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Russian Child Science, 1881-1936

Child Science: An Overview


At the beginning of the 20th Century, in most developed countries experiencing rapid modernization, ‘child science’ emerged as a loosely organized scientific and professional movement. ‘Child science’ brought together different professions and disciplines, especially those in education, health, psychology and criminology. All these groups claimed some aspect of child development and socialization as a territory of specialist investigation and expertise.

‘Child science’ fostered the establishment of a whole host of at that time new disciplines, including: developmental and educational psychology, education research, child psychiatry, developmental physiology and neuroscience, special education, juvenile criminology, and the sociology and anthropology of childhood.

The appearance of the 'child science' movement was closely linked to the rise of the modern welfare state. The early 20th century was the era of mass warfare, mass migrations and mass industrialization that led to seismic social shifts, prompting advanced states to see their rapidly transforming populations as requiring large-scale rational management. In this context, the child population was perceived as not only especially vulnerable, but also as the most obvious embodiment of the future. Science, in the broad sense of systematic rational enquiry, was widely deferred to as the principal means of reliably and effectively shaping that future.

As a subject of public discourse, ‘children’ came to be discussed in a way not unlike ‘the environment’ is today – in terms of the values invested in them and anxieties surrounding them – in the context of unprecedented upheavals, risks and uncertainties associated with ‘modern times’. Yet the child population was seen not only as requiring care and protection; it also, crucially, invited cultivation and positive transformation. ‘Child science’ was thus embroiled in a mixed rhetoric that juxtaposed appeals to wellbeing and welfare, civilization and progress, meritocracy and democracy with efforts to create an efficient and competitive labour and military force through forms of social engineering.