Volume 104, Issue 2 p. 611-627

Why Don't Anthropologists Like Children?

Associate Professor Lawrence A. Hirschfeld

Associate Professor Lawrence A. Hirschfeld

Anthropology and Psychology, 1020 LS&A Building, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1382

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First published: June 2002
Citations: 180

Abstract

Few major works in anthropology focus specifically on children, a curious state of affairs given that virtually all contemporary anthropology is based on the premise that culture is learned, not inherited. Although children have a remarkable and undisputed capacity for learning generally, and learning culture in particular, in significant measure anthropology has shown little interest in them and their lives. This article examines the reasons for this lamentable lacunae and offers theoretical and empirical reasons for repudiating it. Resistance to child-focused scholarship, it is argued, is a byproduct of (1) an impoverished view of cultural learning that overestimates the role adults play and underestimates the contribution that children make to cultural reproduction, and (2) a lack of appreciation of the scope and force of children's culture, particularly in shaping adult culture. The marginalization of children and childhood, it is proposed, has obscured our understanding of how cultural forms emerge and why they are sustained. Two case studies, exploring North American children's beliefs about social contamination, illustrate these points. [Keywords: anthropology of childhood, children's culture, acquisition of cultural knowledge, race]