Anthropological Contributions to the Study of Child Development



Symposium for 20th ISSBD Meeting

Würzburg, Germany


Date: Monday, 14 July
Time: 8:15 - 10:00
Session Room: 11


Chair/Organizer: David F. Lancy

Professor of Anthropology

Utah State University


Anthropology has not recognized—until quite recently—the study of childhood as a distinct specialty. However, as LeVine notes, anthropologists have often played a spoiler role, drawing on their data to modify or “veto” theories rooted in western psychology. We offer three such cases that aim to remove the cataract-like ethnocentrism that obscures our understanding of child development.  Specifically, the presenters will offer fresh perspectives on attachment, on learning and cognitive development and on adult-adolescent relations.


By testing the tenets of development in societies where childhood looks patently different from “the norm” in contemporary urban society we may either affirm or deny their universality—a tradition in anthropology dating to Margaret Mead’s work on adolescence and stress in Samoa. Montgomery will offer a reexamination of attachment from the perspective of an impoverished Thai community. The assumption that attachment must be weak where parents “exploit” their offspring—the village economy is largely dependent on child prostitution—is belied by manifold signs of “secure” attachment. In Lancy’s paper, assumptions about childhood as a period in which learning and cognitive growth are paramount are challenged. He reviews a growing body of research among agrarian and foraging societies, which fail to find evidence of systematic improvement in information processing or of intense acquisition of survival skills. Schlegel takes up a core assumption about adolescence—that estrangement from adults is universal. She shows, through her cross-cultural studies and fieldwork, that, quite commonly, adolescence signals the closing of what had been a fairly wide gap between adults and children.


The Meaning of Attachment in a Thai Community

Heather K. Montgomery
Centre for Childhood, Development and Learning

Milton Keynes Open University

Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA

United Kingdom


The emotional “attachment” of children to their parents has become one of the central topics in empirical and clinical psychology as well as in popular wisdom. This presentation will argue that much of the discussion on attachment suffers from a severe ethnocentric bias, specifically, it is colored by the influence of our modern, child-centered culture and particular, culturally and temporally specific ideas about childhood and child parent relations.  It will contrast Western notions of family ties and correct parent-child interactions with those of a poor, slum community in Thailand, where children worked, with their parents’ knowledge and implicit encouragement, in prostitution.


While heavily condemned by outsiders who threatened to remove children from these ‘dysfunctional’ families, children within the community revered their parents. The parents, in turn, exhibit the kinds of behaviors towards the young that are expected in the literature describing “secure attachment.” Children expect to support and serve their parents and to assume autonomous and constructive economic roles early in their lives.


In some senses, these families are “functional” (in the Western sense), in spite of the straightened economic circumstances, at least in part because of the steady earnings of young sex workers. The paper will conclude with a consideration of the value of using a culturally-nuanced perspective—rather than that of the dominant culture—in intervention programs for children and families.


Culture, Learning and the Chore Curriculum

David F. Lancy

Program in Anthropology

Old Main 730

Utah State University

Logan, UTAH, 84322, USA



Among well-educated families throughout the modern world, there is the compelling directive to stimulate infants intellectually to appropriately scaffold their burgeoning cognitive development. Such stimulation continues in early childhood and segues into formal instruction in pre-school. Scientific and applied literature in human development explicitly supports this perspective and warns of adverse consequences to the child of under-stimulation. This presentation will survey a wide body of work among pre-modern societies which fails to uncover evidence of infant or childhood stimulation or instruction and fails to affirm western benchmarks for cognitive development. In more recent research—carried out in a cross section of agrarian and foraging societies—there is little compelling evidence that childhood is a period of intense skill acquisition and practice. On the contrary, children acquire adult competencies at a very slow, episodic pace, they learn them through play and through social learning. Folk theories of childhood stress the folly of trying to accelerate development or instruct children who don’t yet have any “sense.”


Facing this flood of counter-intuitive and theoretically challenging findings, anthropologists are now wrestling with the fundamental nature of childhood. There are several emergent ideas, all tied to the impact of natural section on the human life course. Childhood is seen as affording higher fertility as human mothers—unlike chimpanzee mothers—can shift the burden of child care to family members while caring for a subsequent newborn. A second idea links a prolonged period of development to robust health and fat reserves at the onset of puberty, again, affording higher fertility.


Now More Than Ever: The Role of Adults in the Lives of Adolescents


Alice Schlegel

Department of Anthropology

 University of Arizona

1009 E. South Campus Drive

Tucson, Arizona 85721-0030 U.S.A

(520) 299-7021



The typical human development text portrays adolescence as a period when children break free from parental authority. Their attention shifts to peers and they engage in activity that adults find objectionable or dangerous—sometimes to directly flaunt adult authority. When they are employed, their wages go into their own pockets and do not provide a return on the parents’ investment. They join a “youth culture” that is separated from adult society by a “generation gap.” This paper offers a contrasting view drawing on cases in anthropology. These cases are illustrations of the cross-cultural norm that adolescents prepare themselves for adulthood by participating in adult-centered activities, with the help of adults who are not necessarily kin. Adolescents must cooperate with elders for their support and goodwill if they want to progress to adulthood. Initiation rites almost inevitably include the direct involvement of adolescents in emotionally charged transformative experiences with adults. Many youth acquire their livelihoods via apprenticeships overseen by a “master.” Nor are these cases limited to tribal societies: examples will also be drawn from contemporary societies, in particular the venerable institutions of Vereine in
Germany and Contrade in parts of Italy


The presenter will argue that adults continue to play a vital role in the transition through adolescence. Indeed, by acquiescing to the theoretically suspect notion of adolescent estrangement, we do them a serious disservice.




Peter K Smith (Professor)
Professor and Head

Unit for School and Family Studies
Department of Psychology
Goldsmiths, University of London
New Cross
London SE14 6NW
United Kingdom