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.

Knowing the population

At any given time there are huge areas of the unknown when it comes to the question, what do various members of our society care about? We have opinion research tools, of course. But we don’t really have good answers to any of these questions:

  • How do West Bloomfield teenagers think about their futures?
  • Why do Kenyan truck drivers refrain from the most basic AIDS-prevention techniques?
  • Are skateboarders disaffected from mainstream society?
  • What does it mean when affluent suburban white kids wear hiphop gear?
  • What do laid-off auto workers think about higher education for themselves?
  • How do Mexican gang killers feel about their victims?

These questions fall in the general area of qualitative knowledge of social actors and groups. We want to know in some detail about the subjectivity of the members of these groups — how they think, what they value, how they perceive the world.  There can be a quantitative side as well — once we have information about some people in a group we can ask about the distribution of these characteristics over the group.

But here is the key question at the moment: where within the disciplines of the social sciences does inquiry into these questions fall?  And the simple answer is, none of them and parts of all of them. Ethnography is relevant; but anthropologists usually seem to have larger theoretical apples to peel. Political scientists are interested in a small subset of these questions — basically, they are interested in measuring political attitudes and preferences.  And some branches of sociology have had an interest in this kind of concrete social description — for example, Erving Goffman; but at present this kind of detailed inquiry into the lived experience of particular individuals and groups doesn’t have much prestige in the field. It is hard to see AJS publishing a descriptive study of attitudes and values of West Bloomfield teenagers.

So two things seem to be true. First, there is an important kind of knowledge that we need to have in order to adequately understand society. And second, there doesn’t seem to be a discipline in the social sciences that takes on this challenge.

So how should we think about the subjective experience and mental frameworks of a given social group?  A group is defined by some set of characteristics — people from a certain region (“midwesterners”), people with a certain occupation (“insurance adjustors”), people with a certain national origin (“Irish-Americans”), people from a particular age cohort (Generation X), or people with a certain religion or value scheme (“Protestants,” “Populists”).  So by construction, members of the group share a few characteristics in common — the “nominal” characteristics of the group.  But we also know that almost every group displays a great range of diversity with respect to other characteristics — lifestyle, political attitudes, moral commitments, …  So how should we think about the problem of coming to better understand the distinctive features of consciousness as well as the range of diversity and similarity among members of the group?  This raises a number of interesting questions.  For example:

  • Are there similarities that members of this group possess over and above the nominal characteristics of the group?  Is there something distinctive about the experience and mentality of Gen X or “The Greatest Generation”?
  • Are some groups more diverse than others with respect to a given set of social characteristics?
  • Is it possible to explain some of the patterns of similarity that are discovered among members of the group?  

Suppose we are interested in K-12 school teachers: what makes them choose this work, what are some of the social backgrounds from which they emerge, how do they feel about their work, are they idealistic or jaded in their work?  How might we approach a subject like this from the point of view of social science research?

One possibility is to approach the task through survey research.  We might design a survey intended to measure attitudes, background, degree of commitment, etc.  The results of the survey can be presented as a set of descriptive statistics for each question, with standard deviations.  We might have a theory of how the questions cluster, and we might classify individuals into sub-groups sharing a cluster of properties.  Further, we might try to identify differences that exist among sub-populations (by race, age, or occupational group, let us say).  And we would probably want to see whether there are interesting correlations among some of the recorded variables.
Another possibility is to approach the task through interviews and qualitative research.  Here the investigator will work with a smaller number of cases; but he/she will get to know individuals well, and will come to see the nuance and detail of the multiple experiences that school teachers have of their work.  Here we might imagine several different kinds of findings:

“There is no typical school teacher; rather, each has a different profile.” This researcher may not be able to summarize or analyze his/her findings, but rather needs to provide a descriptive narrative of a series of cases.  This is perhaps the kind of knowledge that Studs Terkel produces (link).  

Or: “A small set of common themes emerge from a number of the cases, so we can begin to classify teachers into a small set of similar groups.”

