Problems of Youth in Transition

Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn W. Sherif

This book is about human beings, their circumstances and their problems during a crucial period of their lives. During adolescence, a person's body changes from that of a growing child to that of an adult. Every known human society recognizes this change in physical status by according new standing to the person vis--vis his fellow humans. In fact, the dictionary definition of the word adolescence refers to the social change. Adolescence is defined as the transition period between puberty (boyhood or girlhood) and adult stages of development. In the different societies known to man, the timing of the transition varies, as does its duration and the kind of recognition accorded to the changed status of the individual. Yet everywhere, it is the youth emerging from adolescence who, ultimately, define the future of their peoples.

It is small wonder, therefore, that in generation after generation history records the concern of adults over the state of their youth. The concern is translated both into poetry glorifying youthful adventure and romance and into stock phrases like "Youth is going to the dogs." Today's adults are no exception. Problems of the adolescent years are a major source of concern to parents, educators, youth leaders and policy makers. At times, these adults forget that the problems also concern youth themselves.

Concern about youth today is, in one sense, a paradox. In the major populated areas of the world, the young people of today face a future of unprecedented opportunities for creative activity and new knowledge, if their elders can fulfill their promise of a future world by avoiding the holocaust of major national conflicts. In the modern, industrialized and more "affluent" societies, more young people have opportunities for education, for the arts, for entertainment and leisure than any other generation in history. Why, then, the outcry about youth problems?

Perhaps it is partly that each generation of adults conceives of youth problems in the context of its own image of a brighter future. This

( 2) is not all. Adult concern about youth today also reflects changes in our societies which have altered the transition period itself, which have exposed the myth that "affluence" eliminates problems, and which have heightened the differences in opportunity for youth according to their parents' location or station in life.

The chapters of this book were written by researchers whose life works have included active study and theorizing on youth and their problems. To introduce the book, let us first introduce the adolescent and the problems he faces, relating these to more general problems of human behavior.


Despite the misgivings of parents and many specialists, the adolescent is a human being, male or female. With due regard for variations in physiological and social conditions, it is safe to say that he has at least a decade of human life and development behind him, usually a few years more. Depending on these same conditions, he has from one to about five or six decades of life to live. Within such bold general strokes outlining past and future, the picture of adolescence varies enormously in different societies, different times, and different circumstances. Still it is a period that epitomizes the lifelong interplay between the development of a human being, with his strivings and emotions, the face-to-face social process of living with other human beings, and the surrounding sociocultural arrangements and images.

In any known human society, adolescence is the period of change from the physical and social status of "child" to that of "adult." As noted earlier, in different human cultures this transition is strikingly different, both in duration and in the manner in which it is achieved. But everywhere, the period signifies changes in the individual's position relative to others, a shift in his loyalties and responsibilities. It signifies new activities, different behavior patterns, different attitudes, even changes in the way he looks and stands and' walks. None of these changes can be accomplished unless the individual redefines his relationship to his world. Otherwise, despite a manly or womanly figure and voice, he would behave as he did in childhood or respond to immediate aspects of each situation, necessarily hindering any consistency in relationships with others.

In short, the adolescent period presents the individual with the problem of reformulating his concepts of himself as being different in many significant respects from the now-familiar childhood image. This is the fundamental problem in the psychology of the adolescent, and it represents a general problem for theories of human behavior-the formation and change of the self-conception, or ego.

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Whether in adolescence, childhood, or old age, the problem of self or ego involves specification of the concrete social situations which the individual encounters, as well as the more general cultural setting in which he functions. The problem may be thought of fruitfully as the process of forming (and changing) conceptions about one's self relative to the many persons, objects, groups, institutions and values that constitute one's social environment. Better still, these self-conceptions may be called attitudes, since they not only define denotative ties with aspects of the environment, but also imply their evaluation. By self or ego, we mean the constellation of such attitudes, which become intimately related to one another within the person and which, accordingly, define his personal experiences of psychological stability or instability, as the case may be.


In adolescence, the problem of redefining one's self relative to others is aggravated, even forced, by the bodily and biochemical changes of the period. These changes are dramatic ones. They are universal to the human species, varying only in detail. Even if others took no note, the adolescent would know from his own body that he was changing. The changes associated with sexual maturation are reflected in new psychological experiences, though these may be poorly understood. It is ironic that the Freudian movement, which liberated social science from traditional taboos in studying problems of sexual development, regarded sexual changes during adolescence as much less important for character formation than bodily sensations and adult treatment in early childhood. Perhaps this is one reason why the problems of sexual maturation in adolescent development are so neglected.

