Notes for Adolescent Culture
School of Family and Consumer Sciences 400.404/504    Instructor: D. Witt

There has been a lot of hoopla recently surrounding the concept of culture (see stories on the "Culture Wars" by the Pew Charitiable Trust and the New York Times).  Precisely because culture, by its very definition, captures the way of life for whole groups of people it is inherently political.  Rather than fruitlessly discuss which cultural position is morally correct, we should as observers of our society, try to see culture as a whole with parts.

 The term Culture is anthropological one first defined by Sir Edward Tylor: 

“Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that
complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law,
custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man
as a member of society.”

So, the term Culture might be a little too handy to be useful unless we further define it.

There is the larger American Culture that contains all the elements of our national mind - our flag, our historic documents, defining historical moments, "our way of life", our devotion to capitalism and the two party system. Also baseball, hot dogs, apple pie (and Chevrolet) - characteristically American art, American music, and American food.

Our culture is home - like the song says (loud warning), written by an African American Rock and Roll Pioneer and sung by an Hispanic-American to an audience with ages ranging from young to old. Linda sings, "I'm so glad we're livin' in the u.s.a."

And within, or in addition to the larger culture, there are the two overarching dimensions of subculture in adolescents’ lives are Socioeconomic Status and Ethnic origins of their family.

  • Socioeconomic status.  A grouping of people with similar occupational, educational, and economic characteristics.
  • Ethnicity.  A dimension of culture based on cultural heritage, nationality, race, religion, and language.

There are also important subcultures that exist underneath the umbrella of the larger culture (with all its rules and conditions), which can be based on one or more of the following: specific religions, ethnicities/races, ages, tastes in music, art, or fashion, or combinations of one or more of each of those things.

So think about this graphic depiction of our culture and its parts:

Everyone, regardless of their subcultural status, is influenced and protected by the larger cultural umbrella of beliefs and values, rules and laws, principles and norms. As long as their subcultural elements do not conflict with the larger cultural scheme, then they may practice their subculture without penalty or prejudice.  If, say a religious cult required its members to marry multiple spouses, then because that belief tenet runs contrary to U.S. law, they would be disallowed that practice, and likely jailed for its implementation. If, however, the subcultural requirement was to wear a fried egg on one's head at all times, while deeply odd, there's no law against doing so.

According to (Brewer & Campbell, 1976), people have a tendency to believe or feel:

  • believe that their customs and values are natural and the culture of others is unnatural
  • believe their cultural customs are universally valid and applicable to other societies
  • behave in ways that favor their cultural group
  • feel proud of their cultural group
  • feel hostile toward other cultural groups
These beliefs are part of the concept of Ethnocentrism - favoring one's own group over all others. Education is not immune to falling into the ethnocentrism trap - traditionally, when we study adolescent development, we study it from a Euro-centric approach (unique to the values of US), but what of adolescent development among diverse populations?  How do we create a society of free expression with so many diverse subcultures and an institutional system of education that is dominated by typically American values?

One way is to rely on one of four Models of Changing the Cultural Focus of the Individual
  1. Assimilation.  Occurs when individuals relinquish their cultural identity and move into the larger society.  “The melting pot.”
  2. Acculturation.  Cultural change that results from continuous, firsthand contact between two distinctive cultural groups.
  3. Alternation model.  This model assumes that it is possible for an individual to know and understand two different cultures.  It also assumes that individuals can alter their behavior to fit a particular social context.
  4. Multicultural model.  This model promotes a pluralistic approach to understanding two or more cultures.  It argues that people can maintain their distinctive identities while working with others from different cultures to meet common national or economic needs.
Additionally, we can counter these issues is to consciously study things like dating rituals across cultures, make cross-cultural comparisons, do comparative research on different cultures. Anthropology was the first, and probably still the premiere discipline for doing this kind of scholarly work.

Margret Mead's study of adolescents from Samoa (Coming of Age in Samoa).  Among her findings was evidence that the Storm and Stress of adolescence is not a cultural universal as previously thought.

Achievement Oriented Youth
In the U.S. adolescents are socialized to be achievement oriented and more independent when compared to other cultures. Studies have shown that American parents socialize children to be independent while other cultures focus on obedience, responsibility and group solidarity. U.S. adolescents tend to be more competitive, less cooperative.

Although Anglo-Americans are achievement oriented, they do not exceed certain cultures (Japanese, Chinese, Asian) depending on what we are taking as our measure of achievement. Eighty six percent of Asian-American & 64% of Caucasian American adolescents pursue post-High School education.  Achievement alone, to the exclusion of other developmental tasks, may be detrimental to overall development.  According to David Elkind, American children are too achievement oriented and it has affected their mental health. 

