Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The word adolescence came to indicate an age group in the twentieth century, and many theories have been developed on the subject. In the past, primitive societies had initiation rites to mark the abrupt transition from child-hood to adulthood, and the initiated would gradually take their place in adult society, but this social rite has now weakened. In today's society, adolescence marks the transition from a childhood stage that has not yet finished to a mature adult stage that has not yet been acquired, from "pre-sociality" to "socialization."

The term adolescence was innovated into the social scientific literature by G. Stanley Hall in 1904. In general, the term indicates this period of development in the life of the individual between childhood and adulthood. It is a phase that goes from age 13 to age 19—the "teens"—and is characterized by a series of physiological, psychological, and social transformations. In this period, the social personality is not yet formed, and teenagers are often regarded as searching for themselves as they move toward their adult identity. (The word teenager was coined in 1939.)

A discussion of adolescence can be approached in many different ways and, similarly, there are numerous methods of interpreting it. In general, it is the product of attempts to adapt to the new conditions in which teenagers find themselves. The process of adolescence is often accompanied by feelings of isolation, solitude, and disorientation. It rarely follows a linear path or a uniform rhythm. In contrast, the psychic progress and developmental process that characterize the various phases of adolescence vary for different people.

In "early adolescence," individuals are faced with a series of difficulties linked to object relations, and the chances of reaching adulthood depend in a real or apparent way on how these relations are resolved. True adolescence is the stage in which the processes of social differences start, which in "late adolescence" take on a definite structure.

A typical aspect of adolescence is "rebellion." Young people turn against their first objects of love, seeking to distance themselves from the vision of reality and morality that has been shown to them up until that moment. Adolescent rebellion can be channeled into very different routes. Teenagers may struggle to acquire as soon as possible certain privileges that belong to adults, or they may fight because they do not accept the system of values associated with these privileges and wish to be different. According to the majority of scholars studying adolescence, the direction along which the rebellion is channeled depends on the type of defensive mechanisms that the ego has developed to protect itself from anxiety during the early stages of adolescence.

Broadly speaking, we can say that in early childhood individuals learn control over their bodies, and then control over their environment, and in adolescence, control over their emotions. The stabilization of these achievements, however, is subject to physical maturity and the orderly development of the functions of the ego; only then can there be a balanced development.

The most important aspect of the hierarchical organization of the interests of the ego comes about during "late" adolescence, according to Peter Blos in his book On Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation (1962). Certain interests are taken further during this phase and others are stratified; the ego is integrative and adaptive rather than defensive in its actions. It restricts itself to a few specific interests, and its identity slowly takes on a definite character.

During adolescence, there is also a process of differentiation between the image of oneself now and the self-image one had as a child; the identity that adolescents develop is above all based on their peer group. Because early adolescence is also a critical period linked to the search for a new identity, psychological and social factors relative to the modification of the role of individuals in relations with their family and the outside world are just as important as physical factors in this period.

According to Iärbel Inhelder and Jean Piaget, in The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence: An Essay on the Construction of Formal Operational Structures (1958), between the ages of 11 and 12 there is a decisive transition from "concrete" logical operations based on manipulable objects to "formal" operations in which the subject is able to formulate clear propositions. At this stage, adolescents begin to construct systems and theories and also seek to incorporate external reality into their cognitive frameworks.

A further important aspect for teenagers is the "paternal model," which at a certain point is perceived as being inadequate. This leads to the attitude of diminishing the father and all that he represents; teenagers belittle their fathers to establish their own identities. The diminishing of the paternal model, the slow detachment of the adolescent from emotional ties to the family, and his or her shy and exhilarating entrance into the new life constitute one of the most significant experiences in human existence.

Marked anxiety is intrinsic to adolescence. There is an urgency to the search for a specific identity on the part of adolescents through the acquisition of a model that can reassure them regarding their maturity. Teenagers see the need to find their identities to help them with adult decisions such as choosing a profession, getting married, having a family, and adopting acceptable political and social stances. The gap between the welcome that young people are expecting and the way in which they actually are welcomed into adult society is sometimes responsible for the "drama" of adolescence.

Teenagers are unable to complete the process of adolescence if they do not achieve a stable organization of the self . Failure to do this may lead to deviant behavior in the postadolescent phase, in which it is impossible to hold the doors to many possible life-choice options permanently open.

Exploring the problems of adolescence in current society means seeking to clarify the place and role claimed by the adolescent state in the social system. Modern society offers adolescents a large range of models, many of which conflict with one another, from which teenagers must make their choices. Placed before this high social differentiation, teenagers today, more than in the past, appear to be exposed to the acquisition of an identity that is not immune to deviant and pathological developments.

Youth Culture

To discuss the culture (or subculture) of young people, it is essential to look at what is meant by the word young , which dates back to ancient times. The Romans called people aged between 30 and 45 iuventa , while people older than this were classed as senectus . The Greeks, by contrast, placed youth between the ages of 17 and 30. On the one hand, these two examples show that in different periods there has always been an age group defined as "young," but on the other, it shows that the age of the group in question has constantly changed. For the most part, sociology defines people up to the age of 29 as "young."

The definition of youth remained somewhat fluid until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the various psychological theories regarding the development of the personality appeared along with philosophical theories regarding youth education. Toward the 1950s, youth was generally seen as a transitory phase from childhood to adulthood, characterized by the discovery of individualism, the development of a life plan, and the formation of a personal system of values.

