View sample Anthropology of Youth Culture Research Paper. Browse other research paper examples and check the list of research paper topics for more inspiration. If you need a religion research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Feel free to contact our custom writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.
The study of youth has often hovered on the relative margins of more central anthropological preoccupations even as it has been inspired by work in such disciplines as sociology and cultural studies. During the late 1980s and over the course of the 1990s, research on this subject, both within anthropology and cognate disciplines, was catalyzed by a growing interest in popular culture and globalization, ﬁelds in which youths have often played pivotal roles. In the process of this reanimation, the study of youth within anthropology has moved away from a concern with adolescence as a life course stage to an interest in youths as cultural producers and consumers.
1. Deﬁning Youth
The range of persons anthropologists include in the category of youths has often varied depending on the cultural context in which this position is being deﬁned and on what question the researcher is asking in respect to this ﬁeld. In a rare early example of a systematic ethnographic focus on youths, during the 1920s Margaret Mead conducted research centering on a group of girls, ranging in age between 10 and 20 years, who were residing in three villages on the Samoan island of Tau (Mead 1928 1968). In carrying out this research, Mead was concerned to answer the question of what ‘coming of age’ meant in Samoa and how this differed from the experience of growing up in the USA. She claimed that unlike the emphasis on storm and stress which then (and has since) dominated American characterizations of adolescence, growing up in Samoa was a simple, easy matter, a process which involved no special conﬂicts or dramatic transitions. Beyond the obvious signs of physical maturation, she suggested that there were few differences between Samoan girls still approaching puberty, those who were just passing through this transition, and those already several years beyond it. Given this emphasis, it is hardly surprising that Mead was not concerned with deﬁning the boundaries of adolescence too precisely or distinguishing it sharply from either childhood or young adulthood.
In contrast, Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry’s (1991) much later survey of adolescence in ethnographic accounts of 186 nonindustrial societies was more expressly directed at delimiting this stage cross-culturally. Schlegel and Barry argued that while the social duration of adolescence varied cross-culturally and between genders, it was universally recognized as a social stage of the life cycle and tended to fall between the ages of 11 and 17 or so. When social adulthood was delayed far beyond puberty, a further stage intervened between adolescence and adulthood, a stage which Schlegel and Barry called ‘youth.’ While adolescence was universal, the stage of youth was only recognized in a minority of societies.
However, this distinction between adolescence and youth as two distinct social stages is not otherwise common in the anthropological literature on youth culture. In part this reﬂects an ambiguity in the boundaries assigned to adolescence which is especially common in the Western industrialized settings which have often been the locales for youth culture research but in part this also reﬂects a set of particular analytical priorities. For example, a cross-cultural collection of articles on youth cultures edited by Vered Amit-Talai and Helena Wulff (1995) included groups ranging in age between 10 and 30 years with considerable variation in the scope of autonomy and social responsibilities represented among them. However, this collection, unlike Schlegel and Barry’s or Margaret Mead’s studies, was not directed at deﬁning youth (or adolescence) as a stage of human development. Rather it was concerned with the ways in which young people creatively engage with, are affected by, and in turn help to shape the statuses, images, products, styles, and orientations identiﬁed, sometimes very broadly, with youth. In short, it was concerned with the experiences and attributions of youth rather than when and how youths become adults. As such it reﬂects a reorientation of the study of youth which has been as much inspired by inﬂuences outside anthropology as within it.
2. The Cross-Disciplinary Antecedents Of Youth Culture Studies
While Margaret Mead was very successful as a popularizer of anthropology, she was not equally successful in provoking fellow anthropologists to continue her focus on adolescents. For many years following Mead’s work in Samoa, youths largely remained marginal ﬁgures in the anthropological record. Concerted interest in this ﬁeld was much more evident in other social science disciplines than it was in anthropology. During the 1930s, a little over a decade after Mead’s initial research in Samoa, the sociologist William Foote Whtye began participant observation ﬁeldwork in the North End of Boston. Whyte’s (1943 1981) classic ethnographic study of the organization of peer relations among second generation young Italian men in a ‘slum area’ exerted a seminal inﬂuence primarily on the development of US urban studies. Yet it was and remains one of the most thorough and sympathetic portraits of youth street life ever produced, effectively countering the notion of social disorganization which had dominated the US sociological literature on inner cities until that point. Not long after Whyte’s study was published, the concept of youth culture appears to have been introduced by another American sociologist, Talcott Parsons (1942 1964) and was later taken up more systematically by James Coleman (1961) to denote the circumscription of American youth peer interaction. It was, however, the work of British cultural theorists during the 1970s and early 1980s which did most to develop youth culture as a central ﬁeld of research on class, subculture, and consumption.
