Dr. Tobias Hecht will undertake the first, exploratory stage of an ethnographic study of the lifeworlds of infants, comparing those born to middle-class families, on the one hand, with those born into poverty, on the other. Ultimately, the project aims to examine how social and economic inequality is initially manifest and experienced: how, in other words, people first come to lead unequal lives. The fieldwork will be carried out in Florianópolis, Brazil, a city where many enjoy a first-world standard of living but where others endure extreme poverty.

Despite the existence of a vast literature on inequality, including inequality in Brazil, that body of writings almost wholly ignores the lives of infants. Most data on inequality still derive from income surveys that do not assess how income is used and distributed within the household, much less how it affects babies. Infants are surely the most underrepresented segment in society and the least studied human subjects outside of the field of developmental psychology. Though prescriptive writings on caring for babies abound, remarkably little is known about their everyday lives. This project concerns not what should be done with infants nor specifically how they develop but rather how infants are from birth enmeshed in the larger social and economic problems of inequality.

One of the goals of the project is to develop new research methods for the fledgling field of infant-centered ethnographic research. The researcher will focus on the children's everyday lives -- where they sleep, what they do when awake, what they are fed, how they are dressed, spoken to and played with, the social and material culture that surrounds them, how their medical needs are attended to.

This research is important because it has the potential to transform social scientific understanding of what inequality means and how it is experienced in everyday lives from their very beginning. Economists measure inequality above all in terms of household income. Sociologists have studied inequality in its class, racial and sexual dimensions. Here the objective is to suggest a new way of understanding inequality, one that takes into account the least studied group, the ones that cannot possibly be held accountable for their social and economic condition.

Project Report

This project consisted in a comparative ethnographic study of the lifeworlds of Brazilian infants–those born to middle-class families, on the one hand, and those born into poverty, on the other. The aim of the larger project, which used experimental research methods, was to explore how social and economic inequality is initially manifest and experienced: how, in other words, Brazilians first come to live unequal lives. The more specific objectives of the fieldwork were twofold. First it aimed to examine differences in the experiences of infants from poor and middle-class families—in terms of how they were fed, held, played with, what and whom the infants saw and did during the course of the day, how they spent their days, where and when they slept, how they fell asleep and more. The second aim was to experiment with ethnographic methods for studying infants. How does one study people who do not speak, whose agency is extremely limited? How might one go about studying communication among babies? What does the observation of infants in their daily life reveal that the observation of babies in controlled settings may not? This project began with a period of ten weeks of ethnographic research with infants in the city of Florianópolis, Brazil. The babies ranged in age from four weeks to two years and hailed from either poor or middle-class families. Infants were also observed and interacted with in public and private crèches and in public spaces such as parks and streets and in their homes. Interviews were conducted with parents and crèche workers. Useful links were forged with local researchers and at local institutions. Collaborating researchers did participant-observation research with families. Experimentation with different research methods was undertaken. A major bibliography of relevant research on infants from the field of anthropology and history was collected. The PI taught a course that emerged directly from this research: Infants and Children in an Unequal World, at Harvey Mudd College. Conference presentations were given and two articles were published through Oxford Bibliographies. A follow-up proposal was submitted tothe National Endowment for the Humanities. As expected, poor children were found to live in much smaller spaces and were more exposed to noise and to the elements. They had simpler "infrastructures," when it came to toys, cribs and other baby equipment. But a number of factors lessened the expected differences between those infants from poor homes and those from wealthier homes. The public healthcare system in the city of Florianópolis is used by the poor and middle class alike, community health agents visit the homes of all infants, violent crime levels are low and do not affect the poor disproportionately; the water is potable, and public crèches, though oversubscribed, take babies from the age of four months for free. While in hindsight a more socioeconomically divided city would have surely evidenced more pronounced differences in the experiences of infants, the experimentation with methods was relevant to any context. What is more, the project identified elements that lessen the differences between the experiences of rich and poor infants, namely access to the same public schools, health centers and to potable water and living amid low levels of urban violence and in a city with almost full employment.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Deborah Winslow
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Hecht Tobias
United States
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