Research projects and time constraints

So, it’s been an unexpectedly (and unintentionally) long time since my last post. I’ve been working on my M.A. thesis project, which I had intended to document in this blog. I wanted to update where things stand.

This site sets out a larger research program, to identify the dimensions that describe our ideologies of childhood. I had anticipated that I could make considerable headway in that program during my M.A. thesis work. But that desire proved overly ambitious. Indeed, the more constrained version of the project I’m actually working on is also proving ambitious and I’m evidently going to need a little more time to complete it than I’d planned.

Research is always a tricky thing to project manage, especially in a student context where the technical things one is doing are still being mastered. Effective work breakdown structuring, task planning, and timelining presupposes experience with the work involved, so that one knows what the tasks are to complete each stage of work and roughly how long each should take. When one doesn’t have that experience, plans end up being more aspirations than anything one can strongly commit to. And part of the point of research is that one is learning along the way. Even when one does have experience in the technical parts, one isn’t typically doing something that has been done before and where the results are known in advance. You have expectations about the results, certainly, but – unless you’re specifically doing a replication – part of the point of the work is that your expectations can be wrong.

Which is why the scope of the project has been narrowed. The larger goals of the research remain the same. But I’ve defined a version of the project that I anticipated could be completed in 8-12 months of work, in line with the requirements of an M.A. thesis. And I’m about a month or two behind where I anticipated being, with the upshot that submitting the thesis for April 15 is no longer really a feasible goal. So, the goal is now to submit for August 15.

Fortunately, I have also been accepted into the Ph.D. program in Sociology at McGill, to work with Peter McMahan. So I’ll be continuing this research program and will be able to do something of larger scope for the dissertation.

All that said, what I am doing is trying to assess the claims made by Harry Hendricks in his well known chapter on “Constructions and Reconstruction of British Childhood: An interpretative survey, from 1800 to the present” from the iconic volume Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood, edited by Allison James and Alan Prout, about what constructions of childhood there have been. My contention is that his constructions mix what seem like actually contrasting views of childhood (e.g., “Rousseauian Naturalism” and “Evangelicalism”) with what seem like simple developments within a single, hegemonic, Establishment view of British childhood (e.g., against child labour, against ‘delinquency’, for school, supported by the development of first ‘Child Study’, then of a more professionalized ‘educational psychology’). In the latter cases, it’s also not clear that he has included any of the alternative views that emerged during the same period – alternative views to which he, himself, is committed.

Hendricks’ work is widely cited and reprinted, and has been used to talk about conceptions of childhood not just in the U.K. but around the world. This makes it worthwhile assessing it on its own merits. But it also serves as a excellent test case for trying to model what a ‘construction of childhood’ is, period. One of the core underlying questions is whether there actually are multiple ‘constructions’ of childhood or only a single construction, “childhood”, that some or all children are now ‘supposed to’ have – “childhood” here meaning a particular kind of experience of life, rather than a life stage. Should we conceive of cross-cultural and historical differences in ‘traditional’ childhoods (i.e., early life stages) as the same kind of thing as cross-cultural, historical and political differences over this ‘modern childhood’ or as something different? How coherent and comprehensive are the differences we think there are? Are they really “ideologies” and “world-pictures”, or just situational, rhetorical ensembles? Can the differences we are familiar with from political life be accurately distinguished from textual data? While the present project will not suffice to answer these larger questions, it makes a good starting point for the larger program.

I’ll post more about what I’ve been doing in subsequent posts. But I’ll leave you with the prospectus for this project, in case you’re interested in learning more about it.

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