Thursday, April 4, 2013

‘Age divisions are socially constructed’ Explain and discuss this statement with reference to one of the following: childhood; youth; old age.

Age divisions are often assumed to be milestones of everyone’s lives. The age division discussed in the question is not the numerical age measured by years from birth; it refers to the specific age perimeters of social age groups, such as childhood, adulthood or old age, in which certain social duties are expected from them. The cycle of life is categorized into several periods that are assumed to be biologically determined because of the obvious assumption of the correlation of birth years and maturity. As each person reaches particular age groups, specific social behaviors and maturity is expected of them. This gradual progression is not just an inevitable progression of life which all humans share; but it is also culturally varied with distinctive sets of social problems that tagged along (Eisenstadt, 1956, p. 21). As the standardized age divisions exist in the collective conscience, members of society are being obligated to enter certain age divisions despite individual development. The theories of universal age divisions or standard specific age groups are challenged as countless researchers proved from various fields of studies, whether it is sociological, psychological or anthropological, that every individual’s pace of life is different (James, Jenks & Prout, 1998, p. 26-27). Hence, it is difficult for the debate that age divisions are socially constructed to reach a consensus. Sociological arguments put forward two main points, the examination of age divisions cross-culturally and longitudinally to show that age divisions are unchallenged social assumptions. The essay will lay out the debate that age divisions are socially constructed with the points raised in a crucial age group: childhood.

The socialization of children is vital to all societies regardless of political affiliations or religious beliefs, as the children are the next generation to perpetuate the social language, norms and structure. It also often includes respect for the adults (Shipman, 1972, p. 11). Although the basis that socialization must be ensured is a universally shared idea, there are many unique factors in each society of their respective eras in history that correlate and produce a certain attitude towards children and how they are supposed to be treated. Research and data collection have been done by Hendrick (1990) to show that the collective ideas of different timeframes socially constructed several perspectives and versions of age divisions in childhood (James, Jenks & Pout, 1998, p. 140). In Childhood, A Sociological Perspective, historian Philippe Ari├Ęs (1962), cited by Shipman, claimed there was no such concept of childhood in the medieval Europe. In the age of high infant mortality and disease-stricken lands, young children were expected to join the adult group as soon as they no longer need primary care from parents. Paintings portrayed children as small sized adults with mini versions of adult clothing. The word ‘baby’ in French did not exist till the nineteenth century, which was then borrowed from the English language (1972, p. 8 & p. 12). One is that children are ‘foolish and stubborn’ and this behavior should be stomped out for their own good. The Puritanism in the Seventeenth Century upheld this view (Shipman, 2004, p. 8) The opposing view was that children are innocent beings with unpolluted morals (Shipman, 2004, p. 9). Moreover, Sharp (2012) presented photos of the child laborers that had been given tremendous amount of responsibility and hard jobs. It showed how the children were treated back in the early nineteenth century. Even in the same timeframe, conflicting opinions of children exist, which are clearly evidence on how age divisions are socially constructed.

It can be argued that the paradigms of childhood in the postmodern society has shifted from the previous accounts and are leaning towards the negative view that children are weak and immature to fend for themselves. As written in Rethinking Childhood,

“Present research leads us, time and again, to see children differently than we have in the recent past: as fully human beings, quite apart from any measure we might use to determine their progress toward maturity. Seeing children as fully human means that we see their full humanity in the here and now, not only in a near or distant future. When violence happens to a child, it is not the potential but the actual humanity of a person that is violated. When love is given to or received from children, the reciprocal gift involves actual, not potential, persons. The patronizing habits of mind that adults often display in their interactions with children, particularly those regarded as “disadvantaged,” are increasingly understood as inappropriate to the people who face each other across the divide between adult and child.” (Pufall and Unsworth, 2004, p. 3)

The quotation above reflects the views of how children are perceived and cared for in society today. Society identifies children as asocial or even pre-social, as if they are just passing through a phase. A phase where their “inadequacies”, “immaturity” and “irrationality” are elaborated which often generalize the entire children population (Jenkins, 1998, p. 2). How children are perceived is an important variable for the cultural response of other age groups in relations to themselves, which in turn helps construct childhood. 

