Looking Back to Move Forward: Bridging Anthropology and Childhood Studies

Kristen Cheney (International Institute for Social Studies)
NEOS Volume 12: Issue 1, April 2020

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In 2007, when Susan Shepler and I founded ACYIG, the idea was to network the many anthropologists working on childhood and youth at the time. Childhood studies was still finding its feet as an interdisciplinary field in its own right, but many new ACYIG members felt that the discipline of anthropology was not taking young people seriously enough. Although ACYIG has done a lot to bring anthropology and childhood studies together, and its members have adeptly shown how the two disciplines can inform each other, many challenges and opportunities remain.

With the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2019, a number of reflections have been published on where childhood studies has been and where it is going. Spyrou suggests that we transcend ‘children’s voice’ by centering “the unspoken and the unspeakable which can produce new and more sensitive representations of children” (Spyrou 2018, 86). Spyrou et al urge innovation through focus on young people’s relationalities, questions of scale, and political economy, “from what childhood is to what childhood does” (Spyrou, Rosen, and Cook 2019, 8), while Stryker et al call on scholars of childhood and youth “to embrace and advance the relational, the historical, the political and the inclusive” (Stryker et al. 2019, 301).

Just as anthropologists have helped develop childhood studies by de-centering Western-centric understandings of childhoods/youth and contextualizing childhood(s) across cultures and societies, anthropologists—by virtue of their attention to context as well as reflexivity—are again uniquely poised to push the field in these new directions. We can do so by amplifying our already politically-engaged and policy-relevant work around young people, such as research on the ways young people are transforming our understandings of complex issues like contemporary migration (and detention), activism, and gender/sexuality.

But what can childhood studies do for anthropology? Unfortunately, I think we are still figuring out how to get anthropology to take childhood seriously. Even 13 years after its inception, ACYIG must walk the line between providing a space for like-minded scholars interested in childhood and youth, and creating a splinter group—though our intention was, in fact, to help mainstream some of the central tenants of childhood studies, such as agency and methodological innovation, in anthropological praxis. In this, I believe we still struggle to gain a foothold because of the ways in which scholarship about young people sometimes gets dismissed by the academy (Cheney 2019).

However, considerations of how the young experience some of the transformative events of our current historical moment—from Coronavirus to climate change—will help anthropology to widen its view to not only finally examine age and generation as valid intersections of experience similar to class, race, and gender (Cheney 2007, 15), but also to recognize young people’s contributions to those cultural transformations currently taking place in the world around us.


Cheney, Kristen E. 2007. Pillars of the Nation: Child Citizens and Ugandan National Development. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

— 2019. “Decolonizing Childhood Studies: Overcoming Patriarchy and Prejudice in Child-related Research and Practice.” In Reimagining Childhood Studies, edited by Spyros Spyrou, Rachel Rosen and Daniel Thomas Cook, 91-104. London: Bloomsbury.

Spyrou, Spyros. 2018. Disclosing Childhoods. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Spyrou, Spyros, Rachel Rosen, and Daniel Thomas Cook. 2019. “Introduction: Reimagining Childhood Studies: Connectivities…Relationalities…Linkages….” In Reimagining Childhood Studies, edited by Spyros Spyrou, Rachel Rosen and Daniel Thomas Cook, 1-20. London: Bloomsbury.

Stryker, Rachael, Janet Boddy, Sara Bragg, and Wendy Sims-Schouten. 2019. “The Future of Childhood Studies and Children & Society.” Children & Society 33 (4): 301-308. https://doi.org/10.1111/chso.12345. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/chso.12345.

Author contact: Kristen Cheney (International Institute for Social Studies), cheney@iss.nl

To cite this article: Cheney, K. 2020. Looking Back to Move Forward: Bridging Anthropology and Childhood Studies. NEOS 12 (1).

To link to this article: https://acyig.americananthro.org/neos-current-issue/cheney_neos-12-1_april-2020/