Cultured Scene: What is Forager Child Studies? What do you hope to achieve?
Forager Child Studies team: Forager Child Studies is an interdisciplinary research collective which aims to investigate the pasts, presents and futures of forager and mixed-subsistence children’s learning.
When we say foragers, we’re talking about societies that were historically classified as hunter-gatherers. Obviously, today, many of these populations now participate in mixed-subsistence strategies for a lot of different reasons, including deforestation, hunting laws, forced settlement, economic incentive, and personal choice. Despite these recent historical changes, many foragers continue to prioritize certain social values, including egalitarianism and respect for personal autonomy.
Our research team studies foragers for two reasons: first, hunting and gathering is the defining subsistence strategy of our species. While extant hunter-gatherers are as modern as the rest of us, aspects of their mobility, demography, and subsistence are similar to the context in which human childhood evolved. Second, the cultural values shared by foragers make the social context for learning quite unique. Egalitarian social structures mean that adults aren’t assumed to know more than children, and valuing autonomy means that children are given extensive freedom. Studying childhood in hunter-gatherers can help us understand how cultural context shapes development, including learning.
While many fields study hunter-gatherer childhoods, they tend to use different vocabulary to describe their findings, and tend to publish in discipline-specific journals. So, our research team came together to improve our understanding of hunter-gatherer childhoods by bridging the gap across these disciplines. We do so by producing literature reviews and secondary data analyses which summarize the current state of the field, and identify knowledge gaps which researchers can then pursue. Our hope is that these reviews are used to develop a common language when discussing hunter-gatherer childhoods while providing a background for other researchers who do not study hunter-gatherers, but may have an interest in understanding childhood in these societies. In the future, we hope to broaden our scope by organizing regular conferences and meet-ups for like-minded researchers.
CS: Who is involved?
FCS: Our research team is diverse, and includes cultural anthropologists, psychologists, archeologists, and mathematicians. Each team member carries out their own research program which either primarily focuses on hunter-gatherers, or contrasts hunter-gatherer childhoods with childhoods in other societies.
Our core team meets regularly to set our research agenda, and conduct reviews. In addition, Affiliates of FCS are researchers who focus on issues related to our mission statement. Affiliates contribute blog posts, help curate content, and propose relevant reviews that the team helps operationalize. If you’d like to be an affiliate, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
CS: What would you say has been your biggest success so far – and what are you working on at the moment?
FCS: Our biggest success so far has been connecting with a growing number of researchers who are taking an interest in hunter-gatherer childhoods. They’ve read our first two reviews (published in 2017 and 2018), and reach out to us online or at conferences to tell us that they are using them in their classrooms, and as a framework for setting their research agendas. For us, there is no greater success than building community around this research topic.
I think a better question might be: what aren’t we working on!
A paper led by Rachel Reckin, currently under review, examines the role children play in culture change. The paper argues that the transition from egalitarian to non-egalitarian social systems may start with changes in children’s play and chore assignment.
We’re also in the final writing stages of a secondary data analysis which examines cross-cultural variation in children’s time budgets. This paper, led by Sheina Lew-Levy, suggests that sexual division of labour, alongside age and sex, explains some of the observed variation in children’s work and play.
Noa Lavi is spear-heading a theoretical piece on the role of children in the production of tool innovations in the past and present.
Annemieke Milks is writing up the results of a review which examines archeological evidence for hunter-gatherer children in the past.
Finally, we’re ramping up our social media and public outreach programs. Dorsa Amir’s incredible TEDx talk on hunter-gatherer children does a fantastic job of sharing her research on Shuar mixed-subsistence children with the world, and we would like FCS to be doing more of that.
CS: What were the challenges in founding a group like this, as early-career researchers?
FCS: Like any research project, our biggest challenges are time, space, and money.
All of our researchers maintain competitive and active research programs independently of their participation in FCS. For folks in our field, this often includes fieldwork to remote places, where it’s sometimes impossible to connect over email or on the phone. So, we’ve become really good at being honest about realistic deadlines and priorities, and lead authors are rotated so that everyone shares the load.
Even when not on fieldwork, our researchers are spread across the globe. We try to meet up at conferences, and have had some wicked power writing sessions in hotel bars! But FCS does need a home—so if you’re a university or research centre that thinks we are a good fit, let us know!
Finally, FCS has been operating without any funding, though we’re planning for this to change in the next year or two. If you’re a funder (or a millionaire) who’d like to support our work, please do get in touch!
CS: What were / are the benefits of founding a group like FCS?
FCS: It’s incredibly inspiring and motivating to be doing meaningful work with a group of like-minded folk. We are all in early career positions, and we all tend to be working in departments where forager children are not the primary focus of research, so our time together is an incredible opportunity to think out loud about issues we may be having with our data, or to think through new research questions.
Interdisciplinary research more generally has a lot of benefits, many of which we have experienced in our group. For example, our research questions get collaboratively shaped which maximises time and money spent in the field, and each researcher brings a wealth of specialist knowledge to research design and publications. It also helps push back against hyper-specialisation in the sciences and humanities, and opens up opportunities to communicate findings to a more diverse array of public and academic audiences.
CS: What would your advice be to any early-career researchers considering doing something similar within their own field?
FCS: Work with people you trust, and whose personal and research ethic matches yours. Part of the reason FCS works so well is because many of us have become friends through this process. Working on these reviews isn’t only an opportunity to advance research and get published, but also an excuse to connect and support each other.
CS: How can readers get involved with FCS?
We regularly attend a variety of conferences, including
The American Anthropological Association annual meeting
The Society for Research on Child Development biennial meeting and topic meetings
The Society for Cross-Cultural Research annual meeting
The Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies triennial meeting
And, if you’d like us to come to you, invite us to come speak in your department!
Cultured Scene thanks the members of FCS (listed below) who contributed to this interview.
Sheina Lew-Levy holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Cambridge. Sheina is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the department of psychology at Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on social learning and play among BaYaka and Hadza forager children.
Dorsa Amir is an evolutionary anthropologist interested in how differing cultural and ecological environments shape the developing mind. She received her PhD from Yale University in 2018. She is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Boston College Department of Psychology. Her primary fieldwork is with the forager-horticulturalist Shuar of eastern Ecuador.
Noa Lavi holds a PhD in social Anthropology from the University of Haifa. She works with Nayaka people in South India, studying local perceptions and experience of development intervention. She currently studies senses of childhood, learning and knowledge in the context of changing social and physical environments, assimilation pressure and school education.
Annemieke Milks is a Palaeolithic archaeologist, and recently gained her doctorate at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. She specialises in early hunting weaponry and experimental archaeology. She is also interested in the use of wood for tools, how humans learn technological skills, in human violence and altruism, and in the origins of music.