What is meant by the claim that ‘youth is socially constructed’?

Youth is a transition period between childhood and adulthood that includes personal, social, political, cultural and economic influences, these transition periods can have a deep affect on the lives of young people, they become dependent , they have to make changes in their lives and it is also an emotional and psychological time then they could be very vulnerable.

Humans according to different social, historical or cultural contexts have socially constructed meanings of youth; this representational labour has made the phase of youth meaningful and constructed qualities that relate to that of a teenager.

To claim that youth is socially constructed is claiming that images, stereotypes and representations of youth are built up within the society they live. Young people’s lives are stereotyped by organisations such as the media, politicians, priests and expert opinion influencing ideas and opinions within society. They decide what should be done, what services need to be created etc, this is vital in the treatment of young people.

Social construction is not just a phase given to different interpretations of a material thing, it is a theory that it is the reality itself that is constructed, and it is manufactured by social and cultural processes.

The dominant representation of young people is that they are ‘problematic’, the way that young people’s lives are socially constructed and the way that they are viewed in society reflects what services are offered to them.

Power is almost always in the hands of adults, young people have to submit to adult authority, which can lead to abuses of power. Social exclusion can also be apparent because of the problematization of young people as discrimination can act as a barrier to the development of social justice.

This negative representation of young people’s lives and behaviour is an issue that has been going on for decades and research bases its investigations on these negative stereotypes making it difficult to address the problems that young people really face.

How we as a society make sense of a thing has a very powerful influence on how we respond to it and how we deal with it. Researchers in the areas of youth are not an independent body; as such they construct the knowledge that permeates society.

There are 2 major domains that influence the lives of young people, first is material and structural influences which involve money, housing conditions, economics etc. the second one being social and cultural influences which are the socially constructed world and involves what we make sense of social events, our opinions and expectations construct these areas as being meaningful and significant in ones life. The reality of social construction is the attitudes, expectations and understanding of people.

The description of Vera Brittian’s Testament of Youth in Topic 2 Young Lives and Young Worlds is a good example of the social construction of youth, she describes how decades ago young men and women at the age of twenty were seen to be sexually mature and rules were made to keep control of the youthful sexuality. These days with social conventions and rapid changes youth are seen to be sexually active at the age of 16 or even younger. Attitudes to sex and youth have changed, making youth and sexuality an open subject instead of a taboo area.

The negative stereotyping that categorises youth are typifications that describe youth as society would expect them to behave which is youth ‘as’ trouble or ‘in’ trouble. Adults still cling to this negative typification causing institutionalisation whereby fantasy has become embedded into people’s way of thinking becoming reality. People’s views are so rooted it is hard to convince them of anything different, this process is usually carried out by powerful bodies such as politicians, priests and the law.

Dominant groups in society find and speak of convincing ideas and opinions regarding a typification over other competing typifications, these are called legitimation. They usually have vested or biased intentions for these ideas being accepted.

Our understanding of social values has a large influence on moral and practical consequences. People’s knowledge is socially constructed and what we theorize is carried out through biased opinions.

Social construction can be very damaging if meanings are interpreted wrongly as with the case in the USA in 1973, people believed homosexuality was a sickness that needed to be treated by hospitalisation in mental institutions. The knowledge that was constructed was dismissed as wrong and the definition of homosexuality was written off the Diagnostic Statistical Manual.

Researchers in the area of youth cannot examine youth by being influenced by the past, different methologies are needed in order to keep up to date with the youth of today. Critical observation is needed to look at the information that is provided regarding youth as an objective picture can be built up on past problems that have been associated with youth. Nobody can predict what youth are going to become or what action and social interventions are going to affect youth, as such images should not be assumed on youth from years ago.

Christine Griffin (1993) wrote a review on research that was carried out on youth, she claimed that hardly was research carried out on young people started at a positive level and describes discourses of problematization.

The discourse she describes is that there are different categories or groups of young people not just one homogenous group that researchers need to recognise. The norm is white, middle class, heterosexual and able-bodied young people. The young people who society says poses problems are black, Asian, working class, disabled young people, these are the ones described as ‘youth in trouble’.

Griffin discusses three main problematizing discourses of which the first is discourses of dysfunction, whereby young people are in need of therapy. The second being discourses of deficit which sees young people in need of education. The third being discourses of deviance which sees young people in need of control and correction. These negative terms that construct our knowledge about young people mostly describe the ‘youth in trouble’ more than that of the norm.

Allowing these discourses causes people to adopt prejudices, with regards to youth they inherit the idea of ‘otherness’ constructing adults as ‘us’ and youth as ‘them’. We as adults are normal, children are known not to know better, but young people are abnormal, deviant and unusual. Others are always the subjects of study against the norm, young people are seen to need extra help, and they need support and special treatment. The disadvantages of being in this group are the prejudice, oppression and social exclusion that they may experience.

She explains that young people should not be understood through the media or how they are explained by parents and carers, it goes much deeper than this. What needs to be investigated is the problems that young people pose and what solutions are needed to solve them.

Griffin also talks of G Stanley Hall’s work who’s identification of adolescence was a storm and stress model which is seen as a distressing time for young people and as such a degree of freedom should be given to them in order for them to find themselves and to develop themselves, but a certain amount of control should be used to maintain order.

Empowerment is a crucial element that enables young people to take control of their own lives and take action to improve it. In order to do this young people have to have access to information and some control over resources used. They should be listened to and kept informed of what is happening that concerns their welfare. They should be offered support and feedback to issues raised.

Allowing for this empowerment would activate anti-discrimination values and practice, social inclusion instead of exclusion, equal sharing and enable young people to live in a democratic society, this may then provide positive associations with regards to youth and society.

For people that work with youth to suggest that youth is socially constructed has implications because young people are different and have different economic, social and cultural backgrounds. They need to be treated as separate individuals with their own personalities and characteristics. A projection based on the past and what they believe happens to youth is the wrong way of working with youth.

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