Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood

By Rebhun, L. A. | Anthropological Quarterly, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood


Rebhun, L. A., Anthropological Quarterly


Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood. NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES and CAROLYN SARGENT, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998; 429 pp.

In this ambitious volume the editors gather together articles by an array of scholars. They deal with topics ranging from issues of pregnancy and infancy such as abortion, new reproductive technologies, infant mortality, and medical treatment of neonates, to the impact of cultural and economic change on children, including children's experiences in war, in poverty, and with abuse and neglect in a variety of cultural and historical settings. Taking as their themes adult ambivalence and/or hostility toward pregnancy, infants, and children as well as oppressive social, political, and economic forces in the lives of children, these articles demonstrate how far so many children's experiences fall from the idealized indulged innocence of contemporary prosperous childhoods.

After a broad, rambling introduction the editors divide eighteen chapters into three sections on "Negotiating Parenthood and Childhood," "The Cultural Politics of Child Survival," and "Small Wars: Children and Violence." The book's social construction approach to childhood and emphasis on political economic aspects of the oppression of children do not break new theoretical ground, but many of the chapters contain compelling descriptions and add new insights to the burgeoning literature on children's lives cross-culturally.

Some articles of the first section, including Picone's article on beliefs about the spirits of aborted fetuses in Japan, Morgan's discussion of differences between U.S. and Ecuadorian concepts of abortion, and Birenbaum-Carmeli's and Robert's chapters on new reproductive technologies, do not deal with children per se. Brett and Niermeyer's account of the history of the concept of jaundice in medical treatment of infants, Guttman's portrayal of the gender dynamics of "Mamitis" (a folk ailment, literally "mommy-itis," in lower-class Mexican infants and toddlers), and Weiss's discussion of the ethics of her research on disabled children in Israel do treat children. The inclusion here of articles on abortion, in a political climate in which the crux of debate rests precisely on whether and when a fetus becomes a child, requires much more explanatory discussion than the editors provide.

This does not, however, detract from the quality of articles in this section. Picone's work on the emotional and religious ambiguities of abortion in Japan adds to the growing literature on the topic (Hardacre 1997; LaFleur 1992) with a comprehensive discussion of both historical and contemporary cultural attitudes toward abortion and infanticide in that country. Morgan, by contrasting the preaching of U.S. Protestant missionaries on abortion to the poorly formed, ambiguous attitudes of Ecuadorian peasants targeted by Evangelists, shows how the polarization of the issue in the U.S. has led to a normalization of extreme positions on abortion in this country. Both Roberts' study of the uneasy balance between exploitation and empowerment in the relationship between surrogate and jural mothers and Birnbaum-- Carmeli's more personal discussion of her experiences with IVF in Israel and Canada expand on existing work (such as Ragone 1994), which is quoted extensively by Roberts. Gutmann uses the concept of mamitis to discuss not only the cultural construction of motherhood, but also that of fatherhood; he also focuses on the impact of changing gender roles on childcare issues. In a volume heavy with discussions of the flaws of ambivalent, neglectful, or abusive mothers, Gutmann provides a welcome demonstration of how male behaviors and beliefs contribute to the welfare of children. Weiss's chapter, while intriguing, fails to distinguish among mentally handicapped, physically disabled, and disfigured children in her discussion of "aesthetic impairment." Her interpretations of parental attitudes sometimes conflict with the evidence of the cases she presents, and the bulk of the article deals more with her stance on the morality of relativism than with the lives of the families she studies.

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