Anthropology of Youth Culture Research Paper

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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.


  1. Alexander C E 1996 The Art  of Being Black:  The Creation of Black British Youth  Clarendon, Oxford,  UK
  2. Amit-Talai V, Wulff  H  (eds.) 1995 Youth  Cultures:  A  Cross-Cultural Perspective. Routledge, London
  3. Coleman J S 1961 The Adolescent Society. Free Press of Glencoe, New York
  4. Hall S, Jefferson T (eds.) 1976 Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Hutchinson, London
  5. 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
  6. 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
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  8. Parsons T 1942 / 1964 Essays in Sociological Theory. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
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  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. Schlegel A, Barry III H 1991 Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry. The Free Press, New York
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  15. Wulff H   1988  Twenty   Girls:  Growing  Up,   Ethnicity   and Excitement  in a South  London    University  of Stockholm, Stockholm.
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