During this period, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham, sometimes referred to as the ‘Birmingham School,’ launched an ambitious collaborative study of British youth subcultures (Hall and Jefferson 1976). For the CCCS scholars, youth appeared to offer a special vantage point from which to consider the more general dislocation and fragmentation of the British working class as the structure of Britain’s system of production, labor force, income distribution, and lifestyles was transformed over the course of the post-World War II period. The emergence of a variety of highly stylized British youth subcultures (punks, mods, skinheads, etc.) appeared to crystallize the growing importance of mass culture, consumption, and leisure practices as bases for increasingly fragmented working class identities. The gaze of the CCCS was self-consciously selective, focusing on young British nonconforming white working class males. The larger population of ‘ordinary’ working class youth who accommodated to rather than visibly resisted institutional controls, middle class youth, and girls, with some notable exceptions, were not accorded similar attention, gaps which were well noted by later critics. The members of the ‘Birmingham School’ were also criticized for reading ideological undertones of class resistance and consciousness into what sometimes appeared to be fairly trivial instances of adolescent rebellion. In spite of an emphasis on case studies, the CCCS published work was notably slim in empirical ﬁndings. Here again, there was a notable exception in Paul Willis’ (1977 1981) ethnography, Learning to Labour, which followed a group of boys, the ‘lads,’ through their last year of high school and onto the industrial shop ﬂoor. Yet, in spite of these limitations, the Birmingham School’s focus on popular culture, consumption practices, resistance and cultural agency, and their attention to youth as a nexus for broader social change, continue to resonate in research on youth culture both within anthropology as well as in other disciplines.
3. Anthropology Of Youth Culture: Key Features
Current anthropological research on this subject is characterized by a determined shift away from socialization and human development approaches, which have often entailed less of a focus on youths than on the adults they will eventually become or the adults attempting to direct and socialize them. Instead, contemporary anthropologists are more likely to focus on young people in their own right. While much of this research pays heed to the marginality generally associated with youth, it does not assume that this social location produces a simple helplessness or passivity. Instead, it often features an insistence on respecting the capacity of juveniles to be active agents creatively shaping their environment even as they contend with a variety of legal, political, economic, and social constraints imposed on them by virtue of their age and liminal status.
These emphases have emerged within the context of a broader reorientation of anthropology away from the notion of unitary and enduring cultural formations which was more common in Mead’s day to a contemporary conception of culture that can more easily accommodate internal diversity, fragmentation, and transience. This has made it easier for anthropologists to be comfortable with a notion of youth as eliciting speciﬁc kinds of knowledge and cultural competence that are different from rather than incomplete versions of adult cultures. It has also rendered more persuasive the claim that youth cultures can have broader analytical and social signiﬁcance even when they are highly ephemeral and situationally speciﬁc. During the 1980s and 1990s, critical reappraisals of the conventions of ethnographic accounts, in particular of the ways in which the textual authority exercised by anthropologists can silence or distort the perspectives of the people they are studying, provided a broader context for a reconsideration of the ways in which ethnographic representations had effaced the presence and experiences of children and youth. In a cogent illustration of the dialectical nature of intellectual exchange, an essay by George Marcus (1986) in a volume which was particularly inﬂuential in this broader anthropological reassessment, focused on Paul Willis’ seminal CCCS ethnographic study of working class boys in school. In turn, volumes of this kind and the critical introspection they prompted inﬂuenced subsequent anthropological studies and representations of both children and youth.
Notwithstanding this exchange, the study of youth culture remained on the relative fringes of mainstream preoccupations within late twentieth century anthropology. There were more ethnographers conducting research in this ﬁeld than twenty years previously but their work still only had limited recognition within the larger discipline of anthropology. This is in spite of the fact that youth studies often focused on issues with general salience in contemporary anthropology, particularly the impact of globalization, migration, and popular culture. Hilary Pilkington’s (1994) study of Moscow youth focused on the ways in which the production and consumption of music, dance, and dress styles mixed and hence mutually transformed imported Western and local Russian inﬂuences. Mark Liechty’s (1995) study of youth in Kathmandu explored the media appropriation, dissemination, and reinterpretation of the Western concept of teenager. Livio Sansone (1995) examined the changing and increasingly global nature of youth culture among young Creoles of Surinamese origin living in Amsterdam.
