Early Childhood Education

Whiting, John W. M. (1908-1999)


John Wesley Mayhew Whiting, a founder of contemporary psychological anthropology, was a major figure in the field of child development. He was born in Chilmark, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard, where he died one month before his 91st birthday. John Whiting was the revered teacher of many anthropologists for more than thirty years and was unique in his level of engagement in both psychology and anthropology. Inspired by the early work of Margaret Mead, and with his wife of sixty years and research collaborator, Beatrice B. Whiting, he built and maintained the comparative study of child rearing and development during the second half of the twentieth century.

John Whiting grew up on a farm on Martha’s Vineyard. He attended Phillips Academy, Andover; and Yale University, graduating in 1931. He then joined the anthropology graduate program at Yale, where he worked with George Peter Murdock, Edward Sapir, and John Dollard. He earned his PhD in 1938, returning to Yale as a postdoctoral fellow in the Yale Institute of Human Relations. He turned his dissertation into a monograph, Becoming a Kwoma (1941), in which he used learning theory as well as functional anthropology to interpret childhood in New Guinea.

After joining the U.S. Navy during World War II, Whiting returned to the research staff at Yale, where he stayed until 1947, leaving to join Robert R. Sears at the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, only to leave two years later with Sears to found the Laboratory of Human Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Whiting became Director of the lab in 1953 and remained on the Harvard faculty until his retirement in 1978.

Whiting’s first major contribution to the field of cross-cultural studies in child development was with Irvin Child, published in 1953 in Child Training and Personality. Subsequently, Whiting organized and supervised field studies of children, adolescents, and parents for the rest of his career. One such study was part of the Harvard Values Study, conducted during the early 1950s with fieldwork in New Mexico. In 1954, together with Irvin Child at Yale and William Lambert at Cornell, Whiting secured funding from the Ford Foundation for a study of socialization in five societies—Mexico, India, Okinawa, the Philippines, and New England. An African community was later added. Beatrice Whiting coordinated the field studies, the data analyses, and the publications on what became known as the Six Cultures Study. This study has been recognized as a classic in early childhood education for its portrayal of cultural variations in child rearing and child development.

The Whitings always took an anthropological perspective on childhood, but their research and their writings were often addressed to developmental psychology and child psychiatry, challenging the ethnocentricism in those fields. Their aim was to provide the empirical evidence, quantitative as well as qualitative, on cultural variations to replace presumptions and prejudices about human nature and its development. These works were also important to anthropology in arguing and illustrating the impact of culture on parenting and childhood experience.

In John Whiting’s view, a central problem in the study of human development was how the child internalizes the values of his cultural environment, and he was particularly concerned with the acquisition of defense mechanisms and with the process of identification through which children acquire gender and other identities. He saw Freudian theory as raising questions that required answers from empirical research in diverse cultures. In his influential studies of male initiation ceremonies, he tried to identify the processes that make the ceremonies psychologically salient for the individuals who undergo them, permitting them to resolve unconscious conflicts created by their early experience. He anticipated the recent emphasis on internalization in the Vygotskian mode in child development and the interest in male and female gender identities in anthropology.

John Whiting was recognized, by himself and with his wife, for his scholarly contributions. He received the American Psychological Association’s G. Stanley Hall Award for Distinguished Contributions to Developmental Psychology (1973), was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1979), and, with Beatrice Whiting, received the Distinguished Contribution Award of the American Anthropological Association (1982). He was the first President of the Society for Psychological Anthropology (in 1978). Whiting continued writing scholarly studies into his late eighties and then wrote an article for a county historical journal about the pond on Martha’s Vineyard that provided the setting for much of his long life. That was his last publication.

John Whiting dreamt of an international organization of researchers on child rearing and development from all over the world gathering data on their own cultures and exchanging data to achieve a basis for generalizing to all humans. This would not only be of value for anthropology in scientific terms; it would also achieve equality among the participants in the data exchange and an end to the dominance of Westerners in the field. Although this project remained unfinished, John Whiting built a place for the comparative study of child rearing and development in the social sciences and inspired students to conduct theoretically motivated and systematic research on human development in diverse cultures. See also Freud, Sigmund; Vygotsky, Lev.

Further Readings: Chasdi, Eleanor Hollenberg. (1994). Culture and human development: The selected papers of John Whiting. New York: Cambridge University Press. LeVine, Robert A. (2000). John Whiting: Obituary. American Anthropologist, 102(1), 3-6. Whiting, John W. M. (1941). Becoming a Kwoma. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Whiting, John W. M., and Irvin L. Child (1953). Child training and personality: A cross-cultural study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Robert A. LeVine