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Title of case study: Devising categories of analysis of childhood

Name and email address: John Issitt,

University: University of York

Key Concepts/Threshold Concepts: Categories, analysis, universality, context.

Background: Module - Emerging Visions of Childhood

• Module on BA Educational Studies. The module is open to all students across the University

The module explores textual and pictorial constructions of childhood. It uses both contemporary and historical sources to explore issues of representation, participation, identity and power in children's lives.


This activity can help students recognise the difficulties and compromises that notions of the universality of childhood involve. The following material supports them into thinking anew about the categories of analysis that might be used in comparing childhoods in different contexts. I want them to recognise the difficulties by engaging in the process of selecting and applying such categories.


I provide a grid, as follows, to encourage students to engage with this issue:

What categories would you use to analyse childhood in different circumstances?

South Africa        

When working with students, this pro forma is accompanied by a screening, which contextualises the notion of 'different circumstances' in which childhood can be experienced.

I showed a series of visual accounts that recorded children's experiences in a range of settings across the world. The sequences revealed differences in gender, social status, ethnicity, age, kinship relations, family structure - the accounts I used were from the US, Bangladesh and South Africa. In essence it was the differences that mattered, as these were starkly contrasting versions of childhood, allowing the students to begin to analyse childhood as a construct in a productive manner.

Students had been briefed to think about the categories of analysis that might be used to compare the different situations represented in the clips. After watching them, students then work in groups of 3 and feedback their ideas in plenary to the whole group.

When I used this, the sequence of clips lasted 30 minutes. Students then worked together for 15 minutes and this was then followed by a whole group discussion which focused on each small group presenting its findings. In this case, the categories devised by the small groups were as follows, with the first five being the most common:

Family structure
Socio economic status
Material circumstances
Ethnic factors
Local cultural expectations
National cultural expectations
Level of individual responsibility
Capitalist relations


Lecturers' Views

The student discussion, as the categories suggest, was lively, and some sophisticated ideas were expressed. Interestingly, in this session, a lot of the more theoretically informed discussion was initiated by sociology students taking the module as an option.

Students, generally, initially struggled to find categories they could apply and in so doing started to recognise the difficulties and compromises of commonsense assumptions about different childhoods. Some students decided it was impossible to find categories that could apply to all settings and so felt very uncomfortable with the apparent meaninglessness of the term 'childhood' as a universal. As this point they productively turned back to work with the categories again.

I had selected a wide range of material to show and I felt that the eclectic nature of the selection was key, as it provided range. I think that I would select a different range of sources next time to keep the exercise fresh and surprising - for me at least.

Students' Views

I asked all the students to offer feedback on their views of the activity, via email. Here are a selection of their comments:

"I thought that the exercise was good because it got us thinking about how
we define childhood and what things we associate with childhood. It was
interesting to see the categories that different groups found important to
this notion of childhood."

"I thought today's exercise was good but difficult to compare such different
economic status's between the videos shown. Comparing a well-off American
family with a poor Bangledeshy family was difficult as their circumstances
were so different. But as you said there was more of the video which showed
children from a similar socio-economic background!"

"I found the whole video exercise fairly helpful for stimulating ideas about
the topic and immersing my brain in childhood issues. It's always a bit
difficult at the start of a module because any exercise like that makes me
realise the hugeness of a topic that we're going to study in very little
time... but you've got to love a challenge! I liked the discussion as there
is stuff I just hadn't considered at all that others brought up."

"I thought the exercise was very beneficial and effective. Visual stimulus is always a good way to start thinking about the issues and the
table then made it easy to break it all up and start thinking about it in more depth, the only point I would make is maybe a small discussion within
the class at the end would get our thoughts rolling even more?"

Advice to others thinking of using this activity

This is a useful exercise that can utilise whatever visual resources you have to hand relating to childhood across national boundaries. Having a breadth of starkly contrasting materials ensures the activity is successful.

Issitt, J. ‘Devising categories of analysis of childhood’ in the MEDAL Casebook, MEDAL Consortium (2006).

I've tried this out and would like to offer feedback.

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