The Sociology of Childhood as Scientific Communication: Observations from a social systems perspective
Michael King Childhood 2007 14: 193 DOI: 10.1177/0907568207078327 The online version of this article can be found at:

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THE SOCIOLOGY OF CHILDHOOD AS SCIENTIFIC COMMUNICATION Observations from a social systems perspective
MICHAEL KING University of Reading Key words: children as agents, children’s autonomy, children’s rights, Luhmann’s theory of social systems, new sociology of childhood, sociology of identity Mailing address: Michael King School of Law, University of Reading, Foxhill House, Whiteknights Road, Reading, RG6, 7BA, UK. [email:]
Childhood Copyright © 2007 SAGE Publications. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore, Vol 14(2): 193–213. 10.1177/0907568207078327

This article begins by identifying a close relationship between the image of children generated by several sociologists working within the new sociology of childhood perspective and the claims and ambitions of the proponents of children’s autonomy rights. The image of the child as a competent, self-controlled human agent are then subjected to observation from the perspective of Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. The new sociology of childhood’s constructivist approach is compared and contrasted with Niklas Luhmann’s theory of ‘operational constructivism’. The article applies tenets of Luhmann’s theory, to the emergence of the new childhood sociologist’s image of the child as a competent, self-controlled social agent, to the epistemological status of this image and, in particular, to claims that it derives from scientific endeavour. The article proceeds to identify two theoretical developments within sociology – sociology of identity and social agency – which have brought about fundamental changes in what may be considered ‘sociological’ and so ‘scientific’ and paved the way for sociological communications about what children ‘really are’. In conclusion, it argues that the merging of sociology with polemics, ideology, opinion and personal beliefs and, at the level of social systems, between science and politics represents in Luhmann’s terms ‘dedifferentiation’ – a tendency he claims may have serious adverse consequences for modern society. This warning is applied to the scientific status of sociology – its claim to be able to produce ‘facts’ for society, upon which social systems, such as politics and law, may rely. Like the mass media, sociology may now be capable of producing only information, and not facts, about children.

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Lansdown. Winneba on August 10. worse still. as a children’s rights sceptic. as the dominant theoretical framework.3 The two relate to each other symbiotically in that.sagepub. where one is sure to find acknowledgements and references to theorists and researchers writing within this all-prevailing framework. In this article I wish to focus attention on those theoretical aspects of the new sociology of childhood that rely heavily upon the creation of a new image of the child. It is. therefore. 1998.1 For a measure of its success one has only to open any recent social scientific book or article on an issue concerning children. the more unjustified adults’ paternalism and the refusal to recognize children’s capabilities appear and the more appropriate it is for children to be given similar rights to adults (see. Moreover. 2000. 1995.. 1994). As far as sociological theorists specifically are concerned. for example. at Univ of Education. 2001). It is now over 10 years since this new perspective for the study of childhood and children first appeared on the sociological scene. for anyone seeking a sociological understanding of childhood and children (see. as ‘people in their own right’. During that time. Clearly. it has consolidated its position. 1997. One of the difficulties faced by the new sociology of childhood has been that of establishing a clear demarcation line between what claims to be a new theoretical understanding of children and the discourse of children’s rights. may also risk being seen as doubting children’s competence to make decisions for themselves or. the more competent and autonomous children appear to be. James et al. Qvortrup et al. Alderson. lest such criticisms are interpreted as encouraging a return to paternalistic attitudes towards children with all their authoritarian connotations.2 This may in part be due to the current enthusiasm for children’s rights in legal and political circles. It may seem strange that so far they appear to have escaped any serious critical analysis from within sociology or social policy. anyone who subjects this view of children to critical comment.CHILDHOOD 14(2) The new childhood sociology It would appear that academic sociology has now fully embraced into its fold the theoretical approaches to issues concerning children known in Englishspeaking countries as the new sociology of childhood. James and Prout. not surprising to find some childhood researchers welcoming this new sociological theory as a scientific bolster to 194 Downloaded from chd. there could also be some reluctance to criticize a theoretical approach that had successfully dethroned those functionalists and developmental psychologists who had for so long thoroughly dominated the study of children and childhood. for example. The suggestion here is that there may well be some disinclination generally to make adverse comments about any sociological account of children and childhood that promotes and maintains an image of children. 1997. 2013 . Jenks. it would be naive to suggest that the simultaneous occurrence of this renewed theoretical interest in childhood and the growth of children’s rights as a global phenomenon was a mere coincidence.. not only in the English-speaking world but also in Germany and Scandinavia. Corsaro.

. Social construction and Luhmannian systems theory The social construction of childhood and children Like so many social theoretical critiques of the taken-for-granted world. 1997: 3). it does typify their widely expressed belief that their theoretical approach is able to provide a better understanding of childhood and introduce a firmer scientific basis for policy issues based upon recognition of the capacity of children for autonomy. from a systems perspective.K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N the campaign for enhancing children’s rights and countering what they identify as society’s mistreatment and undervaluation of children. 1997: 10). competent decision-making and of their role as ‘social agents’. .com at Univ of Education. 1998: 8.4 Even if some of the new childhood theorists do attempt to distance their theory of childhood from the rhetoric of children’s rights. James and Prout. to provide a better account of how the social order works. it could mean simply that the idea Downloaded from chd. and to use this knowledge as a basis for righting children’s wrongs. 1997. one of the new sociologists of childhood describes ‘the social constructionist nature of childhood’ as one of the ‘key features’ of the theory (James and Prout. However. competence and agency. I continue to refer to this theoretical stance as that of the new sociology of childhood. Alderson. Seen in the context of the widening of the boundaries of sociology and the relaxation of its criteria for research validity. the development within sociology of this particular theoretical stance with regard to childhood and children. . 1998.. to draw attention to certain neglected features of childhood. An interesting and original way of observing sociologically such relationships between disciplines or discourses that has emerged in recent years is Niklas Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic systems. for example: . In the remainder of this article I present an account of aspects of this theory and the ways in which it may be applied in order to observe. Corsaro. The notion that childhood is a constructed concept may well seem uncontroversial. 2000: 246) Such a blatantly instrumental use of theory may not be typical of those researchers who apply this new approach to children and childhood. for example. we need a sociology of childhood . the new sociology of childhood relies heavily upon a social constructionist approach (see James et al.5 it cannot be denied that in the writings of many English-speaking new sociologists of childhood the two are intricately interconnected (see. .. James and Prout. Winneba on August 10. (Mayall. Prout and James. 1997). 2013 195 . 1990.6 the closeness between demands for children’s autonomy rights and the evidence of competence and agency generated by the results of research applying a new sociology of childhood perspective might well raise concerns. As Ian Hacking points out. although I am aware that some of those who work within the childhood sociology framework may well reject in whole or in part the claims of the construction of an explicit or exclusive image of childhood autonomy. 2000. Indeed. As a matter of shorthand. James et al.sagepub.

