- Distinct traditions within the sociology of youth
- Cultural studies within youth
- The youth transition tradition
- Individualization thesis
3) Current themes and methodological concerns
Youth and Adolescence
Youth and adolescence are terms which are often used interchangeably to refer to a phase of the life course between childhood and adult hood, yet are often positioned as contrasting approaches within academic discourse.
Sociologists use the term youth to refer to a socially constructed life phase which is not only culturally specific, but which is also the product of particular historical conjunctures. Youth is broadly construed as a collective experience which is shaped by social structures, age specific institutions, and societal expectations. In contrast, the term adolescence emphasizes processes of individual social and/ or physiological and psychological development and as such is much more closely associated with the disciplines of developmental psychology and clinical medicine.
There are a number of different approaches to the sociological conceptualization of youth. An approach which has been particularly influential in recent years defines youth as a period of transition, emphasizing young people’s movement through key transitional stages towards the attainment of adulthood.
Key transitional stages
Coles focuses on three key transitions:
the transition from school to work,
from the family of origin to a family of destination, and
from the parental house to a house of one’s own.
the model is rendered obsolete by the increasingly widespread deferral of some of the traditional markers of adulthood and the increased visibility of alternative life styles which challenge the assumed desirability of attainment in these areas.
An alternative approach focuses on youth as a relational concept, which derives its existence and its meaning from its relationship to the concept of adulthood. This approach foregrounds and critiques the relative powerlessness of young people in relation to the world of adults. The concepts of both youth and adolescence thus can be employed to legitimate the differential treatment of younger people, and to justify adult intervention in their lives.
A third approach focuses more on the political economy of youth, regarding youth as a period defined by the various age related legal strictures (restrictions)– including social policies – that regulate young people’s lives.
Phil Mizen (2004) has argued, for example, that ‘‘the simple fact of possessing a certain biological age brings with it differential access to social power, while age also provides the means through which young people are brought into a more or less common relationship with many of the central institutions of modern life’’
This approach, then, is closely related to the notion of youth as a relational concept. However, it places particular emphasis on the political underpinnings of the concept, and foregrounds the significance of age as a means by which full citizenship is denied.
Youth is a culturally specific concept. Access to age related citizenship rights, for example, or social norms regarding key transitional stages, varies hugely across different societies and across different cultures and regions within specific societies
Distinct traditions within the sociology of youth
Earlier conceptualizations of youth within Europe and North America were strongly influenced by the functionalist theories of writers such as Talcott Parsons and, slightly later, Shmuel N. Eisenstadt.
Within functionalist accounts, the period of youth serves as a means of facilitating the smooth transition from the particularistic values of the family of origin to the normative values of broader society.
Youth culture plays a key role in facilitating this movement, although the exact nature of a young person’s cultural affiliation is rendered theoretically irrelevant by the primary role of youth culture in ensuring the maintenance of social order. In contrast, the writings of Karl Mannheim on youth and generation point to the historically significant role of younger generations. Mannheim defined generation in terms of groups of individuals who, by belonging to the same birth cohort, share a common ‘‘generation location’’ in relation to key social and historical circumstances, and it is this common location that shapes their attitudes and actions as a distinct generation.
Mannheim defined generation in terms of groups of individuals who, by belonging to the same birth cohort, share a common ‘‘generation location’’ in relation to key social and historical circumstances, and it is this common location that shapes their attitudes and actions as a distinct generation. While nonetheless arguing that some generations are noted more for their contribution to the status quo, Mannheim recognized the agency of young people by arguing that certain generations are very much in the vanguard of social change, whether for good or ill.
Cultural studies within youth
The cultural studies tradition within youth research originated in the work of the Chicago School in the first half of the twentieth century. Classic ethnographies such as Thrasher’s The Gang (1927) and Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1943) highlighted the impact of urbanization in producing the stigmatized category of deviant youth. The Centre for Con temporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham defined the field in terms of a class based critique of young people’s roles as consumers and producers of mass and ghetto cultures.
The youth transition tradition
The youth transitions tradition has emerged as another influential strand within the sociology of youth over the last two decades, particularly in Northern Europe and Australasia. Transitions researchers have pointed to the disruption of relatively safe and predictable transitional routes and their replacement by fractured and extended transitions to adulthood, especially in the economic sphere. The transitions tradition is also distinctive for its focus on the impact of social class, gender, and ethnicity on young people’s life chances and, more recently, its engagement with debates concerning social exclusion, social capital, and the putative youth underclass. The approach has, however, been criticized for over emphasizing the impact of social structure and for adopting an over deterministic approach to understanding young people’s lives.
More recently, Ulrich Beck’s individualization thesis has been utilized by transitions researchers and others seeking to understand the experiences of young adults in ‘‘late modernity.’’ In Risk Society (1992), Beck argues that there is an increasing tendency for young people to ‘‘write their own biographies’’ in a world characterized by rising levels of risk and bewildering choice. However, while the proliferation of individualized biographies might suggest that class, ethnicity, and gender are no longer determinants of young people’s life chances, and have encouraged younger generations to feel that they are no longer constrained by these factors, critics argue that the old indicators nonetheless remain firmly in place.