It is also possible to code and aggregate the results of this sort of qualitative research.  This may permit us to discover that there are some broad groupings among the population surveyed.  We might find that there are fairly visible groupings among school teachers, with similar attitudes and commitments among individuals of group A that distinguish them sharply from individuals of group B.  (For example: “Inner city teachers differ significantly from suburban teachers;” “teachers in their 50s differ significantly from teachers in their 30s;” “white and black teacher differ significantly from each other.”)  The researcher may then try to arrive at hypotheses about why the A’s are so different from the B’s: educational background, experience within a certain industry, gender or race characteristics, cohort-specific experiences, differences in the work-place environment.  This represents a slide from qualitative inquiry to quantitative analysis; ethnographic and individual-level investigation is aggregated into analytical categories.  Here the sociologically interesting question is that of social causation: what are the social influences that differently affected the two populations?
The key point here is that individuals have a rather specific socially constituted subjectivity — a set of mental frameworks, concepts, modes of thinking, emotions, values, and aversions — that distinguishes them from others.  This subjective framework provides a basis for their actions, choices, and preferences.  We also speculate, often, that there are important similarities in these frameworks within groups in dimensions that distinguish this group from that group.  It appears to be a fundamentally important task for the social sciences, to have means of investigating these empirical realities.  These questions are important, most fundamentally, because they give an indication of why people behave as they do.  And yet the existing disciplines have little interest in pursuing these types of questions.

The dropout crisis

The United States faces a huge dropout crisis. In some cities the high school graduation rate is less than 50% — sometimes as low as 25%. And this means devastating poverty for the dropouts, as well as continuing social blight for their communities. We might say, though, that the graduation rate is only the symptom of the problem; the causes include high poverty neighborhoods and failed elementary and middle schools, and the effects extend far into the future.

So in a way, it is too simple to call it a dropout crisis; rather, it is a schooling crisis (extending back into the early grades) and a poverty crisis (extending forward for one or more generations for the young people who are affected and their eventual children). And it is a particularly serious national problem, at the beginning of a century where the most important resource will be educated people and talented creators. How can we be optimistic about the prospects for innovation and discovery in the American economy when we are wasting so much human talent?

The crisis itself is widely recognized (link). What we haven’t figured out yet is a success strategy for resolving the current system of failure. Is it even possible to envision a system of public education in high-poverty cities that actually succeeds in achieving the 90-90-90 goal (90% graduation rate, 90% achievement at grade level, 90% continuation to post-secondary education)? Or are we forced to conclude that the problem is too great, and that 50% of inner-city children are doomed to lives of continuing poverty and social blight? If so, the future is dim for our county as a whole: rising crime, social problems, civil conflict, and increasingly gated communities are our future. And, inevitably, our economic productivity as a country will falter. So the whole country loses if we don’t solve this problem.

The current environment for solving the schooling problems is unpromising. Urban school systems across the country face staggering fiscal crises — a $300 million deficit in Detroit, $480 million in Los Angeles, and similar amounts in other cities. So school systems are forced into a cycle of cost-cutting, removing some of the critical resources that might have addressed the failure for their students. And the school systems themselves — administrators, teachers, and unions — are all too often resistant to change. The current Federal educational reform program, Race to the Top (link), is designed to stimulate new thinking and more successful reforms; but the jury is out.

The situation requires a whole-hearted commitment to solving this problem. Solutions will require the best available research on learning and schooling; they will require substantial resources; and they will require significant collaboration among a number of stakeholders. And the solutions can’t be simply one-off demonstration projects; we need a national strategy that will work at scale. There are a million new drop-outs a year. We need to reduce that number by 80% in the next decade if we are to be successful.

These are pretty daunting challenges. So consider this proposed solution that seems to have the ability to satisfy each of these constraints. This is the Diplomas Now program that is becoming increasingly visible in education reform and the press (link). The program is a research-based strategy for helping children make academic progress at every step of the way. It recognizes the need for much more intensive adult contact for at-risk children. It acknowledges the need for providing a host of community services in high-poverty schools. And it places high academic standards at the center of the strategy.

The program is based on important research undertaken by Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University (link). Balfanz finds that it is possible to identify high school drop-outs very early in their school experience. He identifies the ABC cluster of criteria as diagnostic of future high school failure: absenteeism, behavior, and course performance. Sixth-graders who show any one of these characteristics have only a 25% likelihood of completing high school. So, he reasons, let’s use these early warning signs and intervene with children when there is still an opportunity to get them back on track. This requires careful tracking of each child, and it requires that schools have the resources to address the problems these children are having in the early grades. But Balfanz argues that the payoff will be exactly what we need: these children will be back on track and will have a high likelihood of graduating from high school.