through the facts about children revealed in the research carried out by those who apply their theory. they are not suggesting that children do not exist as physical entities or that their existence depends upon whether or not people believe that they exist. When this notion of a constructed childhood was first proposed by Ariés (1962). but of communications that are organized socially within societal systems. Rather. have taken the construction idea much further.CHILDHOOD 14(2) of childhood has been constructed. There is no definitive or universal account of what childhood is or what children should be. ‘Some thinkers’. are able to gain access to the truth about children’s social relationships or. moreover. ‘may even mean that children as they exist today have been constructed’ (Hacking. 1993. Luhmannian systems theory Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems also relies upon a constructionist account of society (e. therefore. but it could also mean that ‘a certain state of person. King. sociologists. His general approach portrays society as consisting. According to them. first through its theoretical ‘deconstructionist’ accounts and. King and Schütz. However. 1999: 102). but his constructionism takes a very different form. They argue that by revealing (or deconstructing) the artificial nature of these constructions and the power interests that are being served by their existence. 1995. Winneba on August 10.sagepub. not of individuals. he adds. the truth about children’s understanding of the world around them is accessible and. such as themselves. or even a period in the life of a human being has been constructed’. or at least some of them. Society is the sum total of all meaningful communications. The new childhood sociologists base their theory on this third proposition. the way that they are at Univ of Education. first through its theoretical ‘deconstructionist’ accounts and.7 According to them. 2002. sociology is able to assist in the task of gaining access to it. therefore. through the facts about children revealed in the research carried out by those who apply their theory. Teubner. the new childhood sociologists. to take themselves and us closer to that truth.g. 2013 . it may have been a surprising proposition. Sciulli. Vanderstraeten. Clearly. ‘The system of society consists of communications. there is no further substance but communications’ 196 Downloaded from chd. what is seen as good or bad for them and what they are competent or incompetent to perform depends upon the particular concept of childhood that society has constructed. moreover. ‘independent of the perspective and concerns of adults’. Luhmann. All is relative and depends upon the particular constructions of childhood of different societies or of the same society at different times and the expectations associated with children (and adults) resulting from these constructions. the argument is that what a society expects of children. 1994. second. Mingers. but it was seen as not an unreasonable one. 2000). the truth about children is accessible and. 1993. that children should be regarded as constructions of their particular society. second. at least. There are no other elements. sociologists of childhood are able to assist in the task of gaining access to it. 1994.

K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N (Luhmann. is the impression of order. ‘The world is not an object but rather a horizon in the phenomenological sense’ (Luhmann. groups and cultures who believe in and rely upon it.) has its unique.sagepub. instead it is organized according to functional differentiation. Systems then construct their version of the external environment – reality – using specific codes and programmes. the co-evolution of different systems (King and Thornhill. 2003: 32–3). contingent and chaotic. Moreover. There can. It starts. understanding and control within society possible. therefore. and that of the relativists. Winneba on August 10. Each of society’s subsystems (social systems) codes its otherwise inaccessible environment in ways that enable it to formulate and generate meaningful communications. The organization of society’s subsystems has been subjected to radical change over the centuries. economy. and see their task as exposing the myths and delusions that form the basis of their constructions. at Univ of Education. It claims access to the reality of modern childhood that corresponds to the perceptions. 1990a: 100). be no direct. non-replicable function.8 Operational constructivism One way of entering Luhmann’s complex theory is through ‘operational constructivism’ – a concept which Luhmann sets out in his book The Reality of the Mass Media (Luhmann. 2000: 6). input–output. therefore. but describes rather how other systems undertake this task. Modern society stands in sharp contrast to ‘traditional societies’ in that it has no central core and no hierarchical structure. Operational constructivism by contrast sees any system’s version of reality as a product of that system’s operations. politics. which applies social construction selectively. and only through these systems. Operational constructivism does not attempt to present reality. from a very different position both to that of social scientists. but which is also to be found in various guises throughout his theoretical writings. who believe that social reality is a construct of those individuals. Through these systems. it can never be observed directly. Each exist within the environment of the other systems to be reconstituted within those systems according to their own unique ways of processing their world. 197 Downloaded from chd. What reality is depends entirely on the different ways that it can be described and accounted for within a society consisting of social systems. which they themselves construct. it treats these operations themselves as constructions of the system. beliefs. Each of those systems that are functional to the organization of meaningful communications for society (science. In other words. but it sees this world as accessible only through the medium of society’s social systems. etc. 1990a: 32). Events in the world are random. Luhmann’s theory does not deny the existence of reality – there is a ‘world out there’. capacities and understandings of children themselves. who accept the idea of ultimately accessible truth. communication between them only structural coupling. The approach to social phenomena that Luhmann adopts in his theory of operational constructivism contrasts sharply with that of the new sociology of childhood. which determines the form and nature of its communications. 2013 .

