This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Youth."
Each of the authors featured in the Curated Collection on Youth was asked a series of questions by the issue editors. These questions focused on anthropology's contribution to youth studies, how the author approaches age as an analytic, and emerging themes in youth studies. Deborah Durham leads this discussion; following her commentary is each author's response to the editors' questions.
When I first started reading about youth in the early 1990s, after spending much field time with a youth group in Botswana, many studies I read started with the observation that youth had been badly neglected by anthropologists. One could hardly write that now: we have a rich literature emerging on youth, rich not only in its depth but also in its variety. This collection of essays reflects some of that variety, examining the lives of young people in Africa, Asia, and Europe, in contexts ranging from higher education and the global music market to precarious small businesses and churches working to redeem the trauma of a horrific civil war. This variety is all the richer in that, while it comes together in a visible anthropology of youth, it also shows us how youth provides a new analytic lens, focusing our attention on new issues and processes, or on older ones in new ways.
Youth is a particularly powerful lens because it is, as I’ve argued in an earlier publication, a social shifter, a kind of indexical term (Durham 2004). Youth indexes not only relationships between age groups, but also the wider set of social relationships through which forms of personhood, moral agency, and horizons are articulated. Youth indexes overlapping fields, such as the nature of knowledge, chronotopological assumptions, sources of autonomy and interdependence, spheres of activity and morality. These are fields of power, and so it is not surprising that the space of youth is a contested one, as people position themselves and others within it, as they articulate their experiences and formulate action. For the articles selected for this virtual issue, it is their focus on this contested space of youth, which indexes forms of power and personhood, that allows them to take on questions about globalization, hybridity, fantasy, memory, and the idea of a political public in fresh and critical ways.
We note these overlapping fields and how people move around them, in Katherine Ewing’s critical examination of German images of young women of Turkish background. Many images partake in a discourse about a circumscribing Turkish culture and a freeing German youth; the invocations of a tolerant multiculturalism or hybrid identities (the Turkish girl boxer) only reify the sense of distinct, fixed cultures. Although many generalized discussions of youth take the prototypical youth to be male, here discourses focus their attention on a female youth, victimized, and in need of rescue. These women are also caught between forms of knowledge (Western schooling that “empowers” the young and a “traditional” Turkish culture that vests authority in elders). Hunched over, the Turkish female youth fails to grow, to open herself to the new world: youth takes shape, hunched or upright, fleeing or fighting, at the intersection of ideas of growth, forms of freedom, authority, culture, and knowledge. These intersections and others that cross their lives, as Ewing points out, provide shifting and unstable positions within which young women locate themselves. Interestingly, she never mentions the age of these young women of Turkish background: their youth is constituted at the intersection of these fields, fields their youth indexes.
Brent Luvaas, too, writes about how youth navigate multiple fields of identity, in his examination of the indie pop group, Mocca, from Indonesia. Although he doesn’t theorize how hisMocca Concert Poster subjects come to be youth, we look in his article at both the age of those in the indie pop scene (teens and twenties), but more carefully at how that age is framed in a middle-class experience. We also note the ways in which their determination to “do things on their own terms” and reject “traditions” serves as signs of youth status – an idea of youth rebelliousness that, in spite of Margaret Mead’s caveats, still frames how we identify youth and what we focus on. Yet perhaps more to the point is the way in which Mocca, and others like them, try to situate themselves as part of a global “youth culture” whose aesthetics are largely Western. Within this global culture, they reduce national identity and local culture to little more than a label. In this space of “global youth culture,” they produce bland syntheses (“Dear Diary”) that, as Luvaas describes them “could have been written nearly anywhere by anyone.” Indie musicians, they produce their music outside the corporate music labels; at the same time they promote Indonesian labels, urging people to “buy local.” As they shape themselves as global youth (anywhere, anyone, yet using English, diaries, and highly particular and yet deterritorialized cosmopolitan aesthetics), they also provide ways to be Indonesian without invoking one of the ethnic or other identities that have been shaped by contested nationalisms and international politics. It is not the fact that they are youth that empowers them, or makes them rebellious: it is their attempts to be a particular kind of youth.