Faced with an identity shaken by profound biochemical and structural changes, what does the adolescent learn about who he is from the adults in his society? In most industrialized societies, the developing youth faces years during which he is neither child nor adult, girl nor woman, boy nor man, neither wholly dependent on adults nor wholly independent of them. He is betwixt-and-between for a prolonged period, which is becoming more and more extended as the skills needed to be an adult grow more complex and require increased training. During this period, the length of which varies markedly even within a society, he is traditionally supposed to prepare for adulthood. But unless the process of preparation is clear-cut, what he hears most is that he must postpone. He must wait.

To be betwixt-and-between is not a comfortable experience, as we know from the studies of individuals caught in conditions where they must endure uncertainty or conflict. The more the period is prolonged without establishing stable bearings, the more painful it becomes. The

( 4) adolescent's changing body experiences new and more powerful urges. The longer he is betwixt-and-between, the harder it becomes to ignore these urges and his strivings for some new personal stability.

The shift from the status of childhood to adulthood implies, in varying degrees, a different relationship with adult figures who hitherto had been in charge of one's fate. In modern societies, the change has been referred to aptly as "psychological weaning" from parents. Whenever there is social change underway, the young person may find that the adult generation provides few clear-cut solutions which are acceptable to him as to how the change is to be accomplished. Inevitably, he is more impatient to prove and test himself as an adult or near-adult than adults are for him to make this "test."

Thus, there is a rift between his own conceptions about himself and those of adults. As many studies have shown, the rift between the adolescents' and the adults' conceptions of the procedures to be followed in becoming grown-up is roughly proportional to the change in conditions from the time when the adults themselves experienced the proceedings. The classic example is the immigrant parent and second-generation youth in the United States. With gaps so wide between the parent's traditional notions and the adolescents' conceptions, active conflict occurs between the generations. It is a mistake, however, to think that the conflict of generations is confined to such dramatic instances. In our own research, reported in the last chapters of this book, we found, for instance, that the majority of boys and girls in neighborhoods of low, middle and high socioeconomic rank disagreed with their parents on the time to come home on week nights and, especially, on weekends.

To the extent that the adolescent period is a prolonged period between childhood and adulthood with unclear or unsatisfactory procedures for progressing to adult status and responsibilities, it produces a dilemma for the individual. The dilemma is a personal one, colored by strong emotions and motivational urges. Such dilemmas are not entirely unique to adolescents.

What do individuals facing a motivational dilemma do? Like any human being caught in a dilemma and striving to reestablish himself with some stable ties in social life, the adolescent looks around him. What he finds will vary enormously from one social setting to another. If adult solutions are unsatisfactory and there is no possibility of going out into his environment for a solution, he will daydream, engage in fantasy life, or write a diary to give vent to "true" feelings. But, in most modern societies today, contact with age-mates is permitted and even encouraged, so that the adolescent soon finds that he is not alone in his plight-alone with a diary or his misery, as the case may be. He finds that his age-mates are in much the same boat.

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Thus, the adolescent gravitates toward his age-mates-more intensely, more frequently and more significantly than in childhood. These are the people who can understand him, since they are in the same boat themselves. They become his reference set for sizing up his own problems, his own strivings, and his own ambitions. In this country, young people are encouraged in this process by the general accentuation of social activities in national life, by adults, by schools, and by mass communication which deliberately feeds on appeals to adolescents.


The actual movement toward age-mates during adolescence in modern societies is symptomatic of a general shift in psychological ties. For the time being, one's conception of himself is linked firmly with the domain of other adolescents, the ties with adults and children being proportionately less salient. Thus, adolescents are much more concerned about how they stack up with other adolescents in certain respects, than with what their families, teachers, and other adults think about these matters. Other adolescents are a major reference set even for youth who are not members of clear-cut groups or cliques.

The products of the increased intensity and frequency of interaction among adolescents-the "youth cultures," the fads, the proliferation of clubs and informal groups-are frequently viewed as phenomena distinctive to the period. Viewed in broader perspective, they are not unique phenomena at all. The tendency of human beings to gravitate toward others who seem to be facing a common dilemma or predicament is not at all specific to adolescence. It is a general tendency whenever people see a common problem which is incapable of solution by single individuals. Adults in such prosaic settings as the office, the factory; the military, and the community follow the same tendency when they can. In less usual circumstances, too, such as a disaster or a prison camp, people generally turn toward others and organize their efforts if possible. It is a way of doing something about a dilemma rather than submitting to it.