that is outside the universe of communicable meaning. Indeed. it is not possible for society to communicate about children’s bodies or children’s minds without the intermediary of some social communication system. reality for that system consists of what it takes to be its environment. 2013 . Communications and communicating What then is the nature of the social systems upon which different versions of social reality depend? As I have explained. Its observations would appear no less an artifice of that system’s own making as those of the second observing system. Anything that takes place outside society has necessarily to be transformed into a communication before it can become part of society and society consists of the sum total of communicable meaning. Winneba on August 10. this second order observer is no more entitled to claim access to objective reality than the first. Put another way. of giving communicable meaning to what otherwise would be regarded as mere ‘noise’. it would be possible for a third observing system to identify the limited vision of the second system in its observing operations. Yet even what a ‘second order’ observing system may take to be facts or reality is just as much constructed as the beliefs and assumptions of the first system – the system that it is observing. therefore. that is seeing both the system and environment from a position outside the first observing system. has necessarily to be transformed into a communication before it 198 Downloaded from chd. 1990a: 4). therefore. society consists only of at Univ of Education. The essential point is that anything that takes place outside society. only observations that may or may not be accepted by other systems in society as facts.CHILDHOOD 14(2) From the perspective of operational constructivism.sagepub. it occurs ‘only when someone watches listens. which may then communicate what it observes. In other words. the world. It requires a second observing system to be able to see the first system observing its environment. that is observations by way of an observing system. Observing systems If one envisages a system observing the external world. all-knowing system that is able to provide ultimate truths about the world. that is. Social systems in the generic sense may be defined. Any observations of children are always then ‘second order observations’ (see next subsection). including other systems and what it understands as its own identity within that environment. reads – and understands to the extent that further communication could follow on’ (Luhmann. where communication means the process of transferring meaningful information. there can be no all-perceiving. There can be no ‘facts’ about children in society. within Luhmann’s version of social systems theory. that is from its own limited perspective. as different ways of communicating. only a second observing system can identify the ways in which the first system makes sense of its environment. This means that it can observe itself and its own operations only from within its own boundaries. No matter at what order or level observations take place.

parliaments. The system of pedagogy thus codes its environment into the binary code children/adults. film or collective memory) as organizational or societal communications. the operations of each of them are dependent upon the communications produced by the other systems. etc. Winneba on August 10. is the dependence of both law and politics upon scientific communications. any communicable statements about children. contradictions and indeterminacies into a coherent and consistent account of what children are.K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N can become part of society and. It is on these systems that the continued existence of society depends. 2013 . law. Of particular concern to the issues to be raised by this article. their nature. so that everything that it sees as existing in its environment enters the system in these binary terms – either it pertains to children or it pertains to adults. therefore. and how adults may influence and control these causes. financial markets as well as less formal bodies such as families. 3. this can be achieved only by social systems. Such communications are achieved by reducing and transforming the myriad of complexities. writing. science and education. Luhmann further distinguishes between different types of at Univ of Education. sports teams. Communications about children In the terms of the theory.sagepub. courts. ministries. which makes it possible to communicate about the specific period of life between birth and adulthood. Interactional – the transient communications between individuals. There are always 199 Downloaded from chd. products of a system. how they differ from adults. The communications within these organizations may go beyond mere interactions and take on an institutional nature. From a Luhmannian standpoint. Societal – that is uttered or produced by society’s social function systems. depending upon the location in which they are uttered. they include politics. 2. as indicated earlier. These are: 1. what they need. that is they may convey information that has significance for all members of the organization. which take the form respectively of legal decisions and legislation. universities. These are very specifically those subsystems that at any one time organize those meanings and understandings necessary for society to exist as society and to reproduce itself. print. In modern society. economics. etc. such communications concerning children could well be seen as emanating from a system of pedagogy or (using the French term) éducation. clubs. Organizational – these include communications within businesses. which may at some later stage be reconstructed in a more permanent form (for example. their capabilities and the difference between them and adults are necessarily. factories. what causes them to develop in different ways. While these systems (like all systems) are closed and self-referring. They need scientific facts to justify and legitimate their own communications. on which they rely for ‘facts’.

Suffice it to refer at this stage to the absence of any overriding authority in modern society and the consequent ability of each function system to determine its own boundaries. Its image of children is accompanied by a parallel image of adults as people who subject children to frustration and oppression by failing to recognize and denying them their agency and autonomy. It is a programme that emphasizes children’s capacity for agency or to act in adult-like ways. a self-referring theory need only take notice of evidence that it itself regards as pertinent and legitimate to its own account of reality. for that matter. The definition of this new theory of childhood as sociology is thus self-evident by its acceptance within sociological books and journals. programmes. for example. Thus only law can decide what law is. In this way it hopes to be able to gain societal acceptance for its communications. children’s rights or.CHILDHOOD 14(2) present within this system differing accounts of. Examples range from psychoanalytic theories.sagepub. In Luhmann’s terms. If the communications of sociology are treated by social science as scientific. They may be taught and examined in schools and universities and referred to in the media as existing within the 200 Downloaded from chd. These constitute the system’s programmes. Seen in these terms. children’s ‘true nature’. 2013 . while at the same time retaining the children/adults distinction as the binary code of the system. In doing so it minimizes differences between them and at Univ of Education. ‘idealism’ or ‘polemic’. children’s needs or children’s abilities. the theory and the results of research into childhood and children generated by theory may also be treated as scientific. sociological theory means that it cannot be dismissed merely as ‘ideology’. The new sociology of childhood represents the reproduction within sociology. Its programmes may include any of a wide range of conceptual frameworks or. The reconstruction of these images of children and adults within scientific. teachers and so on. Some readers may wish to ask at this point how this pedagogic programme came to be accepted as ‘scientific’. that is to communications that it recognizes as belonging to itself – in this case sociological communications about childhood and children. only politics can determine what is and what is not a political issue and only science is capable of defining what is meant by ‘scientific’. a reconstitution in ‘scientific’ terms. any social theory that conceptualizes childhood or children in particular ways. As sociological theory. Winneba on August 10. enabling it to process its environment in a meaningful way to produce understandable communications about children and their behaviour. in Luhmann’s terms. which generates images of children as competent beings to whom autonomy is denied by adults. such as psychology or from the subjective experiences of children expressed by parents. the current discourse on children’s autonomy and their rights to self-expression and participation in decisions represents one such programme within modern society. religious constructs of children as inherently good or inherently bad. the notion of children’s competence and potential for autonomy contained in these images is insulated against counter-images from other disciplines. of a programme of pedagogy.

