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Life Cycle

AdolescenceContemporary Perspectives

While the approaches to certain questions had been significantly refined by the 1980s and 1990s when anthropologists once again began to study adolescence, these studies can still generally be separated into those that seek to find some universals across cultures in the adolescent experience, and those studies that attempt to provide in-depth context for "youth" culture in specific places. In the first case, biology or evolution (understood broadly) is assumed to play some role in the experience of adolescence, while in the other, situating cultural contexts is of exclusive concern.

The two dominant voices for the first perspective are Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry III. Schlegel (an anthropologist) and Barry (a psychologist) published Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry in 1991. Arguing for an ethological perspective, in their case reflecting upon observations of primate groups to inform questions and buttress conclusions, Schlegel and Barry assume that adolescent behaviors are both "antecedent," that is, linked to earlier socialization and development and "situational"—influenced by the particular conditions of adolescence. Moreover, Schlegel and Barry argue that reproduction, in particular the (often extended) gap between sexual maturity and social adulthood, is a "key issue" in understanding how adolescence is managed and understood cross-culturally. In this view, biology (in the form of sexual maturity and the necessities of reproduction) and culture (which rarely allows for the full assumption of adult roles at puberty) intersect, literally creating this life stage. In their thinking, neither biology nor culture should be given explanatory primacy.

Schlegel and Barry's methodology consists primarily of reviewing existing cross-cultural ethnographic works that discuss adolescence—if only briefly—and coding for a select number of variables. Their statistical analysis of 173 societies for boys and 175 for girls points to both regularities and differences in adolescence across cultures. For example, the authors argue for the universality of the life stage of adolescence and refute the contention that it is linked exclusively to industrialization. They also point out the ways in which adolescence differs for boys and girls within a culture, and the variable degrees of discord in the adolescent period that can exist between them.

The 1990s also saw the emergence of a number of journal articles, edited volumes, and book length ethnographies that focused on adolescence, or "youth culture." The shift in terminology from adolescence to youth culture is not arbitrary but reflects the growing emphasis on seeing adolescents as producers of culture, not just as individuals awkwardly situated between culturally sanctioned life stages. The term youth culture itself is not new and comes from the sociologist Talcott Parsons who argued in 1942 that middle-class American teens lived in a distinctive cultural world. In today's usage, youth culture has come to mean that teens are viewed as social agents who impact their cultures in meaningful ways (Wulff).

Studies of youth culture are diverse and cover a wide range of topics, but they reflect some of the larger concerns of late twentieth and early twenty-first century anthropology. First, they reflect the shift away from viewing culture as holistic and consistent as described by Mead and others, toward an understanding of culture as "contested" and represented by multiple perspectives and voices. Women, minorities, and even youths are fully part of cultures, yet they may have distinctive interpretations and perspectives on that culture, and act upon that culture accordingly. Second, studies of youth culture reflect a concern for the ways power impacts social organization and cultural expression. Youth are not only influenced by larger societal power structures such as race, class, or gender; they produce, respond to, and manipulate power in different ways (Caputo; Sharp). Finally, youth culture studies are also influenced by anthropology's increasing interests in the processes of globalization and transnationalism (see Kathleen Hall). Teens are often the first to embrace media and technology, they may be the only ones in their migrant families to speak the dominant language or, because of transnational migration, they may find a stunning disjuncture between their experiences as adolescents and the experiences of their parents. "Youth culture" is now seen as responsive and dynamic and worthy of study in its own right.

The study of adolescence in anthropology has been one in which the disciplinary debates between nature and nurture have played out with intense fervor, but also one that represents the fruit of disciplinary cross-fertilization. From the outset, anthropological studies of adolescence have built upon and contributed to debates in multiple disciplines, most especially sociology, psychology, history, and more recently cultural studies. Beginning with Mead, some anthropological work has contributed to public policy debates, most especially in education. While the study of adolescence lay relatively dormant in anthropology for many decades, the resurgence of studies on adolescence such as Schlegel and Barry's signal an attempt to unite divergent perspectives while those on "youth culture" seek to bring the study of young people back to the center of anthropological theorizing.


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Sharp, Lesley A. The Sacrificed Generation: Youth, History and the Colonized Mind in Madagascar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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Wulff, Helena. "Introducing Youth Culture in its Own Right: The State of the Art and New Possibilities." In Youth Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Vered Amit-Talai and Helena Wulff. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Ann Miles

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Laser - Background And History to Linear equationLife Cycle - Adolescence - Conceptualizing Adolescence, Anthropological Critique, Contemporary Perspectives, Bibliography