Children are scientists and scientists are children. This is a central operating paradigm of developmental psychology. It has led psychologists to lay claim to special knowledge about language, morality, sociality, creativity, imagination, gender differences, the essential qualities of human nature, and the scientific method. However, the current pervasiveness of the child as scientist metaphor should not obscure either the political work it does or the extent to which it draws on culturally specific visions of the child and scientist—both of which have changed dramatically over time. Therefore, my research question is simple: How did this view emerge and change and what are its consequences?
Ultimately, because it involves children, the metaphor has effectively naturalized certain specific kinds of scientific values and epistemologies. Conversely because the metaphor involves the high status and cultural role of the scientist, it also underwrites certain (contested and politicized) views of children.
Contemporary study of children as scientists grew out of previous efforts within the new field of cognitive psychology to understand adult humans as though they are creative scientists. At the center of this revision was a question of precisely what it meant to be a scientist. One approach to this question was to rely on the work of Thomas Kuhn. From this perspective, conceptual change in childhood is like paradigm changes in the history of science. A second approach has turned on the claim that the cognitive process that distinguishes people from other organisms is the capacity to perform social science—to observe, theorize about, and even experiment on other people. On this view, social engagement is a precondition for the most basic cognitive processes. Therefore, children are scientists only under the condition that both scientific reason and practice are understood as social processes.