Sociology of Youth Culture Research Paper

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Youth  culture  refers to the cultural  practice of members  of  this  age group  by  which  they  express  their identities and demonstrate their sense of belonging to a particular group of young people. The formation of youth  culture  thus  implies boundary drawing.  Both the   youth   culture’s   distinction   from   mainstream (adult)  culture  and  its internal  coherence  help define the members’ personal identity and enhance feelings of belonging. With the extension of the life stage ‘youth’ in   the   later   decades   of   the   twentieth    century (Buchmann  1989), the boundaries of youth  as an age group  have  been  increasingly  blurred.  The  issue of what  constitutes  authentic  and  autonomous cultural expressions of youth  (as opposed  to the mainstream adult cultural practice) has therefore become more complex. Likewise, the internal differentiation of juvenile  cultural   practice   and   the  proliferation  of youth cultures from the late twentieth century raise the question  of  the  relationship between  structural  location,  socialization,   and  cultural  practice.  After  a brief history of the concept and the presentation of the major  theoretical   currents,  these  issues  will be  discussed.

1.    A Brief History Of The Concept

The notion  of youth culture dates back to the start of the twentieth century. With the development of youth movements  in  Germany, such  as  the  Wander ogel, representatives of the so-called Reformpadagogik noticed the distinct ways of cultural articulation shown by this group of young people, for which they coined the term ‘youth culture.’ The juvenile cultural  orientations and styles of behavior were interpreted as signs of authentic   and  autonomous cultural   practices.  This fundamental issue—whether the social group of youth may be characterized by a common authentic  lifestyle developed within the self-defined community of peers— would accompany  the theoretical  debates  within the sociology of youth over large stretches of the twentieth century. The first input to this scientific discourse can be traced  back  to the 1920s, when researchers  from the Chicago   School   of   sociology   engaged   in   many empirical  studies  on  criminal  milieux,  especially on delinquent  youth groups (e.g., Sutherland 1924). Detailed   investigation   of  groups  of  juvenile  delinquents  revealed  similarities  in their  outlook on  life, values, and  styles of behavior.  To characterize  these commonalities, the notion  of youth  culture  was introduced  into  the  scientific  literature. But  it was not until the 1940s that  juvenile cultural  practices  would be conceived of explicitly in terms of a subculture (Hollingshead  1949). The use of this concept implied, first, the assumption that there is global cultural differentiation  between   youth   and   the   dominant (adult) society, and, second, the idea of the strong internal  coherence of juvenile cultural  expressions.

2.    The Cultural Differentiation Of Youth From Adult Society

The two basic assumptions of the early conceptions  of youth  culture  mentioned  above can be linked to two influential theoretical  traditions within sociology. The first refers to Mannheim’s concept of generation (Mannheim [1928] 1997). The second theoretical  tradition, linked especially to the name of Eisenstadt (1956), focuses on  the  peculiarities  of the  transition between age groups within modern society and related questions  of socialization.

2.1    The Legacy Of Mannheim’s Concept Of Generation

Even popular conceptions  of youth,  especially those advanced by the mass media in the second half of the twentieth century, would often refer to the concept of generation to characterize a juvenile way of life. Descriptions of youth, such as the ‘68 generation,’ the ‘beat  generation,’  the  ‘no-future  generation,’  or  the latest version of ‘generation X’ document  the attractiveness  of this concept.

