Preface: Globalization and Childhood

By Stearns, Peter N. | Journal of Social History, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Preface: Globalization and Childhood


Stearns, Peter N., Journal of Social History


This issue gathers several papers plus additional research notes and comments on the subject of globalization and childhood. The assumption is that if globalization, one of the most widely-discussed characterizations of contemporary history, is a real and measurable phenomenon, it will show up in changes during childhood in many parts of the world; and that changes in childhood, in turn, will affect and at least help define the nature of globalization. Assessments of globalization constitute perforce an interdisciplinary project, and this too is reflected in the essays in this volume. And while not every major area, or every facet of childhood, is covered, there is reasonably wide representation, again an essential feature of an effort of this sort.

The project represents a twofold challenge. To proponents of globalization as a concept, the extension to childhood, as a deeply personal and in many ways culturally contingent experience, provides an opportunity to measure just how far-reaching contemporary change is. This is particularly true for partisans of the "new global history", who argue that, while globalization builds on the complex evolution of previous stages of interregional interconnectedness, the phenomenon involves exceptionally far-reaching recent change (usually held to begin either in the 1950s or the 1970s). (1) More generally, globalization risks too often being seen in terms of very broad processes, particularly economic, sometimes cultural, too rarely political, which are not translated into human terms through discussions of concrete change and continuity. Childhood, obviously, insists on that kind of translation.

The second challenge goes to historians of childhood. The history of childhood is a rich subject, but it has not been evenly explored across the world; a pronounced Western disproportion continues to affect the field. Comparative, much less global, opportunities have rarely been addressed. Discussing childhood in a globalization context suggests a number of new research avenues and analytical possibilities. (2)

The hope is, then, that the combination of two challenges will help refine (and complicate) approaches to the contemporary history of globalization while providing new, less regionally-confined perspectives on childhood.

Participants in this volume were not asked to adhere to a single definition of childhood. All are agreed that childhood consists of an intricate mix of standard biological and psychological processes--a major shift in capacity, for example, some time around age six, no matter what the setting--and a variety of culturally-defined features including age of effective adulthood. Essays on globalization almost inevitably seize more on adolescence and youth than on earlier childhood, and this introduces an even larger number of culturally contingent factors. Authors have been asked to be clear about what kinds of children are being discussed, but the overall picture of relevant childhood should emerge from the essays, not confine them.

The same applies to definitions of globalization. Several essays do reflect the idea of sharp changes in the last few decades. Others assume an earlier onset of something like contemporary globalization, or at least an earlier phase. Questions inevitably arise about the relationship between modernity and globalization, or between globalization and a continuation of colonialism; under other names issues of globalization's timing and fundamental nature conjoin. Here too, fuller pictures will emerge from the essays taken as an ensemble, despite or even because of differences in assumptions and findings.

Studies of global history inevitably discuss the interactions between the global and the local, and this theme is amply reflected in the essays that follow. The two disciplines most involved, history and anthropology, are both notoriously place-specific. However there is also an effort not to lose sight of larger themes and at least incipient comparisons. …

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