The young survivors of civil war in Sierra Leone in Rosalind Shaw’s study also seek to remake themselves as a particular kind of youth: displaced during the war, they now recontextualize their experiences in new narrative frames. With their parents and other family members dead or dispersed, their pasts do not situate them well for moving towards the kind of adulthood they hope for, which includes marriage, family, and white-collar work. Against the impulse of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and various humanitarian organizations to reveal atrocities in order to manage them, a young man says that “The more you portray this kind of thing, the more you encourage it.” Instead of encouraging this too-familiar violence, the Pentecostals integrate a different past into a more hopeful future, knit together in narratives of spiritual warfare over the terrain of education, marriage and salaried jobs with NGOs. With a past recast in terms of this spiritual warfare with Satan and the Underworld (uncannily similar to ECOMOG forces and international organizations), rapes, agonizing deaths of small siblings, and enforced servitude can be confronted both in the past and present, and through the forces of prayer, in the future. Youth, here, because of its distinctive position with respect to a future-in-the-making (see Cole and Durham 2008), forms the grounds for remaking a workable past, and integrating it into a future than can be thought about.
Brad Weiss discusses young people reworking their lives’ possibilities by knitting together the terms of a “situated present” with specific ways of imagining its horizons in Arusha, Tanzania. As the Tanzanian economy liberalized, and access to goods grew even as formal employment declined, Weiss observed the proliferation of barbershops – small, dependent on kin or a patron but often failing. They serve a clientele that, in spite of shop names like Brooklyn, Paris, and Liverpool Cuts, and brightly painted images of the Dennis Rodman haircut, or the shaved Tupac Shakur, opts for simple, even conservative, neat cuts, affordable weekly or at least monthly. Weiss examines how the exotic shops, and extensive knowledge about Western rap stars, work to situate the young men in a particular space of fantasy, where Arusha becomes the excluded “other” in these global pronouncements about Brooklyn, Paris, or Cape Town. They build their exclusion not only with respect to the looming images of Mike Tyson or Michael Jordan, but also through constructing their space – the ephemeral barbershops, subject to the hard economy and patron’s whims – as kijiwe, village grindstones, solid sites of hard work, but kijiwe from which the typical village users, women, have been evacuated. Their fantasy, then, is one that draws together a sense of exclusion and power, masculinity and work, establishing the reality of their “thug”-like lives.
Gender is also a critical dimension of the ways in which youth is argued over in Ritty Lukose’s study of college students in Kerala, India. Even as women become recognized figures in places of employment, and in classrooms, the space of political citizenship, or the “political public,” remains a predominantly male space. Young men have come historically to be core constituents of this political public, drawing upon masculine privileges to move about in public, the free time and political recruitment they have as students (making up for class time with private tutorial services), and associations with potential violence. Their particular kind of political position is situated at odds with the interests of another posited citizenry whose private situations and private interests are threatened by the mobility of these political young men. Against this, some people have sought to reclaim a “space of youth” that includes women as well as men, and that links in-school study with activities to foster national-civic development. Struggles to shape a socio-political space of youth take place through attempts to re-locate youth with respect to shifting contours of a contested “public” and proliferating “private” spheres, debates over the nature of political activity whether in protests or the right to consume, gender, and the participation of new groups including NRIs.
None of these articles directly addresses the persistent, nagging question in studies of youth: who is youth? Numbers – that is, a fixed age range – simply naturalize assumptions about youth from the west, even as the ages at which people in America claim to be youth are shifting dramatically. We frequently read about the recent protests in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, as a youth rebellion – even in news articles that interview 80-year-old women participating in the protests. How can we talk about the protests in Tahrir Square as a youth movement connected with the frustrations of the well-educated but underemployed and web-literate 35-year-old man unable to marry, and yet also note the life of the 23-year-old learning car repair with his uncle, developing an audience with Islamic teachings, or struggling to support a young family as a policeman, and the 80-year-old women and others in the square? We start, in the ways that this set of articles has done, by examining the idea of youth and the sense of being youth, as something that is constituted out of relations to forms of power that may be violent or simply entertaining; to spaces that may be political or private, gendered or emptied, bounded and anchored or virtual and global; to ways of conceptualizing evil; to chronotopes that link past and future; to work and leisure; to ways of knowing and forms of knowledge; and to the array of social relationships that are held to matter in people’s lives. Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (2002), in criticizing the notion of the life-course, noted that people are not fixed in life stages; instead, they slip in and out of them, according to context, changing circumstances, such that a person can be a youth, become a mature woman, but then be youth again, as she returns to school after having a baby or getting divorced – or joins a protest for freedom. So while we do need to continue to ask who we are considering youth as we research and write, our question should lead us to examine the contested and changing domains that youth indexes. And so studies of youth will take us to look at the ways in which ideas of citizenship, gender, freedom, knowledge, and other such fields of social power are brought together in a contested space.
