Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

This post provides a brief overview of Positivist Research Methods, which consist of a scientific approach to social research using quantitative data to ensure objectivity and reliability. (In contrast to the Interpretivist approach to research which favors qualitative data.)

Positivism

The historical context of Positivism is that it emerged out of The Enlightenment and The Industrial Revolution….

The Enlightenment  refers to a period of European history spanning from 1650 to 1800. During this time, the authority of the church was challenged as people started to believe that knowledge should be derived from science rather than from God. The Enlightenment witnessed the birth of modern science which lead to massive social changes. The following three core beliefs (there were others too!) emerged out of The Enlightenment:

  • Underlying laws explained how the universe and society work (wasn’t just God’s will)
    Scientific study could reveal these laws.
  • All men could understand these laws (unlike religious belief – God’s will is unknowable)
  • Laws could be applied to society to improve it (the belief in progress and the pursuit of happiness).

The Enlightenment, Industrialisation’, ‘Progress’ and the Birth of Sociology

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a number of new scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Most notably for students of Sociology, scientific discoveries lead to new technologies which in turn lead to industrialisation, or the growth of factory based production and the building of such things as railways.

This in turn lead to much social transformation – such as Urbanisation and the growth of what Marxists called the Proletariat. Many commentators from the early 19th century onwards were disturbed by the contradiction between the huge advances, or progress being made in science and industry and the apparent worsening of the lives of the majority. As hundreds of thousands of people flooded into expanding industrial city centres such as Manchester and elsewhere in Britain and Europe, these new urban centres were plagued with new social problems – most notably poverty, unemployment, and social unrest.

It was in this context that August Comte founded Sociology – Comte basically believed that if we can use scientific findings to bring about improvements in production through industrialisation then we can study the social world and figure out how to construct a better society that can combat social problems such as poverty, lack of education and crime.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857): The Founder of Scientific Sociology (aka Positivism)

August Comte - The Founder of Positivist Sociology
August Comte – The Founder of Positivist Sociology

Comte introduced the word “Sociology” in 1839. The term “Sociology” is derived from the Latin word Socius, meaning companion or associate, and the Greek word logos, meaning study or science. Thus, meaning of sociology is the science of society.

Comte concentrated his efforts to determine the nature of human society and the laws and principles underlying its growth and development. He also laboured to establish the methods to be employed in studying social phenomena.

Comte argued that social phenomena can be like physical phenomena copying the methods of natural sciences. He thought that it was time for inquiries into social problems and social phenomena to enter into this last stage. So, he recommended that the study of society be called the science of society, i. e. ‘sociology’.

The General Ideas of Positivism – or The Scientific Method Applied to the Study of Sociology

1. Positivists believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.

2. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.

3. Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action

4. Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.

5. To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys. Statistical, numerical data is crucial to Positivist research. Positivists need to collect statistical information in order to make comparisons. And in order to uncover general social trends. It is much more difficult to make comparisons and uncover social trends with qualitative data.

6. These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) – Positivism and Quantitative Sociology

Emile Durkheim - Founding Father of Sociology
Emile Durkheim – Founding Father of Sociology

The modern academic discipline of sociology began with the work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). While Durkheim rejected much of the details of Comte’s philosophy “positivism”, he retained and refined its method. Durkheim believed that sociology should be able to predict accurately the effect of particular changes in social organisation such as an increase in unemployment or a change in the education system.

Durkheim believed the primary means of researching society should be the Comparative Method which involves comparing groups and looking for correlations or relationships between 2 or more variables. This method essentially seeks to establish the cause and effect relationships in society by comparing variables.

Durkheim’s Study of Suicide (1897)

Durkheim chose to study suicide because he thought that if he could prove that suicide, a very personal act, could be explained through social factors, then surely any action could be examined in such a way.  Durkheim’s method consisted of comparing the incidence of various social factors with number of cases of suicide.  Durkheim did this work so well, that seventy years later his study was still being cited in textbooks as an excellent example of research methodology

The starting-point for Durkheim was a close analysis of the available official statistics, which showed that rates of suicide varied:
• From one country to another – countries experiencing rapid social change had higher suicide rates.
• Between different social groups – The divorced had higher suicide rates than the married.
• Between different religious groups – Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics

Durkheim noted that these rates were relatively stable over time for each group. The rates may have gone up or down, but the rates remained stable relative to each other. Durkheim theorised that if suicide was an entirely individual matter, untouched by the influence of social factors, it would be an astonishing coincidence if these statistical patterns remained so constant over a long period of time.  Entirely individual decisions should lead to a random pattern.

