Bringing ideas to life

A sociological perspective on youth

Published in Self and Identity by Huw Davies on May 17, 2013

(c) Alexandre Dulaunoy

Youth is not just a biological category; it’s also a societal invention. This may sound like socio-babble but as we have changed from an agricultural to post-industrial society our definition of youth has evolved. Young people used to be parental property; nurtured by domestic folk practices then forced into work and afforded no legal rights. Youth today is a public institution; objectified by the state, preserved in law, commodified by business and studied and monitored by rational, scientific expertise. I will show that youth have been transformed from disempowered mini-adults to today’s objects of expertise.

Pre-industrial European societies made no clear distinction between childhood and other pre-adult phases of life. There was no concept of adolescence nor of any physiological boundary at puberty (Griffin, 1993, p12).

The notion of childhood or adolescence as a distinct stage of life or a social category that afforded political and social rights is a recent invention (Zelizer, 1994). The aristocracy aside, previous generations and their social institutions have regarded children primarily as a source of cheap labour (Cunningham, 2009). In 1821, approximately half of the workforce was under 20 (The National Archives, 2012). During the nineteenth century, the increased concentration and visibility of child labour in towns and cities and a growing middle class, some of whom were preoccupied by social reform, helped construct models of childhood and society‘s obligations to them. After 1867, no factory or workshop could legally employ any child under the age of 8 and employees aged between 8 and 13 were to receive at least 10 hours of education per week (The National Archives, 2012).

Two trends emerged during this time; the sentimentalisation of childhood and the construction of a new category to describe the transition from childhood to adulthood: adolescence. Younger people began a transformation from a domestic economic resource to objects which embodied the public institution of pure childhood to be protected and nurtured.  Adolescents, beyond school, were given over to apprenticeships to learn the roles and responsibilities of adulthood. Ideal types were created and used to protect and civilise urban working class groups (Griffin, 1993). For the wealthy, public schools became engines of moral improvement that turned out ideal leaders equipped for the duties of empire (Griffin, 1993). How youth developed, learnt, behaved; what they represented and believed became an issue of state and public concern. As a result, youth departed from being intrinsic to the state of being young (Scott, 1999) to become a moral classification (Qvortrup, 1994).

In this context a laissez faire approach to youth, abandoning them to fate, was seen as a recipe for “moral anarchy” (Lesko, 2012, p75). In the late 1800s, therefore, the line between youth and adulthood became sharper and more intensely watched (Lesko, 2012, p74).  Lesko and Talburt refer to this period as the era of “pastoral power” characterised by a  “distributed discipline among adult authorities and youthful subjects who internalised regulations to monitor the self” (Lesko & Talburt, 2012, p13). By the early twentieth century, youth was “under the administrative gaze of teachers, parents, psychologists, play reformers, scout leaders, juvenile justice workers” (Lesko, 2012, p75). Under this gaze, anyone with power and privilege could influence the properties of youth created in discourse. In modern societies this increasingly became the domain of experts – which I will illustrate in my next blog post – Huw Davies.


Cunningham, H. (2009). The invention of childhood (p. 320). BBC Books.

Griffin, C. (1993). Representations of youth (p. 253). Polity Press.

Lesko, N. (2012). Act your age! The cultural construction of adolescence. (Second Edi., p. 232). Oxford: Routledge.

Lesko, N., & Talburt, S. (2012). A history of the present youth studies. In N. Lesko & S. Talburt (Eds.), Key words in youth studies (pp. 11–24). Routledge.

Scott, S. J. and S. (1999). Risk anxiety and the social construction of childhood. In Deborah Lupton (Ed.), Risk and sociocultural theory (pp. 86–108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The National Archives, T. N. (2012). The National Archives. Retrieved from

Zelizer, V. A. (1994). Pricing the priceless child: The changing social value of children (p. 296). Princeton University Press.

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About the author /


I’m a second year Web Science PhD student at the University of Southampton. My thesis is interdisciplinary so I have two supervisors Professor Susan Halford and Dr Nick Gibbins. I am investigating the implications for young people and their (lifelong) education of the democratisation of knowledge on the Web. I am arguing existing research is limited by its positivist methods and its reliance on age as explanation of youth’s vulnerability to misinformation. Age is not self-evident and timeless but a moral classification – a product of over a century and half of social upheaval and productive power in society. I am therefore using a mixture of qualitative and digital quantitative methods to prove that young people’s attitudes to information on the Web is shaped by their social environment or what Bourdieu described as field.


  1. Avatar
    Stephen Mugford

    Interesting idea but I will suggest ‘idealist’. There is actually a biological substrate here of development (especially neurological) that is dangerous to ignore. Cf also the implication of this for cognitive development a la Rober Kegan’s work. I explore a few of the consequences of this for youth justice at if you are interested.

    I completely get the idea that youth is socially constructed, but it also not totally arbitrary. Happy to discuss this with you at more length if you like. I “used to was” a sociology prof with interests in this sort of stuff…. 🙂 Stephen

  2. Avatar
    Huw Davies

    Hi Stephen – I agree with you. I guess my post suffers a little for being out of context – in my thesis I am critiquing the over-reliance on developmental models to explain why youth may have ‘problems’ decoding information on the Web. I’m more establishing my sociological perspective rather than offering a comprehensive overview. Thanks for the link, I’ll read with interest. I can send you more details of what I’m doing – I am always happy to receive constructive feedback.

  3. Avatar

    I’m still trying to digest this. Outside of it all, young men & women both influence & are influenced by society. All theories aside. Only the winning “theory” or that which is most readily accepted by the majority because rule of belief and thumb. All others atrophy, then new theories are born, debated and the winner spring forth as the “new” ideology found to explain behavior, and the others atrophy. The cycle continues in an ever-changing society.

  4. Avatar
    Anant Sharma

    It is very difficult to define and understand youth with any one single perspective. Integrated approach is very important to understand youth of that given society. This integrated approach focuses on demo-graphical, social , cultural, psychological and economical conditioning which influence and shapes the youth and its personality. The Social fabric, processes and social structure of any given society trained its youth in specific way and as what is expected from him/her.

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