Several authors have explored the concept of "youth culture," and it is still the object of discussion. Talcott Parsons, for example, in "Age and Sex in the Social Structure of the United States" (1942), maintained that the intense parent-children affective relations in a nuclear family are not broken off immediately but require a period of transition before being severed. "The youth culture has important positive functions in easing the transition from the security of childhood in the family of orientation to that of full adult in marriage and occupational status." In another work, Essays in Sociological Theory: Pure and Applied (1949), Parsons stated that

the youth culture is not only, as is true of the curricular aspects of formal education, a matter of age status as such but also shows signs of being a product of tensions in the relationship of younger people and adults.

This concept of "youth culture" was later taken further by James S. Coleman. In The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenagers and Its Impact on Education (1961), he stated that the characteristic aspects of youth culture were loyalty to one's peers and the gratuitousness of behavior, contrasting with the responsible behavior of adults.

It can be seen that youth culture arises from a series of behaviors and ways of acting that are typical of young people and that include limitation of economic activities to consumption rather than productive activities, in contrast to the high involvement in productive economic activities by adults; a strong individual search for identity that evolves with strong identification with the peer group; and, on the basis of one's experience of reality, an attempt to adapt to the cultural models transmitted by adults. These specific aspects have been exaggerated and prolonged since the 1930s, because the youth of this period can be seen to have suffered from deep tensions.

This slow formation of youth culture has its roots in the answer to how to be young in today's society; this means that the youth culture is not objectively identified with young people but with the position of being young in a certain social system and context.

In this sense, it is possible to talk of a "youth culture," in other words, of the group rebellion on the part of gangs of young delinquents who were studied by sociologists in Chicago in the 1920s, especially by Frederick Thrasher in The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (1927). A further example is the "hippie generation" of the 1960s, which was characterized by a highly euphoric and erotic culture that rejected the values of individualistic competition and any idealization or rationalization of violence and aggression (Rositi 1969).

From here to the "era of challenge" of society was but a short step. This idea of the challenge not only placed itself against the adult system, it actually was intended to have consequences for the system: a period that, passing through the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippie movement of the 1960s, modified all the components of society, bringing to the fore the need and the decision on the part of young people to be the protagonists in society (Tomasi 1987).

It is precisely in terms of this wish to be the "protagonists" that the cultural behavior of young people should be interpreted; their behavior tells us that they experience not only a state of uneasiness that stems from the position in which the entire social fabric places them but also a condition of restlessness, already latent, in the collective culture. Given that culture consists of values, norms, beliefs, and expressive symbols, it is certainly possible to speak of a youth culture, in other words, of a period in which a system of values, norms, beliefs, and symbolic expressions (behavior and lifestyles) are different from those of adult society.

Youth culture forms around the most varied interests, which can range from wearing clothes that are "in" to listening to music that is "in," but it also can arise from the inconsistencies that young people perceive in adult society between "acclaimed values" and "visible results." From their assessment of the "culture of society," young people develop norms that enable them both to challenge society and to spread their rebellion. In general, what starts as a revolt ends up as "a style"—in other words, with a "culture" that has "expressive symbols," "norms," and "elements" of particular values. From this particular way of perceiving and living, young people maintain their relations with society.

To distinguish the specific nature of young people, the terms subculture and counterculture (Yinger 1960) often have been used and are still in use today. Although attempts have been made to find differences between the two terms, it can be said that the underlying concept is more or less the same—in other words, they indicate groups with particular "value systems" that are different from the surrounding dominant culture. But there are differences between these two terms that it probably would be useful to note.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the term youth culture no longer has the meaning that it has had in the past. It no longer indicates rebellion, abstention from, or rejection of the social system; it does not even mean experimenting directly with alternative lifestyles that are outside a given social system. Instead, youth culture means the intrinsic capacity that young people have to define themselves in their value behaviors in the society to which they belong and in their projection toward the future.

Luigi Tomasi


A. Baldwin, Teoria dello sviluppo infantile (Milan: Angeli, 1971)

P. Blos, The Adolescent Personality (New York: Appleton, 1941)

P. Blos, On Adolescence (New York: Free Press, 1962)

M. Brake, Youth Culture (London: Routledge, 1985)

A. Cohen, Delinquent Boys (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1955)

J. S. Coleman, The Adolescent Society (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1961)

F. Elkin and A. Westley, "The Myth of Adolescent Culture," American Sociological Review 20(1955):680-684

E. H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1950)

O. Galland, Sociologie de la jeunesse (Paris: Colin, 1991)

G. S. Hall, Adolescence (New York: Appleton, 1904)

D. Hebdige, Subculture (London: Methuen, 1979)

B. Inhelder and J. Piaget, The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (New York: Basic Books, 1958)

I. M. Jousselyn, L'adolescente e il suo mondo (Florence: Giusti-Barbera, 1964)

A. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952)

D. A. Lenzen, "Perpetuated Youth and Self-Sanctification," Social Compass 37(1991):345-356

E. Morin, L'esprit du temps (Paris: Grasset, 1962)

T. Parsons, "Age and Sex in the Social Structure of the United States," American Sociological Review 7(1942):604-616

T. Parsons, Essays in Sociological Theory (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1949)

R. Rivier, Lo sviluppo sociale del bambino e dell'adolescente (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1970)

F. Rositi, "Studio sull'ambivalenza culturale," Studi di Sociologia 4(1969):366-388

F. Thrasher, The Gang (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927)

L. Tomasi, "Contestazione," in Nuovo Dizionario di Sociologia , ed. F. Demarchi et al. (Cinisello Balsamo: Paoline, 1987):568-574

J. M. Yinger, "Contraculture and Subculture," American Sociological Review 25(1960):625-635.

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