Durkheim used his data to derive his now famous theory – that suicide rates increase when there is too little or too much social regulation or integration. Social Regulation is the extent to which there are clear norms and values in a society, while social integration is the extent to which people belong to society.

Even though this study is now almost 120 years old it remains the case that suicide rates still vary according to the levels of social integration and regulation.

Positivism and Social Facts
Durkheim argued that social trends are ‘social facts’ – they are real phenomena which exist independently of the individuals who make them up. He claimed that by if sociology limited itself to the study of social facts it could be more objective. He argued that these facts constrain individuals and help us to make predictions about the way societies change and evolve.

Some Criticisms of the Positivist Approach to Social Research

  • Treats individuals as if they passive and unthinking – Human beings are less predictable than Positivists suggest
  • Interpretivists argue that people’s subjective realities are complex and this demands in-depth qualitative methods.
  • The statistics Positivists use to find their ‘laws of society’ might themselves be invalid, because of bias in the way they are collected.
  • By remaining detached we actually get a very shallow understanding of human behaviour.

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

 

Alternatively, you might like to purchase my extensive no-nonsense revision notes – over 50 pages of accessible, user friendly, exam-focused notes for only £0.99* – from iTunes, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.

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Purchase on iTunes for only £0.99*

*Price will fluctuate with the dollar exchange rate

Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Positivism and Interpretivism – A Very Brief Overview

Further Reading 

S Cool – Positivism (click through for link to Positivism)

The Open University – Positivism 

The Open University – Interpretivism

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Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research

Positivists believe society shapes the individual and use quantitative methods, intepretivists believe individuals shape society and use qualitative methods.

Positivism and Interpretivism are the two basic approaches to research methods in Sociology. Positivist prefer scientific quantitative methods, while Interpretivists prefer humanistic qualitative methods. This post provides a very brief overview of the two.

positivism-interpretivism

Positivism

  • Positivists prefer quantitative methods such as social surveys, structured questionnaires and official statistics because these have good reliability and representativeness.
  • Positivists see society as shaping the individual and believe that ‘social facts’ shape individual action.
  • The positivist tradition stresses the importance of doing quantitative research such as large scale surveys in order to get an overview of society as a whole and to uncover social trends, such as the relationship between educational achievement and social class. This type of sociology is more interested in trends and patterns rather than individuals.
  • Positivists also believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
  • In positivist research, sociologists tend to look for relationships, or ‘correlations’ between two or more variables. This is known as the comparative method.

Interpretivism

  • An Interpretivist approach to social research would be much more qualitative, using methods such as unstructured interviews or participant observation
  • Interpretivists, or anti-positivists argue that individuals are not just puppets who react to external social forces as Positivists believe.
  • According to Interpretivists individuals are intricate and complex and different people experience and understand the same ‘objective reality’ in very different ways and have their own, often very different, reasons for acting in the world, thus scientific methods are not appropriate.
  • Intepretivist research methods derive from ‘social action theory
  • Intereptivists actually criticise ‘scientific sociology’ (Positivism) because many of the statistics it relies on are themselves socially constructed.
  • Interpretivists argue that in order to understand human action we need to achieve ‘Verstehen‘, or empathetic understanding – we need to see the world through the eyes of the actors doing the acting.

Positivism and Interpretivism Summary Grid 

Positivism and Interpretivism

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle

Theory Methods Revision Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

Related Posts 

Links to more detailed posts on Positivism and Social Action Theory are embedded in the text above. Other posts you might like include:

Positivism in Social Research 

Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, A Summary

Links to all of my research methods posts can be found at my main research methods page.

Is Childhood Disappearing?

There is an argument that childhood as we know is disappearing with the the distinction between adulthood and childhood is narrowing. Neil Postman (1994) argued that childhood is ‘disappearing at a dazzling speed’.

As supporting evidence he looked at the trend towards giving children the same rights as adults, the growing similarity of adult and children’s clothing and even cases of children committing ‘adult crimes’ (murder, rape).

Postman’s theory is based on the view that communications technology is the primary thing which shapes society.

Following Aries, he suggested that in the middle ages most people were illiterate (they couldn’t read or write) and speech was the main form of communicating, thus there was hardly any distinction between adults and children.