The major  input  to the scientific debate  on generations  goes  back  to  Mannheim ([1928] 1997)  who developed the generational approach. Mannheim maintains  that  the formation of a generation  is most likely to  occur  during  the  life stage  of adolescence. During these formative years, the experience of social circumstances and historical events will have especially profound and long-lasting effects. However, the common   location   in  the   historical   processes,   or   the generation  location  (Generationslagerung), is not sufficient for the formation of a generation as an actuality. Although the  common  location  in history  provides access to a specific range of potential  experiences, the generation as actuality (Generationszusammenhang) presupposes the ‘participation in the common destiny of this historical and social unit’ (Mannheim [1928] 1997, p. 46 [Mannheim’s  emphasis]).  Mannheim acknowledges the  possibility  that  groups  of youths  exposed to  the  same  generation   location  may  ‘work up the material  of  their  common  experiences  in  different specific ways’ (Mannheim [1928] 1997, p. 47 [Mannheim’s emphasis]). Hence, these groups constitute separate generation  units (Generationseinheit). Mannheim’s approach has provided  two major  theoretical contributions to the sociology of youth  culture.  The first input  is the conceptualization of generations  in relation to social processes and historical events as opposed  to  biological  age  boundaries. The  second insight  relates  to  differences  in  the  ways  in  which young  people  within  the  same  generation   location cope with their common experiences and thus develop different cultural  orientations and styles of behavior. Unfortunately, much  of the empirically  oriented  research on youth culture in the second half of the twentieth century, while incorporating the concept of generation, did  not  make  use  of  Mannheim’s   fine distinctions.

2.2    The Role Of The Juvenile Subculture In The Transition To Adulthood

In Mannheim’s  theoretical  frame, the role of socialization   processes   in  adolescence   is  related   to   the profound and long-lasting  effects of historical  events. By contrast, structural functionalism as developed by Parsons  and  further  elaborated by Eisenstadt  (1956) focuses on the role of age-homogeneous groups (peer groups) as agents of socialization. According to structural–functional theory,  these groups  fulfill the function  of facilitating  the young  people’s transition to adulthood in modern  society. In order  to become full members of modern  society (i.e., adults), adolescents  must  undergo  a fundamental reorientation. As children,  they are predominantly integrated  into  the family, a sphere of social participation characterized by particularistic relations.  The positions and roles in this action sphere are mostly ascribed, and behaviors are scarcely evaluated on the basis of achieved criteria.

In  the  adult  world,  however,  the  range  of social participation is much broader, demanding much more elaborate action capacities. Moreover, most spheres of social participation are structured according to universalistic principles. Action outcomes are therefore attributed to individual competencies. In this context, formal   and   informal   age-homogeneous  groups   of youths may be regarded as ‘interlinking spheres’ helping to  bridge  the  gap  between  the  demands  of  the children’s world and those of the adult world. Norms and values predominant in peer groups usually show a specific combination of particularistic, as well as universalistic,  elements. Hence,  participation in peer groups and their culture provides a great opportunity for juveniles gradually to acquire action competencies compatible with universalistic principles. Given the relative absence of direct social control by adults, agehomogeneous groups provide a social space in which autonomous and self-responsible action patterns  may be learned without being immediately exposed to adult sanctions.  The flipside of such a sanction-free  space may be the development  of peer cultures  that  are in more or less stark contrast  to the norms and values of the adult world.

Against this background, theoretical thinking about youth culture in the 1950s and early 1960s was largely dominated by the idea that  youth  as a social group adheres   to  common   values,  goals,  and   behaviors distinct from those of the adult world. Most influential in this respect was the work by James Coleman (1961), who described the independence, the internal homogeneity  and  coherence  of  the  world  of  youth,  for which  he  coined  the  term  ‘peer culture.’  Empirical evidence, however, did not support the global differentiation of youth culture from that of the dominant (adult)  society. Various  forms  and  styles of juvenile cultural   expression  have  always  existed,  displaying some common elements. With the onset of the general critique  of structural functionalism within sociology, the focus on the functional  necessity of adolescents’ orientation towards  peers and their culture gradually faded and gave way to theoretical  thinking  that  paid greater   attention  to  the  internal   differentiation  of youth culture.

