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The (Cross-Cultural) Problem of Categories: Who is ‘Child’, What is ‘Family’?

Bringing Children Back into the Family: Relationality, Connectedness and Home

ISBN: 978-1-83867-198-3, eISBN: 978-1-83867-197-6

Publication date: 25 September 2020


The category of ‘child’ is often presumed to be underpinned by ‘natural’ biological differences from the category of ‘adult’, and the category of ‘family’ is open to similar ‘naturalising’ and universalizing tendencies. Challenging this view has been a central tenet of the New Social Studies of Childhood, arguing instead that ‘child’ and ‘childhood’ are socially constructed, and highlighting children’s agency in shaping their social worlds. More complex frameworks have since emerged, whether concerning the need for a relational ontology of ‘child’, or for a recognition of the diversity of childhoods and families globally. Here we extend the debate to engage with the problematic of the very nature of ‘categories’ themselves, to explore how categorical thinking varies across, and is embedded within, linguistic, historical and philosophical processes and world views. Drawing on the examples of the categories of ‘child’ in China, and ‘family’ in Senegal, West Africa, we consider aspects of fluidity in their indigenous linguistic framing, and how their translation into European terms may fail to fully capture their meanings, which may ‘slip away’ in the process. Such ‘gaps’ between divergent linguistic framings include underlying world views, and assumptions about what it means to be human, raising issues of individuality, relationality and connectedness. Through this discussion we raise new questions concerning the processes of categorical thinking in relation to ‘child’ and ‘family’, calling for cautious consideration of what may be ‘unthought’ in these categories as they feature in much of contemporary childhood and family studies.



McCarthy, J.R., Evans, R., Yu, G. and Kébé, F. (2020), "The (Cross-Cultural) Problem of Categories: Who is ‘Child’, What is ‘Family’?", Frankel, S., McNamee, S. and Bass, L.E. (Ed.) Bringing Children Back into the Family: Relationality, Connectedness and Home (Sociological Studies of Children and Youth, Vol. 27), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 23-40.



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