sagepub. but to the organization of society’s communications. education. values and the power structure of the particular society in which it occurs. that of exposing the obstacles to children fulfilling their capacity for autonomy. depend.first. but always on its own terms. the levels of decision-making competence they have achieved and are capable of achieving.K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N scientific discipline of sociology. as I have explained. based on the distinct and unique function of each one of them in disseminating or organizing communications is seen as both an obstacle and a facilitator. Theories of childhood within sociology Nothing that I have covered so far explains or accounts for the acceptance by sociology of the new sociology of childhood as sociological theory. Whereas for Luhmannian theory the function of the political system is that of producing 201 Downloaded from chd. it presents insurmountable problems for putting into effect any concerted programme for social control or steering. 2013 . in Luhmann’s terms. with its closed systems. be relied upon to provide the truth and facts on which other systems in society. In Luhmannian theory this functional differentiation of modern society. their behaviour. and can be resolved only within the system itself. The fact that there may serious doubts over. On the one hand. not to some notion of the body politic. the basic assumptions of the theory and the generalizability of the evidence on which it relies do in themselves not make the theory itself any less sociological or scientific. family. politics. At this point I return in rather more detail to another aspect of Luhmann’s theory. Winneba on August 10. as each system strives to recreate and communicates about the others. perceptions. for example. whose insistence on treating children as passive objects or as ‘human becomings’ rather than ‘human beings’ (Qvortrup et al. 1994: 4) has blinded society to children’s true abilities and deafened it to their authentic voices. culture. including science. The new sociology of childhood is premised on a belief that it is possible to acquire real knowledge and understanding of children. that of at Univ of Education. the way in which childhood sociologists define their task certainly indicates that they believe themselves to be engaged in a scientific enterprise. Indeed. The ‘mission statement’ of this new sociology is thus. law. System’s functions relate. that of providing scientific facts about children: what they are. Such controversies occur within every system. beliefs and capacity for rationality and autonomy through the device of listening to and reporting on their communications. On the other. They become scientific communications rather than political or legal communications or mere statements of personal values or opinions. The new sociology of childhood tells us that the concept of childhood should be treated as a social construction that reflects the historical. economics. It explains how in today’s society both the concept of childhood and the image of the child have been formulated by ‘developmentalists’ and ‘structuralists’.. and second. As scientific communications they may. it helps to facilitate almost boundless creativity and a capacity to manage rapid change.

sagepub. or perhaps the social sciences especially. therefore. law.CHILDHOOD 14(2) collectively binding decisions and that of law. 202 Downloaded from chd. but also. recent developments within sociology have made it virtually impossible to erect any such obstacles or formulate any clear demarcation between itself and its environment. to reassure themselves that they are ‘doing science’ – a task that other systems are unable to perform. to distinguish themselves from their environment. 1984: 133). morality or politics. The problem facing any set of beliefs. Furthermore. need to maintain their separate identity. 1984: 131). the stabilization of counterfactual expectations over time. each subsystem of society depends for the effectiveness of its operations on the performance of other subsystems in producing their function-specific communications. It is not sufficient in the light of both social construction theory or Luhmann’s theory of operational constructivism to accept the contention that both the new sociologists of childhood and the children’s rights activists have in their own distinct ways stumbled across the same universal truths about children. Even the social sciences. functionality consists not only as a general facilitator for a society consisting of communications. unproven beliefs and superstitions about children’s ‘true nature’ out of sociology. more specifically. there needs. in producing communications that are able to be used in a reconstituted form within other function systems. other social function systems) as capable of producing ‘facts’. to be a clear demarcation between subjective experience (‘the life-world’). for science it is to establish facts for society (that is other social communication systems) to rely upon. but this does not make the task of policing its scientific borders any less essential. I should add that what is being described in this section are events that sociology itself identifies and defines as significant developments. is to how to distinguish itself from non-science. Yet ‘What is decisively important [for scientific communications] is that specific meanings can be isolated vis-à-vis uncontrolled interferences from the sphere of truths generally accepted in the life-world’ (Luhmann. in other words. this problem may be more severe than for the natural sciences. however. one would expect some formidable obstacles to be erected by science to keep polemics. moral beliefs or political opinions and what is claimed as scientific objectivity (Luhmann. 2013 . The system of science will often play an essential role. which wishes to claim the privileged status of scientific respectability for its way of seeing the world. For social at Univ of Education. Let me return at this point to the concerns I expressed earlier in this article over the emergence of a sociological theory about children that clearly has much in common with the notions of childhood agency. To be accepted by society (that is. If. competence and autonomy disseminated by children’s rights activists. in Luhmann’s terms specific meanings are to be ‘isolated vis-à-vis uncontrolled interferences from the sphere of truths generally accepted in the life-world’ (Luhmann. 1984: 133). scientific knowledge needs to be based on a different kind of quest for certainty than that based on experience. Winneba on August 10. As I argue in the next section. For science to be accepted as science.

Feminists sociology. Nor is the case of activists for children’s rights quite analogous to that of campaigners who seek to make things better for others such as those who want to free slaves. dignity. 2013 . Islamic or Muslim sociology. dignity and equality for themselves and those who campaign for children. Although these diverse groups within sociology may address issues that go well beyond identity. Children as a group identity: In the case of the structural coupling of children’s rights and sociology one finds a somewhat different relationship between individual identity and social group membership. Unlike these other campaigners (or the vast majority of them). there is a fundamental difference between those who press for recognition. have all made their appearance within the social sciences within recent years. Muslims. They also tend to be critical of other sociologies that. release political prisoners or liberate laboratory animals. gender and religious divisions have inspired their own theories and research. However. gays. They have all been children. making that group the centre and starting point of their sociological enquiry. fail to give sufficient recognition or attention to these identities. The arrival of children as yet another such identity group may be seen as an obvious or inevitable next step in the steady process of fragmentation into identity groups. 203 Downloaded from chd. equality and the advancement of what they see as their interests. The formation of these group identities and the importance given to them in legal and political communications has coevolved with distinct groupings based on these identities being established within the social sciences. regional or linguistic identities have campaigned for recognition. black sociology. whether the group exists for the promotion and protection of those possessing the identity or is a ‘support group’ existing in the social sciences. childhood and the recent evolution of sociology Identity groups A sociology or sociologies of identity: One of the most significant sociological phenomena to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century has been that of identity politics (Calhoun. those who take it upon themselves to protect and promote the interests of these members are predominantly adults. 1994).com at Univ of Education. While identity group membership may be nominally reserved for children. they claim. where no discernible benefits accrue to the campaigners themselves. Christian sociology and lesbian and gay sociology. Racial. children’s rights activists have actually experienced what it is like to be in the position of those whose interests they wish to promote. what makes them distinctive is the fact that the theories that they offer and the research based on those theories tend to enhance the separate identity of their particular grouping. born-again Christians. The grand ideologies and the politics of commitment that they inspired appear to have given way to political groupings that reflect a particular aspect of the identity of the participating individuals: feminist women. black people. sexual. as well as groups based on minority national.sagepub. to be granted these privileges. Winneba on August 10.K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N Children.