Hence, like any individuals during a period of prolonged problems for which common effort may provide comfort or solution, adolescents tend toward group formation. Although adolescents may live in what is called a "mass society," they do have a social life that is far more patterned than adults are willing to believe. It seems to be part of the ethic of being adult to believe that social life is expressed only in forms that adults sponsor or approve-schools, churches, clubs with officers and planned meetings. Any other social life is, from this view, casual, haphazard, unpatterned, and even frightening, especially if it manifests itself in, for instance, a case of vandalism in a quiet neighborhood. In our own research, we have fund reports and have heard the earnest protests of parents, teachers, and officials that there are no relationships of any

( 6) special significance among teen-agers. The protest is epitomized in the phrase: "We have no gangs here."


The adult belief that informal social contacts among adolescents are unpatterned, that youth "gangs" are unnatural or pathological phenomena, and that only certain neighborhoods have "problems" involving "gangs" does not square with the facts. There are patterns of regular and recurrent interaction among adolescents in neighborhoods and communities of all descriptions. Nor is this general phenomenon unique to adolescents.

When individuals come together and interact with reference to a commonly experienced dilemma or problem for any period of time, the result is not merely a unique combination of individuals. As part of a general social process, to which unique individuals contribute, such regular associations become patterned. The interaction among individuals produces certain properties which are reflected in the attitude and behavior of all the individuals, but which are distinguishable from the behavior of any one of them. These "properties" are the features marking a collection of persons as. a group, wherever they may be found and whatever their age.

The patterning among individuals that earmarks a group is a matter of degree, for it is always dependent on interaction over time, and on the conditions in which interaction takes place, the problems which brought individuals together, and their personal characteristics relative to one another. Among the patterns to be found is one reflecting power relations among the individuals, according to which each occupies a differentiated relative status. Even in the most casual and informal association continuing over time, say, one of adolescent girls, the individuals come to differ more or less consistently in how effective their attempts are to initiate activities and shape the trend of interaction. The differences in effective initiative are usually accompanied by differences in deference and prestige, so that the individuals can be ranked according to relative status. This is one essential property of any human group.

Invariably, when individuals interact with reference to a common dilemma or problem, over a period of time they will produce common ways of approaching, tackling, and dealing with problems. They develop customary procedures, private jokes, signs of dress or decoration, nicknames for individuals, ways to refer to "us" and "not us," and so on. These common products of interaction are handled in sociology and anthropology under the titles of "social norms," "cultural values," and the like. There is no theoretical reason to reserve such terms for gang codes, exotic tribal customs, or far-distant societies. Every human group has its normative regulations for the behavior of those who belong to it.

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In short, associations among adolescents that continue with regularity for any length of time are patterned, in some degree, by organizational and normative properties marking this cluster of persons as a human group. Like any human group, an adolescent group does not form overnight by spontaneous generation, nor is it totally isolated from its environment. Therefore, the characteristics of adolescent groups, the specific concerns which bring members together, and even the criteria for being accepted vary in different sociocultural and socioeconomic settings.

The values cherished by adolescents, their customs and fads, cannot be divorced from the cultural and organizational context in which their groups function, including the mass media of communication. The desires and aspirations of the individual members, as well as the ramifications of their personal dilemmas, are referable to the physical and social arrangements in their ken. The kind of leadership a group requires for its activities, the definition of what constitutes the behavior of a "good" member, as well as routines and techniques for carrying out activities, are decisively affected by relationships with other groups of age-mates, with established figures in their setting, and even by the discrepancies between what they have in their setting and what they see proffered in others.

From the beginning of this chapter, with its outline of the common dilemma of adolescents in modern industrialized societies, we have found it necessary to stress the dependence of youth problems on they social arrangements, the predominant values in larger society, and the immediate circumstances of living. Within the range of variations provided by these conditions, we find that the psychological problems of adolescents, their reactions to problems, and their forms of association fall within the scope of human problems at any age, despite the unique body changes and surges of energy which make the words "adolescence" and "youthfulness" nearly synonymous in the language.


Our look at the adolescent has shown that youth problems are problems of human beings and the human condition during a period not only set off by society, but also marked by notable physiological changes. Adequate study of adolescent behavior must, therefore, include all sources affecting the individual-physiological functioning, psychological functioning, interpersonal relations, the formal and informal arrangements for living, the cultural values prevailing locally or permeating all localities, and the goals toward which human effort is expended.

Academic life has established special fields or disciplines to study each facet of the gamut of influences shaping behavior. Such division of labor is necessary, if only because of the limits of human effort. A bulky and substantial research literature on adolescence and adolescent be-

( 8) -havior has accumulated in the academic disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, as well as in the applied fields of psychiatry and social work.