Postman argues that childhood emerged along with mass literacy. This was because the printed word created a division between those that could read (adults) and those that couldn’t (children). This division emerged because it takes several years to master reading and writing skills, and those years of ‘not being able to read and years spent learning to read and write’ became the childhood years.

HOWEVER, Postman argues that in contemporary society, new technologies like television and the internet blur this separation and that children are now much more able to access the ‘adult world’. As a result, childhood as we know it is disappearing.

Supporting evidence for the disappearance of childhood

  • Growth of the Internet/ Social Media means parents and children are becoming more equal
  • The ‘Learner Voice’ in education – and children being used on interview panels for some new teachers
  • Children having the same rights as adults (UN’s rights of the child)
  • ‘Kidults’ – adults becoming more like children!

The Workout Kid

The Work-out Kid is one example which suggests childhood may be disappearing…

Criticisms of the theory that childhood is disappearing

Jenks (2005) suggests that while there are increased concerns among parents about the impacts technologies such as the internet are having on children, this hasn’t resulted in the disappearance of childhood as such.

Rather, such technological changes have led to parents thinking children and childhood need to be more protected that ever – as evidenced in the increase Paranoid Parenting and social policies surrounding safeguarding.

Related Posts

Sources:

Jenks (2005) Childhood.

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Inequalities between children 

The March of Progress view of childhood argues that childhood has gradually improved over the last century or so.

However, conflict theorists argue that this view is quite rose tinted as it ignores the fact that not all children have benefited equally from the protections and services put in place.

We can point to at least the following significant inequalities among children...

Rich children on average benefit a LOT MORE from education than poor children.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the UK are more than three years behind their peers by age of 15, according a recent study.

About two thirds of this difference is apparent at age 10, suggesting that differences in educational achievement between rich and poor kids emerge at a young age.

The study says one of the main reason for the difference is to do with quality of teachers. The best Qualified Teachers in the UK simply aren’t interested in teaching in schools in the most deprived areas, where there are often discipline problems.

Looking at the very top of the social class ladder – Half of all A and A* grades at A level in the UK are secured by the 7 per cent of students who are privately educated, and 4.5 times as much is spent on teaching them as on the average state-educated student.

Girls suffer more problems in childhood than boys

One example of this is that girls have to negotiate the psychological pressures of ‘objectification’ much more than boys – Evidence below

  • A 2007 survey of Brownies aged 7-10 were asked to describe ‘planet sad’ – they spoke of it being inhabited by girls who were fat.
  • A 2009 survey found that a quarter of girls thought it was more important to be beautiful than clever. – Youngpoll.com
  • 16% of 15 -17 year old girls have avoided going to school because they were worried about their appearance
  • One further consequence of objectification is that girls face sexual abuse from boys. (nspcc)

A second example comes in the number of Forced Marriages associated with Asian communities. In 2018 the British authorities dealt with 1500 cases of forced marriage, the vast majority of victims being Asian girls.

However, the actual numbers may be far greater…. Full fact reported that in 2011 the Forced Marriage Unit in the UK had taken up 400 live cases of forced marriage, but the site also reports that one expert in the field suggested that there might be up to 10 000 forced marriages or threats of forced marriage per year in the UK.

Child Protection services fail to protect many children from harm.

The most horrific example of this is from the town of Rotherham where gangs of Asian men groomed, abused and trafficked 1400 children while police were contemptuous of the victims and the council ignored what was going on, in spite of years of warnings and reports about what was happening.

A recent report commissioned by the council, covering 1997 to 2013, detailed cases where children as young as 11 had been raped by a number of different men, abducted, beaten and trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England to continue the abuse.

It said that three reports from 2002 to 2006 highlighted the extent of child exploitation and links to wider criminality but nothing was done, with the findings either suppressed or simply ignored. Police failed to act on the crimes and treated the victims with contempt and deemed that they were “undesirables” not worthy of protection.

Related posts

Signposting

This post has been written primarily for A-level Sociology students, studying the Families and Households module.

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Toxic Childhood

Toxic Childhood – Toxic Childhood is where rapid technological and cultural changes cause psychological and physical damage to children

The concept of Toxic Childhood is one of the main criticisms of the March of Progress view of chilhood – it is especially critical of the idea that more education and products for children are necessarily good for them.

