given tasks to do that make active use of their failing to be fully legitimate, adult participants? Is childhood a mechanism to facilitate cultural change, exchanging new lives for old?

II. Lifecourse Stages and Their Consequences for Childhood: Historically, childhood has not been seen as a single, undifferentiated state of immaturity, but rather a series of “stages” or differentiated periods of immaturity each possessing distinct characteristics. The participants discussed the principal stages that mark the passage from infancy through early and middle childhood and examined the nature of immaturity across these stages.

III. Expanding and Contracting Childhood Today: The group found frequent opportunities to link patterns discovered in the ethnographic and historic records with contemporary childhood. Conference participants identified a bi-modal distribution of communities where the period of immaturity is either quite long or quite short.

the anthropology of learning in childhood

The conference resulted in the publication of The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood, published by Alta Mira Press.







David F. Lancy

Utah State University
Originally from western Pennsylvania, Lancy earned degrees from Yale and the University of Pittsburgh. He has done fieldwork in Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad, Sweden and the United States. His research interests include the study of cultural influences on children’s literacy, ethnographic research methods, and the anthropology of childhood.
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Suzanne Gaskins

Northeastern Illinois University
My broadest research goal is to understand the relationship of enculturation and development in children. My research is done primarily in a small Mayan village in Yucatan, Mexico, where I have lived and worked part-time for over 30 years. My research has been focused on children’s play and work as culturally structured activities, the developmental trajectory of linguistic relativity, and most recently, infant socialization and development using longitudinal video data of 8- to 15-month olds. I am also interested in other informal learning environments, including museums. For 20 years I have conducted research on how children and their families use children’s museums, including cultural differences, and how museums can design exhibits that better respond to the needs of their visitors. For both of these research environments, I strive to integrate quantitative and qualitative methods. I encourage students who are interested in these research topics to come talk to me about becoming involved in my ongoing research projects.
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John Bock

California State University, Fullerton
I am an anthropologist interested in the interface of biology and culture, and as a result my work i implicitly transdisciplinary. I use a theoretical perspective grounded in a branch of evolutionary ecology called life history theory to focus on five main research areas:

  • Parental investment and child development in a cross-cultural, socioecological perspective
  • Family and household demography
  • Health, and especially the relationship between access to resources and health outcomes among indigenous and minority peoples
  • The HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa
  • The effects of economic development, globalization, market incorporation, and integration into national level political, economic, and social institutions on indigenous and minority peoples in North America, Africa, and elsewhere.

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