The universality of adolescence, as a developmental period apart from childhood and adulthood, has been investigated, debated, and romanticized in the literature both historically and cross-culturally. This paper examines Swaziland, a small country in Southern Africa, as a case study in order to explore whether or not the Swazi people conceptualize this phase of life as a separate developmental period. It also analyzes common parental perceptions of the adolescent years, and what constitutes the difference between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Finally, it qualitatively examines the behaviors which parents associate with becoming adults.
Psychologists and anthropologists have gone from ignoring to being obsessed with the concept of adolescence. Western cultures were heavily influenced by the writings of G. Stanley Hall and his early 20th century recapitulation thesis of adolescence. Hall's preoccupation with this developmental period was based on his conception of it as being the "revealer of the past of the race" and "the only point of departure for the superanthropoid that man is to become" (Hall, 1911, p. 94). In other words, Hall looked upon adolescents as resembling early humans in terms of being devoid of highly developed cognition and moral maturity. This attitude influenced Western (primarily North American) 20th century views which interpreted adolescence as a universal, predetermined period of turmoil and disruption ("storm and stress").
Hall's writings set social scientists from every discipline to work exploring the stage of adolescence with the hopes of either confirming or rejecting his negative, evolutionary perspective. Margaret Mead (1928) explored this topic in Coming of Age in Samoa, where she contradicted Hall's assertion that adolescence was necessarily a time of stress and turmoil. She stated that adolescents in Samoa were gently led through this developmental period, emphasizing the importance of traditional institutions which provided young men and women a calm rite of passage. Consequently, Mead interpreted this period as being shaped by the environment. While she did not disagree that adolescence could possibly be universally present, she did not believe that Hall's characterization of it as a time of biologically predetermined turmoil was applicable to all societies, but rather as being relative to the cultural context.
Over the past generation, Mead's theories regarding Samoan adolescence have come under intense scrutiny. Derek Freeman (1983) has argued that Mead's interpretation of adolescent behavior as being culturally influenced is not only wrong, but represents flawed scholarship. However, others have noted that (among other problems) Freeman does not take into account the historical nature of the research. Mead's research in the 1920s took place with a culture that has changed throughout the 20th century, especially as a result of post-World War II Western influence (Cote, 2000; Shankman, 2000). Consequently, when analyzing the cultural context of a developmental period like adolescence, historical context is also an essential variable.
Taking the relativist view even further, some have described adolescence as a stage that is not universal. This perspective analyzes adolescence as purely a social construct; not present in every society, it is instead largely an invention of Western, industrialized nations (Bakan, 2001; Sebald, 1992). Sebald contends that "adolescence is an invention of modern civilization. It lacks the universality and naturalness that are innate to such statuses as childhood and adulthood" (p. 1). Furthermore, Sebald's terminology parallels that of a disease, as he claims that the "societies affected" are almost always urban and industrial. He points to Western nations as being the source of "this modern occurrence" and suggests scrutinizing the conditions within these societies which may help to answer the question: "Why adolescence in our time? …