‘The exercise of power. Before any information. self-images projected by the communicative systems of morality and religion.CHILDHOOD 14(2) For societal (or social system) communication. it is transformed by that system’s binary code of government/governed. . it is adults. Groups claiming to represent children. Everything that takes place within the political system today is structured by this opposition between government and governed and to have any meaning within the system anything existing outside the system has to be reconstituted in these terms (see King and Thornhill. There can never be any consensus as to the precise form that this transformation or reinvention will take or indeed for the society that will emerge at the end of the process. only possible for those who are in government. like all other social systems. are free to stake their claims in these matters with little fear of being proved wrong.sagepub. Indeed. Children come to be seen as a vehicle for social transformation. they can always reinterpret this evidence or find counter-examples that give the impression of supporting their at Univ of Education. there is no ultimate or universal authority in modern society. 2003: 71). just as there can never be agreement as to whose morality. the age constraints on entry into higher education ensure that the academic ‘support group’ that provides sociological knowledge on the oppression of children and on ways of improving their situation in society. Communications about children may also come to represent a way for society to reformulate itself so as to conform to idealized. For Luhmann. but unrealized. 2003: 71–2). In the terms of Luhmannian theory. to decree on these matters. Even if evidence is produced that appears to go against them. is . consists entirely of adults. which religion or what image of human nature should prevail. who promote children’s rights as a movement and it is adults who theorize about children. autonomy and competence exist outside the political system – that is the communicative system that fulfils society’s need for collectively binding decisions. can enter the political system. . therefore. is closed and self-referring. for the reinvention of society. But it is this very indeterminacy and agnosticism that makes possible the emergence of different social groups. In general terms. on which the political system is functionally concentrated. and who apply power to those who are governed’ (King and Thornhill. each claiming to promote the welfare and interests of children. Winneba on August 10. whether religious or secular. Both the new sociologists of childhood and organizations promoting children’s agency. Although organizations representing children may campaign vociferously to redress the imbalance of power between children and adults and sociologists of childhood may publish research findings on. the political system. for Downloaded from chd. and not the children themselves. 2013 204 . there is no possibility of society gaining access to what children really are or where their needs or interests really lie and even less possibility of gaining access to what the future really holds for them! Furthermore. including scientific information. the identity group consists of adults who identify with children.

you need to study the ways in which people understand their social world and operate within that world. 1994: 823). It is people as social agents who are now the principal focus of sociological theorizing (see at Univ of Education. that.9 Since the 1970s. For Downloaded from chd. first because they exist outside party politics and. of the research findings giving rise to changes in policy solely on the ground of their support for children’s autonomy. paradoxically.. 1998: 202. if you wish to understand society sociologically. Mayall. there has been little place for structural theories within sociology. Since the time that Giddens introduced the concept of ‘structuration’. of their members gaining political office.K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N example. while theories of agency are concerned with the ways in which people. Such a scenario is highly unlikely for. I might add. According to this view. as recent history tells us. Prout and James. it may be the ultimate powerlessness of these organizations as a force within politics that accounts for their endurance and popularity. ‘the traditional structure-versus-agency duality is discarded in favour of an ever evolving and mutually penetrative dualism’ (Wilson. because his work on agency is that most often cited by sociologists of childhood (see James et al. there is no possibility of these organizations becoming the government. Winneba on August 10. Mainstream sociology has moved from a position where it saw itself as capable of improving society through the operation of social institutions to a more modest role of discovering how people make sense of and exist within their social world. not for themselves and campaign not for their self-interests. because they speak. but for the benefit of children. the disregard of children’s views in decisions about their lives. theories of structure direct attention to the institutions operating within society and the effects of these institutions on the behaviour of its members. therefore. If their claims are denied or ignored by governments and in legal decisions. children tend rather to enter the system of politics as threats to the social order (young delinquents).sagepub. 1997: 27). 2013 205 . All that they can hope for is for oppression of children by adults to enter the political agenda involving government and opposition and so be perceived within politics as a matter on which votes (and thus power) may be won and lost. The rise of ‘the social agent’ The sociological divide between structure and agency: In the terms that sociology applies to itself. 1997: 5. there is every incentive to continue to press for their acceptance always ‘on behalf of the child’. In their simplest terms. 1996: 53. second. James and Prout. as social agents understand the world and affect changes in society. 1995: 121). as vulnerable creatures in need of protection (victims of child abuse or deprivation) or as recipients of good or bad schooling. in parentheses. There is virtually no opposition to confront them. Anthony Giddens is of particular significance here. while every success is greeted as if it were a triumph for children. there were until recently theories of structure and theories of agency with little or no dialogue or overlap between the two.