Cole, Jennifer, and Deborah Durham. “Introduction: Globalization and the Temporality of Children and Youth.” In J. Cole and D. Durham, eds. Figuring the Future: Globalization and the Temporalities of Children and Youth. Pp. 3-23. SAR Press, 2008.
Durham, Deborah. “Disappearing Youth: Youth as a Social Shifter in Botswana.” American Ethnologist 31.4(2004): 589-605.
Johnson-Hanks, Jennifer. “On the Limits of Life Stages in Ethnography: Toward a Theory of Vital Conjunctures.” American Anthropologist 104.3(2002): 865-880.
Deborah Durham is a Professor of Anthropology at Sweet Briar College. She has published numerous articles and edited book collections on issues of youth, age, and generational interaction on her own field research in Botswana, and on how these topics have been addressed by scholars of Africa and in the field of Anthropology.
The way in which youth has been studied has also shifted from a teleological approach of life stages to understanding youths’ situatedness, embedded in their given experiences. How do you suggest scholars approach age (or, specifically, youth) as an analytic that is particularly complex, multidimensional, fluid, and, perhaps, problematic? What do you see as the key areas for theoretical and practical development in this respect?
Katherine Ewing: Though I agree with the importance of challenging a priori analytic categories in favor of the complex situatedness of youth within both local and global frameworks, I also think it is important to retain insights that the idea of youth as a developmental stage or process yielded. We must continue to analyze manifestations of these developmental characteristics of youth, especially when youth are a major locus of discursive power in a society. To keep in mind that the projects of youth are strategies for accomplishing specific developmental tasks is not only fully compatible with the recognition that the cultural productions, political activities, and economic choices of youth can be as powerful and transformative as the workings of government and other “adult” institutions; it is also crucial for understanding some of the dynamic power of these youthful cultural productions.
As an anthropologist, I am concerned, not with the teleological idea of human development as a project for becoming adult, but rather with the ways that specific developmental issues may color and even shape youthful cultural, political, and economic practices. For example, the newly felt need to establish status, prestige and identity among one’s peers while at the same time being desperately concerned with fitting in, all the while reevaluating and renegotiating relationships with one’s parents, can shape the contours of a political protest, the emerging language of global hip hop, or the position of a disaporic community within a secular state. The developmental issues that young people negotiate are an important component of an analytic of power and the channels through which it flows in the process of cultural production.
1) Who comprise youth and how the demographic is studied varies from social science to social science. In fact, this scholarly variation replicates the slipperiness that youth engenders as a social category, which makes it a rich analytic. How do you think anthropology is uniquely positioned to challenge or contribute to broader discourses of youth, and what potential do you envision for future work in this area? And, how does the anthropology of youth offer insight into broader enduring anthropological concerns?
