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 Ariès (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.

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