Children’s development during infancy and childhood: a socio-cultural perspective.

Published: 2019/11/28 Number of words: 2598

Researchers’ attempts to explain the complex issues of child development have produced a number of different theories, competing opinions and beliefs. Much of the debate has centred on whether emergent cognitive and communication skills are inherent or environmentally shaped. A socially-oriented perspective gives the idea of child development being solely a psychological, cognitive, individual accomplishment (Trevarthen, 1998:89) and rejects an absolute differentiation between social development and cognitive and emotional development: all development is social as everything that happens occurs within the social context.

The socio-cultural approach.
Cole (1998:11-12), a leading advocate of this approach, sets himself apart from the biological-maturation, environmental-learning and interactional approaches, where inherent biological traits and the environment interact indirectly as sources of development. For Cole, the biological and the environment interact directly through the medium of culture. Rather than culture being a sub-category of ‘the environment’, the environment is culturally constructed. He laments the ‘culture as difference’ view which marginalises culture rather than recognises it as a medium (not merely a variable) in which human development is embedded. This fuels the assumption that dominant socio-cultural constructs are ‘natural’; that is, they have biological origins.
Codified in Western literature on child development, white middle-class practices are portrayed as being the norm (Schieffelin and Ochs, 1998:49; Schaffer, 1996:109). This paper aims to show that the socio-cultural approach has widened our perspective of child development, raised our awareness of the dominant beliefs and values of the researchers who formulate its theories and contributed to new styles of research.

The Developmental Niche.
The dual nature of the significance of cultural context is encapsulated in this concept, so termed by Super and Harkness (1998:37-41), to describe how universal mechanisms in child development can diverge in their expression according to the infant’s physical and social setting and the customs and beliefs of carers. In their three-year observational study of the Kipsigis in rural Kenya, they highlight the way infants’ development is structured by their physical and social niche. Constant physical contact with the mother during the first months means that infants feed and sleep on demand. As a consequence, four-month-old babies sleep less and for shorter periods of time (on average 12 hours and 4.5 hours, maximum, over a 24-hour period) than American urban babies (15 hours and 8 hours respectively). Cole (1998:18) draws on this comparative study to show how a supposedly ‘natural’ development, a baby sleeping through the night, is actually culturally regulated: American babies fit into their parents’ work-related schedule.

In a comparative study of children at preschools in Japan, the USA and China, Tobin, Wu and Davidson (1998:263-273) identify different values and beliefs concerning child rearing. In an analysis of a videotaped lesson of Japanese four-year-olds, they focused on Hiroki, a pupil whose disruptive behaviour the teacher chose to ignore. Interviews with the teacher showed the school policy was to avoid directly confronting and punishing the child. Misbehaviour should be met with concern not anger. Whilst the American researcher identified Hiroki as an intelligent child who was not being stretched, the Japanese teacher pinpointed an inability to fine tune amaeru, the capability of being dependent on others, which must be learnt. In contrast to the Western idea of teaching independence, the Japanese culture values the child’s dependence on the mother. The enculturation process of Hiroki and his classmates occurs in a niche where teachers still value social consciousness and empathy more than the Western traits of independence and creativity (Shigaki, 1983, in Tobin et al., 1998:273).
A study of the Nso children in Northwest Cameroon, based on open-ended parent and grandparent interviews, by Nsamenang and Lamb (1998:253) also explores how community values affect socio-cognitive development. In contrast to the Western emphasis on academic and technological knowledge, local ecocultural factors demand a different kind of ‘social intelligence’ (Dasen, 1984 in Nsamenang and Lamb, 1982:252). Children are assigned tasks according to their competence (not their age) and learn through observation and imitation instead of by instruction. The emphasis of socialization is more on obedience and responsibility than on proficiency in verbal expression and individuality. The collectivist, rather than the individualistic West African perspective (Triandis, 1985, 1989 in Nsamenang and Lamb, 1998:251), helps the community to prosper. Geertz, (1975, in SG:552) warns that the Western idea of the autonomous sense of self, taken as a universal of child development, is actually ‘rather a peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures’.

Early relationships: universals.
Piaget understood child development in terms of universal cognitive, progressive stages (Schaffer, 1996:25-26). These stages continue to provide a useful framework but focus on the relationship between infant and caregiver and certain aspects of universality have been debated. Much evidence (Cole, 1998:20; Super and Harkness, 1998:36) points to a universal bio-social behavioural shift between six and nine months when object and person permanence (allowing the infant to retrieve stored images of a person or object) emerges (Schaffer:1996:133-134) together with a strong attachment to the primary caregiver.

