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Anthropological research

Social anthropology distinguishes itself from other social sciences in that it is usually based on observation and one-on-one encounters with people in their living or working situations but most especially in that researchers engage in reflections about social interactions, cultural meanings and power relations. In other words, they observe not only what people do and what they say they do, but also what their actions and words might be leaving out or what they have in common with others.

"The cross-cultural view

shows that we in the West are rather insulated from what the majority of the world's population is doing during their early years of childhood. Our view of childhood is critically warped by a very recent economic affluence that allows most of our kids the luxury of play, school, and little responsibility. Other cultures teach us that there are other ways to socialize, other ways to play, and other ways for kids to become moral citizens." [View source]

Small, Meredith F., "Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children", New York:Anchor Books, pp.5-6

Recently, a friend asked me whether it were true that in China babies didn't wear diapers.  And if it were true, how! could that possibly work? 'I mean, how do the mothers know?' I, too, had heard and read about this attitude and found it fascinating.  It is not practicable for many city people, whether in Beijing or in New York, but illuminates how we can learn from each other and also how challenging can be actually adopting 'foreign' behaviors - no matter how appealing. It also illuminates the strangeness of global life, in that plastic diapers are being seen as 'modern' in China while going without diapers is being seen as progressive in alternative American circles.  Research is often fraught with difficulties of coming up with 'the truth', yet thoughtful anthropological pieces on bed-sharing (see below) and early child-care (see below) point us towards the questions we should be asking.


Social anthropologists have long recognized mothering as crucial to the transmission of culture, the development of enculturated persons, the constitution of kinship, family, and household, and the reproduction of society. Discussions in anthropology and related disciplines explore mothering from a wide range of perspectives, among them cultural, psychological, evolutionary, and feminist. Whether idealized in symbol and story, conferred as a right, privilege, or responsibility, or examined for its social, cultural, and psychological consequences, the subject of mothers and mothering elicits strong opinions, powerful emotions, and intense commitments. We enter these discussions to offer observations of mothering in cultural context as practiced in ordinary, everyday interactions. anthropologists on mothering


In China, split-pants or diapers

"One of the indelible images of China for foreigners is that of the cutie-pie baby wearing the pants with a giant hole on the bottom - known in Chinese "kaidangku" (literally "open-crotch pants"). … In the late 1970s, when Mao-suit grays and dark blues were the norm for adults, children's vividly hued kaidangku were the only splashes of color on Beijing's drab streets.

"But in Beijing these days, bare baby bottoms are an increasingly rare sight-even on sultry summer afternoons, when kaidangku used to be almost a uniform for toddlers." But these are giving way to 'modern' disposable diapers. go to the China Daily


Indigenous Australians

"Donald wrote that children slept on the bare ground cuddled in their mother's arms. ‘The baby' was never heard to cry, the mother never left it. ... readmore logo

interesting links in Germany
What about early child-care?

Reflections on cross-cultural research from the British Families, Children and Child Care research team: "Local arrangements and conditions, attitudes and expectations are enormously important to the pragmatics of work-home balance. For example, in the UK and much of Europe, the majority of women with children work part time. In the US there is much less part-time work for women and almost none available in managerial and professional jobs. Standards and settings vary from place to place often more than they appear to. (For example, American "family child care" is not directly equivalent to "childminding" in the UK.) … 18 months leave is common in Germany, versus 6 weeks in the US and 18 weeks here in the UK. ... In the US and UK poor nursery-care is often blamed on caregivers' lack of training and experience, and their related low job satisfaction and high turnover. But in an Israeli study which identified very low levels of quality, the mean age of the caregivers was 43 years; most had more than 10 years experience, had been in the same centre for more than 6 years and loved their jobs." "When thinking about quality of childcare it is not legitimate to generalise without knowing about family background. For example, good quality child care is better than poor quality for all children, but good quality child care can be especially beneficial to underprivileged children, whilst the possible negative effects of poor quality child care can be less pronounced for children from privileged homes. Similarly, it is not possible to generalise without knowing more about the children. The quality of care children experience in any one setting, including their own family homes, partly depends on their individual characteristics and needs. Furthermore, care quality should not be considered a static variable, but rather a complex interaction between the child, the carer and other children in the group. Finally it is rash to generalise from information gathered at a single age-point. Children's needs change as they grow which means that the aspects of care most crucial to a nine month baby may be different to those most crucial to a three-month, or indeed a three year old." [View source]

"Context and purpose of the FCCC study", Families, Children and Child Care,


Austria map
Interesting links in Austria



What about bed-sharing?

Cultural values and scripts for parenting can be inconsistent, producing intrapsychic and cultural conflict. For example, many middle-class U.S. parents encourage independence, self-reliance, and autonomy in children, yet also encourage children to seek out help and look for attention from adults. Parents respond with egoistic recognition of children's achievements—a set of contradictions that lead to dependency conflicts. Another example of conflicting goals and fears for many U.S. parents is bedsharing with children. Parents hold strong beliefs about the importance of bedsharing and its positive or negative outcomes; their beliefs are important to their identity and beliefs about good outcomes for their children, even where actual impacts of bedsharing on children show no strong differences. At the same time, if enough features of the cultural learning environment are similar, outcomes of childrearing practices will be reasonably similar and consistent within a community. These examples suggest that conflict, diversity, and pluralism are expectable within and across communities, but also that shared cultural learning environments will simultaneously encourage similarity. In this article, I present empirical examples of these processes, some of which organize diversity to produce consensus, whereas others produce intrapsychic, intersubjective, and cross-cultural conflict. [View source]

Weisner, T. S. (2009), Culture, Development, and Diversity: Expectable Pluralism, Conflict, and Similarity. Ethos, 37: 181–196. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1352.2009.01037


Iran's decrease in number of children per family

"Throughout the 1990s popular attitudes toward family size were further reinforced by media, the Internet, travel and contacts with the “Los Angeles cousins” (affluent expatriate Iranians), who exported Western middle class customs and values to Iran despite governmental opposition. An “ideology of progress” reached sufficient strength to extend to all areas and all social classes. Worsening economic conditions together with high consumer aspirations, neolocal nuclear families in expensive housing, and high debt-loads of young couples motivated Iranians to postpone first births, space children and declare two as the new limit. readmore logo


What do Beng mothers do when healthy babies just won't stop crying?

Anthropologist Alma Gottlieb conjectures how a Beng grandmother and an older spiritual advisor would handle a mother's report that her baby will not stop crying. Both assume the baby is crying for a reason, and to take this seriously. The grandmother gives biologically-based, practical advice, such as to give kami, a little bit of water. She also advises carrying the baby on the mother's back to lull him or her to sleep. If the mother is tired, she should give the baby to a lƐn kūli, a baby carrier - a young girl or niece. This way the baby will either sleep on a long walk or have many short sleeps on visiting walks through the village. The spiritual advisor, differently, bases her advice on the belief that babies bring with them memories and wishes from another previous life. She suggests the mother search for an object (ie.. beads) that the baby might be yearning for. In both cases, the Beng advisors urge the mothers to take their baby's crying seriously and to spend time and effort in discovering the clue to soothing their baby. This is encouraging bonding and empathy. [View source]

Gottlieb, Alma, "Of Cowries and Crying: A Beng Guide to Managing Colic," Anthropology and Humanism, June 1995, vol. 20, issue 1, pp.20-28.

Interested in more? Here are other articles:
Iran Germany
Europe cloth diapers
China child development
North America Caregivers
bonding bedsharing
Austria Australia

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