So what does the strategy need? First, it needs a good and well-implemented tracking system. Second, it needs teachers and principals who have the professional development needed to allow them to assist the progress of their students. But it needs two other things as well: it needs a corps of dedicated young people who will function as fulltime near-peer tutors and mentors for at risk children. And it needs a set of wrap-around social and community services that are available to children and their families in the schools.

This is where community service and stakeholder collaboration come in. CityYear is a vibrant national youth service organization within Americorps (link). CityYear has always placed involvement in high-poverty schools at the core of its service agenda for the young people who give a year of their lives to change the world. Now CityYear has entered into agreements with the Diplomas Now program to support focused interventions in a growing number of schools in a number of cities. (Here is a CityYear report.) And Communities in Schools is a national organization that is able to provide the other piece (link). Communities in Schools provides several social work professionals and supervision for each DN school. Finally, the Talent Development program at Johns Hopkins provides training for DN teachers and administrators.

The Diplomas Now model has now been applied in a number of schools around the country, and the results are highly encouraging (link). Results for a sixth grade class in Feltonville School in Philadelphia are representative: from 2008 to 2009 absenteeism dropped by 80%, negative behavior dropped by 45%, and the number of students with failures in math or english dropped by about 80%. Participants and observers attribute the successes measured here to the synergies captured by the combined approach. But a key factor is the presence of caring young adults in the lives of these children. (video)

These are amazing and encouraging results. But we have to ask the question, what would it take to scale this solution for all of Los Angeles, Detroit, or Chicago? The answer is that it will require a major investment. But it will also return many times that amount in increased productivity and lower incarceration and social service costs.

Here are some estimates from CityYear planning for the challenge of scaling up the Diplomas Now solution. The goal the organization has adopted is an ambitious one: to have CityYear teams in all schools that generate 50% of dropouts in the city. In Detroit CityYear teams currently serve 8 schools and 4,600 students with 65 corps members. In order to reach the goal, CityYear Detroit will need to expand to 39 schools, serving 26,290 students, including 9,400 at-risk students, with 403 corps members. This expansion will be costly; federal, school, and private funding would increase from $3.8 million to $12.8 million. But the five-year return on investment is massive. A Northeastern University study estimates the benefit of converting one dropout into a graduate at $292,000, aggregating to a net social benefit of $686,000,000. The returns are enormous. Nationally the total annual cost of the CityYear program would be just under $200 million by 2016, with other program costs perhaps doubling this amount. But the value of success is a staggering number: net social benefits from reducing the drop-out rate estimated in the range of $10 billion.

So it seems that we now know that the skepticism that is often expressed about inner-city school failure is misplaced. There are intensive strategies for success that should work in any school. There is a cost to these programs. But there are many thousands of young people who are eager to pick up the responsibility. Their civic engagement and pragmatic idealism are inspiring. We need strong support from our government, foundations, and private sources in order to make school failure a thing of the past.

(Here are a couple of earlier posts on this topic; post, post, post.)

Civic engagement and formative institutions

A disposition towards civic engagement and community service seems to be a very fundamental component of social psychology that differs significantly across cohorts and populations.  But the frequency of this motivation across the population is also surely a key component of the health of social order.  One would hypothesize that this is an aspect of individual motivation and identity that determines the level at which a community will succeed in accomplishing its most critical tasks such as poverty alleviation, remedies for poor schools, or addressing homelessness.  If a city has a significant level of high-poverty schools, with associated low levels of student academic success in the early grades, surely it is helpful when a significant number of adults and young people experience a desire to help address the problem through mentoring and tutoring programs.

But the question of how this component of social psychology works is a complex one.  What are the influences in daily life through which children and young people acquire this sensibility?  What are the value systems and institutional arrangements that encourage or discourage a disposition towards civic engagement?  What kinds of experiences increase (or reduce) an individual’s motivation to be involved in community service?  (Here is an earlier posting on this question.)

Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt have addressed part of this question through a study of young people who have been involved with Teach for America (NYT story).  Their article, “Assessing the Effects of Voluntary Youth Service: The Case of Teach for America,” appeared in Social Forces this month.  Here is how the authors describe their project:

We use survey data from all accepted applicants to Teach for America (TFA) between 1993-98 to assess the longer-term effect of youth service on participants’ current civic attitudes and behaviors.