3.    The Structure Of Social Inequality In Modern Society And Class-Specific Youth Cultures

The reorientation within the sociology of youth culture became especially evident with the research conducted at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural  Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, UK (Hall and Jefferson 1975, Willis 1990). Although the concept of subculture remained  essential to their understanding of juvenile cultural  expressions,  this research  tradition not  only linked it to the dimension of age (generation), but also stressed the connection to the dimension of social inequality,  in particular to  social  class.  Within  this theoretical framework, juvenile subcultures are regarded  as the outcome  of class-specific socialization processes. Hence, youth culture is internally differentiated   and,  most  likely, several  youth  cultures coexist  at  any  given period  of  time  within  modern society. The CCCS  model  assumes  that  the cultural sphere of modern  society is made up of two independent   cultures,   hierarchically   related   to  each other. The bourgeois  culture is the dominant one and the  working  class  culture  is the  discriminated one. Within  these cultural  entities,  differentiation by age, ethnicity, and sex may occur. The differentiated subcultures  show a varying degree of overlap with the superordinate culture, incorporating common, as well as distinct, cultural elements. Moreover, they are characterized by relatively  high  internal  consistency and relative stability,  encompassing  all life spheres.

Theoretically, the aforementioned characteristics  of subcultures  are linked  to socialization  processes.  As members of a particular social class, individuals learn the class-specific cultural repertoire and become equipped with particular resources,  with which they try to solve the problems of daily life. Given the multiplicity of membership  in modern  society (e.g., class, gender, age), particular tasks may occur that demand new ways of coping.  With  respect  to  the  age group  of youth, juveniles have to cope with their indeterminate social position—no longer children, yet not full adults. This particular social situation  predisposes them to invent cultural practices that help them to define who they are (i.e., identity construction) and to develop social bonds and a sense of belonging. In this influential theoretical tradition, juvenile subcultures  are interpreted as class-specific answers to the particular demands  of the life stage  ‘youth.’  Although all  young  people  are  confronted  with these demands,  the social milieu greatly determines the material and symbolic resources available to them,  thus  resulting  in class-specific cultural practice.

4.    Structural And Cultural Change Within Late Modern Society: Youth Cultures As Youth Styles

The  basic  assumption  of  the  cultural   model   developed  by the researchers  of the CCCS  maintained that  the  precise social  location  was essential  to  the definition of juvenile subcultures. The cultural practice of youth was conceived to be the symbolic expression of their social existence. Observers of youth culture in the 1980s noticed,  however,  the proliferation of juvenile cultural  expressions  characterized by  a  looser coupling with young people’s social positions (Cavalli and  Galland  1995, Chisholm  et al.  1995, Thornton 1996). The weakening  of the linkage  between  social location  and  cultural  practice,  furthermore, was accompanied  by the growing importance of the element of style in young people’s cultural expressions, i.e., the expressive and esthetic presentation of one’s identity and social belonging.

Although the research tradition of the CCCS, focusing on class-specific differentiation of youth cultures,  paid  particular attention to  the element  of style (Hebdige  1979), the full meaning of style as the main  ingredient  of youth  culture  was not  yet recognized. In this tradition, style was conceived mainly to be  a  particular  means   by  which   the   unresolved problems and contradictions inherent in the respective adult  class cultures  could be expressed symbolically. More recent conceptions  of the role of style in youth culture  stress the intricate  relations  to several structural changes within late modern society. In particular, three facets of social change have been identified: first, the growing structural differentiation, resulting in the blurring  of age boundaries and  the changing  significance  of social standing;  second,  the  increasing  importance of the social sphere of leisure; and third, the role of the media  in constructing and  disseminating symbols  of  youth  style.  The  three  facets  of  social change and their implications for juvenile cultural practice are discussed below.

