Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

June 1997


Published in Health Risks and Developmental Transitions During Adolescence, edited by JOHN SCHULENBERG, JENNIFER L. MAGGS, & KLAUS HURRELMANN. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 Cambridge University Press. Used by permission.


Although clearly influenced by biological and psychological growth, adolescent development is also molded by the social and cultural context in which it occurs. As the transition from childhood to adulthood, adolescence is closely tied to the structure of adult society, and the expectations for youth during this period reflect, in important ways, the skills and qualities deemed important for success in adult roles (Benedict, 1937; Havighurst, 194811972). Furthermore, prevailing demographic, economic, and political conditions determine the adult occupational and social roles to which young people can aspire, as well as the access to and competition for those roles (Elder, 1975). The integral connection between adolescence and the societal context means that, despite universals such as puberty and cognitive development, adolescents' experiences will vary across cultures and over history. The settings in which young people develop, the skills they are expected to acquire, and the ways in which their progress toward adulthood is marked and celebrated depend on the cultural and historical contexts.

Within stratified, heterogeneous societies, the experience of adolescence also differs among subgroups of youth. Economic and social resources, as well as access to valued adult roles, may differ for youth from distinct racial-ethnic groups, social classes, and geographic regions. Lack of resources and opportunities in some settings may profoundly shape the course of adolescent development by influencing the timing of key developmental transitions and the supports available for coping with these transitions. Moreover, to the extent that anticipated adult lives differ for youth from distinct social subgroups, differences in socialization patterns and goals would be expected (Ogbu, 1985). In heterogeneous societies, therefore, local ecological conditions may alter considerably the normative template of adolescent development, with important implications for adolescents' current health and future life course.

Thus, both macrolevel, societal arrangements and local conditions help shape adolescents' experiences and the course of their development. Both kinds of influences may also have consequences for adolescent health. In particular, they affect the health risks to which young people are exposed before and during adolescence, as well as the protective factors that may shield them from these risks. In this chapter, I examine the impact of both societal and local contexts, highlighting some of their implications for adolescent health. Essentially, the chapter addresses two questions: First, how has adolescent health and development been affected by changing social and economic conditions in the United States? Second, how does the health and development of adolescents in the contemporary United States vary as a function of the local ecology? Before turning to these issues, however, an overview of sociocultural influences on adolescent development will be presented.