Early Childhood Education

Peer Culture


The concept of “peer culture” has been researched and elaborated over the past two decades by Sociologist William Corsaro and his students, and by colleagues who have been inspired by him. In his original work, Corsaro (1985) immersed himself in a preschool classroom for a contextualized, situated, and extended look at the life world of three- and four-year-olds as they play and interact with each other—on their own terms, for their own purposes, and with their own rhythms. What resulted from this long-term fieldwork was a landmark theoretical contribution, a description of children’s group life as peer culture. Corsaro defines peer culture as “a stable set of activities or routines, artifacts, values or concerns that kids produce and share in interaction with each other” (2003, p. 37). Corsaro takes an interpretive view of culture as public, collective, and performative, in contrast to traditional work that defines culture as internalized, shared values and norms guiding behavior and affecting individual development, which are transmitted across generations. In introducing this interpretive cultural lens to the study of childhood, Corsaro extends and reinterprets the meanings of children’s group life, friendships, and peer involvements, previously the topics of such classic work as Opie and Opie’s (1959) study of the game play of British children and Konner’s (1981) study of infant behavior and juveniles among the Kung San.

Corsaro’s contributions have helped us gain a fuller understanding of the meanings and nature of children’s play, of the social dynamics (which they must negotiate), and of the complex accomplishment of group life. Taking a cross-cultural, comparative perspective in early educational settings in the United States and Italy, Corsaro’s research reveals much about children’s affiliation with each other as a process of social construction and face-to-face negotiation; the production and sharing of local peer cultures in American and Italian contexts; the relationships between children’s peer culture constructions and their conceptions of and reactions to adult rules and constraints; children’s rejection and exclusion of others as they protect fragile “interactive space” and; children’s appropriation of wider popular cultures resources (e.g., myths, folklore, television and movies, literature) into peer culture themes and texts. Taken in total, Corsaro’s contribution has been the construction of a theory of childhood socialization as a process of interpretive reproduction, rather than a process of social transmission.

Building on Corsaro’s peer culture theory, one team of early childhood researchers used a series of linked analyses to examine classroom processes for understanding friendship and peer culture life within the context of becoming a student (summarized in Kantor and Fernie, 2003). Different aspects of these mutually informing analyses were used to demonstrate how the value and meanings of particular artifacts are locally constructed and, thus, become mediators of children’s peer culture play; how affiliation, inclusion, and exclusion are created and managed to serve local peer culture dynamics rather than in reaction to individuals’ personality attributes; how children and teachers position themselves (in relationship to others) in ways that are more complex than simple labels such as “peer,” “leader,” and “teacher” connote; how the learning of literacy is embedded within school and peer cultures; how participation in school events such as circle time and small group develops over time and is situated within the larger and particular school and peer cultures; and how multiple aspects of children’s subject identities are constructed in play, peer interactions, and school events.

Other researchers have explored similar phenomena without necessarily using the term peer culture. For example, Vivian Paley writes of the social worlds of children at play in her many volumes written over the length of her career. In such classics as Superheroes in the Doll Corner (1984) Paley interprets classroom dynamics from children’s perspectives and explores the meanings of their social dynamics. Similarly, Dyson’s links between writing and what she calls the “unofficial world of the classroom” (Dyson, 1997) and Gutierrez and collegues’ (1997) exploration of what they call the “third space” in classroom life evokes images and concerns similar to Corsaro’s peer culture notion.

The growing body of work on children’s peer cultures makes an important contribution to a set of enduring questions explored by scores of child development and early childhood researchers and teachers. What is the value and the various outcomes of children’s play? How does children’s play change over time? What are the long-term benefits of children’s play? What are children’s successful and unsuccessful strategies for interacting with their peers? What contributes to leadership and popularity in socially successful children and conversely, what contributes to peer rejection, isolation, or unpopularity in children who are unsuccessful at such an early age? How do we provide supports and intervention for children who are less successful in social interaction and play? Taken together, these earlier studies have provided us with descriptions of the developmental trajectory (i.e., stages) of children’s play, the relationship between child development and adult endpoints, and a perspective (i.e., sociometrics) on various social statuses and their behavioral characteristics and long-term consequences. This larger and important research tradition has given us important guidance to support children at play.

But research that answers these questions reflects adult perspectives, theories and concerns. To fully understand the nature and meanings of children’s play, we also need to take into account children’s perspectives, a view of the group as well as the individual, and children’s views of the social worlds they create. Sociologist William Corsaro knew this and entered children’s worlds to see what he would find there. See also Peers and Friends.

Further Readings: Corsaro, W. A. (1985). Friendship and peer culture in the early years. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. Corsaro, W. A. (1996). Transitions in early childhood: The promise of comparative, longitudinal, ethnography. In R. Jessor, A. Colby, and R. Shweder, eds., Ethnography and human development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 419457; Corsaro, W. A. (2003). “We’re friends, right?": Inside kids’ culture. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press. Corsaro, W. A. (2004). The sociology of childhood. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press; Dyson, A. H. (1997). Writing superheroes: Contemporary childhood, popular culture, and classroom literacy. New York: Teachers College Press; Gutierrez, K., D. Baquedano-Lopez, P. Turner, and G. Myrna (1997). Putting language back into language arts: When the radical middle meets the third space. Language Arts 74(5), 368378; Kantor, R., and D. Fernie, eds. (2003). Early childhood classroom processes. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press. Konner M. J. (1981). Evolution of human behavior development. In R. H. Munroe, R. L. Munroe, and J. M. Whiting, eds., Handbook of cross-cultural human development. New York: Garland STPM Press, pp. 3-52; Opie, I., and P. Opie (1959).

The lore and language of school children. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Paley, V. G. (1984). Boys and girls: Superheroes in the doll corner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Ramsey, P. (1991). Making friends in school: Promoting peer relationships in early childhood. New York: Teachers College Press. Rizzo, T. (1989). Friendship development among children in school. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Rebecca Kantor and David Fernie