Their survey includes individuals who were accepted into Teach for America in the relevant years.  They break the population into three groups: graduates, drop-outs, and non-matriculants.  Their central findings are these:

  • “The graduates seem to have emerged from their TFA experience with an enhanced attitudinal commitment to service and civic life.” 
  • “Bottom line: relative to their age peers, our subjects participate at very high levels in all the forms of civic/political participation we examine.”
  • “The graduates lag significantly behind one or both of the other groups in their current levels of participation in “civic activity,” “institutional politics” and “social movements.””
  • “On all seven dimensions of civic life—service, civic activity, institutional politics, social movements, voting, charitable giving and pro-social employment—the graduates lag significantly behind one or both comparison groups.”

These are surprising findings.  The TFA population as a whole shows a higher level of civic engagement than the general population.  But within the TFA population, the graduates lag.  This seems to cast doubt on one of the central claims for community service: that the experience leads young people to develop characteristics that make them more engaged in the future.

McAdam and Brandt offer a few hypotheses about how we might explain these findings: burnout, delay in transition to career, a feeling of “having done my part,” a sense of disillusionment with service; and the possibility that non-matriculants may have had other experiences that are even more conducive to lifetime civic engagement.

Here is their summary conclusion:

What, in the end, are we prepared to say about the significantly lower levels of current service on the part of matriculants relative to non-matriculants?  Temporary exhaustion on the part of recent graduates (and drop-outs) appears to be a part of the story.  But so too are negative reactions to TFA and, for many, the isolating nature of the teaching experience.  Whatever the mix of these (and unmeasured) explanatory factors, the stark fact remains: far from increasing subsequent civic involvement, the TFA experience appears, for some, to depress current service participation.

But here is another striking conclusion based on their data: the gap evidenced in the civic engagement of the graduates is entirely explained by the 15% of graduates whose experience with TFA left them dissatisfied.  The 85% who were satisfied with the program demonstrate the same levels of civic engagement as the drop-outs and non-matriculants.  “It is the 15 percent of the graduates who have a retrospectively negative view of their TFA experience who account for the service/civic “gap” between graduates and the other two subject groups.”  This suggests that a program for community service needs to work hard to assure that the expectations of its volunteers are met.

McAdam and Brandt go out of their way to indicate that their research should not be understood as a foundation of criticism of TFA or of programs of civic engagement more broadly.  Rather, their goal is to find ways of assessing causal claims that are made on behalf of programs of youth engagement and community service.  In order to influence attitudes and behavior, we need to have evidence-based analysis of how a variety of relevant institutions actually work.  This kind of survey research is one such instrument of assessment.

The largest national service program in the US today is AmeriCorps (including CityYear).  Here is a link to an ongoing study of AmeriCorps members and their levels of civic engagement following their period of service.  McAdam and Brandt summarize the most recent findings of the AmeriCorps study:

The 2008 results are representative of the findings from the study as a whole.  While AmeriCorps members differ from those in the comparison group on some attitudinal items, behavioral effects are few and far between.  The two groups—AmeriCorps and comparison—were compared on fourteen measures of civic participation, including voting, charitable giving, and volunteer service.  They differed on only four, with one of the differences favoring members of the comparison groups.  In short, the modal behavioral effect appears negligible.

The survey research that McAdam-Brandt have done is one interesting and important way of trying to gauge the impact of a certain kind of institution on a feature of social psychology.  It is intriguing to wonder whether other tools might also shed light on the transformative and developmental processes that occur within the experience of intensive community service.  For example, how does the experience of working together in a racially and socially mixed group affect the social understandings and motivations of the young people who are involved?  How does the experience of spending a summer in a public health clinic in Chiapas influence the college students who participate?  Are there qualitative methodologies available that would shed more light on these concrete mechanisms of identity formation?  Would a study based on interviews and focus groups provide some insight into the processes of change that young people undergo in an AmeriCorps placement, a CityYear team, or an intense two months in a poor community in Mexico?

Suppose a researcher carried out a focus-group study on a group of CityYear corps members from September to April, and suppose the research provided evidence suggesting that Corps members had acquired specific competences of inter-community understanding.  Suppose interviews and focus group videos show that white corps members had demonstrated a growing ability to understand the situations and worldviews of their black or brown fellow corps members, and vice versa.  This would be evidence for judging that the CityYear environment leads to social-psychological development in the area of inter-cultural and inter-racial competence.  The young people who have undergone these experiences have become more attuned to racism, racial disadvantage, and the nuances of difference that exist in the perceptions of white, black, and brown young people.  They have increased their skill and confidence in interacting with a wider range of people.  And, presumably, they will live their adult lives with greater commitment to inter-group dialogue and struggle to reduce the inequalities associated with race in our country.  How might this set of facts relate to the framing of a longitudinal survey of CityYear alumni?

