Shawna McDermott is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies American print history and children’s literature. She is completing a dissertation that explores visual portrayals of race and childhood in American children’s periodicals from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Childhood Studies is a fairly new field, interdisciplinary in its nature and drawing participants from psychology, sociology, anthropology, literary studies, and the sciences, among other areas. With the premise that better understanding the figure of the child in a culture is a method of better understanding that culture’s formations of agency and power, Childhood Studies is a discipline that examines conceptions of childhood across many cultures and historical eras. Whatever their field, practitioners of Childhood Studies acknowledge childhood as a social construction and work to discern the intersection between the lived lives of those persons biologically coded as children and the ways that cultures construct childhood to do specific work. Childhood Studies explores how cultures conceive of childhood, how children are discussed and leveraged in politics and media, and further how all of these constructions create expectations for how actual children should behave and be treated. In particular, practitioners of Childhood Studies are deeply concerned with agency, considering how children as participants within their culture negotiate, defy, and/or comply with those expectations.