Adolescent Sexuality and the Culture of Commerce and Sales
Some cultures consider the expression of sexuality during puberty to be healthy and appropriate while others are more strictly forbidding. Among the folk on Ines Beag (Small Island in Ireland).  Inhabitants are the most sexually deprived in the world.  They have No knowledge of French kissing or masturbation. Sex education doesn’t exist. At once they believe that after marriage, nature will take its course, and men think that intercourse is bad for their health. They detest nudity- only babies are allowed to bathe nude and adults wash only the parts of their body that extend beyond their clothing. Premarital sex is out of the question. After marriage, sexual partners keep clothing on during intercourse.

In contrast, Mangaian culture in the South Pacific allow boys to learn about masturbation around age 6 and 7, and at age 13, boys undergo a male ritual in which they receive an incision on their penis while receiving instruction on how to sexually please a woman.  After the ritual incision heals, the young man is invited to engage in sexual relations with an experienced woman who teaches him how to hold back his desire until the female partner can be satisfied. By the end of adolescence, developing Mangaian male has sexual relations every night with a woman.

Obviously we are being unfair to the folk described in the two cultures in these sweeping, general statements. To illustrate this, how might we similarly characterize American adolescent sexuality? Often the concept of teenage sexuality is used to enhance product sales, rather than respected as the natural, crucial, necessary means to our society's survival that it is.  From various perspectives aside from moralistic ones, teen sexuality takes on different meanings:

  • To the purveyors of various grooming products, entertainment media, and fashion elements, excited teenagers represent a market to be exploited for profit.
  • To the parents of teenagers, adolescent sexuality represents a major hindrance to their child's educational and financial future.
  • To community health professionals, adolescent sexuality represents a threat to our ability to resist disease.
  • To the taxpayer, teen sex can lead increased costs of social services for fatherless children.
  • To educators, teen sex takes time away from studies and school.
  • To the teenager, sexuality is an exciting adventure into self-exploration, eroticism, love and affection.
We can quickly see the topic is complex with few in our society who can keep all the perspectives in mind when assessing adolescent sexuality. The point is that making quick and easy generalizations about this, and most other aspects of adolescents, will be prone to error.

Rites of Passage associated with puberty. Formal and informal rituals which mark an individual’s transition from childhood into young adulthood are found in every culture. Note those below from various subcultures.

  • The Jewish Bar Mitzvah for boys and Bat Mitzvah for girls (meaning "son or daughter of the commandment") occurs on their 13th birthday, is supposed to signal the teenager's initial entry into adulthood and the beginning of serious adherence to Jewish law and traditions. A time to become responsible for one's own actions.
  • The Catholic confirmation and the Protestant Baptism are similar in meaning, but are less associated with a specific age of the individual.
  • The Social Debutante Ball, a tradition among upper classes in which young women are "introduced" to society by their wealthy fathers, usually for purposes of announcing their availability for possible marriage. Prior to the Ball, young women often have attended cotillion classes where they perfected their "social graces" such as manners, etiquette, and appreciation of art and style.
  • Quinceañas, originally from Cuba and Puerto Rico, and now found throughout Latino culture is a party for girls on their 15th birthday - at the party she is accompanied by her relatives and friends, who join her for a religious ceremony before the festivities. Originally, the birthday girl would sit in a "peacock" chair covered in flowers and surrounded by 15 boys and 15 girls.
  • Russ knots are Scandinavian rites of passage, like merit badges, that boys earn in early to middle adolescence, and come in many forms:
    • Having sex outdoors or in the forest (earns a pine cone or stick)
    • Spending a night in a tree (earns a stick from the tree)
    • Eating a Big Mac in four bites (earns a piece of the box it comes in)
    • Buying condoms or tampons using only sign language (earns a piece of the item bought)
    • Drinking a bottle of wine in 20 minutes (earns the wine cork)
    • Crawling through a super market while barking and biting customers' legs (earns a dog biscuit)
    • Spending a school day crawling on hands and knees (earns a toy shoe)
    • Spending the entire russ period sober (earns a fizzy drink cork)
  • American Rites are somewhat more reasonable and include:
    • Getting a driver's license
    • Graduating from high school
    • First real kiss
    • Shaving (you have to have hair to shave - so this is a pubertal thing)
    • Becoming Engaged

The difference between culture and "pop" culture
Where the larger culture is a system of norms (behavior codes) that provides each individual with a guide for behavior, standards for proper conduct. popular, or "pop" subcultures, such as teen culture, youth culture, or Gen-Xers, are part of the larger culture and use many of its symbols. However, they tend to drive markets for their own use, such as music, movies, and so on. Popular culture generates its own symbols and language, which is totally awesome.