Ritty Lukose: What strikes me as one of anthropology’s enduring elements is a skepticism about how categories that western social sciences and intellectual traditions might take for granted get defined. Certainly, anthropology is part of those traditions and it has struggled with its own conceptual indebtedness to those traditions in the face of other traditions, practices and experiences. But, this is a productive tension that anthropology is open to I think. In so doing, an anthropological approach can capture the ways social and cultural categories are dynamically produced at the intersection of culture, history, economy and politics while attending to how they are mediated within multiple lifeworlds. “Youth” is such a category. One can understand it in many ways; for example, as a stage of life, a marketing term or a generation within the unfolding narrative of different kinds of nationalisms. There are interesting ways in which such conceptions collide, collude and overlap. Instead of beginning with some apriori definition of the term, I think anthropology can and does attend to how the category is invested with meaning through powerful social processes and institutions. This is an important way in which one can analytically capture what you call the “slipperiness” of the social category and making that part of the analysis itself. Secondly, clearly the dynamics of social reproduction and transformation are of enduring anthropological concern and the anthropology of youth is well positioned to say something about how that happens in our contemporary world. We used to call this “socialization” and “cultural transmission” when such processes were taken for granted and naturalized. We now understand such processes to be power-laden processes that cannot be simply assumed—they are tied to gender, class, caste and racial dynamics, linked to the dynamics of capitalist restructuring, globalization, how states function, etc. Given the ways in which the anthropology of youth attends to these forces while drawing attention to how collectivities seek to reproduce and transform themselves, I think the anthropology of youth can offer insights to the broader discipline.
2) The way in which youth has been studied has also shifted from a teleological approach of life stages to understanding youths’ situatedness, embedded in their given experiences. How do you suggest scholars approach age (or, specifically, youth) as an analytic that is particularly complex, multidimensional, fluid, and, perhaps, problematic? What do you see as the key areas for theoretical and practical development in this respect.
RL: The shift is a salutary one, something that has been very productive I think. Of course, such a shift came along with denaturalizing the category. In line with this, it has been helpful for me to see the category less as a starting point for analysis and more as a product of powerful institutions and social processes such as markets and states and how they intersect with lived experiences. To my mind, one has to turn a critical ethnographic lens on how the category gets produced as much as the lived experience of young people. In this sense how “age” is linked with “youth” is an open question, something to be examined critically. Secondly, though there are exceptions, much contemporary work on youth focuses on media, markets, and consumption. While there is work that links youth to politics, the state and concrete institutional contexts, I think there is more work to be done in this area—particularly linking these two foci. However, there is also a turn towards the study of “affect” as a way of thinking about and exploring our contemporary political lives and conditions. How varied youth lifestyles and self-fashionings and experiences embody or index different kinds of affective formations might be a productive way of critically engaging and revitalizing the study of youth and politics. While the shift away from a teleological approach is a productive one, something that draws attention less to the temporal trajectories and more to the spatial dynamics of youth within their everyday contexts, I would suggest that questions of history and historical transformation is an area that could be further developed. Of course, we are also well beyond teleological approaches to the study and understanding of history. Drawing on such insights, how the social category of youth gets mobilized to produce narratives of political, cultural and social change and how young people imagine themselves (or not) as part of dominant generational narratives tied to historical narratives and processes is one that could use more analysis. There are way in which some of the exciting work on memory and history could be linked to issues of historical consciousness and generations in ways that might be productive.
3) As a collection of pieces written in the last decade, these articles are connected by the themes of globalization, the imaginary, markets, and activism. What do you consider to be the emerging themes in today's studies of youth? And how do you see the anthropology of youth being relevant to the contemporary moment and speaking to significant current events for instance, the protests sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East?
RL: I think the themes that you outline continue to animate this area of research. There are some interesting further developments. In the aftermaths of 9/11, some of the earlier work on diaspora which certainly overlapped with the study of youth cultural formations has drawn attention to issues of state regulation of Muslim youth and the like. Also, I think issues of religiosity and youth have been raised in the wake of attention to the War on Terror, Islam and the Christian right though more could be done in this area I think. Another area is the whole issue of youth, technology and new media that ask new questions about different kinds of political engagement, youth consciousness and new forms of community. Clearly, the fact of youth unemployment, generations, new media and political change are central to contemporary events in the Middle East and North Africa. In popular and scholarly discourse, many invoke “youth” as a category that has been mobilized and the generational differences between the political establishment and those seeking change have been highlighted. One of the things that interests me is how invocations of a category like “youth” often elides gender and class dynamics and I think anthropology has something to offer by providing critical readings of how the discourse of youth within these protest movements and their mass mediations worked while providing a window into the hopes, aspirations, frustrations and activities of the young people who participated in them. In particular, the anthropology of youth in postcolonial contexts such as India and different parts of Africa (the latter is a particularly lively area of research) tells us something about young people’s mediations of the postcolonial state and its political and development trajectories as the postcolonial intersects with the global at the contemporary moment. This is an important context, I think, for understanding some aspects of contemporary political events and anthropology might contribute something in this regard.
