Roman [Abstract]

Cross-cultural analysis of the use of corporal punishment in hunter-gatherer versus agrarian societies
[Full text]

George-Valentin Roman [1]

Abstract: There are numerous reports on the subjecting of children to various forms of violence as adisciplinary method throughout history, from ancient to modern times. Punishing children using physical violence, as a method of acquiring compliance with various social norms dictated by adults, has been continuously practiced during recorded humanity. The current international standards on children’s rights that require protection against violence have emerged in the past few decades as a societal response to the quasi-universal use of corporal punishment in modern societies. By contrast, in their empirical fieldwork done since the XIXth century in many hunter-gatherer societies, the ethnographers have found that most of these societies are characterized by the absence or the exceptional use of corporal punishment against children.

In this regard, one area of interest consists in the significant differences in child discipline between hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies. Therefore, this analysis aims to explore variations in parental attitudes towards child-rearing in these two types of small-scale societies, integrating a historical perspective and taking into account variables such as indulgence towards children’s behaviour, responsiveness to children’s needs, affection towards children, children’s autonomy, father involvement and their correlations with the absence or presence of corporal punishment. For ethnographic information, I used Yale University’s eHRAF database, from which 601 ethnographic texts on 139 small-scale societies (85 hunter-gatherer societies and 54 agrarian societies) were extracted, coded, and analysed. Interpretation of the data indicates that hunter-gatherer societies have positive, non-punitive and more responsive parenting approaches to children’s needs, lacking physical punishment, while agrarian societies have scores indicating the presence of violent methods of discipline and parenting practices focused on submission and punishment. All five parental attitudes included in the analysis scored higher in egalitarian societies than in agrarian ones. The most pronounced disparity between the two types of cultures is related to the indulgent nature of parental care. In addition, attitudes of emotional neglect and reduced expression of affection towards children and limited father involvement in child rearing correlate very strongly with the choice of physical punishments for child discipline.

The findings of this analysis highlight the importance of considering the historical and cultural context of parent-child interactions and cultural determinants in choosing positive parenting methods and provide a historical-anthropological perspective for promoting the normative prohibition of all forms of violence against children.

Keywords: Small-scale societies; Hunter-gatherer; Agrarian societies; Cross-cultural; Children; Corporal punishment; Parenting attitudes; Child-rearing;

[1] Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest, Romania,,