The Social Construction of Childhood and Age

The Social Construction of Childhood and Age

Age is an important aspect of stratification which has a crucial bearing on our status and identity since it determines whether and what sort of employment we can gain, whether we can marry, as well as things such as the sort of leisure activities we can join in, whether we can go into pubs and clubs, and the sorts of films we can watch.

Sociologists would argue that they way western societies mark age chronologically (in terms of time, years, etc) is culturally specific, and indeed a particular characteristic of industrialised societies. Thus we talk about ‘eighteen year olds’, and ‘seventy year olds’. We also have many implicit assumptions concerning the age at which a person can be considered an adult, when they are middle aged, and what counts as ‘old’. This is how our culture describes and measures age. Concepts of age are however, not fixed, not natural, and not universal. They are socially constructed. Simple cross-cultural comparison bears this out. As Jane Pilcher points out, in many cultures, such as the Hausa and the Chisunga of Africa, it has been puberty which marks the beginning of adulthood, not age in years.

Hockey and James argue that the western view of age is something which largely came about with the development of industrial society. In pre-industrial society, where the family could be considered to be a unit of production, a person’s age was not such a crucial determinant of their ability to work. Children for instance, were less likely to lead such a privileged existence as they were to acquire in industrial society, and were more likely to join in and help in productive activity. Hockey and James, drawing on a wide range of historical evidence, argue that industrialization led to the exclusion of children, women, and the elderly from paid employment.

Hockey and James argue that the exclusion of these categories of people from paid employment was the result for a desire for status which started amongst the aspiring...

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