The Term Toxic Childhood was invented by Sue Palmer, a former primary school headteacher, in her 2006 book: ‘Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It.

toxic-childhood-book

In the book, Palmer argues that a toxic mix of technological and cultural changes are having a negative impact on the development of a growing number of children, and she outlines six main ways in which childhhood has become increasingly toxic over the years.

Six ways in which childhood is increasingly toxic

A few years ago Sue Palmer’s Web Site had a very clear summary of six social changes which were damaging children’s early development, listed below….

  1. The decline of outdoor play – linked to increased childhood obesity
  2. The commercialisation of childhood – linked to children being exploited by advertisers
  3. The ‘schoolification’ of early childhood – which reduces independence
  4. The decline of listening, language and communication skills – because of shortened attention spans
  5. Screen saturation – reduces face to face interaction
  6. Tests, targets and education – increases anxiety among children.

Palmer’s Web Site used to be well organised, and used to have a lot of links to recent research on Toxic Childhood..

Unfortunately the Web Site has now changed, and the free information (arguably like childhood) has disappeared, and it now just links to her books, which you have to pay for.

I guess times are hard for adults as well as children. I imagine 15 years on from all the initial excitement, and with the publications industry changing, there’s probably a lot less money in being an independent researcher/ author than there use to be, especially if you’re used to a Head Teacher’s salary!

In the absence of the free research links, it would be a useful activity for students to take one of the six aspects of toxic childhood above and conduct their own research, to evaluate the extent to which these social changes are damaging children’s development, or not!

More Recent Books on Toxic Childhood

Sue Palmer has published two more books, focusing on boys, in 2007, and on girls, in 2014.

Criticisms of the view that childhood has become increasingly toxic

  • This could be an example of an adult ‘panicking’ about technological changes, maybe children are more adaptable than Palmer thinks?
  • Taking the longer term view, childhood may well be more commercialised today, but surely children are better off today as consumers rather than producers (child labourers).
  • This article by Catherine Bennett is worth a read – it reminds us that ‘in the good old days we just had to endure beatings’, although in fairness to Sue Palmer I don’t think she actually romanticizes the past, she’s really just pointing out the new and different problems children now face in a post-modern age.

Find out More

Visit Sue Palmer’s Web Site – Palmer has published several books on child development and education, her most recent publication argues for raising the school starting age to seven!

Related Posts 

Paranoid Parenting

Toxic Childhood in The News

More Evidence of Toxic Childhood

Inequalities between children

The reasons for and consequences of changing patterns of migration

Trends in migration

  • From 1900 to the Second World War the largest immigrant group to the UK were Irish, mainly for economic reasons, followed by Eastern and Central Europian Jews, who were often fleeing from persecution.
  • Before the 1950s very few immigrants were non-white.
  • By contrast, during the 1950s, black immigrants from the Caribbean begain to arrice in the UK, followed during the 1960s and 70s by South-Asian immigratnts from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
  • Since 2001 the main sources of immigration to the UK have been as follows:
    15% UK citizens returning home-ownership
    30% from the European Uniion (mainly Polish)
    30% from New Commonwealth countries such as india

To what extent is migration responsible for UK population growth?

  • In short, it’s not all about increased immigration, it’s more complex!
  • For most of the 20th century, the growth of the UK population was the result of natural increase (more births than deaths). Until the 1980s the numbers of people emigrating was greater than the number of people immigrating
  • More recently, however, and especially since the turn of the Millennium (around the year 2000), there has been an increase in net migration, reaching a peak in 2011 of just over 250, 000. However, this recent increase in net migration is mainly due to the decrease in emmigration, rather than an increase in immigration.
  • Finally, there has been a mini baby boom in the UK since the year 2000 which is responsible for about a third of the increase in recent population growth. However,

Explaining the reasons for immigration to the UK

In order to explain immigration, you have to look at both push and pull factors.

  • Push factors are things llike escaping poverty, unemployment or persecution.
  • Pull factors include things like better opportunities for jobs, study, a higher shtandard of living, more political and religious freedom and joining relatives.

