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Russian Child Science, 1881-1936

Professions, Disciplines, Expertise: Collaboration and Conflict

The research currently carried out by Dr Andy Byford (Durham University) will result in the first comprehensive book-length history of the rise and fall of Russian ‘child science’ between the 1880s and the 1930s, placing it in the wider, international, historical and contemporary context.

Some of the key research questions include: 

  • What happens when experts in different disciplines and professions lay claim to children as objects of research? How well do different experts collaborate in such cases? What are the main conflicts and obstacles that arise in the process? How do experts in different aspects of childhood interact with the wider public, especially parents and carers?
  • How can history help us understand contemporary controversies surrounding the mental testing of children? What has been the historical role of psychiatry in the public management of ‘problem children’? What has historically been the relationship between the medical, legal, psychological and educational professions in areas such as juvenile criminology? How are parents mobilized into the scientific study of child behaviour and development?

The project investigates the institutionalization of this multidisciplinary field in Russia, with particular focus on the problems of collaboration and conflict between different stakeholders – including representatives of different disciplines and professions, state structures, the wider society, and parents – around children as objects of study, knowledge and care. It examines what generates and makes possible highly heterogeneous fields of scientific and professional work, carried out through multiple interactions and collaborations between actors belonging to a range of disciplinary, professional and administrative structures and environments.

In addition to charting the overall socio-cultural and institutional-intellectual history of Russia’s ‘child science’ movement Dr Byford’s research has focused on the following core areas of interest:

  • The enrolment of parents in ‘child science’, with particular focus on how and why parent diaries of early child development proliferated in Russia/USSR between the 1880s and 1930s.
  • The mobilization of teachers into ‘child science’, with particular focus the influence of psychologists on educational theory and teacher professionalization.
  • The controversial rise and fall of mental testing as a key method in ‘child science’, with particular focus on the way it enabled interaction and collaboration between psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, parents and administrators around children.
  • The doctors’ infiltration of the field of education as a major feature of ‘child science’, with particular focus on the institution of the ‘school doctor’, paediatric prophylactic social medicine,  and the influence of psychiatry on special education.
  • Neurological behaviourism as a distinctive, and for a while dominant, strand in Russian/Soviet ‘child science’, with particular focus on the role played in the movement by esoteric scientist language of the theories of reflexes developed by the famous physiologist Ivan Pavlov and neuro-psychiatrist V. M. Bekheterev.
  • The rise of juvenile criminology in the early 20th century, with particular focus on the connections between the institutional management of juvenile delinquency in institutions for young offenders, on the one hand, and the construction of juvenile delinquency as a distinct domain of knowledge and expertise, on the other.