child/adult. as for the other social theorists on whom he draws. Social structures provide the framework within which people. social structures are ‘both constituted by human agency and yet at the same time are the very medium of this constitution’ (Wilson. their actions. In the hands of the new sociologists of childhood. The at Univ of Education. emphasis added). 1998: 202). determined by structure . 2013 . . at the same time. it is a short step to creating within sociological theory itself a space for ‘childhoods’ as the products of adults’ attempts to predetermine children’s lives and ‘children’ as legitimate ‘social agents’. . . for Giddens. 1984: 11). necessarily. Much more significantly for social theory. 1995: 121. Having achieved this feat. emphasis in original). a citizen to be consulted. The reconstitution of the child from rights-holder.. childhood becomes ‘a magnificent testing ground for th[e] dichotomy between agency and structure’ and ‘it is adult society which constitutes the structure and the child the agent. . must have caused or contributed to social change or resistance to such change.. a voice to be heard to a fully-fledged theoretical concept – that of the child as social agent – has thus been completed. rather than pronounced through the exercise of agency’ (James et al. if the new sociologists of childhood were to fit the distinction. Once established. 1998: 25. These child agents needed to be seen in juxtaposition with the oppressive structures imposed by adults. The identification of social agents has.sagepub. Yet. A Luhmannian ‘operational constructivist’ observer of this transformation may wish first of all to question the use of the term ‘social agent’ within this 206 Downloaded from chd. this new theoretical version of ‘childhood’ and ‘children’ both contrasts with and offers a sharp rebuke to previous sociological accounts that conceptualized the child only as existing within social institutions – the family or school – ‘the child . the term ‘ social agent’ is something of a ‘term of art’ (as is the term ‘structure’). Social agents are not simply actors who affect the behaviour of others within society. in other words. was ‘to recover children as social actors’ and ‘their activity as a source of social change’ (James and Prout. whether intentional or unintentional. 1997: 27). Indeed. and that the former determines or socializes the latter’ (James et al. to be a retrospective exercise – you cannot begin to identify the social agents until you know what it is that their agency has brought about or prevented from happening (Giddens. but.CHILDHOOD 14(2) Giddens. their actions may have the effect of changing this framework. as agents. neatly onto the footprint of sociology’s agency/structure distinction. act. therefore. children somehow had to be transformed from the products of society’s structures to social agents capable of influencing these structures through their constructions of the external world. Children as social agents: The unlikely transformation from children’s rights to a sociological theory that conceptualizes children as autonomous actors within a social world dominated by adults would certainly not have been possible without the ascendancy within sociology of theories of agency over those of structure. Winneba on August 10.

com at Univ of Education.K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N childhood sociology. that the sociology label may be being used here to give scientific respectability and provide scientific support for campaigns for children’s autonomy rights and against their oppression by adults may be difficult to refute. consisting of a ‘sedimented network of interrelationships’ or ‘patterns of interaction or what one might call social relationships’ (James et al. Indeed. 1998: 207) Yet. because they are able by their acts alone to change society. in the sense of agency that concerns the initiation of action by choice. Its accuracy is reinforced on reading the childhood researcher cited earlier describing the task of a sociology of childhood as that of drawing ‘attention to certain neglected features of childhood. that is an agent capable of bringing about changes in social structures or has the concept mutated in entering the pedagogical programme of children’s autonomy? Among some new sociologists of childhood the claim is that ‘children are agents from their earliest days’. 1998: 472. If one of the avowed purposes of the new childhood sociology is to draw attention to the contribution that children make to society and to promote awareness of children’s views and their understanding of their world. is a clear example of agency as dependency. One study. . rights or differences – in sum. because. . 2003: 9. it would seem that this could well be done outside the realm of social theory and without any reliance on the theoretical concept of ‘social agency’. raised earlier in this article. 14). our ‘new’ discourses of childhood understand the child as ‘being’.sagepub. that of children upon adult agency. sociology has come ‘to understand them as carrying out socially useful. Winneba on August 10. 2000: 246. . (Lee.. They make assessments of events and relations’. For example: . and to use this knowledge as a basis for righting children’s wrongs’ (Mayall. it might 207 Downloaded from chd. so it is claimed. What one has here. . for example. Is it the same ‘social agent’ as exists in social theory. a set of needs. . Similar accounts depicting children as ‘social actors’. of course. On the view presented here. it suggests. the suggestion. Within a society constructed by the new sociology of childhood. The child is conceived as a person. 2013 . as an agent in its own construction and as naturally an agent as any adult. . to provide a better account of how the social order works. Essentialist agency is precisely that which grants independence. a status. emphasis added). indeed necessary activities’ (Mayall. so children ‘can be properly understood as active agents’. emphasis added) The ‘fundamental dependency’ referred to is. specifically discredits claims that children as witnesses should be seen as social agents within the legal system.. permeate the writings of the new childhood sociologists. 1998: 201). agency is an effect of independence that emerges from a fundamental dependency. They ‘do things that make a difference to relationships. as a new social actor . This image of agency is at odds with any essentialist image. a course of action. outside these self-referring sociological communications there is little in other forms of communication about children that is congruent with this perception of them as capable of taking an active agency role in bringing about or resisting social change. (James et al. .

sagepub. However. They clearly have. there may well be plenty of examples of children who carry out socially useful and necessary activities. Winneba on August 10. in the ways that law and politics perceive children. a direct input–output influence of transient interactions upon social function systems simply cannot exist. what is quite clear in these examples is that neither the changes in the images of children nor the many diverse accounts of what children are or are not capable of achieving that occur within the communications of society’s function systems have been brought about entirely through the actions of children themselves. such as the Gillick decision in the English courts and the legislation passed by governments in many postindustrial countries directed against internet child pornographers and child sex abusers. There are also numerous examples of how changing perceptions of children’s needs provoke changes in social systems. Children do not affect directly the way in which politics. Their influence is only indirect and whether or not it occurs depends on the operations of these systems and not on the actions of children themselves. of making decisions independently of their parents and even of decisions about medical treatment and other important matters. Measures against youth crime or truancy are obvious examples. However. law. selfcontrolled children than to any evidence that the social institutions on which society depends actually change themselves as the direct result of children’s 208 Downloaded from chd. On the other. the account of the child as ‘social agent’ owes much more to the new sociologists of childhood’s preferred image of rational. for example. do not convey a consistent image of the at Univ of Education. Yet.CHILDHOOD 14(2) well be possible to envisage a direct causal connection between individual actions (by children or adults) and social structures. 2013 . self-controlled and autonomous child. inexperienced and in need of protection against such evils as sexual and physical abuse and commercial exploitation. It is the system that selects the issue that needs addressing and reconstitutes it in its own terms. but it is hardly open to the new sociologists of childhood to claim that children themselves are responsible for generating these changes in perception. Structural changes in Luhmannian terms may indeed happen. economics and education communicate about children. rather than Luhmann’s systems theory as one’s theoretical perspective. for ‘society’ and ‘interactions’. Even if one adopts Giddens’s theory of structuration. here again the system is the social agent rather than children. but these activities on their own do not bring about changes in the ‘programmes of social function systems’. children may be seen in some situations as competent. as I have indicated earlier. On the one hand. Indeed. represent two separate and distinct forms of communication. competent. they are also portrayed in other situations as vulnerable. the changes that have occurred. as a perturbation in that system’s environment that needs to be addressed by the system. even if the important question as to how that relationship might operate in practice remains unanswered. if children’s actions become recognized by one or more of society’s function systems. This is not to say that the images of the child generated by these systems have not changed in recent years. by contrast.10 From the perspective of Luhmannian social systems theory.