The main pull factors to the UK in recent years have been:

  • To study at university (and also resulting in short term immigration only)
  • For employment – NB historically this is the major reason, and yes this does explain Polish immigration to a large extent but it’s also worth noting that many early migrants from the Caribbean and South-Asia were recruited by the British government to fill labour shortages in the UK – so quite literally pulled to the UK.
  • To be with family members.
  • The most significant push factor has been to seek asylum from Persecution. The most significant recent wave of this type was when 30 000 East African Asians escaped racist persecution by Iid Amin in Uganda in the 1970s. More recently Britain has accepted thousands of refugees fleeing persecution from several countries.
  • Another significant push factor is the high levels of unemployment in some southern and eastern European countries – Spain for example has youth unemployment of around 50%.

Explaining the reasons for emmigration from the UK

Historically the UK has been a net exporter of people. Two of the main reasons for emmigration include:

  • To take advantage of better employment opportunities
  • To have a higher standard of living – To benefit from the lower cost of living abroad in retirement.
  • If we go back into long term history, we could even add ‘colonial conquest’ to list – much early emigration was linked to the British Empire’s desire to control resources in other parts of the world.

The consequences of immigration for the United Kingdom

To follow!

The radical feminist perspective on power and control in relationships

The Radical Feminist viewpoint is that relationships are the primary means through which men control women and maintain their power over them in society.

Probably the most shocking evidence which supports this view is the continued prevalence of domestic violence. According to the BCS (2007) this accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 4 women will experience DV at some point in their lifetime and women are much more likely to experience this than men.

The radical Feminist explanation for DV is that it is an inevitable feature of a patriarchal society and it is part of a wider system that helps maintain male power over women, they key division in society.

Just to demonstrate that this Radical Feminist views didn’t disappear in the 1980s – Here is a recent Radical Feminist view on domestic violence…

“Domestic violence against women by men is “caused” by the misuse of power and control within a context of male privilege. Male privilege operates on an individual and societal level to maintain a situation of male dominance, where men have power over women and children. Domestic violence by men against women can be seen as a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partners.”

(Women’s AID Domestic Violence Fact Sheet, 2009)

Criticisms of the Radical Feminist view on Domestic Violence

1. Wilkinson criticises Feminists by arguing that it is not so much Patriarchy, but poverty that causes stress which leads to DV, so this is much less common in more equal, middle class households.

2. Men are also victims of DV with some statistics suggesting that men are the victims in as many as 2/5 cases of DV.

3. There is a historical trends towards women having more freedom and control over their sexuality, especially compared to traditional tribal societies, a point elaborated on below.

Women have more sexual freedom today…

In many traditional tribal societies, there is little notion that women should gain any satisfaction out of sex. As one British witness to sexuality amongst the Himba of Namibia put it ‘when the husband wants sex, the woman just opens her legs, he gets on with it, and when he’s finished, he just roles over and goes to sleep, there’s no sense of pleasure in it for the woman’. Moreover, in some societies, especially in East Africa, women’s sexuality is tightly controlled, in extreme cases through Female Genital Mutilation, which removes much of the pleasure associated with sex, and sex remains very much about reproduction only.

The above example stands in stark contrast to modern notions of female sexuality. Since the heyday of Feminism and the sexual revolution in the 1960s, and helped by modern contraception, we now live in the age of what Anthony Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’ – where sex is primarily about pleasure for both sexes rather than just being about reproduction.

Today, women increasingly demand sexual satisfaction as an ordinary part of their relationships, and cultural products such as the recent best-selling novel – ‘50 Shades of grey’ and programmes such as ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’ certainly suggest that there is much more open and honest discussion about sex between partners in relationships.

Further evidence that suggests modern relationships are equal and that women are more empowered lies in the proliferation of advice and discussion sites about relationships – Advice magazines such as seventeen.com certainly suggest that women, and even girls, are more empowered in their relationships than they used to be. Such magazines even have quizzes so girls can assess whether their boyfriend’s up to scratch.

Also, blogs such as the good men project suggest that men are more prepared to discuss ‘what it means to be a man’ and ‘modern relationships’, further suggesting more equality between the sexes where intimate relations are concerned.

Evidence against the view that there is equality in sexual relations

Women experience less sexual satisfaction than men….

Indiana University’s comprehensive survey found that while 91% of men had an orgasm the last time they had sex, but only 64% of women did. These numbers roughly reflect the percentage of men and women who say they enjoyed sex “extremely” or “quite a bit”: 66% of women and 83% of men. Only 58% of women in their ’20s had an orgasm during their latest sexual encounter.

30-40% percent of women report difficulty climaxing and 33% of women under 35 often feel sad, anxious, restless or irritable after sex, while 10% frequently feel sad after intercourse.”