Notwithstanding the broad dimensions of the processes they consider, many of these ethnographies of youth are self-consciously and intentionally intimate in focus. Helena Wulff’s (1988) South London study examined a wide range of issues including the symbolic dimensions of black British ethnicity, consumption practices, friendship, femininity, and institutions of family, school, and youth club, but it deliberately and carefully focused on the relationships and lives of 20 girls between 13 and 16 years of age. Wulff’s focus was based on her concern to relate cultural process concretely to individual lives and social relationships, a goal more accessible through a concentration on small-scale cultural processes or ‘microculture.’ Similarly, nearly a decade later, in another study of black British youth in London, Claire Alexander argued that in focusing on a small number of male informants she was ‘hoping to portray an alternative vision of black youth; not as a uniﬁed and homogenous, externally deﬁned and structurally constrained entity, but a collection of individual lives, choices, and experiences’ (Alexander (1996, p. 18). Their capacity to marshal a wealth of detail about relatively few individuals allows these small-scale studies to move beyond stereotypical notions of youthful resistance or undifferentiated peer culture to reveal the ﬂuidity and creativity of cultural processes among young people.
4. Gaps In The Anthropology Of Youth Culture
In spite of nearly two decades of critiques, the inﬂuence of the pioneering work of the CCCS continues to be expressed in a predominant emphasis on leisure activities and peer relations within many youth culture studies. Ironically, given the CCCS interest in class, the focus on leisure has often been at the expense of systematic analyses of the political economy of youth. Problems of unemployment and the gulf between globalized media images of Western consumption practices and the limited economic resources of many youths are alluded to in a number of studies. However, the nature of the economic roles performed by youths, while still students or nominally minors, as workers in service or informal sectors has not received much sustained attention. We are still much more likely to see youths dancing, singing, clubbing, and consuming fashion and media than working. Yet the globalization of production and the growth of service industries has often relied on the availability of cheap, part or full time youth labor. We are also not very likely to see much of the interaction between youths and adults, particularly with their parents. In the concern to move away from adult-based socialization models of adolescence, researchers often appear to have created ethnographic landscapes remarkably devoid of the adult ﬁgures who nonetheless ﬁgure so largely in the lives of the youths being studied. Not only are such portraits ethnographically incomplete but, without including adults, it is difficult to see how these studies can adequately address issues of power and subordination, however sensitive they may be to the association between youth and social marginality. Finally, one has to wonder whether the marginality of their youthful subjects has been extended by proxy to this subﬁeld of anthropology. If so, it would be a strange irony in a discipline that has prided itself on its particular attention to poor and marginalized peoples.
- Alexander C E 1996 The Art of Being Black: The Creation of Black British Youth Clarendon, Oxford, UK
- Amit-Talai V, Wulff H (eds.) 1995 Youth Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Routledge, London
- Coleman J S 1961 The Adolescent Society. Free Press of Glencoe, New York
- Hall S, Jefferson T (eds.) 1976 Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Hutchinson, London
- Liechty M 1995 Media, markets and modernization: youth identities and the experience of modernity in Kathmandu, Nepal. In: Amit-Talai V, Wulff H (eds.) Youth Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Routledge, London, pp. 166–201
- Marcus G E 1986 Contemporary problems of ethnography in the modern world system. In: Clifford J, Marcus G E (eds.) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, pp. 165–93
- Mead M 1928 / 1968 Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. Dell, New York
- Parsons T 1942 / 1964 Essays in Sociological Theory. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
- Pilkington H 1994 Russia’s Youth and its Culture: A Nation’s Constructors and Constructed. Routledge, London
- Sansone L 1995 The making of a black youth culture: Lower class young men of Surinamese origin in In: Amit-Talai V, Wulff H (eds.) Youth Cultures: A Cross-cultural Perspective. Routledge, London, pp. 114–43
- Schade-Poulsen M 1995 The power of love: raι music and youth in Algeria. In: Amit-Talai V, Wulff H (eds.) Youth Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Routledge, London, pp. 81–113
- Schlegel A, Barry III H 1991 Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry. The Free Press, New York
- Whyte W F 1943 / 1981 Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian University of Chicago Press, Chicago
- Willis P 1977 / 1981 Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Columbia University Press, New York
- Wulff H 1988 Twenty Girls: Growing Up, Ethnicity and Excitement in a South London University of Stockholm, Stockholm.