Charles L. McGehee(2)


Since the Eighteen Century, logical positivism has been a powerful tool for understanding and dominating the physical world. Applied to human beings, however, it has been problematic. While the search for mechanism and an insistence on universal laws of cause and effect has been useful for understanding the organic aspects of man(3), understanding human behavior using the same criteria and methods has been more difficult.

Take, for instance, the method of experimentation. Humans do not lend themselves to experimentation even though some may try. Experimentation requires constraining the object of inquiry in a controlled setting in order to force conditions onto it to produce controlled responses. It also requires isolating the object of study from its environment so as to be able to eliminate extraneous influences on the experimental outcome. Neither is readily possible with humans. Moreover, humans can take information gained about themselves, incorporate it into their lives and become different from that which was studied in the first place. Thus, whatever the apparent outcomes of behavioral experiments on humans, the extent to which the results reflect universal laws generalizable to other persons, times, and places is debatable. Decades of behavioral research on prisoners gives moot testimony to the specious value of such on crime rates, for instance.

As far as mechanisms are concerned, whatever it is that produces behavior in man is (are) hidden from view. Indeed it is not even clear that there is anything to be viewed. Consequently, if we are to understand behavioral processes we are compelled to hypothesize a great deal about what may be involved.

Seldom is behavioral research guided by clear conceptions of the dynamics of behavior. Lacking clear models and a sense of the internal specifications of human beings, such research often amounts to little more than contriving tasks for captive subjects which result in statistical exercises which produce products of professional importance.

Stimulus, response, reinforcement or class, status, and power: without adequate models and descriptions of human qualities as human qualities, the significance of these concepts is questionable. At best, the only view of man to emerge is one of a being which has things happen to him, not by him. Man appears as a sort of puppet whose actions are determined by push-pull forces outside himself, an observation contradicted by the very scientific process whereby said knowledge was produced.

The Anthropomorphic Model of Man

In recent times another approach to the study of man has emerged, the anthropomorphic approach. (Harré and Secord,1973; ch. 5). The anthropomorphic approach, also called ordinary language analysis, seeks, for scientific purposes, to understand man "as if he were a human being."

Although we might say, "Well of course he is a human being," the matter is not to be taken for granted. "As if he were a human being" implies that "human being" is being used as a model whereby we can analyze human behavior. If "human being" can be used as a model, it therefore must have qualities by which it can be identified as a human being as opposed to other kinds of entities. This being the case, then, in order to understand "human being" as a model, it is first necessary to reflect on the qualities which makes a human being a human being. Harré and Secord say:

The anthropomorphic model of man conceives of the subject of social investigations as a biological individual whose characteristically human actions are generated by the conscious self-monitoring of its performance in accordance with certain sets of rules which it represents to itself in the course of making anticipatory and monitoring commentaries upon its performance, and which it subjects to critical appraisal in retrospective commentaries. At the level immediately "above" performance it can, therefore, choose different sets of rules for actions, and this is why a multiplicity of social selves are possible, since a social self is the apparent unifying principle present in an organism's performance in some social episode. Retrospective commentaries are usually given in a context of justification in which the rules which an individual followed in the course of a performance, or the plans it carried out, have to be shown in a favorable light to others of its species. Social science is the study of the system of such individuals and of their performances and of their ways of monitoring those performances and of the systems of rules and the kinds of plans they use in doing this. ... [T]here can be no presupposition that there will be one and only one consistent set of rules in use all the time by each biological individual. (Harré and Secord; 93-94)

Hampshire identifies three major characteristics or capacities of human beings:

1. A human being is characteristically an agent, that is, has the power to initiate change and control the manner and goal of his performances.

2. A human being can perceive things, that is, can be aware of things other than himself, and is aware of that awareness.

3. A human being has linguistic powers, particularly the power of speech. (Hampshire, quoted in Harré and Secord; 95.)

A common condition necessary for all three is that each human being has a point of view, that is, occupies a place and knows that it does so, so that it understands itself as viewing the world from that place and acting upon things from there. The connection between linguistic powers and occupancy of place comes about through the central place that referring has in language using. To refer to something is to identify the place where the referent is relative to where the speaker is located.

