Letter from Gerald Handel to the Membership of the Section on Children and Youth. Please read and join this discussion.
Some Reflections on Studying Children
At the end of a long career that began with a short paper (Handel and Hess 1956) I would like to share with colleagues some thoughts that I have had recently and over the years. Some are about things that I have tried to do, and some are about things that I think need doing and that I hope some of you and some of your students will want to undertake.
(1) In the last few years some sociologists have judged it necessary to initiate what they call a new field of children’s studies. A key contention in this initiative is that the concept of socialization, long central to sociological understanding, is obsolete or wrong-headed. I believe this contention is erroneous and misguided, and I have evaluated the claims of several of these scholars in my most recent publication (Handel 2011.) One claim is that children’s agency is a more relevant, appropriate, or effective concept than socialization. I believe this is a misguided opposition. Those who argue it neither set forth the concept of socialization they are opposing nor do they provide theoretical grounding for agency. In my judgment, socialization is one of the general factors that gives rise to agency because, following Mead (1934), socialization interactions generate the self, and the self is what makes agency possible. Agenda: I believe the program committee of ASA Section on Children and Youth should organize one or more convention sessions, perhaps together with colleagues from the theory section, to explore this conceptual issue, which is contentious.
(2) When Gertrud Lenzer took the initiative to organize this section, it began as the Section on Children. Some years later the name was changed to Section on Children and Youth. I did not participate in the discussions that led to the change, so I do not know what arguments were advanced in favor or opposition. But the change merits thought. On a practical level, I presume that there were not enough sociologists studying children to preserve the section without expanding its scope to include youth, long a category of sociological interest because of gangs , delinquency, and youth culture. The scarcity of sociologists studying children is lamentable. The arguments for studying children need to be advanced and strengthened among sociologists. The list of topics presented at the recent Rutgers-Camden Conference on Multiple Childhoods offers some valuable examples. I would have liked to have heard those papers.
What justification is there for combining youth and children in the same section? One basis I can think of is the concept of child development – children develop into youth. But, to the best of my knowledge, child development is not a sociological concept, except in the mostly abandoned Parsons-Bales theory (1955). (If I am wrong on this point, I would appreciate hearing from colleagues on this website or at firstname.lastname@example.org) Agenda: Therefore, if sociologists of children and childhood, who mostly disdain the psychological concept of child development, are to have a sound conceptual basis for considering children and youth as connected topics, the nature of that connection needs to be conceptualized. I think the concept of the experienced life course (Handel 2003, p. xxi) may be useful here, but not sufficient.Some version of child development may have to be incorporated into sociology, but I would like to hear from any colleagues who propose other ways of conceptualizing that connection.
(3) Barrie Thorne (1993, p.3) wrote, “Children’s interactions are not preparation for life; they are life itself.” A 47-year-old construction worker said, when telling his life-course narrative, “I always hung out with fellows like three or four years older than me. I was always the youngest in the crowd. I believe it gave me the smarts – the experience, how to handle different situations, you know.” (Handel 2003, p. 35). What Barrie presented as an “either-or” way to understand childhood is really a “both-and” situation. The meanings of childhood experience are not terminated at the end of the childhood years. I have suggested four ways that they may be processed in later life (Handel 2003, pp.104-107) Readers may think of additional or alternative ways.
(4) I want to pay tribute to the late Spencer Cahill. His premature death, a few months after we completed our joint work, was a painful personal loss and a tremendous loss to our field. Spencer was a very appealing person -- gifted, knowledgeable, astute, congenial, and compassionate. If you have not read his chapter, “Children,” (Cahill 2003) you will be rewarded when you do. I want also to acknowledge Frederick Elkin, who was a pioneer with The Child and Society (1960) and who invited me to become co-author and to take primary responsibility for the next four editions, 1972 through 1988. Spencer prompted us to change “The Child and Society” to “Children and Society” for what started out as a 6th edition but became a new book with a more appropriate title.