Although still hotly  debated,  social change in late modern  society has been associated  with the growing differentiation of the system of social inequality  and the   concomitant  diversification   of   individual   life course patterns  (Buchmann  1989). Advocates  of this view link these changes to the expansion  of the educational system, which provided access to mediumlevel and higher education for the broader masses. The profound changes within the institution of education resulted  in  a  substantial extension  of  the  life stage ‘youth,’ and  especially in the blurring  of age boundaries between youth and adulthood (Buchmann 1989). The massive expansion of the welfare state is regarded as another  major  element  of these changes,  making life less dependent   on  the  family.  With  the  broad application of information and communication technologies,  profound changes in the economy  and the labor  market  occurred,  transforming work  roles and occupational careers. Hence, the pathways  from school to work, the major role and status change in the transition to adulthood, became increasingly diverse. Under  conditions  of increasingly differentiated social positions  and life course patterns, the ways in which individuals  express  their  identities  and  demonstrate their sense of belonging is affected as well. The quasiautomatic integration into social milieux and collectivities can no longer be taken  for granted.  Rather, the individual’s identity and his or her group membership become more dependent on action capacities and competencies.  Cultural  practices,  especially those including  stylistic elements,  therefore  advance  to  particularly suitable means to symbolically present one’s self and express one’s social affiliation. Hence, juvenile cultural   practice   crystallizes  into   particular  youth styles.

The  structural transformation of late  modern  society described above also brought about  a shift in the relevance of various spheres of life. In particular, the social sphere of leisure became much more important, both as an element of lifestyle and as a means of cultural distinction. Characterized by a strong  component of social visibility, leisure-time  activities provide  ample opportunities to satisfy the needs of the expressive and esthetic  presentation of  one’s  self and  one’s  social belonging.  With  regard  to youth  especially, cultural practices  such as music, dancing,  movies, visual arts (e.g., comics), particular sports  (e.g., skateboarding), and fashion (e.g., clothing and hairstyles) are preferred means of expressing a distinct way of life that is recognized by others as a sign and signal of a particular identity  and  group  membership  (Austin  and  Willard 1998,  Danesi   1994,  Epstein   1998).  In   fact,   late twentieth  early twenty-first century youth cultures are mostly   integrated   into   leisure  time   and   oriented toward  mass media and  consumption. They are to a large degree leisure styles. The heterogeneity  of juvenile cultural  scenes and  styles observed  at  the  beginning of the twenty-first  century  can be attributed both to increasing degrees of freedom in the individual’s scope of action, due to the structural changes in late modern  society discussed above, and the great abundance of cultural materials provided in the sphere of leisure. According to the particular needs of social representation, young  people  may  assemble  and  reassemble stylistic elements of various  origins in ever new ways to form  distinct  styles of juvenile cultural practice.

For  the swift circulation  and  dissemination of the cultural  signals of youth  styles, media and computer culture  play an ever greater  role (Kellner  1994). The formation of youth styles and scenes may be regarded as an  interactive  process  with  the  media.  Styles for clothing  and  hair  generated  in  informal  groups  of youths, for example, are often quickly appropriated by the media and  the market,  and  turned  into fads and fashion. As a result, larger segments of youth may get the opportunity to participate in this style, thus contributing to its dissemination. And, vice versa, cultural materials provided by the media may be appropriated and reinterpreted by young people and utilized in the construction of  juvenile  styles.  The  mutual   appropriation  and simultaneous transformation of cultural signs and signals by groups  of young people and the media is the major reason for the rapid fluctuation and swift turnover of youth  styles at the beginning of the twenty-first century. As soon as juvenile cultural expressions have become integrated into the mainstream (adult) cultural world, they can no longer serve as means of cultural  distinction. However, this is essential for presenting one’s identity and expressing a sense of belonging to a particular group of youth.

5.    Future Directions In The Sociology Of Youth Cultures

Scholars of youth culture agree that in recent years the field  has   been  dominated  by  detailed   descriptive studies of the proliferating forms of juvenile cultural expressions.   As  valuable   as  these  studies   are  for gaining  insights  into  contemporary juvenile cultural orientations and styles of behavior, theoretically based issues and matters  should  again become more prominent in future research. To date, it is largely unknown which structural or cultural factors are responsible for the predominance of class-related juvenile cultural expressions and,  vice versa, for the predominance of generation-related juvenile cultural  styles. Furthermore,  the impact  of juvenile cultural  innovations on cultural change in society at large remains largely unknown. Likewise, the role of the media in the construction, dissemination, and appropriation of juvenile lifestyles is not well understood.


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