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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • History
  • Peer Culture in Adolescence
  • Children and Youth Peer Cultures in Non-Western Societies

Childhood Studies Peer Culture
William A. Corsaro
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0010


Most of the early work on peer culture focuses on adolescents, with a primary concern on outcomes (positive and negative) of experience with peers on individual development. Since the late 20th century, theoretical approaches to childhood and youth studies have viewed children and youth, and their peer cultures, as worthy of documentation and study in their own right rather than as simply an element of some other area of study, such as individual development, family–child relations, education processes, and so on. From this new perspective, peer culture is defined as a stable set of activities or routines, artifacts, values, and concerns that children and youth produce and share with peers. The concept of peer culture differs from that of peer group. Children and youth are members of peer groups (i.e., children and youth of relatively the same age, although the age range can vary), whereas children and youth collectively produce their peer cultures. Children and youth produce and participate in a series of peer cultures that are influenced by various social circumstances and settings (neighborhoods, schools, city streets, village compounds, and so on) that result from age grading and other mechanisms for placing together cohorts, or groups of children and youth, for extended periods of time.

General Overviews

The topic of peer culture has been approached from a number of different theoretical perspectives in anthropology, psychology, and sociology. In sociology, the concept of youth, or adolescent, peer culture was introduced and debated in the 1940s and 1950s. The functionalist theorist Talcott Parsons advanced the notion of peer culture in Parsons 1942, arguing that it functions to ease the tension related to transition from the security of the family in childhood to adult roles. Other early writing in sociology focused less on tension with adult culture, instead stressing shared values and group loyalty; this work saw the idea of straining against adult norms of responsibility in adolescent peer culture as a myth, contending that the peer culture was not usually in opposition to adult culture (Elkin and Westley 1955). These debates contributed to theoretical differentiation between the notion of subculture and contraculture in Yinger 1960, a study of youth and other groups in society. The same issues arose again in Coleman 1961, a well-known study of high schools relying on survey data. In it, James Coleman stresses the youth culture he identifies as being in opposition to the world of adults, with students having concerns and values related to athletics, reputation, and popularity. The focus on youth culture as composed of values and themes was criticized in Fine and Kleinman 1979, which argues for the importance of studying how youth cultures are actually constructed in face-to-face interaction and spread through strong and weak ties in social networks. This focus on interaction was refined further in the interpretive perspective offered in Corsaro and Eder 1990, which contends that children produce a series of peer cultures from preschool through adolescence through interpretive reproduction. This perspective puts a central focus on collective agency and maintains that in creating their own peer cultures, children and youth contribute to reproduction and change in societies of which they are members.

  • Coleman, James S. The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education. New York: Free Press, 1961.

    The first comprehensive empirical study of adolescent culture using survey research. Coleman identifies value systems, popularity, and status groups among adolescents. He sees many aspects of youth culture as being opposed to adult society and education. Coleman’s major thesis is the need to control the adolescent society and use it to further the ends of education.

  • Corsaro, William A., and Donna Eder. “Children’s Peer Cultures.” Annual Review of Sociology 16 (1990): 197–220.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A detailed discussion of the importance of peer culture in theories of child development and socialization. The article provides a much referenced definition of peer culture and discussion of peer cultures as autonomous and creative social systems. The authors review important research on peer culture in childhood and adolescence prior to 1990. Available online for purchase.

  • Elkin, Frederick, and William A. Westley. “The Myth of Adolescent Culture.” American Sociological Review 20.6 (1955): 680–684.

    DOI: 10.2307/2088673

    This article challenged the contention of Parsons and other functionalist theorists that an adolescent culture reflecting tension, turmoil, and stress in opposition to adult culture existed in the United States in the 1950s. The authors’ interview data revealed a great deal of conformity in the youth peer culture and continuity in socialization.

  • Fine, Gary Alan, and Sherryl Kleinman. “Rethinking Subculture: An Interactionist Analysis.” American Journal of Sociology 85.1 (1979): 1–20.

    DOI: 10.1086/226971

    This article offers a reconceptualization of the notion of subculture, arguing that it must be linked to processes of interaction. Youth subcultures are used as illustrations of how subcultures are constructed and spread through interlocking networks. Available online for purchase.

  • Parsons, Talcott. “Age and Sex in the Social Structure of the United States.” American Sociological Review 7 (1942): 604–616.

    DOI: 10.2307/2085686

    Parsons was among the first to use the term youth culture, and he describes it as containing aspects in opposition to adult culture. He relates the emergence of youth culture to patterns of age and sex structure in the United States and believed that it represented a strain between youth and adult roles.

  • Yinger, J. Milton. “Contraculture and Subculture.” American Sociological Review 25.5 (1960): 625–635.

    DOI: 10.2307/2090136

    This article makes important distinctions between the concepts of subculture and contraculture. Yinger uses adolescent groups to illustrate the distinctions. The article serves as an important theoretical forerunner of later work on youth subcultures.

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