(5) Spencer’s research interests included children’s actions in public (Cahill 1987). My longtime research interest was in understanding children’s participation in their family life. The study that I did with Robert D. Hess (Hess and Handel 1959) consisted of interviews with both parents in two-parent families AND with their two or three children between the ages of six and eighteen. I later sought to further develop this view with an anthology (Handel 1967) introducing the concept “the psychosocial interior of the family;” and later, “whole-family methodology” (Handel 1996). Most commonly, the members of a family inhabit a shared household over an extended period of time. Through their interactions they become what Cooley (1909) called a “primary group” and Burgess (1926) called “a unity of interacting personalities.” These two concepts, together with several of Mead’s, were the foundation of my efforts (Handel 2002.)
(6) I am struck by the fact that sociologists pay little attention to sibling relationships. Based on interviews with children and parents I published a study, mostly based on interviews with children, that offers a sociological view of issues that child siblings deal with between/among themselves (Handel 1986). Generally, I have seen little evidence that sociologists are attentive to the fact that (except in China) children have brothers and sisters who are important in their lives. I was pleased to see titles of a few papers on siblings in the Rutgers Camden Conference. If there are gaps in my knowledge here, perhaps readers can fill me in. I do want to call your attention to the excellent paper by Susan O. Murphy (1992), “Using Multiple Forms of Family Data: Identifying Pattern and Meaning in Sibling-Infant Relationships.”
(7) There is almost no sociological attention to the issue of how newborn children become participants in society, an issue implicit in Cooley’s concept but still sitting unexplored. When I taught a graduate course in Sociology of Childhood I offered to sponsor a dissertation based on two cases, or even a single case. Student was to find a newly pregnant woman, interview her and her partner on a weekly basis. Both partners were each to keep a diary. With whom did they communicate? What was communicated? How do they process incoming communications from doctors, friends, family members, clergy, and others? Following birth of the baby, student was to do six months of participant observation in the home. I had no takers. I hope some of you will pick it up and carry it forward. We need that sociological understanding.
Burgess, Ernest W. 1926. “The Family as a Unity of Interacting Personalities.” Family 7: 3-9.
Cahill, Spencer. 1987.”Children and Civility: Ceremonial Deviance and the Acquisition of Ritual Competence.” Social Psychology Quarterly 50: 312-321.
Cahill, Spencer, 2003. “Children.” Pp. 857- 874 in Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism, edited by Larry T. Reynolds and Nancy J. Herman-Kinney. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press
Cooley, Charles Horton. 1909. Social Organization. New York: Scribner.
Elkin, Frederick. 1960. The Child and Society. New York: Random House.
Handel, Gerald. (Ed.) 1967. The Psychosocial Interior of the Family. Chicago. Aldine.
Handel, Gerald. 1986. “Beyond Sibling Rivalry: An Empirically Grounded Theory of
Sibling Relationships.” Pp. 105-122 in Sociological Studies of Child Development, Vol. 1, edited by Patricia A. Adler and Peter Adler. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Handel, Gerald. 1996. “Family Worlds and Qualitative Family Research: Emergence
And Prospects of Whole-Family Methodology.” Marriage and Family Review 24: 335-348.
Handel, Gerald. 2002. “Toward Understanding Families as Groups.” Pp. 489-510 in Pioneering Paths in the Study of Families, edited by Suzanne K. Steinmetz and Gary W. Peterson. New York: Haworth Press
Handel, Gerald. 2003. Making a Life in Yorkville. Experience and Meaning in the Life-Course Narrative of an Urban Working-Class Man. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Handel, Gerald. 2011. “Sociological Perspectives on Social Development.” Pp. 119-138 in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Social Development, 2nd ed. Edited by Peter K. Smith and Craig H. Hart. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
Handel, Gerald and Robert D. Hess. 1956. “The Family as an Emotional Organization,” Marriage and Family Living 18 ( 2): 99-101. (Precursor to Journal of Marriage and Family.)
Hess, Robert D. and Gerald Handel. 1959. Family Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Handel, Gerald, Spencer Cahill, & Frederick Elkin. 2007. Children and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Parsons, Talcott and Robert F. Bales. 1955. Family, Socialization, and Interaction Process. Glencoe, IL. Free Press.
Thorne, Barrie. 1993. Gender Play. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Section on Children and Youth