The Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past Conference on familial relationships

The Family in Past Perspective: an Interdisciplinary Exploration of Familial Relationships Through Time

Tuesday 20th to Thursday 22nd September 2016 – St. Chad’s College, Durham University

Report by Conference Organisers: Rebecca Gowland and Ellen Kendall

The 9th annual SSCIP Conference took place at St. Chad’s College, Durham University from the 20th – 22nd of September. The meeting endeavoured to integrate interdisciplinary perspectives into an examination of family dynamics in past societies, attracting a total of 40 delegates from a range of Universities across the world (including Europe, North America and New Zealand). Disciplines represented at the conference included psychology, sociology, and anthropology, to researchers in history, archaeology, art history, and bioarchaeology. Four sessions were held over the three days covering a variety of familial themes.


Our conference opened with the session, “Relative Needs: The Provision of Care and Resources within Families,” which was introduced by our first keynote speaker, Professor Helen Ball (Durham University). Her stimulating talk addressed the interaction between culturally-derived parental belief, postnatal wellbeing, and infant sleep biology. The broad range of papers in this session addressed the cultural and socioeconomic mediation of infant health and care (Sophie Newman), the importance of constructing a theoretical framework inclusive of foetal individuals (Sian Halcrow), examination of maternal and perinatal health in medieval and postmedieval London (Claire Hodson), and alloparental care within the ancient Athenian Oikos (Maria Sommer). Further papers were presented on disruption of the mother-infant nexus at the Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt (Sandra Wheeler), Roman appeals to the divine for reproductive success (Maureen Carroll), and the problems of interpreting past infant care based on negatively-slanted etic commentary (Ellen Kendall).

img_3438Professor Helen Ball giving her keynote on infant sleep.

The second day of the conference was opened by our second session, “Between the Ideal and the Real: Image, Ideology, and the Past Family”. Our keynote speaker for this session was Professor Jane Humphries (University of Oxford), who provided a fascinating discussion of the lives of women and girls during the Industrial Revolution, arguing for a need to recognise their experiences as distinct from male counterparts and their dominant parental role in the perspective of their offspring. Topics of papers in this session were diverse, including evidence for children’s participation in the construction of late Pleistocene art (April Nowell), a challenge to our perceptions of elder care and social status in past society (Rebecca Gowland), an analysis of changes in conceptualisations of children and families reflected in 18th century art (Suzanne Conway), the role of adult nostalgia in provision and consumption of children’s toys (Jane Eva Baxter), and investigation of enigmatic motives in the caching of toys and other items by children within a 17th-19th century domestic setting (Sally Crawford).

img_3452Conference co-organiser, Ellen Kendall, introducing Professor Jane Humphries’ keynote on women and girls in the era of industrialization.

The latter half of our second day resumed with our third session, “Ties that Bind: Defining the Family”, introduced by our keynote speaker Professor Janice McLaughlin* (Newcastle University) who spoke on the perception of “bad blood” and the impacts of disability for the weakening or reaffirmation of kinship ties. Ann Nehlin also spoke about disruption of ties for Finnish families during World War Two based on national interests. The last paper of this session was given by John Burton, who explored the construction of family within enslaved communities in early 19th century San Salvador, Bahamas. Following our completion of the third session and our AGM, our conference dinner was held in the evening and provided a welcome opportunity to continue discussions. The night concluded with a challenging quiz on families and a (loosely defined!) three-way tie, well done to all teams!

Our fourth session took place on the final day and was entitled “Separate Spheres? Para-Familial Engagement in the Wider World”. The session opened with a stimulating keynote talk by Dr Mary Lewis (University of Reading), who explored the para-familial relationships formed by medieval adolescent apprentices within the families they served, and also between apprentices themselves, demonstrating a “youth culture” of the time. This talk exemplified the successful integration of bioarchaeological and historical evidence for examining past life courses. Other excellent papers in this session discussed the extension of “private” family disputes into the public sphere and the concept of “quietness” (Dominic Birch), the link between children’s material culture in California mission settings and contemporary English schools (Carenza Lewis), the biogeochemistry of children’s care in leprosaria (Kori Filipek), challenges to interpretation of rural/urban differences in the health of poor children employed as apprentices during the 19th century (Rebecca Gowland), and evidence for the mixed nature of guardianship at the Ripon Workhouse (Sue Dennison, Christine Price, and Carrie Philip).

img_3460Associate Professor Mary Lewis giving her keynote on adolescent apprentices.

The papers presented at the meeting provoked thought and lively discussion throughout, and it is hoped that the highly interdisciplinary nature of participants and papers will spur shifts in perspective and new collaborations and avenues of research in future. A thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating time was had by all!


*Apologies to Professor Janice McLaughlin for missing a photo of her keynote due to a flat camera battery!