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
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
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.
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
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:
One way is to rely on one of four Models of Changing the Cultural Focus of the Individual
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
and the Culture of Commerce and Sales
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:
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 difference between culture and "pop" culture
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
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:
Pretty ridiculous, no? And
that's just the tongue, teeth, lips, and vocal chords.
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.
Sets of symbols make for
a cultural imperative.
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 http://www.pbs.org/parents/childrenandmedia/ads-teens.html.
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.
We wish to identify ourselves with some groups and
separate ourselves from others.
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:
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:
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!"