2013 .K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N concerted actions and that these changes reflect what the children wanted or intended. politics. health or education.sagepub. the only way that science is able to make a distinction between its own communications and ‘the life-world’ is to ‘objectify’ the subject of its enquiry. their welfare and their capacities lie or who might have access to them. The first relates to Luhmann’s notion of differentiation into interdependent. This is of particular concern when much of the research evidence on which sociological theories are based cannot be replicated or verified and when sociology itself may at times lack any reliable criteria to assess their validity. understandings. beliefs and wishes. however. Instead. for sociology itself to deny that this ‘subjectification’ of research poses any real problem to its own identity is to cast doubt that sociology. has been the introduction into science of a perspective or programme for communicating about children. yet autopoietic social function systems as the distinctive feature of modern society. two related set of questions emerge from my analysis. This reconstitution within sociology of accounts of what children are. their capacities. must not necessarily be seen as plea for sociology to resurrect ‘objectivity’ as the overriding criteria for sociological 209 Downloaded from chd. has the ability to police its own epistemic borders. sees individuals as autonomous beings capable of changing the social structure and accepts as factual evidence mediated and selective accounts of the ways that people see themselves and understand their world. as I have already mentioned. To what extent is it still possible for other function systems. This sociological revolution now allows different identity groups to produce their own brand of sociology. just so long as it has been carried out within the auspices of its own theoretical framework. This concern. such as law. The new sociology of childhood’s denial of the very notion of objectivity (as well as that of several other sociological ‘identity theories’) is to proceed as if science can be formulated out of subjective beliefs and experiences and to suggest that everything that calls itself research should be treated as generating scientifically approved. while retaining the code children/adults. My principal focus in this article. to rely upon communications emanating from sociology in the form of theory and research results as providing facts for their own operations? In the terms of Luhmannian theory. Winneba on August 10. Conclusions It has not been my objective in this article to identify where the truth or reality about at Univ of Education. I should add. has become possible only because sociology itself has undergone major transformations in recent years. as a subdiscipline of science. factual evidence. Furthermore. Finally. which. I have used Niklas Luhmann’s general social theory and his more specific theory of operational constructivism as vehicles which allow us to recognize in society’s interactions and organizations the existence of a specific system of communications about children and childhood. concentrates upon and magnifies the similarities between children and adults.

reject or ignore the opinions. However. They are only ‘facts’ or ‘the truth’ to those who share the ideological orientation of the theory and the beliefs. then. but not facts. . those who wave the flag of children’s rights have no hesitation in regarding these communications as factual and reliable. indeed. The second related issue concerns specifically sociological communications concerning the competence and abilities of childhood emerging from the new sociology of childhood. the work of Alderson . . for example Michael Freeman. Just as the credibility of newspaper stories and television programmes depends on the pre-existing beliefs and values of their readers and viewers. The problem is not that present-day sociology no longer insists on objectivity or theories that are amenable to empirical testing. so sociologists can expect their research reports to be judged not on their methodological soundness but on whether they endorse. It does not seek to Downloaded from chd. (Freeman. 2013 210 .sagepub. It is rather that many of sociology’s communications do not have even the appearance of being able to convey facts or truth that can then be relied upon by other social systems in their operations. that sociological communications will be seen by other systems as undifferentiated from the communications of the mass media. have been) directed against Luhmannian sociology.CHILDHOOD 14(2) research. there are major differences between its theoretical concerns and those of the new sociologists of childhood who have ‘identified’ this revised image of ‘the child’. . .com at Univ of Education. . and at much younger ages too. has shown that children are much more competent than we choose to believe. for society. Winneba on August 10. Luhmann’s theory does not make any truth claims other than those concerning the ways in which society represents itself to itself. capable child agent? Is this new image of the child to be accepted as a scientific fact for the purposes of government directives. . Recognizing (and encouraging) children’s agency (as in fact Article 12 of the Convention does) emphasizes that children are social beings who can contribute to society . teachers and educationalists who seek assurance from scientific research as to how to find the right way to meet the needs of children of different ages or how much responsibility should be given to the child in a wide range of decision-making situations? Of course. The child as agent or social actor features strongly in these sociological studies of childhood: it was key to an important research initiative funded by the ESRC in the United Kingdom in the late 1990s. the merging of social systems to a point where it is no longer possible for each one to maintain its separate identity and unique function. amongst others. My concern is rather that expressed by Niklas Luhmann and relates to the dangers for society of ‘dedifferentiation’. to say nothing of those anxious parents. . values and assumptions of the researchers. beliefs and values of those who read them. 2004: xviii–xix) But what about ministers of state and judges. doctors. that is. There is a real risk. accusations of lack of empirical verifiability could also be (and. Take. legislation and courtroom decisions? Clearly. a leading legal advocate for children’s rights: The sociology of childhood has much to teach those concerned with children’s rights. as able to provide information. How much confidence can be placed on the new sociological image of the autonomous.