Attachment theory was formulated principally by Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980 in Schaffer, 1996:127-135). It explains that this relationship, characterised by the infant seeking proximity to a primary carer, distress when separated from the carer and wariness of strangers, is a genetically-inherited safety instinct which ensures survival of the species. ‘Monotropism’, an inbuilt bias to becoming attached to one person, usually the mother, provides reciprocal emotional well-being. First relationships with attachment figures are of fundamental importance in the infant’s creation of IWM (internal working models) which affect future relationships. Schaffer, (AC1, A1) believes that attachment theory is still alive; there is a bond between infant and carer and the infant needs to be loved. However, its tie to the ‘Strange Situation’ (a rigid methodological procedure used to measure individual differences in attachment security to identify later emotional behaviours) has received a great amount of criticism. The Strange Situation was originally devised by Mary Ainsworth and colleagues to compare American and Ugandan children; one-year-old infants are observed in a laboratory-designed environment when left by their mother, first with a ‘friendly’ stranger and secondly alone (Schaffer, 1996:140). According to the infants’ reaction when the carer returns, they are classified as being:

A: anxious – avoidant; (instead of seeking comfort infant looks away)
B: securely attached; (goes to carer and calms down quickly)
C: anxious – resistant; (becomes upset when carer leaves and both seeks and resists contact on return)

However, regarding this as a culture-neutral test of universal ‘attachment’ relationships sets the American pattern as the norm (Levine and Miller, 1990 in Cole, 1998:24). Cole (1998:24) draws on studies based on the Strange Situation in the USA, Germany, Israel and Japan to question this idea. When comparing the percentage of ‘secure’ children, results in Japan and the USA were very similar. However 32% of Japanese infants were anxious-resistant compared to only 12% in the USA. Takahashi (1990 in Cole, 1998:25), suggests infants react differently to the Strange Situation according to their cultural circumstances. Japanese infants, rarely separated from their mothers, will find the Strange Situation very stressful.
Evidence from other cultures, e.g. the Efe pygmies in Zaire (Tronick et al., 1987, 1992 in Schaffer 1996:136) where multiple caring is the norm and an advantage in a community with a high mortality rate, challenges the idea of monotropism; this is also criticised by Anne Oakley (1986:81 in Study Guide 40) as being the male sanction of woman staying at home. Singer (1998:65-71) challenges the emphasis placed on the dyadic emotional bond, seeing it as a reflection of Western culture and a way of defending the traditional family in the debate on child care. She cites Clarke-Stewart’s criticism of Belsky’s use of the Strange Situation to indicate that infants in full-time care were considerably more likely to be insecurely attached than those in part-time care. As the test was originally intended for American children growing up at home, ‘resistant behaviour’ in infants in full-time care may not indicate anger; it may be that they spend more time away from their mother. Swedish research (Anderson, 1992 in Singer, 1998:71) showed that school children who had been in full-time day care as babies were at an advantage, socially and emotionally, over infants who had been reared at home.

Learning: language, thought and communication.
Whether language is inherent or acquired has been fiercely debated. However, it is generally agreed that language will not develop without early interactions. Cole cites the case of Genie (Curtiss, 1977 in Cole, 1998:27) who, kept in conditions of extreme deprivation, had not acquired language and, later, developed only a small vocabulary. Children left alone with a television broadcasting in a foreign language will not acquire language (Snow et al., 1976 in Cole, 1998:28).
Bruner accepted an innate predisposition for language learning (LASS; language acquisition support system), but stressed that the primary function of speech and language, communication, is social (Study Guide:37). Like Bruner, Trevarthen (1998:88-97) believes the need to use culture motivates the infant to master language. Dialogic learning occurs in infancy, with motivation stemming from initial attempts at proto-conversation (a combination of vocalisations, facial expressions and gestures) with the mother. After six months, early communicative acts such as teasing, imitative at first, are re-created by the infant. These help to form frames and are experimented with in fantasy play. Trevarthen draws on Vygotsky’s idea that without an insight into others’ motives and feelings, language would not develop. Language and thought move from the social to the individual. This challenged Piaget’s assumption that the social followed the egocentric and that the child is unable to decentre until around the age of six years, which plays a large part in his theory (Schaffer, 1996:25). Dunn (1998:101-104) suggests that infants’ understanding of the subtleties of language shows a mastery of the culturally appropriate at an early age. In studies within families over a two-year period, she observed that by 36 months, infants understand that their mothers will react differently to intentional and accidental acts and that whilst they make scatological jokes with their siblings they do not do so with their parents. Children manage their family life effectively which implies an understanding of others and a very active interpretation of the world around them. Goncu (1998:118-120) points to pretend play as an area where infants make proleptic presuppositions that playmates will have similar experiences, expect peers to speak a different play language and metacommunicate.