Endurance in time is also a necessary condition for the exercise of the three qualities mentioned above. To be an agent one's actions must be oriented in time. One must know what one is about to do (future tense), what one is doing (present tense), and what one has done (past tense). Even if we are not always aware of our intended actions, we must have the power to give anticipatory, monitoring and retrospective commentaries if called upon to do so. Perceiving also takes place in time since we can perceive only enduring things. Further, the organization of articulated sequences of sounds into speech is achieved by a structure whose components are differentiated in time. So in order to exercise one's powers as an agent, as a perceiver and as a language user -- in short to be a human being -- one must be a kind of thing, a mechanism, but one which monitors and controls the way he himself performs. (Harré and Secord; 96, 97).

By treating man as if he were a human being and studying him through talk, his talk, we therefore must operate on the assumption that the qualities and world-view of the subject and not of the observer-specialist are decisive. Whereas in earlier methods the view of the specialist was the only one that could determine the internal specifications of the object of study, ordinary language analysis takes the position that the only source of knowledge of the internal specifications of the object of study is the object, the individual himself. He is the only one who can know for sure what is going on inside him.

It may of course be true that the person may not understand why he does something, but the point is that he is the only one who can report on his internal state. No questionnaire and no experiment can produce such a report on what a person feels, wants, knows about, knows how to do, and tries to get. It may be that at any given time a subject cannot or will not put words to his knowledge and intent to the satisfaction of an external observer. That does not mean, however, that he does not monitor these states, is not aware of them, and does not direct his behavior with reference to them. Moreover, it is not to deny the role of other mechanisms in his behavior, such as alcohol or organic disease. It is to say, however, that the social components of his actions, the meanings, are accessible only to him.

Ordinary language analysis takes the position that if he can do it, he can describe the internal conditions surrounding his actions to the extent the action has meaning for him in some sense. That a person ultimately does what he does, is reason enough to do it. Hidden, inscrutable motives are not necessary elements in human behavior. The only questions which remain to be answered are concerned with the details of the internal analysis which gave rise to the action.

Ordinary language analysis begins with the proposition that the nature of social action both originates in and is to be discovered in the ordinary language of daily life. The meaning of behavior is reflected in the terms, concepts, grammar and syntax of daily conversation. Assessing speech is not simply a matter of recording it or otherwise quantifying it. It is, rather, a matter of listening for extended periods and probing its usages. What is being sought, in the words of Freiere, are the streams of consciousness, which link members of collectives together and represent the social reality for them. (Freiere, 1970) The issue is not personal reality as such, but rather the linkages between individuals by which they know each other and are known to each other, the ties that give sense to their everyday actions and by which they, ultimately, know themselves. These linkages are the rules of interaction which are reflected in language.

These streams of consciousness are political in that they invariable reflect issues of control over life chances and style of life, as well as the resulting stress and conflict. They are the substance of talk which occupies daily life. This talk reflects Merton's categories (Merton, 1957) wherein the actor comes to terms with the institutional means and ends, justifies himself as a self-monitoring presenter, as noted by Sykes and Matza (1957) and manages outcomes as described by Goffman (1959).

The anthropomorphic model of man may be likened to an airplane flying by computer within a known environment being guided by separate programs for taking off, landing, navigation, and sightseeing. Self-monitoring sensors provide the mechanism with information to adjust the flight to the parameters of the environment for ideal flight characteristics.

However, if the plane were to be able to take into consideration the pleasure or fear of passengers or ground personnel and to alter its flight characteristics to please or displease them, it would then be operating in a higher order environment. This would correspond to the way a person can choose different sets of rules and conventions according to his audience by which he controls his presentation in a particular social setting. (Harré and Secord; 99)

In order to be able to treat people as if they were human beings, then, it must be possible to accept their commentaries upon their actions as authentic, though revisable, reports of phenomena, subject to empirical criticism. (Harré and Secord; 101)

Such commentaries ultimately make possible mapping the relationships in a person's social space from the perspective of the persons living in that space. This mapping is the same thing as a description of the participating person's internal reality. Such mapping takes the form of a series of statements of the nature that "It may be said that a person (thing, quality, characteristic, value) is something and one person (thing, etc.) is more of that something than another, when conditions 1 ..., 2 ..., 3 ..., etc. exist. Thus qualities of persons, objects, relationships, come to be described in terms of the human beings experiencing them.

