African Studies Youth
Karen Tranberg Hansen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0145


Youth is a culturally constructed category with meanings embedded in the transition from childhood to adulthood that change through time and place, invoking diverse understandings of chronological age. Youth is also an identity that is mobilized along with other identities based on ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual identification. In cultural terms, children are often distinguished from youth by their dependence. This distinction attaches agency to youth, within the societal constraints under which they operate. Many young people are subject to hierarchical gender- and generation-based relationships with parents, guardians, and the larger society. Both academic writing and policy documents frequently blur distinctions between childhood and youth, masking the specific needs and concerns of children on the one hand and young people on the other. For more on children, see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on Children and Childhood. The difference between the two terms matters for policy interventions and makes a distinct focus on youth particularly compelling. In African Studies youth constitutes a fairly recent analytical frame that largely has been explored in interdisciplinary scholarship on the period following independence in the 1960s and onward. Anthropological and historical works on earlier periods often used different categories to capture culturally and historically specific ways of dealing with transitions between life stages such as age grade and generation or distinct local idioms. Recent works have turned a renewed focus on generation as a category relevant to the construction of knowledge and power relations. From the colonial period, socio-economic and political changes introducing labor migration, the cash economy, education, and urbanization propelled life stage changes resulting in the emergence of youth as a transitional category preceding adulthood. Africa’s recent demography has turned youth into a critical category comprising a very large proportion of the overall population that is everywhere highly visible in public space. The so-called youth bulge is challenging the roles conventionally associated with adulthood, including work, marriage, and independent householding. In response, young African women and men are developing a variety of pathways toward economic and political participation, social life, and cultural activity, which are examined in vast body of literature that has appeared especially since the turn of the last millennium.

General Overviews

Few comprehensive reference works are available for the study of youth in African studies. Most overviews comprise a mix of theoretical and empirical analysis. Introductions to several special journal issues and edited anthologies discuss the youth in relationship to discipline and specific themes and to research on ongoing changes of African societies. Durham 2000 synthesizes anthropological approaches, and Cole 2011 expands the anthropological discussion to include generational relations. Diouf 2003 overviews works on changing notions of citizenship and youth self-creation efforts while Comaroff and Comaroff 2005 discusses the growing youth cleavage and the youth predicament of exclusion along with their attempts to create new places in society. Seekings 2006 examines changing representations of youth in South Africa, while van Dijk, et al. 2011 addresses youth as an ideology. Smith 2011 explores the relationship between population growth and civil strife, and Frederiksen and Munive 2010 deals with conflict issues, enterprise, and aspirations.

  • Cole, Jennifer. “A Cultural Dialectics of Generational Change: The View from Africa.” Review of Research in Education 35 (2011): 60–88.

    DOI: 10.3102/0091732X10391371

    Reviews scholarship, mainly in anthropology and urban studies, contrasting works on social rupture with studies of generational conjuncture, characterized as connections between coming of age and social, cultural, and economic changes.

  • Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. “Reflections on Youth: From the Past to the Postcolony.” In Makers and Breakers: Children and Youth in Postcolonial Africa. Edited by Filip de Boeck and Alcinda Honwana, 19–29. Oxford: James Currey, 2005.

    Traces the notion of youth as a category and experience, suggesting generation as a dominant line of cleavage in the 21st century. Focus on the crisis of social reproduction and the coexistence of possibilities and problems in the face of exclusionary power structures that leave youth little space to pursue their aspirations and interests.

  • Diouf, Mamadou. “Engaging Postcolonial Culture: African Youth and Public Space.” African Studies Review 46.2 (2003): 1–12.

    DOI: 10.2307/1514823

    Discusses changing notions of citizenship, social identification, and transformations of space that enable new forms of self-creation by youth in the domains of politics, religion, leisure, and pleasure and pointing to widespread globalization of desires and expectations.

  • Durham, Deborah. “Youth and the Social Imagination in Africa: Introduction to Parts 1 and 2.” Anthropological Quarterly 73.3 (2000): 113–120.

    DOI: 10.1353/anq.2000.0003

    Discusses youth as a problematic category in anthropological studies of young people, generation, and agency in Africa, suggesting the notion of youth as a “shifter” whose significance changes in relationship to larger contexts.

  • Frederiksen, Bodil F., and Jairo Munive. “Young Men and Women in Africa: Conflicts, Enterprise and Aspirations.” Young 18.3 (2010): 249–258.

    DOI: 10.1177/110330881001800301

    Redirects attention away from crisis descriptions of youth, approaching young people as a tremendous resource, actively involved in all domains of life to create opportunities for the future.

  • Seekings, Jeremy. “Beyond Heroes and Villains: The Rediscovery of the Ordinary in the Study of Childhood and Adolescence in South Africa.” Social Dynamics 32.1 (2006): 1–20.

    DOI: 10.1080/02533950608628717

    Examines changing representations of youth in South African scholarship from heroes or villains during apartheid to subversive agents of the social order to a focus on the everyday worlds of ordinary young people.

  • Smith, Stephen W. “Youth in Africa: Rebels without a Cause but Not without Effects.” SAIS Review of International Affairs 31.2 (2011): 97–110.

    Discusses the consequences of population growth, the relationship between population age structure, including the youth bulge and the likelihood of civil strife, and explores the policy implications of Africa’s youth demography in several domains of life.

  • Van Dijk, Rijk, Mirjam de Bruijn, Carlos Cardoso, and Inge Butter. “Introduction: Ideologies of Youth.” Africa Development 36.3–4 (2011): 1–18.

    Addresses youth as an ideology rather than as a phenomenon and a concept. Reviewing existing literature, the authors advocate approaching youth as an ideological project with specific interests and resources attached to it in the framework of nation states and civic and international organizations.

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