Essentially we would reason along these lines.  If the changes and developmental mechanisms that were documented in the qualitative study are real and durable, then there should also be differences in the attitudes and behaviors of CityYear alumni five, ten, and fifteen years later.  So a survey of alumni, along with an appropriately defined control group, should demonstrate significant differences in attitude and behavior.  And if there are no such differences, then we would be pushed towards concluding either that the developmental changes identified in the qualitative study were spurious, or they were indurable.  So there is a close logical relationship between the hypotheses suggested  by the qualitative study (about processes and effects of social development) and the longitudinal study (about the attitudes and behaviors of a population at later moments in time).

This is important work if we are interested in helping young people acquire the attitudes, values, and practices that will make them good citizens and caring members of communities.  And ultimately, it is a question that can be usefully investigated using a variety of tools of social and behavioral research.

Engaged youth

A while ago I posted on the subject of “disaffected youth“. I don’t have a basis for estimating the percentage of the youth population that falls in this category, but surely it’s a fairly small number in most places. Here I want to focus on the other end of the spectrum — the relatively small but meaningful percentage of young people who have a significant level of “civic engagement” in their blood.

You can identify some of these young people in almost every city and suburb in America. They are the high school and college students who feel passionately about community service, civic engagement, and “giving back”. They are involved in activities like alternative spring break, Habitat for Humanity, and the United Way. They are involved in community service in a major way — through mosques, temples, and churches, through social justice organizations such as Amnesty International, Big Brother/Big Sister, and Oxfam, and through organized community service programs at universities and high schools. And they are to be found in a big way in nationally organized programs for community service like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and CityYear.

I’ve met quite a few of these engaged young people over the past ten years, and they are truly inspiring. They are idealistic in a thoroughly practical way. They see the impact they can have through service, and they understand the importance of designing and implementing service programs in the most practical way possible. They care about the individual people they help — children, elderly, impaired, impoverished — in very specific human terms. They understand the value of working together in collaboration and teamwork to accomplish great things, and they understand deeply the values and rewards of racial and religious diversity. Finally, they have very little of the crass materialism of “youth America” as it was portrayed on Beverly Hills, 90210 or other examples of this genre. So this group of young people gives a truly optimistic perspective on our society for the future.

I don’t take these points to lead to a generalization about American youth as a group. In fact, what is striking is exactly how atypical these young people seem to be relative to the population as a whole — and how similar and compatible they are with each other. But it remains the case — whether 5% or 25%, there is a meaningful minority of today’s generation of young people who give a remarkable level of commitment to social engagement.

My question here concerns the social psychology of this group. This is a question about the circumstances of social development that are in place today: where do these young people and their values come from? How has this wonderful mix of optimism, service, and respect for racial differences come about? And how can it be furthered?

One thing is immediately clear: it seems to be unrelated to affluence, race, or neighborhood. A cross-section of the CityYear corps is instructive: young people with very similar social values are showing up from middle-class suburbs, impoverished inner cities, and towns that are neither urban nor suburban. And it is easy to find white kids, rich and poor, brown kids, African-American kids, and Asian-American kids — all coming together into a corps of 60-150 young people in a given city. None of these groups seems either more or less concerned about social justice, none seems more readily open to learning from peers from other races, and none seems socially and culturally more ready for a serious commitment to engagement and service. In other words, class, race, and income don’t seem to be critical in defining today’s youth social engagement.

A couple of factors are probably highly relevant to the degree of engagement and civic values that is displayed by young people involved in AmeriCorps and CityYear.

First, there have to be strands of American culture that are creating a “pulse” of concern about social justice and individual involvement in community among young people. This set of dispositions can’t be a totally random result. Whether it’s a generation of young people acculturated by Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, or by the broadening circle of awareness of the injustice of racism and poverty, or a “bounce” from the social activism of the sixties generation — there must be some cultural currents that are making many of today’s young people more ready for social involvement and more concerned about social justice. Somehow our society, our families, our schools, and our media are producing a certain fraction of the youth cohort that possess these values and commitments. (Though crucially, we can ask whether that fraction is greater than years past or is pretty much constant.)

Second, recruitment certainly plays an important role in explaining this observation about the similarity of corps members from very diverse backgrounds. AmeriCorps and CityYear members are by no means a random sample of the general population. Instead, they are young people who have actively sought out the opportunity for service presented by these organizations, and they have responded favorably to the very explicit expressions of value commitments they represent.

