Ochs, Elinor and Bambi Schieffelin "Language acquisition and socialization: Three developmental stories and their implications." in Culture theory. Edited by R. Shweder and R. LeVine, 276-320. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984

This is the fourth in a series of notes to twelve lectures for my class Dynamics of Family Interaction.



  1. The central issues
  2. The child as unit of analysis?
  3. Significant others
  4. Literacy, shopping and other tasks for modern children

what all human children learn best is what no master can explain: the mother tongue. We speak to them and we speak around them. They hear and retain, imitate and repeat, make mistakes and correct themselves, succeed by chance and begin again methodically, and, at too young an age for explicators to begin instructing them, they are almost all ... able to understand and speak the language of their parents. (Rancière 1999 [1991]: 5)

  1. The central issue of all family studies concerns the development of the young child.
    1. All theories have been convinced that the first years, indeed the first months are of overwhelming importance.
      1. In spite of recent developments in looking at psychological evolution continuing throughout the lifespan, people remained overwhelmingly concerned with the first years.
      2. The recent interest in biological inheritance and genetics has only reinforced this tendency.
    2. What is not so obvious is what exactly is going to be studied or how.
      1. If biology ("normal psychological development") is destiny, then what are the properties of this destiny?
        1. Freud, Piaget, and various versions of the stages human beings must & will go through in the first years of their lives (with serious problems if something interrupt moving through the stages)
        2. Chomsky and the universal structures of language
        3. Skinner and automatic learning through behavioral experiences
      2. But biology may not quite be destiny, though one's family may be.  If so then what makes a destiny?
        1. Cultural anthropology (and social psychology) on "becoming and member of one's culture" (building an "identity") as a more or less automatic process given a supportive social environment.
        2. the importance of a familial arrangement that fits the functional structural requirement of normal child development.
      3. Biology may not be destiny at all (even if it is the material out of which a history may be made.  If destiny is not closed until one's death, how exactly is what was to be one's destiny changed?
        1. new approaches to cultural production through education (not schooling)
  2. The child as unit of analysis?
    1. If studies of childbirth focus our attention on the pregnant woman, classical approaches to childhood, and particularly infancy, conspire to let us see only the child, as a center around which others of all types (parents, other children, other adults) gravitate.
      1. Most work on young children has been understood primarily as 'child development'.
        1. Given an interest phrased in this manner, the child (in the singular) becomes the center; it is what has to be explained.
        2. And yet every theory of child development implies a theory of the family.  But the implied theory of the family is either weak (Freud) or vanishingly vague (Chomsky) or overly deterministic (much of cultural anthropology)
      2. In recent years, under the influence of the Russian psychologist Vygotsky (and, possibly, a reevaluation of Dewey's work), there has been a recognition that the psyche is always immersed in a social world. At one extrement (Cole, Lave) this leads to a radical challenge to the possibility of examining cognition (including language use) as purely an individual psychological matter.
      3. But only in some limited work can we see the beginning of a new focus on what I might term the 'reproduction of children'--in the plural (which is not at all quite the same thing as their development).
      4. And even less work on the activity of infants and young children as on-going participant in their own development.
  3. The child, and those that will make a difference in his/her life -- the child's "significant others"
    1. We are focusing on work in language acquisition because of the depth of this work and the continuing controversies about the proper human environment for language development. Ochs and Schiefflin's work is interesting because it draws both on cross-cultural research into variation and possibilities and on the kind of psychology that was influenced by Vigotsky. Still the article is mostly about children, their development, their acquisition of language and their socialization. It is only indirectly about the social organization of childhood.