Following the trends of a risk society, the legal body also played an important part of how age groups are shaped to what is understood today. Gill wrote about how the proliferation of playground safety policies (p. 24-38), anti-bullying initiatives (p. 44-45), and online risk aversion protocols (p. 55-59) are undermining childhood, molding it into a restrictive and less autonomous stage of growing up (2009, p. 13). He cited Cunningham (2006) who claimed that risk aversions are actually downplaying children’s abilities and resilience (2009, p. 11). Gill (2009) believes that the legislation and policies designed to avoid risk and danger are produced due to “the changes going on in the wider world” (p. 77) and the response of ‘the culture of fear’ (p. 14). As it is shown, there are contrasting mindsets toward children and what was expected of them in their respective age groups between the postmodern societies now and different timeframes in history. Smith (2010, p. 199) states that “It is important to recognize the value of history here, in that this allows us to identify two essential considerations: childhood is clearly subject to quite dramatic change over time, both in the way it is defined and how it is lived; . . . . . .” Today, children are considered objects of affection and love, in which adults sought to protect and treasure; whilst back in the older times, children were regarded as either mini versions of adults that needed to work (Sommerville, 1982, p. 160) or a undeveloped individual that is not fully human (Sommerville, 1982, p. 28)

Societies located geographically in different parts of the world may vary in economic wealth and cultural beliefs would allow their morals and values to be instilled into their version of childhood. Whiting and Whiting (1975) did a thorough analysis of six cultures from different geographical pinpoints of the world and found how the children behave are strongly correlated with the variations of the socioeconomic structure. Additionally, James, Jenks & Prout explores the cross-cultural life-chances of children in developed and developing countries. The data (1998, p. 129) provided comprises of numerous comparisons between countries that contrast in economic and social positions. It can be summarized that children from the least developed countries are at a disadvantage as they are living in a social structure that would not be able to provide sufficient health, education and social care systems (1998, p. 130). Other than that, there is an obvious increase of poverty in the ethnic minorities groups all over the world, which further marginalized some children (1998, p. 131). All the different aspects in society contribute to children’s social life. So it may be rare to find children from two different cultures that have the exact same childhood timeline and experiences. An example would be simply comparing two different cultures, it is easy to comprehend how being a middle class Western child in Switzerland is very different to being a working class Asian child from Thailand. Therefore, the cross-cultural examinations also raise important prove that childhood is a social construction.

The claim that age divisions are socially constructed can be explained in relation to childhood. The factors that contribute to the construction are bluntly understood. Chronological history comparisons and cross-culture examinations are the main points for the debate which covers the progression of the wider society, set up of new legislations, economic materialism and socialization of the children. Although childhood has a chronological factor, which creates a common sense assumption that, it is standardized and has been since the literacy of man, but the points above show how social constructionism is a valid claim and an angle of the debate that cannot be easily rebutted.


Shipman, M. (1972). Childhood; A Sociological Perspective. Bucks: NFER Publishing Company Ltd.

Eisenstadt, S. (1956). From Generation to Generation: Age Groups and Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.

Jenkins, H. (1998). Introduction. In P. Aries, J. S. Rose, K. Calvert, V. A. Zelizer, S. Kline, L. Spigel, et al., The Children's Culture Reader (pp. 1-37). New York: New York University Press.

Gill, T. (2007). No Fear; Growing up in a rish averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

James, A., Jenks, C., & Prout, A. (1998). Theorizing Childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sommerville, J. (1982). The Rise and Fall of Childhood. California: SAGE Publications .

Smith, R. (2010). A Universal Child? Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Whiting, B. B., & Whiting, J. W. (1975). Children of Six Cultures: A Psycho-Cultural Analysis. London: Harvard University Press.

Sharp, G. (2012, September 4). Sociological Images: Child Labour and The Social Construction of Childhood. Retrieved November 18, 2012, from The Society Pages :

Pufall, Peter B.; Unsworth, Richard P. (2004). Rethinking Childhood.

In what sense has social theory troubled the model of the Enlightenment self?

