The sociology of childhood is a sub-field of sociology that developed in the late 20th century. It seeks to define the nature of childhood and its relationship to society of as a whole. Relationships involving children, children's rights, and biological and cultural aspects of childhood are all subjects of research within the sociology of childhood.
Sociologists differ in the types of relationships that they study when researching children. Some researchers concentrate on the interactions between children and adults, making sociology of childhood largely a subset of sociology of family. Others focus on children's relationships with one another and the ways in which those relationships form their own subcultures.
Some models of the sociology of childhood describe childhood as a purely social construction, rather than a universal phenomenon or biological necessity. Researchers defending or working from this model may contrast the discourses surrounding childhood in differing societies. Their results often challenge the Western notion of childhood as a happy, sheltered period of development.
Prior to the 1980s, childhood had been viewed primarily through the lenses of socialization and developmental psychology. In developmental psychology, children are seen largely as passive beings who develop along a more or less biologically determined pathway. Socialization theories view children as passive receptors of culture who are not yet fully socialized.
Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, sociologists began developing alternative theories of childhood that described children as actively participating in their own development. This ability to make choices is known as agency in the broader field of sociology. Children's agency is the subject of much debate in the contemporary sociology of childhood research.
Differing conceptions of children's rights may arise from these and other contrasting opinions about the nature of childhood. The notion that childhood is a construct rather than a necessary fact, according to some researchers, denies that children ought to be given a protected status in society. These sociologists are likely to view children as a minority group who do not have the power or ability to control most aspects of their quality of life and, therefore, ought to be given special protection.