While the cultures of children have long been of interest to social theorists until recently studies of these cultures have failed to conceptualize youth as complete and autonomous social actors. Through the mid-1960s research on child development and socialization was dominated by a behavioristic approach. This approach has been criticized on three major points.
First, children were viewed passively. The emphasis was on the internalization of adult roles by means of modeling and reinforcement. Adults controlled the socialization process. This approach may also be characterized as individualistic. Children learned the elements of adult culture separately and apart from peers. Lastly, the behavioristic perspective has largely neglected the cognitive processes and interpretive capacities of children (and indeed of all social actors). The world described by behaviorists is objective, obvious, and requires no interpretation.
This perspective has come under increasing attack for its simplistic notions with respect to the dynamics of interaction and social structure. The recognition of the importance of peer relations is a major step toward a better understanding of socialization and developmental processes. There are, however, flaws which remain in this approach.
The perspective is still largely individualistic in nature. While peers are seen as influencing the development of knowledge and skills, these competencies are still characteristic of individuals and not the peer group. There is an assumed model of the competent adult actor and children are evaluated against this ideal. A recognition of the autonomy of children’s cultures is still lacking.
Children are viewed as incompetent, or flawed adults, attempting to master the skills necessary to function as complete (adult) social actors. The constructionist emphasis on the activities of children has served as a starting point for many theorists wishing to take a more culturally based approach to socialization. These theorists have incorporated the work of symbolic interactionist and more recent theoretical developments, by persons in order to consider the social context of children’s activities.