Child's Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe

Child's Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe

Child's Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe

Child's Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe

Synopsis

This innovative book finally takes seriously the need for anthropologists to produce in-depth ethnographies of children's play. In examining the subject from a cross-cultural perspective, the author argues that our understanding of the way children transform their environment to create make-believe is enhanced by viewing their creations as oral poetry. The result is a richly detailed 'thick description' of how pretence is socially mediated and linguistically constructed, how children make sense of their own play, how play relates to other imaginative genres in Huli life, and the relationship between play and cosmology.Informed by theoretical approaches in the anthropology of play, developmental and child psychology, philosophy and phenomenology and drawing on ethnographic data from Melanesia, the book analyzes the sources for imitation, the kinds of identities and roles emulated, and the structure of collaborative make-believe talk to reveal the complex way in which children invoke their experiences of the world and re-invent them as types of virtual reality. Particular importance is placed on how the figures of the ogre and trickster are articulated. The author demonstrates that while the concept of 'imagination' has been the cornerstone of Western intellectual traditions from Plato to Postmodernism, models of child fantasy play have always intruded into such theorizing because of children's unique capacity to throw into relief our understanding of the relationship between representation and reality.

Excerpt

Anthropologists have finally begun to embrace the topics of play, creativity and improvisation in social life (see Lavie,Narayan and Rosaldo 1993). Thanks in part to researchers with diverse perspectives such as Roy Wagner, Victor Turner and Pierre Bourdieu, adults have become 'active agents' who constitute, manipulate, interpret and invent culture. No such luck for children -- at least not in anthropology. For the most part the importance of play, invention and imagination has been masked by mechanistic theories of socialization which continue to characterize this activity as imitation of and preparation for adult life. In anthropology the attitude remains one of mild amusement and only occasional study of children's efforts to 'play society'.

Laurence Goldman sets out to unmask this approach in Child's Play by arguing against approaches that treat play as an epiphenomenon and suggesting that the issues of realism and verisimilitude, referentiality and illusion, fact and fiction that one encounters in children's pretence make 'the case for privileging spontaneous play as a focus for attention [in anthropology] . . . both compelling and timely' (p. xvi). In other words it is time, finally, to see what can be learned from an in-depth study of children's pretence, and, in particular, how it is socially mediated and linguistically achieved (p. 3). It turns out that we can learn a lot about a range of issues of concern to both anthropologists and psychologists, issues such as the acquisition of language, the assimilation of metaphor, the development of abstract thought, relationships between language and identity and understanding how children, as well as adults, make narrative sense of the world.

I have been waiting a long time for anthropologists to appreciate the value of producing richly detailed and 'thick' ethnographies of children's play. Recent exceptions to what has been a drought of studies include Goodwin He-Said-She-Said (1990) and Lancy Playing on the Mother-Ground (1996), but most anthropologists continue to neglect this topic. Goldman's achievement is to keep his focus on make-believe 'for its own sake' and this means that his study is packed (brimming) with ideas about ways to conceptualize as well as to study this topic. Even though his main concern is Huli (Papua New Guinea) children's make-believe, researchers concerned . . .

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