Of course, being adolescent, African-American, blue collar, protestant, and a northerner has a great deal of meaning in terms of a person's daily experience in life. Such a person's opinions, attitudes, and even behaviors will probably be much different from an adolescent, Hispanic, middle class, Catholic living in New Mexico. And that person will have a different set of assumptions from an Asian-American rich kid from New York. Add to this complex of traits and experiences things like historical era, musical tastes, rural-urban differences, and so on, and the effects of subculture membership takes on a much broader meaning. The Pop part, however, is additional to all that.

Language and non-verbal communication
Because culture and subculture informs our daily lives, it is a useful idea for all of us to understand. We are given to certain attitudes and principles, not for their measurable value but for no other reason that our culture offers us a narrow pathway to travel. Maintain these attitudes or suffer the consequences.  When a developmental psychologist refers to the social environment in which the individual matures, the d.p. is referring to culture. Same goes for discussions of the acquisition of language. Language is culture (it is the verbal representation of culture in symbolic terms).

When someone tells us something really shocking, we respond by:

  • raising our eyebrows very high
  • putting our hand to your mouth
  • moving our head back a little
  • and uttering an exclamatory phrase, such as "Wow!", or "Geeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez!"
One of the main functions of culture is that it develops so that we may interact with each other using its communication system - language.  As part of culture, a language is invented so that people can be taught to survive in the physical world. Words are symbols, perfectly devoid of meaning until we artificially attach meaning to the series of grunts, whistles, clicks and sounds that make up a word. Here's one:

To make the word with our language apparatus, first make a smile with teeth apart and force air out of the mouth without vibrating the vocal chords, then raise the back of the tongue towards the roof of the mouth and say "HEE"
MO is produced by pursing the lips together, buzzing the vocal chords and kiss the lips open to form an "o" after an "mmm"
STAT - whistle a "ssss" as you place the tip of the tongue to the inside top of the front teeth, then quickly drop the jaw open releasing the tongue for a second, then quickly put it back on the top teeth. hhhhhhhhee-moooooo-ssssstat

Pretty ridiculous, no? And that's just the tongue, teeth, lips, and vocal chords.
We can inflect upwards to make an interrogative while - Hemostat?
We can inflect downwards on the 2nd syllable to make a declarative - Hemostat!
Or we can emphasize the 1st syllable and trail off on the second to signify disbelief - HEMostat?

Language is flexible and deliciously useful. Ancient Hopi native Americans had no future or past tense in their language. The only unit of time in their language is a day. Consequently, they are often late for meetings. A puff of smoke, a wave, a flame, lightning, and a meteor shower all were denoted by a single verb meaning "an event of short duration." Airplanes, birds, insects were referred to by a noun that means "a thing that flies through the air."  Eskimo/Aleutian Islanders have over 100 words to describe various snow conditions because snow and the weather are life and death events in their culture.

The sociologist, Emil Durkheim, noticed that so called primitive societies built their near environment to shape their conception of the universe, building their shelters in the form that they see the universe taking. If he saw huts arranged in a big circle, with a common meeting ground in the middle, he could then observe that the people would tell stories about a circular life path and hereafter. If Durkheim was right, here in the U.S. (most of western culture, in fact) we see an orderly, linear universe by virtue of the way we organize our cities into grids of streets running generally north to south and east to west.

You can bet that the people who live here pattern their thoughts in much the same way they pattern there cities.
In other words, our patterns of thought are determined by the words we have to express ourselves. Culture determines language, Language determines our expressions, our expressions determine the very ideas in our heads.

Sets of symbols make for a cultural imperative.
Body Image - most of the images we find in daily life to guide our own self-evaluation have their origin in commerce.  While purveyors of products will rationalize their true intentions, those intentions are singularly to make money and nothing else. This is done by creating fear in the individual that they might be unattractive, uncool, stupid or left out.  Thus, products aimed at overcoming these undesirable qualities are really selling an emotion rather than an effective product. 

The weakness teenagers seem to share is that none are happy with their bodies and physical traits.  Those with curly hair are told to want straight. Girls with straight hair would die for curly. Everyone hates some part of their body - thighs, feet, butt, breasts, eyelashes, ear lobes.  Nothing is too small to deserve obsession.  PBS has a webpage devoted to parents for encouraging teenagers to actively resist these efforts at The idea is that being happy with our bodies does not lead to higher profits.