Brent Luvaas: I don’t know that anthropology is uniquely situated to contributing to broader discourses of youth. Youth, after all, is already a subject of intense public scrutiny in the US, and probably throughout the industrial and industrializing world. It is continually debated, pondered, fretted about, problematized, even radically deconstructed in the most mainstream of our popular culture. I am currently teaching a course entitled “Anthropology of Youth” at Drexel University, and it is exceedingly obvious from the discussions we have in class that young people are already engaged in their own on-going reflexive investigations of youth, struggling to make sense of what it means to them and their lives.
Nonetheless, I think anthropology has a lot to contribute to the discussion. At our best, anthropologists supply a critical corrective to more reductive and positivistic theoretical treatments, discussing our subjects of inquiry in ways that allow them to remain as complex, slippery, and messy as they are. Of course, whether or not the public hears our thoughts on the subject depends on our own ability to communicate in a language that bridges not only disciplinary boundaries but also the more stubborn, and largely unnecessary divide between the academy and the mainstream.
And anthropology has a lot to gain from the study of youth as well. Youth has become so deeply implicated in the processes of globalization and economic liberalization, technological development and cultural production, that it becomes nearly impossible to study any of these without at least considering its relationship with youth. As John and Jean Comaroff have argued, it is often youth who are on the frontlines of cultural change, who carry the flags and banners of the new, and who occupy its most precarious trenches. Youth, then, is a dynamic vantage point from which to view a variety of larger cultural processes. It is both a subject of inquiry and a perspective to occupy.
2) The way in which youth has been studied has also shifted from a teleological approach of life stages to understanding youths’ situatedness, embedded in their given experiences. How do you suggest scholars approach age (or, specifically, youth) as an analytic that is particularly complex, multidimensional, fluid, and, perhaps, problematic? What do you see as the key areas for theoretical and practical development in this respect?
BL: Situatedness and embeddedness have been the hallmark of cultural anthropology for at least the last couple decades. I’m not sure there is anything unique about age as an analytic that makes it particularly complex, multidimensional, fluid, or problematic. Other social categories, including race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality are already equally messy. I do think, however, that it is absolutely critical that we account for this messiness in our work. The task for anthropologists studying youth is to map the complex constellation of embedded meanings and practices that constitute youth as a lived category. How exactly we do that is something I am still trying to figure out.
BL: I think these essays are right on track with themes emerging in today’s study of youth. Youth is no longer taken for granted as a universal phase of human life. It is problematized as a situated set of categorical responses to globalization, market reform, and new mediations of modernity, a position from and through which to experience social change. This is why the study of youth is critical to our analyses of current events, particularly the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. A focus on youth as a continually re-constituted subject position makes it possible to ask and address a variety of important and related questions. How, we might ask, are young people in these regions constituting themselves as a shared category of identity and investing this identity with political potency? What social, economic, and political frameworks do they use to do so, and how do these frameworks both create new possibilities of expression and limit the terms and conditions of that expression? How do young people make use of new media, such as social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter to do so? And in what ways are the embedded logics of these technologies shaping the way politicized youth culture is constructed and articulated?
Rosalind Shaw: For anthropologists, youth is a political rather than a demographic category. That’s a fundamental challenge to (for example) approaches in terms of universal developmental stages, or to theories that connect a “youth bulge” to war and terrorism. Because anthropologists are interested in how meanings emerge through practice and power, they’re in a strong position to follow the ways in which people invoke youth as a social category, invest it with meanings, and use those meanings to establish identities, hierarchies, techniques, exclusions, claims, and counterclaims. And reciprocally, one of the exciting features of the anthropology of youth is that it offers such a powerful lens for critically examining fundamental anthropological questions of social transformation, “newness,” and the future.