With the proliferating social theories, it is widely debated that the model of the Enlightenment self is challenged with the increasingly dispersed parts of identities that are unstable and persistently shifting in relations to social institutions and cultural trends. Social theories are explaining what the Enlightenment cannot comprehend, hence causing the theory of the self as a resolute individual, less relevant.

The Enlightenment self has been the model for understanding human thoughts and feelings since its appearance in the mid 17th century. It is generally known as the liberation of free thoughts and reasoning where the individual is only responsible to himself (Foucalt, 1984, p. 36). One of the fathers of Sociology, Auguste Comte had famously put forward the ‘law of three stages in knowledge’ (Coser, 1968, p. 428 – p. 434). The Enlightenment sets off in the metaphysical, the second stage. Metaphysical is the simple ‘cause and effect’ stage (Comte, 1853/1858 p. 28), which is how we would understand ourselves with the Enlightenment ideas. We are led to believe that we are in charge; we are free to reason with ourselves and emerge from self-incurred immaturity (Kant, 1789/1996). Foucalt suggests that there is no way of standing against or in support of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is a series of political, cultural, social events that brought upon the need to ‘break off’ from traditional forms of knowledge. As so, it is only within our power to accept it and succumb to its rationalization or to reject it and deviate (1984, p. 39).

However, it has become apparent that social theories are rapidly seeping into our everyday conversations, making up a significant part of popular science. As the very definition of social science is to study the social interactions and individuals within a constraint of structural boundaries (Mann, 1983), to first understand its theories, it is crucial that we alter our egocentric perspectives and understand that we are “human being(s) amongs other human beings” (Elias, 1970/1978, p. 15). We have to consider the countless physical and social elements that have their own valued discourse in society and within our living circle. The experiences we go through as an individual are not necessarily the grand reality but it also exists in the realms of the self (Difference Without Dualism (Part One), 2013). The feelings and thoughts we may have are relatively true but not objectively true because it only true to those who make it a part of their reality, their consciousness. Social theories have shown the ‘hidden parts’ of reality that the Enlightenment model could not, the realities we did not engage with, but are still directly affected by it. An example would be the London Riots that happened year 2011, the drastic responses were a result of the narratives of certain social groups that resonate with the initial eruption, thus triggering a dominos effect.

This current paradigm of knowledge can be related to Comte’s third stage of knowledge, positivism (Comte, 1853/1858 p. 28). Elias described Auguste Comte’s support of positivism in sociology to aim as an objective subject and advocates that social facts be accumulated by observation and theories can be gradually formed after (1970/1978, p. 35). Positivism is mainly an ongoing experiment of life. Such as how various aspects of our social lives are insecure, unstable and changing all the time. We learn as the circumstances occur, then gathering experiences that in turn shape our social personalities.

The culture in society today has turned into an intricate web of communication where we are all constant negotiating our individual identities with the social world. Since we are not isolated individuals, it is preordained for us to play mandatory roles such as the role of a child to our parents or a role of a citizen of our country. Goffman claims that we are all social actors and act out what we perceive to be the best interpretations of our current roles (Dillon, 2010, p. 265). Contradictory to the Enlightenment self, actors will perform a range of different roles in a lifetime, and learns the social specifications and collective values of each role through socialization (Dillon, 2010, p. 267). Goffman also suggests that social actors see themselves as a character and a performer (2001, p. 180 – p. 182). The two positions run parallel together during a ‘performance on stage’. We perform the social roles based on past interactions with similar ‘performers’ but also instilling our own character into our ‘performance’. We still take in consideration of information and knowledge that was passed on from social interaction with others, and does not act freely as a subjective, individualized development.

With everyone being able to afford commodities for entertainment purposes such as books and movies, individuals are often treated to the exaggerated versions of stories. As these are the only way we are offered a peek into someone else’s narrative, it creates surreal impressions that affect our understanding of the social world. As the narratives provided in books and movies are often twisted or distorted for entertainment purposes, people are led to think that the lives of others are exciting, dramatic and almost always end in ‘happy endings’, and by comparison, our own lives are bland and tedious. Moreover, the slick and charm of the movie characters cultivate a belief, a certain idea and expectations of the people in the real world. These fragmented concepts are blurring the actual objective and relational reality of the social world (Difference Without Dualism (Part One), 2013).

