ABSTRACT

By the last two decades of the twentieth century there was widespread agreement that childhood should be understood as a historical, social and cultural phenomenon. Generally speaking this social and cultural take on childhood was contrasted to the biological one inherited from childhood study’s modern beginnings in Darwin. To be sure, both psychology and paediatrics developed various additive views, in which a debate about nature-nurture revolved around the differing proportions of each that were to go into the mixture. However, from the mid-twentieth century the nurture side of this debate was in the ascendant, especially through the influence of a newly self-confident social sciences, and this came to be more or less the consensus view. Ideas about the biological character of social life followed a separate track and only occasionally, such as in the sociobiology debate of the 1970s discussed below (see p. 86), did they come into hailing (or more usually shouting) distance with the social sciences. More recently, with the upsurge of research in genetics, the nature-nurture pendulum seems to be swinging back in the direction of biology. However, in childhood studies the social view still tends to predominate with little dialogue across the divide that separates it from biology. This tendency was strengthened by the linguistic turn in the social theory and, associated with it, the emergence of social constructionism. The impact of these moves was felt in childhood studies through the new paradigm of childhood sociology. A central feature of this view was that, while the biological immaturity of children may be a fact, the real interest and future of childhood studies lies in the study of how cultures interpret such immaturity (Prout and James, 1990: 7).