We go so far in "dressing" for others that we hide our humanness with colognes, perfumes, hair dressings, undergarments, the right clothes. Regarding Overall Body Appearance, the most critical areas for women:  weight 52%,  buttocks (57%)  thighs (51%)  abdomen (50%)

We try to hide through cosmetics ($20 billion a year) and cosmetic surgery - responses to real (not imagined) demands to conform to the ideal. Consistently, research shows that attributes of warmth, friendliness, strength, and sexiness are associated with the more physically attractive people. This translates into social power in the hands of those who would dress us.

Youth Culture
It is from group experiences that self-concept emerges. The importance of group interaction and adherence to the rules of the clique cannot be overestimated. We develop reference groups - certain groups whose opinions we cherish (positive reference groups) and whose opinions we abhor (negative reference groups).

We wish to identify ourselves with some groups and separate ourselves from others.
We "dress" figuratively and literally for our peers.

The youth culture has its own set of values, morals, and behavior codes. Points of agreement between adolescent and adult cultural values are in areas where one group or the other has little interest. EX: Religion, Politics, etc.

In areas of great concern to both, there is plenty of potential for extreme conflict - hair styles , personal freedom , control over one's life , language , school performance , peer relations , sexual behavior , music.

Language in the youth culture: stylized, specialized speech patterns. Awesome, smooth, hormonally inept, basically hot, def, jammin', killer, tubular.
Tribal aspects:
burners, dweebs, scabs, skinheads, slammin, dozens, front offs, flicks,  I was chillin' at Sulls and I yakked a power spew!

In addressing the study of popular culture - Music, videos, television, movies - one finds that the area is rich in speculation and opinion, full of wild accusations about the ultimate dead end of troubled youth, as if we could blame the current state of all things teen on rock and roll lyrics.  No social scientist believes the trouble with kids today is the direct result of music.  However, there are several parents, elected officials, and teachers who do.

Studies of Intended vs. perceived meanings of lyrics consistently find:

  1. those who worry the most have only limited experience with the music
  2. the kids have a hard time reproducing lyrics
  3. I'm reminded of the blue music of my high school years. The band was the Kingsmen and the song was Louie, Louie. This was a three chord, repetitive tune that was said to have lurid connotations and the (gasp) "f" word clearly spoken in the lyrics. It didn't help that the band could hardly play their instruments and the singer slurred almost every line in the tune. Countless thousands of high school students were suspended for having copies of the lyrics in their notebooks.
Researchers also consistently find that:
  1. troubled youth doesn't like music unless it has a danceable beat.
  2. today's artists are no more or less valueless as a class than the average school teacher.
  3. nobody listens to lyrics much
What has happened is that popular culture (the business) has pinpointed adolescents as a market with greater intensity than ever before - high end sneakers, starter jackets, smoking cartoon animals. They didn't start with teenagers. This all begins when we are children, pleading with our parents for the action figures, toys, even bedsheets that go with the blockbuster movie they just saw. In the interest of making lots of money, agents of the entertainment industry know that parents will pay to have a happy child. Over the years, we come to expect more stuff. We deny our own failings as parents, while looking for easy answers to our children's problems. Meanwhile:
    Prior to World War II, the major cause of death among teenagers was illness (polio, malnutrition, etc. After World War II and the "invention" of teenagers as a commodity, the major cause of death has become alcohol, drugs, and war.  All this means that the adolescent is increasingly seen as a commodity to be bought and sold and used in the marketplace.
How'd we get this way? "On the surface, the world of the 1950's was all Eisenhower calm. Under the surface, silent young people railed at their repression and discontentment." (Rubin, 1969). In a society where "How much is that doggie in the window" can claim the number 1 sales position for five weeks straight, the sight of black leather jacketed "punks", complete with the dangling Lucky cigarette was appalling, delinquent, renegade, and hoodlum-like. In the forties and fifties, people were divided into two groups: children and adults. In 1948, the term "teenager" was first used in print in Life Magazine, thereby beginning the era of the youth culture.

It became increasingly clear, because of pinpoint marketing strategies, that there could be developed in teenagers special troubles, desires, and passions that were particular to their age. Not just teenagers in love, but the draft, the war, the bomb, the FUTURE!!!!  James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood had just finished "Rebel Without a Cause", a movie detailing the middle class kids and their alienation. The message was, "Hey you parents - Better Watch Out!"