Other than that, language is also an important feature in the social life. Without a shared language, advanced social interactions would be impossible. Words are labeled with meanings for further references, to convey and process a message (Culler, 1976, p. 19). It is also essential to note that a localized slang of language is the evidence of the meanings that is loaded on to the ‘noises and sounds’ by us (Culler, 1976, p. 21 – p. 23). Pinker states that the language is a window to social relations. He explains that ‘indirect speech acts’, “where we veil our intentions in innuendo and hoping our listener to read between the lines”, are social interactions where the words said aren’t as important as the underlying meaning which the words does not explicitly express (2011). So, the important factor in these situations is the dependence on the shared, collective knowledge, which cannot be learnt from the Enlightenment self, but from interacting with the social institutions that we try to break free from. Hence, as language is proven to be a social construction and it being a vessel needed to help explain thoughts and feelings, it can be seen that even our subjectivities are controlled by a culturally defined set of words.

Furthermore, the Enlightenment self does not explain the self in relations with the social structure. The Enlightenment ideas isolates the development of ‘self’ theoretically which is impossible to accomplish practically. Giddens proposes an interesting notion of how the ‘self’ is built up by the individuals, allowing them to choose blocks of preferences and customized traits to construct a ‘self’ (Giddens, 2000, p. 252). Although we have progressed to a more technological and knowledge-laden era, we are still obligated to confine ourselves within the boundaries of society. We not only get to compose our own narratives, Gauntlett stated that Gidden’s Structuration theory claims as society affects the individuals, individuals also shape society. The habitual repetition of acts enforces the social structure, forming cultural meaning and rules that bind us but also asserts that we too have the power to ignore or deviate, creating new social guidelines (2002, p. 93).

The Power of Outrospection shows the power of reaching out and not digging within ourselves for social progress and change. It is outrospective that is celebrated now, not introspection of the self. Outrospection can be a source of social change, a revolution of human relationships (2012, December 3rd). There is a proliferating two-sided social phenomenon in society today. We want to be special; to have our own experiences that we believe is unique compared to everyone else. Nevertheless, on the other hand, we also want empathy. We want other people to understand how we feel. We take comfort in knowing that we are not alone any personal situation. Social theory challenges the enlightenment self and believes that empathy can be the new foundation of a globalized humanity across culture.

These needs are answered and reflected strongly by the escalating use of social media such as Twitter and Tumblr. A similar popular function of both micro blogging platforms is the ‘retweet’ (Boyd et al, 2010, p. 1) or ‘reblog’ (Tumblr, 2007). This function is to repeat a before-stated idea or opinion, as a subtle agreement, validation or favor for the subject discussed. Boyd, Golder and Lotan discussed the act of retweeting and categorized the ten different reasons for retweeting that includes “to publically agree with someone”, “to make one’s presence as a listener visible”, “to amplify or spread tweets to new audiences” and “for self-gain, either to gain followers or reciprocity from more visible participants” (2010, p. 6). Tumblr’s function is slightly different; it is a platform mainly to reblog photos that arouse liking, may it be something of desire or nostalgic value. The idea is to allow each user on Tumblr would have their own blog that consists of ideas and representations of the self, which is reblogged from another, hence, creating an online culture of relating and empathy. Although Tumblr does not have the same direct communications as Twitter, it is also derived from the same principle, to broadcast individuality and according to Gunawardena and Zittle, to create a social presence (1997, p. 10). With social media, the online community is slowly turning from the assumed centralized self towards a dimension of information exchange and a web of connecting other people’s ideas.

The social theories may have overruled the Enlightenment ideas, but there are still some values and ways of the Enlightenment ideas in the new model. Although, not a substantive length of progress is made, but to think that we are now increasingly getting used to the new ideas and moving from the introspective self to a profounder phase of understanding the world, from the second stage of knowledge to the third, is tempting within reason. That reason being our progress is aiming towards a collective goodness in society, the well-rounded satisfaction from all humans. Empathy is the tide that will bring forth the wave for social change. As more social theories develop, it is actually tiding the occurrence of the transition from egocentric culture to an altruistic society.


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