At times, however, theories about youth problems have been built by representatives of one discipline or specialty as though the aspects and facts known to them in their specialization were all that was necessary for full understanding. Like the child, seeing the world through the eyes of a child, we who specialize are in constant danger of seeing youth problems exclusively through the eyes of our specialty. As the world does not conform to the child's vision, so problems of youth will not conform to the narrowed viewpoint that sees all adolescent phenomena through the favored etiology in one's specialty. When the problems of youth are diagnosed through such restricted viewpoints, research into them and practical steps to send youth forth better equipped for the future are bound to be insufficient or to fail utterly.

In addition to popular theories which merely praise or denounce youth, there have been ample supplies of theories from the academic disciplines, based exclusively on narrow or one-sided views. In one, the sole focus was on motivational complexes and their resolution. In another, the social definition of the adolescent period received credit for all adolescent problems. In still another, the characteristics and values of the particular class or ethnic grouping were regarded as sufficient etiology for the diverse phenomena of youthful behavior or misbehavior.

This book was prepared with the conviction that an adequate theory of the behavior of youth, or of any other period in human life, must seek the etiology of its problems in the whole range of major influences that actually affect behavior. If this book succeeds in demonstrating the need for research and theory that accommodates this diverse etiology, it will have fulfilled its purpose; however, the various chapters offer more than such a demonstration.


The chapters were written by scholars whose backgrounds and research activities have centered on psychological, sociological, or anthropological aspects of youth problems. They consider different aspects of these problems in both theoretical and factual detail. Yet each writer represents a growing group of workers in the social and psychological sciences who consider particular problems and the aspects most pertinent to them in relation to other problems and other aspects. Both in topics and in the authors' orientation, the views of youth and their problems in this book are intended to be interdisciplinary.

The chapters have been arranged under four general headings, though the reader will find chapters under each heading which refer to

( 9) problems encountered in others. This is as it should be, for none of the topics is insulated from others in the interplay of factors shaping youthful behavior.

Part I of the book, the first block of three chapters, concerns problems traditionally and justifiably assigned importance in youth study. Chapter 1 by John E. Horrocks discusses adolescent attitudes and goals within the framework of a general orientation to adolescent behavior. In many respects, the reader will find this view of adolescent problems similar to that outlined in this introduction. Those who are acquainted with Horrocks' notable text on adolescent psychology will appreciate the broad empirical basis for his discussion.

In Chapter 2, David Gottlieb, a sociologist by training, considers the similarities and differences in the prevailing values or norms of youth in varied sociocultural and class settings. Similarities are seen in the strivings of youth, but differences in particular goals, in views of other people (especially adults), and in the probable outcomes of their strivings. Like several other authors in this book, Gottlieb is particularly concerned with the contrasts in present and future opportunities for youth in different social classes. Chapter 3 is the only chapter focused on the important problem of youth attitudes with reference to the family. From carefully controlled analysis of findings from a large-scale research project, Wayne H. Holtzman (a psychologist) and Bernice M. Moore (a sociologist) draw forth structural properties of families which are important in understanding adolescent outlooks, along with the variations attributable to class and ethnic background.

Part II concerns variations in youth problems according to the socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds of development and behavior. In Chapter 4, Lewis Wade Jones draws on his own lifetime of research and on findings by many others as the basis for an account of the "new world view of Negro youth."' Scarcely a decade after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Jones finds changes in outlook among young Negroes, reflecting the sociopolitical movements of these years even more than changes in the conditions in which these youth actually find themselves. Of diverse socioeconomic class and residence, Negro youth differ in outlook and in reaction to the adult world, itself full of divergent trends. But all of these reveal the impact of cruel discriminatory arrangements beginning, slowly, to change.

Many Negro youth are among those discussed by Arthur Pearl in Chapter 5: youth in lower class settings. But Negro or not, youth in impoverished circumstances face a past, present and future very different from those of their more fortunate counterparts. Pearl, a psychologist by training, draws on the findings and projections of economists to define both the present lot facing youth whose first misfortune was to be born in poverty, and the grim future facing them in an increasingly technological

( 10) society. His critical appraisal of social and educational schemes to prevent waste of human talent in lives of poverty is the basis for his own action research reported in the chapter.

Youth in lower class settings and Negro youth in this country are all members of the same larger culture, albeit with distinctive values generated through generations of living apart from the dominant stream of life. Chapters 6 and 7 both concern adolescents with quite different cultural backgrounds. The former is based on research conducted by David P. Ausubel (both a medical doctor and a psychologist) among Maori youth in New Zealand. In both urban and rural areas, Maori youth grow up in a culture that traditionally defines adolescence quite differently from the dominant white society, despite years of contact between Maori and pakeha. Despite discriminatory treatment, Maori youth are becoming acculturated to dominant white values, but differentially so. Ausubel's research shows us the clear interplay of culture, class, and residence in shaping youthful patterns, an interplay sometimes obscured in youth research in this country.

