Youth studies

One of the smaller sub-fields within sociology is “youth studies.” This strikes me as an intriguing area of research, and it seems as though the possible questions for inquiry here have only begun to be tapped. Youth issues have come up in earlier posts, including disaffected youth (link), engaged youth (link), and the problem of knowing how young people think (link).

To begin, why is the category of “youth” an interesting one? Youths are important because they eventually become adults and full participants in all aspects of social life. We would like to understand better what the forces are that influence the psychological and cultural development of young people. It also seems clear that young people of numerous countries embody a shifting set of styles, tastes, vocabularies, and values that are distinct from those of their elders. We would like to understand the pathways of influence through which these styles and values are proliferated. But the youth population is important in its own right. The social movements of Arab Spring were propelled by significant youth movements and activists. The civil rights movement and the anti-war movement on the United States each had major or even preponderant participation by mobilized youth. So the generation of people in their teens and twenties can have major political significance.

Who are the “youth” whom we want to better understand? Is youth a historically constructed category? “Youth” refers to people who are young adults, perhaps from the ages of 15 to 25. These people occupy an interesting position in the life cycle; they are not children, and they are not fully developed adults. Their personalities and characters are still malleable; they can further develop in one direction or another. One teenager latches on to his street pals and slides in the direction of petty crime; another gets very involved in her mosque and pursues higher education. Why are there such large differences within a given cohort? Some researchers use the concept of adolescence as a way of characterizing youth culture. “Youth” is the period of development of young people that falls between adolescence and adulthood. So the development experience is important to understand, and the characteristics of behavior that young people display are crucial.

What is “youth culture”? Marlis Buchmann is one of the contributors to current studies in this area, and his The Script of Life in Modern Society: Entry into Adulthood in a Changing World represents his thinking in an orderly way. He attempts to summarize the main theoretical ideas of the field in his survey article in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (link). Here is how Buchmann defines youth culture:

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. (16660)

Here Buchmann focuses on the forces that create one or more forms of youth culture and style, and he gives most weight to the approach taken by researchers at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, where youth culture is channelized by the class position of the young people who live it.

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. (16658)

This approach doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what one might expect to be the most basic question: what are the pathways through which individual adolescents are formed and developed into one form of youth culture or another? What are the microfoundations of youth culture?

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. (16663)

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. (16663)

Buchmann isn’t very explicit when it comes to characterizing what a youth culture consists of. Is it a set of values — anti-establishment, anarchist, anti-war, suspicious of adults? Is it an ensemble of tastes and styles — punk rockers, skateboards, sideways caps? Is it a complex of motivations and behavioral traits?

One point that Buchmann emphasizes and that resonates with me is the idea that there is a proliferation of youth cultures, not a single or small number of class-defined cultures. There is a substantial element of path dependency in the evolution of a culture within a population, and youth cultures in a place and time evolve dynamically.

Buchmann also highlights the importance of generation or cohort in the formation of youth culture. The experiences of a particular generation of young people have a profound influence on the directions and characteristics of the cultures they create.

It is interesting to learn that James Coleman was one of the contributors to one strand of youth studies. His 1961 The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and its Impact on Education is an interesting treatment of the topics of development and culture. He takes age segregation created by compulsory schooling as a key determinant of the emergence of a separate youth culture in the modern world. 

I find this topic intriguing for two reasons. First, it sheds some light on the dynamic processes through which individuals and cohorts shape their identities. And second, it promises to shed light on important social topics, from disaffection to mobilization.
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