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Children's Moral Lives: An Ethnographic and Psychological Approach

ISBN: 978-1-119-97421-5
250 pages
August 2013, Wiley-Blackwell


Children’s Moral Lives makes use of case studies, observation, interviews and questionnaires to offer a fascinating, behind-the-scenes view of children’s school lives and the complex moral issues and disputes they routinely negotiate

  • The first ethnography of childhood to focus on children’s morality in the peer group
  • Case studies shed light on the psychological, social and cultural processes by which children and adults reach starkly different moral judgments of the same situations
  • Combines qualitative insights and quantitative data into recommendations for practice
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

1 Introduction: Children’s Moral Experiences at School 1

1.1 Adults’ Interest in Children’s Morality: From Indifference to Intervention 1

1.2 Understanding Moral Development in Culture 5

1.2.1 Theoretical approaches 5

1.2.2 The need for ethnography 9

1.2.3 But what is morality? 11

1.3 The School 13

1.3.1 Socioeconomic and ethnic composition 14

1.3.2 Values and discipline 16

1.4 The Research 18

1.4.1 Methodology 18

1.4.2 The researcher 20

1.5 Structure of the Book 21

2 What Counts as Harm?: Playful Aggression and Toughness 25

2.1 The Prevalence of Playful Aggression 25

2.2 Playful Aggression in Children’s Friendships 26

2.3 Finding the Line Between Play and Harm 28

2.4 Drawing the Line Differently: Contrasting Interpretations of Playful Aggression 31

2.4.1 Being sensitive 31

2.4.2 Girls and boys 33

2.4.3 Adults and children on playful racism 38

2.5 Crossing the Line 39

2.5.1 Demonstrating toughness 39

2.5.2 Using harm to demonstrate toughness 41

2.5.3 Toughness, playful aggression and social class 43

2.6 Implications for Schools 44

3 Physical Aggression: Prioritising Harm Avoidance, Reciprocity or Dominance? 47

3.1 School Rules: No Hitting 47

3.2 The Morality of Fairness, Reciprocity and Retaliation 49

3.2.1 Reciprocity versus harm avoidance at Woodwell Green 51

3.2.2 ‘She has to get her own back’: Zak and Faizel on reciprocity 53

3.2.3 Fairness in aggressive boys’ lives 58

3.3 Hierarchy, Respect and Physical Aggression 63

3.3.1 Masculinity and violence 64

3.3.2 ‘Mr Gardner said don’t hit, tell a teacher, but it never worked’: Paul negotiating hierarchy at Woodwell Green 68

3.4 Implications for Schools 70

4 ‘Whose Game Is It?’: Understanding Exclusion 75

4.1 School Rules: All Play Together 75

4.1.1 Children’s views of exclusion 78

4.1.2 Understanding exclusion on the playground 79

4.2 Exclusion and Power 80

4.2.1 ‘Whose ball is it?’ Exclusion from boys’ football games 80

4.2.2 Dominance struggles: ‘Holly tries to take over from me as leader of the gang’ 85

4.3 Exclusion for Game Maintenance and Success 92

4.4 Exclusion Without an Excluder 95

4.4.1 Three’s a crowd 97

4.4.2 Ethnic identity and friendship 99

4.4.3 Distorted perceptions 102

4.5 Exclusion as Reciprocity 104

4.6 Implications for Schools 105

4.6.1 Mismatches between classroom representations and playground reality 105

4.6.2 Power, status and accountability 108

5 Loyalty in Girls’ Friendships 112

5.1 Possessiveness, Loyalty and Independence 112

5.2 Loyalty in Best Friendship 114

5.2.1 Maria: ‘I let her play with other people but why can’t I play too?’ 115

5.2.2 Navneet: ‘She’s running off with Sarina’ 118

5.2.3 Zena: Prioritising independence and popularity 121

5.2.4 Erickah: Loyalty and loneliness 123

5.2.5 Multiple values: Reconciling loyalty with freedom and status 125

5.3 Loyalty through Sharing Enemies 127

5.3.1 ‘She’ll say if you talk with Anjali I won’t be your friend’: Taking sides 127

5.3.2 ‘Sarina wanted to talk to me but Anjali kept saying no’: Submission and possession 130

5.3.3 Toxic loyalty: Friendship through sharing enemies 134

5.4 What About Boys’ Loyalty? 136

5.5 Implications for Schools 138

5.5.1 Loyalty as availability 140

5.5.2 Loyalty as sharing enemies 141

6 Racism: A Special Type of Harm? 144

6.1 Prioritising Prejudices: Racism versus Homophobia 144

6.1.1 ‘There is simply no room for racism at Woodwell Green’ 144

6.1.2 Homophobia: The silent harm 146

6.2 Defining Racism 150

6.2.1 Race, religion or language? 150

6.2.2 Name-calling or discrimination? 154

6.2.3 ‘I’m not racist but’: English parents and ethnic identity 158

6.3 Implications for Schools 162

6.3.1 Racism versus homophobia 162

6.3.2 Controversies in defining racism 163

7 Guilty or Not Guilty: Interactive Struggles for Meaning 166

7.1 Children’s Willingness to Tell Tales 166

7.1.1 Telling tales for fun 168

7.1.2 Teachers’ responses to tales 169

7.2 Children Constructing Accountability 170

7.2.1 ‘It was by accident’: The role of intention in allocating blame 170

7.2.2 ‘He started it’: Provocation and reciprocity 178

7.3 High Court Judges: Teachers ‘Sorting it Out’ 185

7.3.1 Deception 185

7.3.2 ‘Getting to the bottom of it’: Teachers’ quest for truth 188

7.3.3 Witnesses 191

7.3.4 Trustworthiness: Truth-seeking or taking sides? 193

7.3.5 Resolving disputes 195

7.4 Implications for Schools 201

7.4.1 Constructing responsibility 201

7.4.2 Intervening effectively 203

8 Children’s Moral Lives in Cultural Context 208

8.1 Understanding Children’s Interpretations and Priorities 209

8.1.1 Interpretations 209

8.1.2 Priorities 211

8.2 Constructing Responsibility: The Importance of Power and Narrative 217

8.2.1 Intention and provocation 218

8.2.2 Children’s narratives to adults 219

8.2.3 Dominance and subordination 220

8.3 Children’s Moral Lives: Complex, Constrained, Cultural and Unique 222

References 225

Appendix 233

Index 237

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Author Information

Dr. Ruth Woods is currently a Research Fellow in a multidisciplinary team at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and an Associate of Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. A psychologist by training, Ruth completed her PhD among anthropologists, learning to apply ethnographic methods to psychological questions. Ever since, she has combined quantitative and qualitative methods and analyses in innovative ways to improve our understanding of how children conceive and experience morality, aggression, friendship, and ethnic identity. She has published on these topics in a series of journal articles.

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“Far from being destined to specialists only, this rich and pleasant book is a tactful analysis of crucial social issues faced by pupils in school that mirror issues at play in the wider society around them. It will provide great interest for psychologists, anthropologists, educators, social workers as well as to anyone interested in schooling, children, youth and in the power dynamics operating in urban multicultural communities.”  (Anthropological Notebooks, 1 October 2014)


Children’s Moral Lives deserves to become a classic. Gorgeously written and theoretically up-to-date, Ruth Woods’ gift to us is this up close account of the actual moral conflicts faced by children in a multicultural West London primary school. She helps us understand how moral communities are grounded in multiple and often conflicting values, including concerns for loyalty and respect for status as well as protection from harm. Start your readings on moral development with Jean Piaget but then be sure to read Ruth Woods.—Richard A Shweder, Department of Comparative Human Development, University of Chicago

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