Anthropology of Childhood

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The anthropology of childhood is a relatively new field for anthropological study which emerged in Britain during the 1970s and contrasts with the earlier culture and personality studies conducted by American anthropologists such as Margaret Mead during the 1940s and 50s. These studies were primarily interested in exploring how processes of socialisation and cultural transmission take place during childhood. However, in these accounts, little attention was given to children’s own active role in these socialising processes. The focus was instead on the mechanisms through which culture passed between the generations.

Contemporary work on childhood, by contrast, sees children as social actors in their own right and seeks to document their perspectives on, and participation in, the social world. This approach acknowledges that children experience different kinds of childhood in different societies and questions whether childhood should be seen as a cultural universal. Contemporary anthropological studies of childhood also recognise that, although children may not occupy central social, political and economic roles in society, it is important to see that they can and do make an active contribution. This may take place through, for example, their membership of peer groups and of families and their participation in leisure, work and schooling. An anthropology of childhood seeks to understand the different social worlds of children and how children learn about the adult social world to which they will eventually belong.

Text written by Professor Allison James (reproduced with author’s permission)

Postgraduate programmes in the UK

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Goldsmiths University

Recommended Resources


The following trailers are for films produced by Kim Longinotto, distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute.


Director Kim Longinotto
Release 2008
Length 103 mins
Location South Africa / Africa
Language English

Jackie, Mildred, Eureka and Thuli are the women behind Bobbi Bear, a nonprofit organization based in Durban, South Africa, that counsels sexually abused children and works to bring their abusers to justice. Born out of recognition of cultural stigmas that discourage reporting abuse and inadequate methods of communicating with young victims, Bobbi Bear developed a method of letting children use teddy bears to explain their abuse. Since 1992, the multiracial staff has become the fearless and powerful voice for those victims who would otherwise continue to live in fear, powerless against their oppressors and ignored by the legal system.


Director Kim Longinotto
Release 2007
Length 99 mins
Location South Africa / Africa
Language English

Mulberry Bush School is an Oxford education facility for emotionally disturbed children who have been excluded from mainstream schools. The film captures the inner life of Mulberry BUsh, focusing on the stories of three boys, struggling at different stages of development, but linked by their tragic experiences.

The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) has one of the largest ethnographic film libraries in Europe. Films are available for hire, sale or loan for educational and academic purposes. Click here for a list of films the RAI distributes on Anthropology of Childhood.

General – an extensive article looking at childhood in cross-cultural communities. – Professor David Lancy’s affiliated book and resources website.– Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. – information on the latest trends and research of key indicators of child and youth wellbeing. – UNICEF’s voices of youth website.


Anthropology and Child Development: A Cross-Cultural Reader
Levine, Robert and New, S. Rebecca (Eds) (Blackwell, 2008)

The Anthropology of Childhood, Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings
Lancy, F. David (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

An Introduction to Childhood: Anthropological Perspectives on Children’s Lives
By: Montgomery, Heather (Wiley Blackwell, 2008) 

Professional Organisations, Groups & Associations

American Anthropological Association Children and Childhood Interest Group– a forum for interested scholars to meet, collaborate and communicate about their work.

Child Rights Information Network– a global network coordinating and promoting information and action on child rights.

The Consultative Group of Early Childhood Care and Development – a global inter-agency consortium which aims to improve early childhood policy and practice.

Disclaimer: The above information is provided for information and guidance only. It should not be interpreted as endorsement or otherwise by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) for any external institution listed.  Furthermore, the RAI accepts no responsibility for material created by external parties or the content of external websites.

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