Chapter 7 traces the intellectual struggle of a Mexican scholar, who is both a psychologist and a psychiatrist, with the problem of reconciling cultural variations in values and traditional theories of mental health and disturbance. Through his own research on Mexican and American youth, Rogelio Diaz-Guerrero concludes that these traditional theories have to be changed if they are to be equally applicable in different cultures. He shares with the reader the problems of conceptualization and research encountered in moving toward an approach accommodating both personal and cultural factors.

Part III, chapters 8, 9 and 10, constitutes a natural cluster concerned with youth whom society has officially designated as "in trouble." In Chapter 8, James F. Short, Jr. offers penetrating insight into current sociological formulations on social class and group processes in explaining delinquency. Through findings from a large-scale research project by Short and his collaborators on "delinquent" gangs in Chicago, we learn in detail why oversimplified theories and typologies of delinquent behavior are inadequate. Some theories regard delinquency as a strictly psychopathological problem; others as a mirror image of an insulated lower class culture; still others as a mechanically triggered reaction against society. But Short shows that even outbursts of violence by youthful gang members are linked to status problems within groups and to their relations with other groups. Though cut off in many significant respects from "middle class" life, the members of such groups appear less ignorant of its ways than was once believed.

In Chapter 9, Howard W. Polsky and David Claster continue Polsky's earlier studies on adolescents in a residential treatment center for delinquent youth. In this more recent research, the focus is upon the

( 11) give-and-take between youth in residential units and the adults who supervise and otherwise are supposed to treat them. After outlining a conceptual scheme that they found useful in studying adult-youth interaction, the authors summarize research showing the differential behaviors of adults and youth in different patterned relationships.

Frank T. Rafferty, a psychiatrist, makes a similar analysis of adult staff and youth relationships in Chapter 10. His work deals with youth in an inpatient clinic whose behavior is so severely disturbed as to earn the label "mentally ill." Rafferty's researches on severely disturbed youth led him to problems of social interaction, group formation, and social structure in institutions, problems traditionally considered sociological. But he soon found that further concepts were needed, particularly because the youngsters were so erratic and inconsistent that their interactions seldom developed toward stable or regular patterns. One of the few problems conducive to stable interaction was relationship to adult staff, and it is striking that role relationships were first observed when patients jointly defied the staff. His research gives new insight into the etiology of misbehavior by youth who are able to maintain consistent relationships with their fellows. For, consistent regulation of behavior toward others is essential for membership in any group, whether or not its activities are antisocial.

The last three chapters, Part IV, represent attempts to specify, through research procedures and measurements, the major sources of the many influences affecting youthful behavior. Chapter 11, written by the sociologist, Wendell Bell, summarizes a mode of analysis developed by Shevky, Bell, and their colleagues to specify the major properties of urban social areas. Bell surveys the accumulating research that utilizes social area analysis to show how a detailed description of the ecological setting may clarify our understanding of individual behavior. Despite the known effects of the social setting on the people living in it, there was, prior to social area analysis, a lack of precise and convenient methods for specifying its major characteristics for research on behavior.

Social area analysis also permits the researcher to pinpoint what he means by "low" or "high" socioeconomic rank, and for this reason, it was used in the research program reported in Chapters 12 and 13 by Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif. Chapter 12 presents the theoretical approach and methods developed to study, in a single research design, youthful attitude and behavior as a function of sociocultural setting and age-mate reference sets. It includes several experimental studies undertaken as part of the research program to clarify relationships between individual behavior and the patterned properties of human groups.

If we are to develop a theory of adolescent behavior, along with research to assess and expand that theory, we must begin to study carefully the interrelationships between psychological factors (background,

( 12) motives and goals), the interaction patterns and norms of adolescent groups which matter to the individual, and the sociocultural setting of the person and his groups. Only in this way can we gain realistic leads for preventive and ameliorative programs to aid youth in progressing toward adulthood and prevent serious waste of human potentialities. The last chapter of the book summarizes representative findings in the research program studying groups of adolescents in low, middle and high rank neighborhoods.

If as citizens, social scientists or practitioners, we are to understand youthful behavior adequately, there must be collaboration among all disciplines and specialties. Theory must be based on factual knowledge of the many-faceted influences shaping adolescent behavior and their interplay. Undertaking the necessary tasks is a great challenge to our own potentialities, and their accomplishment is the greatest gift we can pass to the youth of future generations.



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