Pineforge Visual Essay

This article begins by identifying a close relationship between the image of children generated by several sociologists working within the new sociology of childhood perspective and the claims and ambitions of the proponents of children's autonomy rights. The image of the child as a competent, self-controlled human agent are then subjected to observation from the perspective of Niklas Luhmann's social systems theory. The new sociology of childhood's constructivist approach is compared and contrasted with Niklas Luhmann's theory of `operational constructivism'. The article applies tenets of Luhmann's theory, to the emergence of the new childhood sociologist's image of the child as a competent, self-controlled social agent, to the epistemological status of this image and, in particular, to claims that it derives from scientific endeavour. The article proceeds to identify two theoretical developments within sociology — sociology of identity and social agency — which have brought about fundamental changes in what may be considered `sociological' and so `scientific' and paved the way for sociological communications about what children `really are'. In conclusion, it argues that the merging of sociology with polemics, ideology, opinion and personal beliefs and, at the level of social systems, between science and politics represents in Luhmann's terms `dedifferentiation' — a tendency he claims may have serious adverse consequences for modern society. This warning is applied to the scientific status of sociology — its claim to be able to produce `facts' for society, upon which social systems, such as politics and law, may rely. Like the mass media, sociology may now be capable of producing only information, and not facts, about children.

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