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Cultural contextualization of an observation about childhood

Designed by Holly High and Ryan Schram

Due: October 2 at 5:00 PM
Weight: 20%
Length: 1000 words


Describe a personal experience or an observation from your own experience with children and childrearing. Identify the cultural values that are expressed by what you experienced or observed in others, and make an interpretation of what this practice tells you about the larger cultural context in which it sits. This essay is an exercise in achieving critical distance on your own lived experiences and your own cultural environment.


Step 1: Describe an aspect of how childhood is handled in a particular cultural context. This could be a polite thing people say to or about children, an observation about how core aspects of childhood (sleep, feeding, toilet training, handling childhood emotions) are dealt with, or the particular concerns parents and other caregivers have.

This should be an observation you have made yourself, drawing either on your own personal childhood or an observation you have made more recently about a particular childhood in a cultural context you know firsthand, for instance, the community in which you were raised and/or in which you live.

Step 2: Identify the core value(s) expressed by what you experienced or observed in others, and make an interpretation of what this norm tells you about the larger cultural context in which it sits.

When we think back on our own experiences, we tend to focus on what they were like for us, and we may even like to think that they were unique experiences. But, in fact, many of our own personal experiences are an instance of a pattern that other people have followed and other people will repeat in the future.

It is important, as anthropologists, that we are aware of the cultural specificity of our own experiences and assumptions. Understanding others is often hampered by unexamined assumptions, so the more work we can do to unearth and examine those assumptions, the better we will be a the cross-cultural work of anthropology.

As you think back on your recent experiences with children and raising children, sift through the specifics and find the pattern. Perhaps your friends’ kids sleep in a crib. Sleeping in a crib is a pattern. What does sleeping in a crib (as an ideal which may not actually be followed by everyone) tell us about the about the core values of the cultural context shared by your friends and their kids?

Step 3: Consider the observation you describe from the point of view of someone from Nisa’s culture (Shostak [1982] 2000), the culture of Utku described by Briggs (1970), or the Japanese context described by Allison (1991). What is normal for you is strange to them. What would they notice?

More details about how to go about writing this essay, and the grading criteria, will be posted later in the semester.


Allison, Anne. 1991. “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus.” Anthropological Quarterly 64 (4): 195–208. doi:10.2307/3317212.

Briggs, Jean L. 1970. “Inuttiaq’s Children.” In Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, 109–37. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shostak, Marjorie. (1982) 2000. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

1002/2020/cultural-contextualization.txt · Last modified: 2020/08/18 19:40 (external edit)