Another factor that seems to be operative in generating the value orientation of AmeriCorps and CityYear members is the nature of the training and bonding that occurs within the experience. Young people may come to CityYear with positive attitudes about race relations — but their understanding, commitment, and concrete skills in working in multiracial teams certainly deepens enormously through their year of service. Likewise, what may have been a somewhat thin “will to serve” at the time of recruitment seems typically to deepen into a robust, life-changing involvement in community organizations. The experience of the organization, its leaders, peers, and the service itself leads to a profound deepening of personal engagement.

It’s worth dwelling on the causes of youth engagement, because it seems very likely that many of the social problems we will face in the future will only be solved if we can come together as communities of concern, giving our time and our energy to address the serious challenges that are just over the horizon. And these young, engaged people are demonstrating how it can be done.

Disaffected youth

Every city seems to have its floating population of disaffected youth — school dropouts, occasional workers, drug users, skateboarders, hooligans, street people. How much of a problem is this? What are its dimensions? What are the social causes that influence the size and nature of this population in Detroit, Manchester, Cologne, or Novosibirsk? And are there social programs that can significantly diminish the number of young people who wind up in this category?

As for the importance of the problem, there are at least two aspects. In some times and places this population becomes a source of violence — youth gangs, football hooliganism, shop window breakage, and skinhead attacks on racial minorities, gays, or other targets. But second, whether violent or passive, the precipitation of a sub-class of young people with no skills, no jobs, and no futures is a huge social cost for the societies that produce them.

Here I’m mostly interested in the processes of neglect and social-economic disadvantage that play into the mentality of some young people, leading to the formation of an individual social psychology that brings about the low-level anti-social behavior that is observed. Basically — why do some young people drop out of the process of gaining an education, building a career, forming a family, and looking forward to the future, and instead spend their time hanging out in the streets? The skinhead phenomenon adds another element that is also worth understanding but is not the primary interest here — a degree of organizational effort by political entrepreneurs who work towards mobilizing disaffected youth around racist and nationalist agendas. This falls under the category of social mobilization studied by people such as Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, or Charles Tilly. But here I’m more interested here in the process of socialization at the individual level that leads to the phenomenon of disaffection. (Several earlier posts have addressed the mobilization part of the story — for example, here.)

Here is a very interesting academic study by Robert MacDonald of the making of a “youth underclass” in the UK. Here is how MacDonald frames his problem of research:

Most young people in the UK make relatively ‘successful’, unproblematic transitions from school to work and adulthood. What do we call those that do not? Labels imply explanation, not just description. Terms with academic and policy currency tend to define such young people by something they are not or by their presumed social and economic distance and dislocation from ‘the rest’. How we might best describe, explain and label the experience and problem of so-called ‘socially excluded’, ‘disconnected youth’ is the focus of the paper.

To use the term “disaffected” is to bring a Durkheimian mindset to the table; it is to offer the beginnings of a diagnosis of the problem as well as a description. The phrase “disaffected” (or its cognate, “demoralized”) presents the problem as one of disconnection from prevailing social values and alienation from a set of moral ideas about how to behave. The “disaffected” no longer believe in the old chestnuts about working hard, listening to one’s parents, showing respect to others, obeying the law, and conforming to society’s expectations. So on this line of thought, the anti-social behavior of young people in this category derives from their “demoralization” — their failure, or society’s failure, to absorb a compelling set of normative standards about personal and social conduct.

But here is a slightly different tack we might take here. Perhaps disadvantaged youth disbelieve because they have lost all confidence in the underlying promise: conform to these norms and you will have a decent life. In other words, maybe the psychological cause of these forms of youth behavior is economic rather than moral; they are deeply discouraged about the possibility of a pathway to a better future than the world they seem around themselves at the moment. “Hopeless and angry” is a different state of mind than “disaffected.”

And what about the factor of motivation and personal ambition? To what extent is normal youth development propelled by internal factors of motivation and aspiration? And how much of a role does a social context that “demotivates” young people play in this picture?

Another line of thought has emerged out of research on youth gangs — the idea of the positive forms of solidarity and community that are provided by the gang as a welcoming social group. Young people who have lost the social support of their families and other traditional organizations may find that the street gang is the closest thing to “home” that they are able to locate. These are social groups with their own codes of behavior — even though their largest effects are profoundly anti-social.

