Structural, Historical, and Comparative Perspectives: Volume 12

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Table of contents

(18 chapters)

Thirty years ago, Richard H. de Lone wrote a remarkable book that appears to have sunk into oblivion. The context and aim of this volume is a good opportunity for reviving the book because it represents an excellent application of a macro-sociological perspective. Its main thesis is that it is children, who are the bearers of the American dream, and that it is they who shall rescue the nation from inequalities. Over and over again throughout US history, the recipe has been investments in education in the hope that these measures eventually will solve inherent tensions between economic rationality (market capitalism producing inequalities) and political aims (favouring equality). In other words, de Lone argues, rather than approaching structural problems with positive bearings on childhood here and now, children are expected to have their individual lot improved in the hope that equality appears in the next generation. In this sense, children are instrumentalised for solving deep-seated tensions in society. This is the wrong order, as de Lone suggests it in the book's concluding chapter: Instead of trying to reduce inequality by helping children, we may be able to help children by reducing inequality (de Lone, 1979, p. 178).

This chapter is not about the development of the child; I am making this clear from the outset because the title could easily be misinterpreted that way by the readers who are unacquainted with social studies of childhood. Although ‘development’ and ‘child’ are familiar concepts, which combined in notions of ‘development of the child’ or ‘child development’ are parts of a century long, successful and dominant discourse, the notion of ‘development of childhood’ is rather begging questions, such as if there at all is such a thing as a theory of childhood development and if we need it. To my mind the brief answer to the first question is ‘no’, but quite a few authors have made thoughtful formulations about it and about generational relations without necessarily having intended to be theory builders (cf. Alanen, 2009). The answer to the second question is ‘yes’, I believe we need such a theory to come to terms with how children's life worlds have changed and how they have related to contemporaries belonging to other generations – adulthood, youth and old age.

Since the 1990s, the importance of childhood and children within the political agenda of advanced welfare states has grown rapidly. For example, in 1989 the Canadian House of Commons launched a resolution aimed at eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000. With the help of the National Children's Agenda and the National Child Benefit the situation of children should be improved. Nearly 10 years later in the UK, New Labour heralded the political goal to halve child poverty within 10 years and to eradicate it within 20 years. A wide variety of measures and programs like Sure Start and the National Childcare Strategy were started to improve the welfare and well-being of children. In 2002, a new paradigm was established in Germany concerning family policy. The aim was to improve the reconciliation of family and work, the material welfare of young families by a new parental leave scheme, as well as supporting the development of young children by increasing the number of places for children under the age of 3 in early childhood education and care. Additionally, international organisations contributed to this trend. For example, the OECD (cf. 2001, 2006) propagated the development of early childhood education and care (ECEC) as an important contribution to a successful transition into the knowledge society. According to the Lisbon-Strategy, the EU announced new goals for policies concerning children and families as well as introduced benchmarks for evaluating the implementation of these goals in the member states. Finally, in an influential evaluation for the EU President, Esping-Andersen (cf. 2002) and his colleagues argued for a concept of a “child-centered social investment strategy.”

The causes and variations of social and material welfare form a widespread theme. Classical sociology attended primarily to social class, whereas modern sociology looks at variables such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality and physical and mental ability. Generation or age is proposed as an additional variable to social and material inequalities. Statistical offices have divided income by age brackets and accounted for ‘age-related’ public spending for decades, but it is only relatively recently that generational variations have been theorized. Structure-oriented scholars within social studies of childhood have suggested comparing and confronting the condition of children vis-à-vis the condition of adults and the elderly.

Children must rely on adults to provide the economic and human resources essential to assure their well-being and development, because it is the adults in their families, communities, and the halls of government who determine the nature and magnitude of resources that reach children (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Haveman & Wolfe, 1994). In view of this dependence of children on adults, this chapter has three main goals. The first is to portray the extent to which children in the United States and other selected rich countries experience limited access to economic resources, compared to the adults in each country. The second is to focus on key family circumstances of children which reflect human resources available in the home and which influence the level of economic resources that parents have available to provide for their children. The third is to draw attention to differences among the race, ethnic, and immigrant groups that are leading the demographic transformation of rich countries around the world.