The mainstream media refuses to advertise vibrators

According to one Feminist blog…“Vibrators still are such a big taboo. The media and films (ie. American Pie) glamourize women’s sexuality, but then refuses to run ads for vibrators which are very useful tools for helping women understand their sexuality. Yet Viagra ads run on all of these platforms with no problem.

  • All of this serves to reinforce ‘heteronormativity’, or the idea that women need men to give them sexual satisfaction. The problem with this is that the evidence suggests that men are failing to provide this…. many women report a lack of satisfaction in the bedroom.” Thirdly, there is evidence that men and women are becoming more equal where decision making is concerned in relationships

Pahl and Volger (1993) found that ‘pooling’ of household income is on the increase – where both partners have equal access of income and joint responsibility for expenditure

50% of couples pooled their income compared to only 19% of their parents, showing a movement away from ‘allowance systems’ in household expenditure’

Feminist criticisms that decision making is becoming more equal

While some decisions concerning money are made jointly, these tend to be less important ones – such as what clothes to buy while, some recent research suggests that men still tend to have the final say in more important decisions such as changing jobs or moving house.

Related Posts

This post covers the difficult topic of Domestic Abuse in more depth.

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The Social Construction of Chilhoood

When sociologists say that ‘childhood is socially constructed’ they mean that the ideas we have about childhood are created by society, rather than being determined by the biological age of a ‘child’.

Some of the aspects of childhood which are influence by society include:

  • The length of childhood and the moment a child becomes an adult
  • The status of children in society – their rights and responsibilities, what legal protections/ restrictions we place on them
  • The general ideas we have about children – for example whether we think they are innocent and in need of protection, or resilient and in need of freedom to explore and develop by themselves as far as possible.

This post explores some of the evidence for the view that ‘childhood is socially constructed’.

 

Is Childhood Socially constructed

 

What is Childhood?

Childhood, ‘the state of being a child’ is often defined in contrast to adulthood.

For example, the Cambridge English dictionary defines a child’ as ‘a boy or girl from time of birth until he or she is an adult’.

More usefully (IMO) The Oxford English dictionary defines a child as a young human being below the age of puberty, or below the age of a legal majority.

Taken together these two definitions show us that childhood can be either biologically determined, ending when someone reaches their biological age of puberty, or it can be socially determined, simply ending an age when society says someone is an adult.

In Modern Britain, it is society that determines when childhood ends an adulthood starts, and that age is currently set at 18, when an individual reaches the age of ‘legal entitlement’.

However, children do not just suddenly become adults at the age of 18. In Britain there is also a very lengthy transition from childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood, with children gradually picking up certain ‘legal entitlements’ as they progress through their teenage years.

For example, children can work from the age of 14, the age of sexual consent is at 16, and the age at which they can drive is 17.

The fact that society determines the age at which childhood ends is part of the reason why sociologists argue that ‘childhood is socially constructed’ – ‘socially constructed’ simply means created by society (rather than by biology).

Ideas associated with childhood

There are a lot of ideas associated with childhood, and how it differs from adulthood. In Modern Britain we tend to think of children as being dependent, naive, innocent, vulnerable, and in need of protection from adults.

We tend to see children as having insufficient experience and knowledge (because they are still learning and evolving) to be able to make good decisions, and thus we also tend to see them as not necessarily being responsible for their own actions.

The separation of childhood and adulthood

There seems to be near universal agreement that there are some fundamental differences between adults and children. For example people in most societies seem to agree that

1. Children are physically and psychologically immature compared to adults
2. Children are dependent on adults for a range of biological and emotional needs – Children need a lengthy process of socialisation which takes several years.
3. In contrast to adults, children are not competent to run their own lives and cannot be held responsible for their actions

In contrast to the period of childhood, one of the defining characteristics of adulthood is that adults are biologically mature, are competent to run their own lives and are fully responsible for their actions.

However, despite broad agreement on the above, what people mean by childhood and the position children occupy is not fixed but differs across times, places and cultures. There is considerable variation in what people in different societies think about the place of children in society, about what children should and shouldn’t be doing at certain ages, about how children should be socialised, and about the age at which they should be regarded as adults.

