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Children's bodies in practice: an ethnography on the processing of development norms in routine paediatric check-ups (U1 to U9) and school entry check-ups.

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG)

Project Management:

Prof. Dr. Helga Kelle

Project Duration:
1. Funding Phase: 02/2006 until 02/2008
2. Funding Phase: 02/2008 until 04/2010

Project Staff Members:
Dr. Sabine Bollig
Dr. Marion Ott
Dipl. Päd. Julia Jancsó
Dipl. Päd. Anna Schweda
Daniel Kettler
Corinna Zahrt-Omar

Associated Members:
Dr. Rhea Seehaus
Dr. Anja Tervooren


Project Description:
Recent years have seen major shifts in how children develop: increasingly more children seem to no longer develop in a 'normal' way by themselves. Statistics on child health show that approximately every fifth child in Germany is regarded as developmentally challenged. At the same time, ideas on normal development are becoming increasingly individualized and differentiated so that the diversity of individual developmental courses is acquiring greater significance. These processes can be described as a transition in the discursive and practical constitution of childhood. On the one hand, the diagnosis of increasing developmental disabilities can be related to discourse-analytical work in childhood studies and medical sociology that shows how childhood is increasingly viewed from a pathological and medical perspective. On the other hand, the increased use of development-diagnostic instruments and the current support for early intervention concepts point to the increasing encroachment of formal education into early childhood.

Against this background, the research project is examining the social construction of 'normal' and 'dysfunctional' development from a cultural-analytical perspective and is reconstructing normality in the context of its emergence. In the context of this study, the bodies of children are not regarded as biological entities, but rather as networks of heterogeneous materials and resources that develop and are normalized in social processes.

The project describes and analyses the practical conduct of the partially standardized paediatric check-ups (U3-U9) and medical school entry health examinations. The analyses focus on how practices of differentiation relating to the 'normal development' of children take place during the interactions between those involved (doctors, medical assistants, parents, and children).

The research project is based on the assumption that the hybridization of participants' perspectives in situ determines how norms – not at least transported by standardized instruments and procedures - develop practical significance for particular cases. This hybridization also determines what kind of demand for action is triggered by the check-up findings. The aim of the project is to examine how norms of child development are negotiated in practice and how responsibilities for the child's development are distributed between the medical, therapeutic, and pedagogical professions and the parents. The research project addresses the following aspects: the ethnography of child testing, the construction of children at risk, and the interference of educational and medical knowledge systems in paediatric and school doctor check-ups.

The research methods for this project include participant observation, ethnographical interviews, expert interviews, and analyses of documents/instruments. By taking this social-scientific/ethnographic perspective, the study is located at the interface between childhood studies, educational studies on professions and institutions, gender studies, medical and health sociology.

International research on paediatric medical check-up systems
Alongside the DFG project, Dr. Rhea Seehaus carried out an international comparison of forms of paediatric medical check-ups and school entry check-ups. The focus of this research is on the respective legal regulations in several European countries as well as the public debates and the inclusion of paediatric check-ups in the context of 'public health services'. It is analysing the various diagnostic programs, documents, and instruments together with their interplay in detail and comparative perspective. The aim is to deliver an international comparison of different preschool prevention cultures.


Publications related to the project context

Information brochure on the first research phase