Childhood is often defined in contrast to adulthood. Each becomes meaningfully linked so that it is difficult to understand what childhood is without looking at adulthood or vice versa. Each becomes what the other is not. In a similar vein, structure and agency are often characterised in contrast to each other. The meaning of each becomes dependent on the meaning of the concept which it is set against. Hence, structure becomes defined as ‘constraint while agency becomes defined as freedom, structure is regarded as static while agency is regarded as active; structure becomes defined as collective while agency becomes defined as individual’ (Hays, 1994, p. 57). This way of conceptualising structure and agency often underplays the interconnections between the two. Up until the 1980s, children were primarily considered within developmental psychology and functionalist socialisation frameworks. The former presented childhood as a natural and universal phase of human life with adulthood being seen as the logical endpoint of childhood. The latter adopting teleological frameworks viewed childhood as a preparation for adulthood and focused in particular on the importance of socialisation in reproducing stable adult personalities. In both approaches, children were considered mainly in terms of presumed future outcomes. In breaking with these approaches, the ‘new sociology of childhood’ sought to emphasise children's agency and to consider children's lives in the here and now rather than as future projects. This has resulted in a plethora of qualitative studies that highlight children's position as active agents. Indeed, in developing a new paradigm for the sociology of childhood, Prout and James (1997) specifically recommend ethnography as a preferred method for uncovering and understanding children's daily lives. This has led Qvortrup (1999, p. 3) to express concern that the ‘adherents of the agency approach are gaining the upper hand’. Qvortrup warns that researchers also need to employ structural approaches to fully understand and illuminate the broader landscape of childhood. He reminds us that childhood is a particular and distinctive form of every society's social structure. Rather than a transient phase, it is a permanent social category shaped by macro forces. While of course children practice agency throughout their childhood and ethnographic studies have been crucial in challenging adults’ conceptions of children as irrational, immature and so on, nonetheless, Qvortrup argues that these studies have been less useful in illuminating the position of childhood in macro societal structures. These wider societal forces position children as a minority group conditioned by resilient power relations based on generation, and they have been relatively immune from children's individual or collective agency. In other words, children act as agents under specific structural conditions. Of course, this does not render children's agency as meaningless. Like adults, children actively produce certain forms of social structure, while simultaneously, social structures produce certain types of childhood (see the chapter by Qvortrup, this volume). Hence, structures are enabling as well as constraining (Giddens, 1984). Indeed over the past two decades, adults are becoming increasingly aware of childhood as a structural form and of the durability of power differentials between adults and children and are increasingly working with children to develop a rights-based agenda to further their collective interests. This could be seen as an example of the collective agency of children although it also illustrates how this agency takes place against a backdrop where existing hierarchies between adults and children structure the conditions under which children practice their agency. One could question whether participating in these recurring forms of social interaction make children agents (Hays, 1994, p. 63).

Major merits of New Childhood Sociology are that it has introduced into sociology three fundamental points: (a) studying children as social actors, contrary to the view customarily held of them; (b) defining childhood not as a transitional phase, a state that people leave behind, but as a permanent structure of society – wherein, however, constant turnover occurs, so that childhood changes over time and in different types of society (James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998; Qvortrup, 1991, 2004); (c) considering children as essential part of a historically and socially constructed relationship with adults (Alanen, 2001), following the generational perspective already indicated by Mannheim (Mannheim, 1952).

The sociology of childhood is fraught with problems, not least those centred on the idea, notion or concept of ‘childhood’, and in particular, the issue of how to define, distinguish and identify ‘childhood’ for sociological purposes. The study, analysis and understanding of childhood hinge upon how ‘childhood’ is defined, either explicitly or implicitly, one problem being the plethora of quite diverse approaches in both popular and sociological discourses. While there cannot be a correct definition of ‘childhood’, there can be a best definition, such as for sociological purposes, those of making sense of ‘childhood’ in particular and of social life, relationships and experience in general.