Kantor, Elgas and Fernie (1998:136-150) examine play in relation to social abilities from a socio-cultural perspective. The authors show how two children from very similar backgrounds have different experiences when integrating into the core group. Whilst agreeing that personality and behaviour are important (factors used in sociometric testing to determine social success), they conclude that much depends on constructing play that reflects shared definitions of a situation. William fails to gain group membership because he fails to read the cues of his playmates and assume an appropriate role. This in turn affects expectations and prejudices his future attempts to play with the group; Lisa’s early acceptance reinforces her right to join.
Schieffelin and Ochs (1998:48-59) take a socio-cultural approach to their study of emergent language in white middle-class Anglo-American and Kaluli, Papua New Guinean, infants: ‘…culture is not something that can be considered separately…it is what organises and gives meaning…’. Caregiver speech (baby-talk register) for example, is valued by Western societies but is not a universal characteristic. It is possibly part of a general accommodation to young children in which the adult simplifies speech. Young children are treated as communicative partners within a dyadic relationship characterised by the face-to-face gaze, response to vocalisations and the expanding of infants’ utterances.
In contrast, Kaluli babies are described as ‘having no understanding’ so are never treated as partners. Mothers are attentive but rather than exchanging gazes, they face their babies towards the group. They do not address utterances to them and triadic exchanges, in which the mother speaks for the baby in a high-pitched voice but not in baby register, are typical. Babbling, not considered related to later speech, is not responded to. Although very different from the white middle-class conversational model, Kaluli infants are surrounded by talk. As a valuable asset and a means of getting what you want, the child must become a competent user of language; the mother does not modify her language and baby register is undesirable. Despite these differences, American and Kaluli infants achieve language competency around the same age. Interactions are not biologically but culturally designed; carers’ speech, neither universal nor necessary.

At the heart of the socio-cultural approach is the belief that it is through relationships with others that the infant develops thought processes, a sense of self and learns to communicate through speech. Mercer, (AC 1, B4) drawing on Vygotskian theory, claims:
‘…the process of human intellectual development normally involves at least two people. Development is shaped by interactions between people which take place in the historical and contemporary context of social life’.
Both Cole and Super and Harkness point out that biological universals are not incompatible with the idea of cultural mediation (Cole, 1998:22; Super and Harkness, 1998:45). From the socio-cultural perspective, cultural conditions for communication organise even the earliest interactions and language mediates between the individual’s cognitive development and his/her cultural environment.
Schaffer (1996:4-11) claims the distance between researchers and carers has narrowed. Rather than test theories in laboratory settings, researchers favour more open-minded observation of children’s interactions within family and peer groups. Ethnographic studies in which beliefs that underlie and organise activities are taken into account (Schiefflin and Ochs, 1998:48) and research is seen as generating questions rather than being prescriptive.

Cole, M (1998) ‘Culture in development’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge
Dunn, J (1998) ‘Young children’s understanding of other people: evidence from observations within the family’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge
Goncu, A (1998) ‘Development of intersubjectivity in social pretend play’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge Cole, M (1998)
Kantor, R, Elgas, P M, Fernie, D E (1998) ‘Cultural knowledge and social competence within a preschool peer-culture group’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge
Nsamenang, A B and Lamb, M E (1998) ‘Socialisation of Nso children in the Bamenda Grassfields of Northwest Cameroon’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge
Schaffer, H R (1996) ‘Social development’ Oxford, Blackwell
Schiefflin, B B and Ochs, E O (1998) ‘A cultural perspective on transition from prelinguistic to linguistic communication’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge
Singer, E (1998) ‘Shared care for children’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge
Super, C M and Harkness, S (1998) ‘The development of affect in infancy and early childhood’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge
Trevarthen, C (1998) ‘The child’s need to learn a culture’ in Woodhead, M, Faulkner, D and Littleton, K (eds) cultural worlds of early childhood, London and New York, Routledge

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