The Jaombilo of Tamatave (Madagascar), 1992-2004: Reflections on Youth and Globalization

Article excerpt

Both anthropologists and historians have devoted a great deal of attention to the concept of adolescence, but they have done so in markedly different ways. Drawing in large measure on assumptions about adolescence taken from developmental psychology, anthropologists have implicitly assumed that adolescence is a universally identifiable stage of life. The single most famous study of adolescence in a "primitive" society by Margaret Mead self-consciously set out to demonstrate that the psychological content of this age period was a cultural construction. (1) However she never questioned its universal existence, a pattern that is replicated in research even today. (2) By contrast, historians of the life cycle have emphasized the historical contingency of adolescence as a life stage, pointing to the ways that economic circumstances and social institutions such as the family and education have played a decisive role in the emergence of this category and its variable presence depending upon such factors as gender and social class. (3)

It is an interesting historical fact that when G. Stanley Hall made the term "adolescence" a household word, he was referring to an age period spanning the years from 14-25. (4) Yet not only Mead but also virtually all psychological and anthropological scholarship on adolescence has focused on the years from 12-18. Within psychology, it was not until 1970, when Kenneth Kenniston proclaimed the emergence of youth as a "new" stage of life, that psychologists' attention began to focus on the latter age range identified by Hall. (5) Yet within other disciplines the period of "youth," used to refer to this older age range, had never been ignored. For example, the social historian Paula Fass documented the emergence of a distinctive American youth culture associated with college educated elites during the 1920's, and sociologists of the Birmingham school have examined the role of youth subcultures arising to deal with class contradictions in post World War II Britain. (6) A distinctive feature of both of these lines of scholarship is their emphasis on the commercial basis of youth culture, particularly their focus on the emergence of youth culture in the context of rising affluence and the development of consumer society. Ironically, it was this historically constituted conceptualization of youth that was enshrined and dehistoricized in Erik Erikson's famous formulation of youth as a time of moratorium. (7)

As the liberalization of markets and increased flow of consumer goods and information have reorganized both relations between different parts of the globe and within local communities, youth--and young people more generally--have emerged as a major social force. (8) Whether one is reading newspaper accounts of child soldiers in West Africa, youth killing for a pair of Nike shoes, young women from the former Soviet Republics involved in the sex trade, or the emergence of a new commercially based youth culture in post-socialist Vietnam, the social and economic processes associated with globalization have heightened the visibility of youth in the public domain. In response, scholars have turned their attention to the study of youth and globalization. (9) In so doing, however, they have drawn on assumptions taken from the older writing on adolescence and youth that first emerged in the context of specific historical, social and economic conditions that gave rise to modern consumer society in the West. The result has been a troubling tendency to import prior ideas about adolescence and youth into the new historical context. Instead, we need to understand the ways in which new kinds of people--including new kinds of youth--emerge from the dislocation and reconfiguration caused by the confrontation between local, established categories of personhood and the new contexts produced by social and economic globalization. (10)

Three problems in the literature on youth and globalization are particularly relevant to my focus here. …