Structural factors are central to demographic theories in trying to explain the ups and downs in fertility. In scientific debates two perspectives have often been confronted, one in which the economy is seen as the driving force of change, the other in which culture and new ideas are emphasised. Whether changes in the value of children are driven by economic or cultural factors can be difficult to disentangle. The theory of the demographic transition is a starting point.

The aim of this chapter is twofold. First, we want to show how children and minors are fundamental in any consideration of the major issues and goals of economics and politics, especially with regard to the relationship between democracy, well-being and economic development. Children's well-being is a valuable goal in itself, and given that minors represent the long-distant future, it is also a measure of the economic potential of each country and the world. Despite its inherent value and economic importance, children's well-being is an issue largely overlooked by politicians, and the main theme of this chapter is that this is inevitable because there is no political incentive for politicians to address it. As a consequence, the second aim of this chapter is to argue that granting children the right to vote would provide the best political incentive, as well as the missing link in modern democracies. We propose some reasons as to why extending the right to vote to minors represents the full achievement of universal suffrage for a mature society, rendering democracy absolute and improving its economic potential. Parents, who already represent their children's interests in everyday decisions, should naturally be entitled to represent them in the polling booth as well, qualifying their participation in the functioning of democracy through their role as parents. We argue that this change in electoral rules would force politicians to consider children, pushing minors’ well-being to the top of all political parties’ agendas and prompting the market and politics to ensure a better allocation of resources between generations.

The roots of the present human rights regime vis-a-vis children go back to the aftermath of World War I, when Eglantyne Jebb – cofounder of the Save the Children Fund – drafted, as part of her work with refugee children in the Balkans, a Children's Charter. In this document, she argued that there were certain rights for children that should be claimed and universally recognized and indeed that it was the duty of the international community to put such rights to the very forefront of their planning decisions: ‘[i]t is our children’ Jebb argued ‘who pay the heaviest price for our shortsighted economic policies, our political blunders, our wars’ (Hammarberg, 1990, p. 98). What Jebb in fact created was a practical document later used as the basis for the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child that was adopted by the League of Nations in September 1924 and that set out five precepts governing the ‘duties’ that mankind had, ‘beyond and above all considerations of race, nationality or creed’. These included allowing the child to be first in receiving relief in times of distress and providing all manner of support to the ‘needy’ child (defined at the time as being those suffering hunger and sickness, orphans and those who were ‘backward’ or ‘delinquent’). The language of the Declaration may have moved on, but it remains a landmark document in that it set the tone for many of the child's rights initiatives that followed, in particular, in terms of the ‘children first’ ethos that was to become a fundamental element in later child rights campaigns (Hammarberg, 1990, p. 98). Indeed, the 1924 Declaration has been widely depicted as a turning point for international political efforts relating to the child, and too for the advocacy movement that surrounds them, providing inspiration for many of the efforts on their behalf that were to follow. Like many of these subsequent efforts towards putting children first, however, political events overtook political will, and the attempt to improve children's lives at this time stalled as the world moved once again towards war. It would therefore be much later – in the aftermath of World War II, and following the 1948 approval by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration – before the international community turned its attention once more to the welfare of the child, and it is in the work that was done during this time that the roots of the current international legal regime governing children can perhaps most clearly be recognised.

These public programs have typically been advanced on the grounds that social and economic inequality is at least partly the result of a vicious cycle that can best be broken by intervening in the victim's childhood – that poor children have poor parents who will rear them poorly to lead poor lives unless society steps in to “help.” It has been generally assumed that programs of individual assistance to children caught in this cycle can enhance their social and intellectual development and therefore improve their life chances – that is, the likelihood that they will capitalize on opportunity to achieve secure, comfortable, or even rich status as adults. These are claims that programs to help individual children will help equalize opportunity for them, making the odds facing Bobby and Jimmy faker. Whether or not programs of assistance to individuals can do this is a matter of debate (and is discussed at some length in Chapter 3). But the interesting point is how quickly the hopes for more equal opportunity for all have been confused with the presumption that making opportunity more equal will reduce the overall extent of poverty or economic inequality in the society. For 150 years this has been a recurrent claim of public policy concerning children and concerning inequality.

Cover of Structural, Historical, and Comparative Perspectives
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Sociological Studies of Children and Youth
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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