2) The way in which youth has been studied has also shifted from a teleological approach of life stages to understanding youths’ situatedness, embedded in their given experiences. How do you suggest scholars approach age (or, specifically, youth) as an analytic that is particularly complex,multidimensional, fluid, and, perhaps, problematic? What do you see as the key areas for theoretical and practical development in this respect?
RS: We have to ask what kinds of life courses young people expect—and are expected to—follow. In terms of what categories are young people conceptualized, and how do they conceptualize themselves? What does it mean and what does it take to move from childhood to adulthood? Many anthropologists have explored how life courses are reshaped by broader political and economic transformations—neoliberal economic programs, armed conflict, projects of national democratization, technological change. What happens when expected paths to adulthood are blocked? How are young people’s life trajectories folded into adults’ imagination of national and global futures? And how do young people create alternative futures?
RS: For some time “youth in crisis” has been a dominant theme, especially in Africa. With recent political and economic crises, “youth” has become an indefinitely extended category as the possibility of attaining adulthood recedes further and further away in the future. Without denying this predicament, this approach is beginning to be modified by explorations of how young people reimagine adulthood, or create new paths to it—as well as by a focus on memory and history that unsettles assumptions about the life course in a supposedly stable past that contrasts with an unstable, postcolonial, globalized present.
Another emerging theme is that of how youth as a category engages ideas of citizenship, political agency, visions of national development, and fears about the failure of the state. Representations of youth as political actors sweeping away the old corrupt order are very prominent in reports of the current protests in and beyond North Africa and the Middle East. Here I think an anthropological approach might provide a needed complexity, given that “youth” does not denote a homogenous category with the same interests and the same kinds of power and capacity, either within or across nations. Nor are the current revolts detached either from the activism of previous generations or from collaboration between older and younger generations in the present.
Brad Weiss: The longer I do "anthropology," the more persuaded I am that what the discipline has to contribute to the study of anything – youth, science, capitalism, ritual – is not so much its insistence on "the local," as its commitment to envisioning alternative possibilities. What I mean by this is that an anthropological perspective, even when it isn't directly comparing across contexts, always alerts us to the fact that whatever is being observed or described could be put together differently. In this regard, I think anthropology is an anti-normative practice. The anthropology of youth, therefore, can help to illuminate the value of this kind of perspective by forcing us to confront the way that cultural categories and social imaginaries – like "youth" – have a distinctive history that unfolds in particular, often unexpected ways. They don't really have a positive content, certainly nothing that can be held constant from one place to the next – or even one generation to the next.
BW: I'm writing this response in the long shadow of the Jasmine Revolution, Murbarak brought down by powerful, peaceful collective action, and Gadafi – inshallah – on his way out. And the standard take on these uprisings is that they are revolutions of the "youth" facilitated by social media and personal experiences (like schooling, and fashion, and job-seeking) associated with young people. What's interesting about this, to me, is the fact that many of the youthful qualities and practices of these upheavals both demonstrate the situated complexity of "youth" as a social form - the internet began as a means of military communication, and Facebook touts itself as social networking that captures the experience of being young; it's hard to see the teleology in that. And at the same time, what is equally impressive is the way that this analytic and the category itself serves as an organizing principle of concrete social, political, and economic action. I think what anthropologists should be attuned to, and should continue to work to understand, are the ways that social phenomena can have this capacity for both fluidity and solidity, describing a shifting terrain that, once characterized, can become inescapably "real".
BW: I don't want to sound self-serving about this, but I think that the questions I tried to highlight in this paper – the way that contemporary forms of neoliberal circulations of value generate simultaneously a sense of belonging and opportunity, as well as a palpable awareness of exclusion and foreclosure - resonated with the claims I've heard and read across the Muslim world in recent months. I'm certainly not alone in seeing this connection between such circulations and the "arrival", as it were, of youth as a powerful category, analytic and pragmatic, in the world. So I think the relevance is clear. What I think we all recognize must be avoided is a kind of cake recipe approach to the problem: add youth and stir. It will be interesting to see – not just in these revolutionary contexts, but in anthropology and the globalized world at large- how youth articulates with both enduring and innovative categories to come. Can a "nation" endure when it's built around a youth movement, or do experiences of generation vary to widely from region to region to sustain such a project? These kinds of questions of articulation seem pressing.