In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Youth Culture

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Interventions
  • Language Use and Identity
  • Schooling and Education
  • Class and Labor
  • Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
  • Race and Racialization
  • Modernity and Globalization
  • Migration, Immigration, and Transnationalism

Anthropology Youth Culture
Shalini Shankar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0081


The anthropological study of youth began as part of broader inquiries about life cycle, ritual, personhood, and generation (e.g., Margaret Mead’s 1952 classic Coming of Age in Samoa). Such early studies were generally interested in childhood and adolescence insofar as they offered further insight about a society and adult notions of personhood. “Youth culture,” the term widely used in academic and popular circles today, emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a post–World War II phenomenon in the United States, Canada, and western Europe. A product of extended secondary schooling, delayed entry into the workforce, and the proliferation of consumer culture, youth culture has taken multiple forms with unique trajectories. Youth culture studies now include children, teenagers, and young people in their twenties, and have placed these individuals at the center of the inquiry, rather than as a liminal period before adulthood. This shift has led to productive understandings of broader anthropological questions of interest—such as race, gender, sexuality, class, globalization, modernity, education, and cultural production—while it also shows how youth action is a site of agency, resistance, identity construction, and social change. Scholarship examining style, adornment, and identity construction has made excellent use of the concept of subculture, while practice-based models have further considered the significance of leisure activity, such as consumption of media, commodities, and digital technologies, in young lives. Several other prominent areas have emerged, including childhood and socialization; psychologically informed approaches to child development; schooling as a lens to dynamics of race, gender, and class formation; and language use, identity, and subjectivity. In the past two decades or so, increased emphasis on the ways in which youth mediate globalization, modernity, migration, and transnationalism have come to the fore, as have studies that foreground issues of activism and politics. The potential of youth to be the initiators of social change, however measured, has been productively explored; so too have the struggles of youth as they cope with racism, poverty, abuse, violence, armed conflict, and other social ills. Methodologically, anthropological work on youth is marked by long-term, rigorous fieldwork using ethnographic and sometimes sociolinguistic approaches, and this in situ fieldwork has led to substantive insights about identity and subjectivity, while also attending to history and political economy. Such research has enabled youth to be regarded as significant contributors to the social worlds in which they operate, as well as how they may be poised to inherit and transform these worlds.

Theoretical Interventions

The shift to move youth from the margins to the center of anthropological inquiry has been a slow process. Still somewhat sidelined in the discipline overall, as Hirschfeld 2002 notes, theoretical interventions via review articles that define youth as a field of study help give it more of a presence. For instance, Bucholtz 2002 looks at youth culture with a practice-based approach that also considers language use. Korbin 2003 considers childhoods with violence, and Levine 2007 covers numerous contours and debates of this field. Revising approaches to theorizing youth, such as Durham 2004, and considering issues of methodology and representation as shown in Best 2007, keep critical focus on this field of inquiry. Sloan 2007 turns a focus on minority youth in particular (see also Shankar 2011 cited under Linguistic Style and Slang). Undoing misconceptions about the ways that youth have been assessed in schools is also of major concern, especially to those working on the anthropology of education (see McDermott and Hall 2007, as well as the citations under Schooling and Education).

  • Best, Amy, ed. 2007. Representing youth: Methodological issues in critical youth studies. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    A thoughtful collection of essays that examine the benefits and challenges of doing ethnographic fieldwork with children and youth.

  • Bucholtz, Mary. 2002. Youth and cultural practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:525–552.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085443

    This review article offers in-depth coverage of about three decades of youth culture studies. It establishes the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s as setting the stage for a practice-based approach, and draws in more recent work from anthropology and related fields.

  • Durham, Deborah. 2004. Disappearing youth: Youth as a social shifter in Botswana. American Ethnologist 31.4: 589–605.

    DOI: 10.1525/ae.2004.31.4.589

    Argues that youth should be considered less as a fixed category and more as a set of shifting relationships, and thus as a “shifter” in the indexical sense of indirectly pointing to broader social meanings.

  • Hirschfeld, Lawrence A. 2002. Why don’t anthropologists like children? American Anthropologist 104.2: 611–627.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2002.104.2.611

    Those working on youth culture may find the title question to ring true, as anthropology has largely marginalized youth as a legitimate field of inquiry and instead considered them primarily as a precursor to adulthood. This article offers reasons for these theoretical and ethnographic gaps and critiques anthropology’s overwhelming emphasis on adults.

  • Korbin, Jill E. 2003. Children, childhoods, and violence. Annual Review of Anthropology 32:431–446.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.061002.093345

    An overview of numerous types of violence children face and are recruited into, including armed conflict, bullying, abuse, violent rituals, and neglect. Also considers the violent behavior of youth as a form of agency.

  • Levine, Robert A. 2007. Ethnographic studies of childhood: A historical overview. American Anthropologist 109.2: 247–260.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2007.109.2.247

    A survey of approaches from Mead and Malinowski to twenty-first contemporary ethnography of children, with an emphasis on developmental and psychological perspectives.

  • McDermott, Ray, and Kathleen D. Hall. 2007. Scientifically debased research on learning, 1854–2006. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 38.1: 9–19.

    This intervention documents problematic classroom practices, testing, and teacher training brought about by the No Child Left Behind Act, and calls for less standardized testing and more individual case studies.

  • Sloan, Kris. 2007. High-stakes accountability, minority youth, and ethnography: Assessing the multiple effects. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 38.1: 24–41.

    DOI: 10.1525/aeq.2007.38.1.24

    Illustrates the value of ethnography in offering a counterpoint to dominant perspectives on minority youth schooling, including curriculum, pedagogy, and student experiences.

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