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Adolescents as leaders in cultural change

March 29, 2013

Introducing his essay on the influence of adolescents on culture, Robert A. LeVine writes:

Erik Erikson (1963) pointed out almost 60 years ago that adolescence can be seen as the intersection between the life history of the individual and the history of society. In this concept, each generation of adolescents, “can and must revitalize each institution even as it grows into it” (Erikson 1963:279). Adolescents facing personal decisions in an historical context are not just the recipients of their parents’ culture but the creators of a new version, reflecting the novel conditions in which they are growing up. By now this powerful idea has become part of a common U.S. popular culture, its grain of truth lingering in cliches like the “generation gap” and stereotypes of generations—baby boomers, generation X—as having psychological tendencies that distinguish them not only from their parents but also even from those a few years older or younger. But the idea that adolescents play a crucial role in the historical change of human cultures is not yet exhausted as an inspiration to research; it has instead opened a door to different lines of work. One line taken was biographical, [-p.427] as in Erikson’s (1958, 1969) own work on Luther and Gandhi that generated a body of psychohistorical literature focused on leaders or innovators, with particular attention to resolution of their developmental conflicts during adolescence, as they react to and shape historical conditions.

Another line of research, developed primarily by sociologists, examined the collective experience of a birth cohort in a particular historical context. The theoretical rationale for this approach was presented by the demographer Norman Ryder in a seminal article published in 1965. Ryder, following Karl Mannheim (1936), called for the analysis of social change by cohorts and argued that “Each new cohort makes fresh contact with the contemporary social heritage, . . . ” embodying “a temporally specific version of the heritage.” Concerning social change, he states, “Each fresh cohort is a possible intermediary in the transformation process, a vehicle for introducing new postures. The new cohorts provide the opportunity for social change to occur” (Ryder 1965:844). Ryder used the terms youth and young adults, rather than adolescence, but he emphasized that the “strategic moment for research on social change is the context under which each cohort is launched on its own path” (1965:848), and that is when a cohort is old enough for full social participation but not yet committed to a permanent form of adult participation. Finally, Ryder states, “In an epoch of change, each person is dominated by his birth date. He derives his philosophy from his historical world, the subculture of his cohort” (1965:855).” (pp.426-427)

I haven’t read this article through yet, but I like the direction it’s going in…

Ref: Robert A. LeVine (2011)  Traditions in Transition: Adolescents Remaking Culture. ETHOS: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, Vol. 39, Issue 4, pp. 426–431

Reference is to: Ryder, Norman B. 1965 The Cohort as a Concept in the Study of Social Change. American Sociological Review 30(6):843–861.

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