The chapter, ‘Child Well-Being: Anthropological Perspectives’ in the Handbook of Child Well-Being (2014), is co-authored by anthropologists Edward G. J. Stevenson and Carol M. Worthman. While not explicitly stated, it is highly likely that this collaboration came about due to the author’s shared affiliation at Emory University: Dr. Worthman has been a faculty member at Emory since the 1980s and Dr. Stevenson graduated with his PhD from Emory in 2011.
Dr. Stevenson is currently a Teaching Fellow at University College London and his research is focused on health and human development in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr. Worthman is the director for the Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology at Emory University which began in 1987. The lab focuses on differences in human well-being and aims to collaborate with non-laboratory based researchers. Former members of this lab include several authors that we have read this semester including Dr. Seligman, Dr. DeCaro, and the co-author of our textbook, Dr. Lende.
This chapter focuses on breaking down how anthropologists approach studying well-being in children by distinguishing between different conceptual models and how they are impacted by historical and environmental factors.
Heuristic models commonly fall into three categories (ecocultural, developmental niche, and cultural mediation) and generally compare how child development and well-being differ in two cultural contexts. These models provide valuable information about a particular culture at a specific point in time.
This model examines how child well-being is influenced by everyday activities and routines. For instance, the authors provide the example of how an ecocultural model can be used to look at how parents of children with disabilities adapt to their child’s needs versus parents of children without developmental disabilities (see Weisner 1997, 2002). The benefit of this type of model is the ability to examine child well-being at smaller levels such as the individual household.
Developmental Niche Model
Super and Harkness (1986) originally developed this model to look at cross-cultural variation in child development. This model focuses on a wide-range of factors that can influence child health and development. This includes looking at physical and social circumstances, local customs, the beliefs and goals of caretakers, as well as traits the child are born with or epigenetic factors.
Cultural Mediation Model
This model combines insights from evolutionary theory, economic-demographic pressures, and cultural elements to examine how child care is organized within a society. The authors emphasize that each of these factors in isolation cannot provide an explanation for childcare practices.
The authors suggest that there are four main categories of predictive models: discordance, developmental ecology, embodied capital, and ecosystem dynamics. These models take more of an evolutionary approach and attempt to gauge what universal factors might impact childhood well-being.
This model deals with environmental mismatch between modern and ancestral environments. Given the vast amount of time that humans spent in hunter-gatherer groups, this model predicts that child well-being will be highest in situations that more closely resemble these ancestral roots.
Developmental Ecology Model
Evolution teaches us that there are always trade-offs. This model focuses on how early experiences influence future development in humans in order to employ the most adaptive responses to environmental conditions. An example of this might be to look at how breastfeeding impacts future immune response or how early life nutritional deprivation may increase fat storage later in life (known as the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis).
Embodied Capital Model
The concept of embodied capital refers to an individual’s ability to survive and reproduce based on the current conditions and capacities of the individual. This model uses this concept to explore how parents invest in children. It is predicted that in situations where resources are scarce, parents may focus on quantity of offspring over quality. On the other hand, when conditions are favorable, it is predicted that parents will invest more in a smaller amount of offspring (i.e., quality over quantity).
Ecosystem Dynamics Model
The final model presented explores how macroecology (e.g., political-economic, demographic, technological context) and microecology (e.g., immediate surroundings, caretakers, childcare customs) influence childhood well-being.
Historical Transitions, Policy Implications, & Future Research
The final sections of the chapter describes how the theoretical models of child well-being described above are impacted by historical changes in five areas: (1) demography, (2) epidemiology and nutrition, (3) education, (4) politics/economics, and (5) ecology. The authors argue that by considering these factors and models, policymakers and researchers can better understand how to improve child well-being.
One of the aspects of this article that I liked the best was the use of tables to summarize some of the main areas of research along with some sample citations. I felt that this was an effective way of organizing the wealth of information that was provided without becoming overwhelming. While I generally enjoy brevity in a paper, this might be one of the only times that I would have liked to have seen more examples for each model simply because I found the content so fascinating. However, for someone less interested in these topics, this chapter provides a great overview that is also easily digestible.
- Well-being was also a central focus of the Campbell chapter from last week. How do you feel these two papers compare in their conceptualization of well-being? Did one have a stronger approach?
- What are some ways in which children living in industrialized societies might be worse off than those living in circumstances that more closely reflect our hunter-gatherer ancestors?
- Conversely, what are some ways in which children might be better off in modern environments?
- Did you feel that any of the models were stronger than others?
- Could any of the models presented be applied to your research interests?