Some youth researchers have turned to educational approaches to think about the ways in which knowledge is implicated, not only in cultural and social capital, but also in the identities and transitions of young people. The notions of ‘cultural learning’ (Cohen & Ainley 2000) and ‘informal social learning’ (Raffo & Reeves 2000) are both concerned with the transmission of knowledge, learning the skills of sociability (Allatt 1993) and learning how to ‘culturally labour’ (Cohen & Ainley 2000, p. 93).
Cohen and Ainley suggest examining how locally situated knowledge is acquired and transmitted, and the kinds of identity work this entails—how do people learn to culturally labour? (2000, p. 92). Miles suggests developing a theory of learning as cultural practice; one that prioritises locally situated knowledge in young people’s lifestyles (2000a, p. 19). New perspectives A majority of ‘unspectacular’ youth who never hit the headlines and quietly get on with the increasingly difficult task of transiting a vague, socially insecure period labelled ‘youth’ into an even more ambiguous period of adulthood.
It has never been easy to move from one to the other as these stages in life have only limited biological delineation and are more to do with social and cultural norms, as anthropologists and sociologists have been commenting upon for decades. (Mead 1943, Erikson 1977, Frith 1984) Youth is a fairly recent invention following hot on the heels of childhood, which never properly existed for the offspring of the lower orders earlier in history. (Aries 1962) The term ‘child’ in England until the 17th century ‘could just as easily mean a young man, subordinate or servant.
’ (Beaumont & Clark 1997) Of course kids do go through bodily changes linked to what is called puberty but what happens socially as a result of these physical changes varies across societies and over periods of time. Therefore, the period of transition from childhood into adulthood known as youth has to be viewed more as a social construct which changes as any given society changes. Youth as a troubled and troubling period is a persistent image and most people slotted into this category would probably agree about the problems created about their uncertain and often ambiguous position in society.
To make matters worse, it appears that the media retain the need to whip up what have been described as ‘moral panics’ (Cohen 1972) about youth every now and then. The entry of feminist thinking into the field of youth is linked, in the British context, to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University in the 1970s (the Birmingham School) which did ground breaking work in this area. There is a need to distinguish between the concept of youth culture and youth subcultures.
Generally speaking, youth culture refers to a homogenous notion of youth as doing similar things and being treated in a similar fashion and plays down aspects of differentiation. This idea was popular with US sociologists in the 50s and early 60s particularly those of the social functionalism persuasion, such as Talcott Parsons (1964) who argued that youth culture, although disconcerting for adults, actually performed certain useful functions for society. It was a safety valve, a way of letting off steam for young people caught up in the period of uncertainty and unclear social roles.
In the end, their rebellion was only symbolic but significant in that it helped them to eventually grow into adults and get on quietly with life. The idea of a general youth culture, however, affecting the majority of young people in any given society, was criticised by other sociologists who saw differentiation and diversification amongst youth as well as the fact that not all youth joined in this peer group letting off of steam. Big differences could be seen between different social classes, ethnic groups and, as already stated girls.
In the States, the emphasis was predominantly on white youth in high school, just as in the popular musical and film ‘Grease’ where few non-white faces are seen, except for the Latinos who are presented as sleazy and violent. Subculture is a part of the wider culture, linked to it but with differences. Subculture was first used to refer to a subdivision of the national culture. The concept of youth subcultures is not without problems but it has become more prominent with the advance of sociology and increased attention on youth-its forms and manifestations, problems and solutions and so on.
All too often youth subcultures and styles are viewed in terms of providing solutions to the problems of status frustration and transition. ‘Subcultures are the meaning system and modes of expression developed by groups in particular parts of the social structure in the course of their collective attempts to come to terms with the contradictions of their shared social situation. ‘ (Murdock in Brake, op. cit: 27) In Britain it was once again the Birmingham School who took up the differentiation within youth and their perceived collective problems, mostly along class lines.