For this reason, Sociologists say that childhood is socially constructed. This means that childhood is something created and defined by society:

The social construction of childhood in modern British society

Part of the social construction of childhood in modern Britain is that we choose to have a high degree of separation between the spheres of childhood and adulthood. Add in details to the headings below

1. There are child specific places where only children and ‘trusted adults’ are supposed to go, and thus children are relatively sheltered from adult life.
2. There are several laws preventing children from doing certain things which adults are allowed to do.
3. There are products specifically for children –which adults are not supposed to play with (although some of them do).

All of the above separations between adults and children have nothing to do with the biological differences between adults and children – children do not need to have ‘special places’ just for them, they do not need special laws protecting them, and neither do they need specific toys designed for them. We as a society have decided that these things are desirable for children, and thus we ‘construct childhood’ as a being very different to adulthood.

The Social Construction of Childhood – A Comparative Approach

A good way to illustrate the social construction of childhood is to take a comparative approach – that is, to look at how children are seen and treated in other times and places than their own. Three fairly well-known examples of how childhood can vary in other countries include:

  • Child Labour – In some cultures children are seen as an ‘economic asset’ and expected to engage in paid work – In Less developed countries children are often seen as a source of cheap (free) labour on the farm, in the home or in sweat shops where the wage can help boost the family income.
  • Child soldiers – In conflict, typically young teenage boys may be recruited to fight, effectively taking on very serious adult responsibilities several years younger than they would do in ‘western’ societies.
  • Forced Marriage – In some countries, young teenage girls are sometimes coerced into arranged marriage without their consent, taking on the duties of a wife or mother at a young age. This is well-documented in India and Ethiopia, for example.
  • In West Africa, thousands of girls and women have been enslaved by a practice called ‘trokosi’. Girls as young as seven are given away by their family to pay for the sins of family members. They get forcibly shipped to a shrine, possibly in a foreign country, stripped of their identity, and are forced to work as ‘servants of God’.

NB this isn’t to suggest that any of these conceptions are ‘equal’ to our conceptions of childhood in the west – it is purely to illustrate that there are plenty of cultures where adults DO NOT think children are ‘in need of protection’ and so on, and many hundreds of millions of adults who believe that childhood should end a lot younger than 16-18.

Philippe Aries – A Radical View on The Social Construction of Childhood

The historian Philippe Aries has an extreme view on childhood as a social construction. He argues that in the Middle Ages (the 10th to the 13th century) ‘the idea of childhood did not exist’ – children were not seen as essentially different to adults like they are today.

  • Aries uses the following evidence to support his view…
  • Children were expected to work at a much earlier age
  • The law often made no distinction between children and adults

Works of art from the period often just depict children as small adults – they wear the same clothes and appear to work and play together.

In addition to the above Edward Shorter (1975) argues about parental attitudes to children in the Middle ages were very different from today…

  • High infant mortality rates encouraged indifference and neglect, especially towards infants
  • Parents often neglected to give new born babies names – referring to them as ‘it’ and it was not uncommon to eventually give a new baby a name of a dead sibling.

Aries argues that it is only from the 13th century onwards that modern notions of childhood – the idea that childhood is a distinct phase of life from adulthood – begin to emerge. Essentially Aries is arguing that childhood as we understand it today is a relatively recent ‘invention’

If you like this sort of thing then you might like this – over 50 pages of accessible, user friendly, exam-focused notes for only £0.99* – from iTunes, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.

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Related Posts

The March of Progress View of Childhood

The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Open University)

The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Junior University)

Gender equality in the domestic division of labour

Who does the housework? Men or Women?

Do men and women do equal amounts of housework and child care today or is there evidence of a dual burden for women? What do the trends suggest about women’s empowerment? 

Before reading this post, you might like to read this preceding post: Conceptualizing Gender Equality, which covers some of the concepts sociologists have developed over the years to describe trends towards gender equality in domestic life.

A useful resource for exploring ‘raw survey data’ on who does the housework is the Understanding Society UK Longitudinal Study.

The domestic division of labour has become more since the 1950s.

  • Numerous surveys carried out since the 1950s show a narrowing of the gender gap in the domestic division of laobur.
  • Liberal Feminists and Young and Wilmott would argue that this is because more women are in paid work and families become more symmetrical.
  • Another reason for this is the ‘commercialisation of housework’ – New technologies such as washing machines, hoovers and fridge-freezers (think ready meals) have reduced the amount of housework that needs doing and narrows the gender divide in the domestic division of labour.

