Constructing Moral Babies: The Science of Infancy in Nineteenth-Century America and Britain

Year of award: 2023


  • Dr Elisabeth Yang

    University of Leeds

Project summary

When, how, and why did babies come to be seen as moral agents? Constructing Moral Babies investigates this phenomenon among so-called 'experts' of babyhood: pedagogues, theologians, physicians, scientists, and childrearing matrons of the nineteenth century. The moral life of babies - their interior lives - has increasingly intrigued modern society, evident in the emergence of so-called 'baby labs' in universities and greater awareness of infants' mental health worldwide. Babies are frequently framed as active agents who learn to manage their emotions in conjunction with their main carers. However, we know little about the origins, and therefore significance, of these trends. Drawing on history and philosophy of science and medicine, feminist theology, sociology, childhood studies, and material culture, this study will develop the first comprehensive history of infants that generates new historical and philosophical narratives of infancy. Infancy itself remains neglected, despite influential scholarship examining other life stages: childbirth, childhood, teenagehood, and older age. This project places infants at the center of analysis, rather than as dependents. By interrogating archives, published texts, and objects associated with the 'science' of infancy the project will fundamentally shift our understanding of infants and consequently, our treatment of them in both public and private spaces.