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Naming youth: the construction of the youth category

Sercombe, Howard (1996) Naming youth: the construction of the youth category. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The youth category, in its modern form, has emerged under particular social and economic conditions, under the influence of particular social institutions, shaped by particular discourses. This thesis is an inquiry into the constitution of youth as a social category through an examination of these factors.

Through a review of the historical and sociological literature, the thesis establishes the conditions for the emergence of the modem concept of youth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The evidence suggests that the youth category came into being as a result of changes in the industrial family, the industrial reforms which progressively excluded children and young people fkom the workforce, and the establishment of compulsory schooling - especially secondary schooling. Parallel with these developments, a variety of discourses about youth (or adolescence) were generated, establishing the emergent category in scientific terms. G. Stanley Hall's theories of adolescence, developed around the turn of the century, were perhaps the most influential of these, casting adolescence as a universal stage in life characterised by social and psychological turmoil. In sociology, this theoretical frame has been the subject of longstanding debate. The thesis explores this debate, and attempts to establish a sociological view of the youth , category in the light of the historical and sociological evidence. In these explorations, youth is established as a product of historical processes, a product of political economy and of scientific discourse.

The analysis is brought into the present through a study of how youth are represented in a high circulation daily newspaper, The West Australian. Using standard media analysis techniques, the study examines the construction of language around youth, and the kinds of stories in which they appear in the newspaper, and finds a detailed discursive apparatus through which young people are classified as good or bad, passive (victim, child) or active (perpetrator, adult). These constructions vary with the institutional location of the news source, and with such factors as the gender and ethnicity of the subject, while continuing to be underwritten by orthodox discourses of adolescence. For its part, the newspaper overwhelmingly casts youth in a law and order frame, driven by the appetites of audiences and the economies of news production.

The study explores the differences as well as the continuities in the concept of youth employed in the patchwork of discourse that constitutes newspaper text. In these explorations, youth is established in the present as a contested category, the subject of competing discourses. Competing institutions and professions, in their interventions in the newspaper, try to secure a reading of the youth phenomenon which is consistent with their professional and political objectives.

The thesis is about the constitution of youth. Through the analysis of historical and contemporary discourse about youth, the thesis reveals how the subjection of this section of the adult population is achieved and maintained, how they are established as a pliable, coercible and economically dispensable population, and how the instruments of their governance are legitimated.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Psychology
Supervisor(s): Baldock, Cora
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