Lockdown narrowed the Gendered Division of Labour Gap

A 2020 study from the ONS found that before Lockdown, in 2104-15, women did 1 hour 50 minutes more housework and childcare per day than men, which reduced to 1 hour and 7 minutes per day during Lockdown.

Historic Evidence of gender inequality in the domestic division of labour

Despite the quite dramatic changes with lockdown, historically there is considerable evidence that the Gendered Division of Labour shows a persistent pattern of women doing a lot more housework and childcare than men!

A 2019 study UCL study based on interviews with 8 500 opposite sex couples found that:

  • Women do 16 hours of household chores every week, men do closer to six.
  • Women did the bulk of the domestic chores in 93 per cent of couples .
  • There was a 50-50 split of domestic chores in 6% of couples
  • Only 1% of couples had men doing more domestic work than women.

This work is summarised in this Independent article.

Housework – Gendered Variations by Ethnicity

A 2016 study showed that while women do almost twice as much housework than men in White British and Black British households, women do three tims as much housework than men in Indian households, and four times as much in Pakistani and Bangladeshi households.

The study found that gender attitudes and lack of education were predictors of housework imbalance – more educated women in all ethnic groups did proportionately less housework.

A 2014 survey by the BBC’s Women’s Hour found women devote well over the equivalent of a working day each week to household chores – double the amount undertaken by men. The poll for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour suggests that women spend an average of 11-and-a-half hours doing housework by their own estimation, while men complete just six.

Source – Chore Wars Poll

Similar findings were revealed in a survey of almost 1,000 users of the Mumsnet website.

  • Changing lightbulbs, taking the bins out and DIY were the only three of 54 common domestic tasks done in more than half of cases by men, with 15 roughly shared and the rest chiefly carried out by women.
  • Most often done by female partners were organising playdates, health appointments, childcare and birthday parties – as well as cleaning and laundry. Parents evenings, school plays and bedtime stories are most often seen as shared activities.
  • Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet said: “One in three working mums is the main family wage earner, a rise of one million over the last 18 years… But despite this, women are still busting a gut back home, responsible for the vast majority of chores and domestic responsibilities. It’s not surprising we still talk about glass ceilings and the lack of women at the top. Most of us are just too exhausted to climb the greasy pole.”

According to a 2011 survey by the Social Issues Research Centre, The Changing Face of Motherhood, there has been hardly any change in domestic division of labour over the last 20 years (since the mid 1990s):

  • In 1994 it emerged that for 79 per cent of couples the woman did most or all of the laundry, with the role being shared in only 18 per cent of cases. The latest survey (in 2011) showed that the proportion sharing the role has only risen by two percentage points. In 70 per cent of houses laundry is still seen as women’s work.
  • In the kitchen, there has been virtually no change in the last 10 years. Women still do the lion’s share of the cooking in 55 per cent of couple households.
  • When it comes to tasks such as shopping for groceries, women’s workload has increased slightly the early 1990s. The picture was similar when people were asked about cleaning and caring for sick family members.
  • By contrast, DIY is still seen as virtually the sole preserve of men in 75 per cent of households – exactly as it was almost 20 years ago

Source.


Analysis – Who does the Housework? Men or Women?

  • Looking at the above statistics it seems reasonable to conclude that Radical Feminist concepts such as the dual burden and the triple shift still apply.
  • We can also conclude that women going into paid work has not yet resulted in total equality in the domestic division of labour.
  • It also seems reasonable to assume that there may be social class differences in the gendered division of labour – the top 10% of households will be in a position to hire cleaners and child care thus reducing the dual burden on middle class, professional women.
  • Another way in which middle class women will be advantaged compared to working class is that because of their husbands’ hire earning power, they will be more able to take time off work to be full time stay at home mums – meaning that they may do more domestic labour, but at least they don’t suffer the dual burden and triple shift.

Related Posts

To what extent are gender roles equal?

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How has women going into paid work affected equality in relationships?

Evidence that women going into paid work has resulted in greater equality in relationships

  • It seems obvious that women going into paid work has resulted in greater equality. As most women are now in paid-work this means they have more financial independence than ever before.
  • Statistics (see the next topic, link below) clearly show that the gendered division of labour has become more equal since the 1950s

To what extent is the domestic division of labour characterised be equality?

Evidence that women going into paid work has not resulted in greater equality

However, Radical Feminists argue that paid work has led to the dual burden and triple shift

One argument used to support this view is that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal – men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.