      Given this, we can still see in their work the impact of 

      1. the work that has been done over the past 30 years in linguistics on the one hand and the social sciences on the other hand have emphasized the importance of
        1. in linguistics: the speech situation
        2. in the social sciences: symbolic matters (including myth, ideology, ritual, dramatic performance, conversation, e.g. "language" in the broadest sense).
      2. Consequently, in pyschology, those interested in child development are now obliged to confront practically the social and cultural worlds children always inhabit (Vygotsky vs. Piaget; Bloom and her students).
        1. While psychologists are still interested in universal processes (and Ochs does not deny that they are at work), they also know that any statement based on an observation made in a particular setting tells us initially more about the setting than about the child.
          1. the dancer and the dance (Yeats)
          2. making their own music (Bateson 1972 (1953): 13)
    2. To study children is not quite the same thing, however, as to study settings where children are found. Thus, the impact of the work of which Ochs is an example ( see also Schieffelin, Heath) is being felt not only in the fields of development psychology, but also in anthropology.
      1. Minimally, to look at the way children are organized by adults is to find oneself in a privileged place where to understand the overall cultural structure to which the adults are accountable.
      2. Maximally, it is to be led to a much more complex understanding of culture and of its power over human beings 
    3. Minimally, one read Ochs for what she tells us about the way young human beings ("infants," "babies," "children"- -[notice the boundary setting issue]?) are made to fit within adult society. What are they accountable to doing, when, with whom, etc.?
      1. Consider for example the question of the "first" word a child utters. This is not a purely developmental issue whether human development is understood as:
        1. a matter of the physiological development of the brain (thus plausibly universal holding such matters as the health of the mother during pregnancy, the nutrition of the early infant, or even perhaps an abstracted kind of innate "intelligence");
        2. a matter of what the child is "encultured" by its surrounding adults.

        It is a political issue in the sense that the child be known as as speaking and thus is to be taken as a participant in various kinds of interactions. This is repeating matter throughout a child growing up as new forms of linguistic performances become possible.

        Consider such examples as: 

        1. the work of the historian P. Aries on the evolution of childhood in European societies since the Middle Ages, from a time when it appears that childhood was not marked as a separate stage, to our own time when it is massively marked both by parents in intimate settings (as far as we can tell most contemporary parents isolate their children into kind of special, golden ghettoes), and by institutions from the School, to TV to industry, all of which make special spaces for children (and then of course for adolescents in a continued movement toward making finer distinctions and acting upon them)
      2. Maximally, we must understand that a cultural structure (the pattern that connects people in particular ways to which they are accountable) is not a personality trait. A cultural account is never an hypothesis about what "most" people do "typically." it must always be read as what it is that people struggle with
        1. Margaret Mead on babies who "wriggle." :

          "Although the anthropologist never looks at his own culture and his own people with quite the clear, objective appraisal he is trained to give to South Sea Islanders and Indians, nevertheless, if those South Sea Islanders have been studied carefully enough, the anthropologist wears forever another set of lenses, a new set for each primitive culture which has been examined. With these lenses, acquired in the long months in which he minutely studied strange ways of life and held reflectively small wriggling babies-- for the babies of each society wriggle in a slightly different way, and one learns from observing the differences-the anthropolologist sees different things about the home culture from those things which others see who have never had to submit to this special discipline." (Mead [1942] 2000: 2)

        2. Willis on adolescents who "resist."

  4. An extended example: the paradoxes of literacy: an 'American' story:
    1. when does a child "learn" how to read? -- questions of setting:
      1. supermarket (and other everyday life settings)
      2. a parent reading to a child (ritualized settings)
      3. school and other institutional settings
    2. when does a child know how to read?
      1. recognition of the functionality of reading
      2. ability to decode graphical representations of speech into speech
    3. when is a child known as knowing how to read?
      1. authoritative measurements by legitimate agents of the polity (State?) with consequences on the future of the child.
    4. Child, mother and supermarkets: from a dissertation by Cory Boyd (1993).
      1. Mother and six year old sparing on reading and shoping in supermarkets
      2. Mother and 13 month olds together shopping (teaching/learning how to shop?), reading (teaching/learning how to read?)

  5. Imagining children
Some questions in the context of this lesson
  • Is a "family" necessary for the early development of a child?
  • What might a definition of family look like if it started with what is needed for the early development of a child?
  • Besides language, what might be included in the tasks of early development? (Think culture and society, as well as psychology)