which came into force in 1990. embodiment of agency. philosophers and political theorists over what is seen as ‘paternalism towards children’ and the failure to recognize children’s capacity to participate as citizens in their own right (e. 2004. tends to emphasize children’s welfare rather than autonomy rights. 2013 211 . the view of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child’. at Univ of Education. and perhaps most significantly. Luhmannian systems theory. conscience and religion’ (Fortin. active children. Past editions of Childhood have contained many articles that have referred to or applied the new sociology of childhood uncritically as a major theoretical advance in the sociological understanding of children. Roche. James et al. engage more effectively or incisively with those policy or welfare debates which for so long have shaped the direction of research. Feinberg. 5. An example is contained in Chris Jenks’s account of his major contribution to the development of the new sociology of childhood: I had a need for real. Articles 14 and 15 ‘identify certain individual liberties or freedoms which must be guaranteed by the state in order to underwrite the concept of children’s autonomy. that it sets itself and through which it hopes to achieve what Luhmann optimistically terms a sociological enlightenment. for this would have simply been another naturalistic reduction. emphasis added) Downloaded from chd. The enormous task that it sets itself is to provide an account of how society transforms chaotic and contingent environmental complexity into manageable system complexity. (1998: 217–18) write. 3. such as the right to freedom of assembly and of thought. 1998: 21). .11 Notes 1. While James and Prout (1997: 10) specifically emphasize children’s self-determination as one of the imperatives of the new sociology of childhood: Children are and must be seen as active in the construction and determination of their own social lives and of those around them and of the societies in which they live. I had a sociologist’s need. Quite apart from the Convention. Finally. by contrast. interactional partners. A notable exception is Lee (1998). or social policies. 2. It is this fulfilment of this task.K I N G : S O C I O L O G Y O F C H I L D H O O D A S S C I E N T I F I C C O M M U N I C AT I O N influence law. rather than the impossible quest for ultimate truth about children. not that of a civil-rights campaigner. constructors of worlds. who in an article titled ‘Towards an Immature Sociology’ questioned whether the new sociology of childhood had in fact achieved the theoretical status that some of its proponents claimed for it. for example: It has been our intention to present a broad account of the different ways in which childhood studies can. Not actually. (Jenks. attempts to offer a broad and complex account of the operations of different systems in modern society and the relations between them. . . It is not founded upon a priori assumptions about human (or children’s) nature and. Article 12 requires the state ‘to assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely.g. Although the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. there has been considerable disquiet expressed among lawyers. 1999).sagepub. 4. childhood or anything else. Winneba on August 10. through careful theorizing. the new sociology of childhood presents one very specific aspect of society – the division of the world into children and adults – and necessarily ignores any accounts of events that lie outside this narrow perspective. deliberately eschews the individual subject as a valid unit of analysis for sociology. competent social members. 2000: 65. in all matters affecting the child.

sagepub. Reinharz. (2004) ‘The Child’s Right to an Open Future’. J. Calhoun. and A. A. 2000. (1994) ‘Sociology’. Lincoln (2000) The Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd edn. James. (2000) Young Children’s Rights. I. Schütz (1994) ‘The Ambitious Modesty of Niklas Luhmann’. (1984) The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. (2004) ‘Introduction’. Downloaded from chd. M. see King and Thornhill (2003: 131–6). see Lee (1998: 273) for a criticism of these claims. (1971) The Coming Crisis in Western Sociology. Jenks. 10. New York: Holt. Calhoun (ed. 213–42. Thornhill (2003) Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Politics and Law. Journal of Law and Society 21(3): 261–87. James and Prout (1997: 8). M. C. N. No such direct relationship is proposed by Giddens in his theory of structuration. Freeman. Fortin. pp. Prout (1998) Theorizing Childhood. see King and Thornhill (2003: Ch. Christensen and A. in M.K. 2013 212 . James. (1969) Collective Search for Identity. in C.Vol. CA: Pine Forge Press. 11–36. James (eds) (2000) Research with Children. (1994) ‘Social Theory and the Politics of Identity’. (1962) Centuries of Childhood. M. Z. C. A. Christensen. Kuper and J. VA: Ashgate/Dartmouth. pp. London: Butterworth. For a discussion of their significance. (1993) ‘The “Truth” about Autopoiesis’. J. Thousand Oaks. 2nd edn. Christensen and James. MA and London: Harvard University Press. 8. Oxford: Blackwell. King.) Children’s Rights. Talcott Parsons is seen as the prime instigator of structural sociology. London: Jonathan Cape. and C. and A. These methods have been subjected to critical comments from Lazaraton (2003) and Overcash (2003) among others.) Social Theory and the Politics of Identity. Journal of Law and Society 20(2): 1–19. Rinehart and Winston. Jenks and A. pp. Cambridge. in A. Corsaro. C. I refer here to the increasing use of qualitative methods and subjective narrative accounts of social events. O. pp. London. Thousand Oaks. Aldershot and Burlington. London: Routledge. (2002) ‘An Autopoietic Approach to the Problems Presented by “Parental Alienation Syndrome” for Courts and Child Mental Health Experts’. xi–xlii. (1998) Children’s Rights and the Developing Law. and Y. 1). Bauman. 62–75.g. Winneba on August 10. VA: Ashgate/Dartmouth. P. Freeman (ed. Giddens. Bibliography Alderson. London and New York: Falmer Press. (1996) Childhood. and A.) Children’s Rights. Hacking. Freeman (ed. Aldershot and Burlington.E. 2000). James (eds) Research with Children. Prout (eds) (1997) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. (1997) The Sociology of Childhood.. 818– at Univ of Education. A. 9. (1999) The Social Construction of What. (2000) ‘Zeitgeist Research on Childhood’. King. Prout (eds) (1990) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. Oxford: Polity Press. CA: Sage. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry 13(3): 609–35. London and New York: Falmer Press. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan. Klapp. Ariès. in M. Cambridge: Polity Press. in P. London: Routledge/Falmer. Denzin. Gouldner. 11. for example. 7.Vol. 2nd edn. A. Jenks. London: Routledge/Falmer.1. 1992) and later for childhood researchers (e.CHILDHOOD 14(2) 6. London: Jessica Kingsley. London: Heinemann. which have proved particularly attractive initially for feminist researchers (see. M.A. Kuper (eds) The Social Science Encyclopedia. P. Routledge. P. Luhmann wrote four volumes titled Soziologische Aufklärung. C. pp.1. For an account of Luhmann’s general theory. W. King. M. A. James. Feinberg. Denzin and Lincoln. and A. King.

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