A common recourse when it comes to trying to explain these kinds of outcomes is to refer to various “breakdowns” — breakdowns of the traditional family, of schools, of religion, of community organizations, or of public values. These are the institutions through which young people form their social psychologies, their identities, and their basic values. But if the young person lacks an emotionally meaningful connection to adults through some of these institutions, where will those positive social values come from?

Finally, it is worth noting that poverty and socio-economic disadvantage are not the only settings where youth disaffection occurs. Many observers in the United States have written about the use of drugs by affluent suburban high school students and other forms of involvement in anti-social activities. Wayne Wooden’s Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws: From Youth Culture to Delinquency documents some of this behavior.

Why is this an important problem for “understanding society”? Because the social processes through which the next generation of citizens — children, teenagers, and youth — is shaped are deeply influential on the nature of the society that will develop in twenty to forty years. If “disaffection,” “anger,” “demoralization,” and a propensity for anti-social behavior are inculcated in a large minority of the youth cohort, then society is likely to go through some very hard times in the coming decades.

It’s relatively easy to find some dimensions of these issues on the web. Here is an interesting report on “football hooliganism” prepared by Dr. Geoff Pearson of the Football Industry Group. Here is a blog posting from the UK on youth gangs and terrorist organizations. Here is a quick report on skinheads.

China’s cultural revolution

What is involved in understanding China’s Cultural Revolution?

The question comes to mind for several reasons — but most vividly because of a recent interview in France in the le nouvel Observateur with Song Yongyi. Song’s personal itinerary is historic — he was a “rebel Red Guard” in 1967, a political prisoner in China from 1970 to 1976, a librarian at Dickinson College in 1998, and a prisoner in China again in 1999 for six months for the “crime” of collecting documents about the Cultural Revolution. (See his website at California State University at Los Angeles.) Song is in the middle of creating a large database on the events of the Cultural Revolution, including especially an effort to document the killings and massacres that occurred during this period. Song estimates, for example, that more than 50,000 people were killed during the purge of the Mongolian Communist Party alone, and he attributes to an internal party document a figure of 1.72 million deaths during the period of the Cultural Revolution.

The question is interesting for UnderstandingSociety because it has to do with historical knowledge and understanding. A vast amount has been written about the Cultural Revolution — by western scholars and by Chinese people who participated in the CR or were victims of its violence. We have both first-hand stories and careful academic scholarship that document many aspects of this period of China’s recent history. So in one sense, we are in a position to know a lot about this period of China’s history. And China scholars have asked the “why” question as well — why did it take place? For example, Roderick MacFarquhar’s multivolume history of the period, culminating in Mao’s Last Revolution, goes into great detail about the politics that surrounded the CR. Also of great interest is Joseph Esherick, Paul Pickowicz, and Andrew Walder’s recent edited volume, China’s Cultural Revolution As History.

We might want to say, then, that the history of the Cultural Revolution has been written.

But as Song Yongyi demonstrates, this would be incorrect, in two ways. First, the scope of the violence and the ways in which it was perpetrated — the military and political institutions that were involved deeply in the transmission of the violence across China — these factual aspects of the period of 1966-76 are still only partially known. And there is reason to believe that the remaining areas of ignorance are likely to substantially change our interpretation of the events. In brief, it seems likely that the scope of violence and killings is substantially greater than what historians currently believe, and the degree of deliberate political control of the instruments of disorder is greater as well. So the simple factual question, what happened?, is still to be answered in many important areas. More would be known if the authorities were to make the official archives available to scholars; but this has been a highly sensitive and secretive subject since 1989.

Even more important than the factual story, though, is the explanatory story. We don’t yet have a good understanding of why this period of upheaval took place; what the social and political causes were, what the institutions were that facilitated or hindered the spread of disorder, and how these events aided or impeded the political agendas of powerful figures and factions in China. (When you visit the summer palace and Buddhist temples in Chengdu, for example, the guides tell you that these structures survived the destruction of the Red Guards because Deng Xiaopeng maintained control of the military in this region and gave orders to protect these historical structures.)

So the history of the Cultural Revolution still remains to be written. And this fact presents us with a very real question of historical epistemology: how much can we ultimately know about a vast and important event, for which there are voluminous archival sources and surviving witnesses? Can we hope to come to a “final” and approximately true interpretation of these events? And can we learn something important about social movements and political institutions from this history?

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