Tapping this internal reality is not simply a matter of talking with persons, for immediate talk is likely to be couched in terms of what Mills called "vocabularies of motives," that is, explanations and understandings which form the "acceptable" public accounts of motives and rationales. (Mills, 1939) The process of inquiry requires probing interaction between the researcher and subject.

Take for instance, the process of defining an aspect (any aspect) of social reality. In terms of the anthropomorphic model of man, a definition is more than simply a tag attached to something identifying its referential qualities. A definition reflects, instead, actors' expectations for themselves and others and the meanings behaviors hold for them in a particular setting.

Consider the concept of "juvenile delinquent" as used in the United States. When a person is asked "What do you think of when you hear the term 'juvenile delinquent'?" a common first response might be "A kid who breaks the law." Each element of the response, i.e., "kid", "law", and "breaking the law", provides a basis for subsequent analysis. The definition of a "kid", for example, rests on the examination of the upper and lower limits of age-appropriate behavior. When is a child so young that its behavior will not be regarded either as a threat or capable of bearing the burden of responsibility and when it he old enough that he will be regarded as fully adult and therefore fully accountable? These questions, it might be noted, already imply knowledge of the nature of children and the culture in which they grow insofar as they acknowledge that such distinctions are meaningful. "Kid" itself -- a slang term -- carries meanings different from "child", "young person", "young man", or "16-year old male", etc., insofar as it implies a degree of familiarity, personality and perhaps willingness to tolerate a degree of deviance.

The best method for pursuing the stream of consciousness is through the presentation of concrete examples which not only fulfill the conditions of the value but force its outer limits as well. It is neither necessary nor desirable to present pre-categorized language to the person. This would establish the researcher's language as the subject of the inquiry. It is necessary only to set up conditions which permit the subject's own language to emerge. Consider the following exchange:

"What does the term 'juvenile delinquent' bring to your mind?"

"A kid who breaks the law."

"A three-year old finds a gun in the bedroom and shoots his playmate. It's against the law to shoot someone. Is that what you had in mind?"

"Well, no."

"What is it about that example that makes it not an example of juvenile delinquency?"

"Well, a three-year old doesn't know what he is doing."

"Why not?

"His brain hasn't developed fully and he hasn't learned enough to know about guns and be able to anticipate consequences and the like."

"When does a child know what he is doing?"

At this point we begin to see how the speaker assesses the lower age limits of accountability. Similarly, we can pursue the other end of the age spectrum.

"A kid who is 17 1/2 years of age (in the U.S. 18 is the upper legal age for youth) rapes and stabs an old lady in a wheel chair. Is that an example of 'juvenile delinquency."

"No, certainly not."

"Why not?"

"Two reasons. First, he is old enough to know better, and second, it is too awful."

"As regards age, if he had stolen a piece of chewing gum, would you regard it as an act of "juvenile delinquency."

"Yes. He just made a mistake and should have another chance. He's just a kid."

"But if he rapes and stabs the old lady, it's not a mistake? He shouldn't have another chance?"

"No. Something that severe is no mistake. And anyway, it doesn't make any difference how old he is. He's a menace and has to be put away."

Thus it emerges that the ordinary language meaning of "juvenile delinquent" begins to depart from the legal definition and begins to take shape in terms of certain expectations and standards of conduct and conventional understandings of physical development held by members of the community.

This is significant because it is the start of a map of the streams of consciousness that form the defining boundaries around behavior of young people (or any one, for that matter), and gains practical significance because it is just such consciousness that affects whether a "kid's" behavior will be reported to the police or ignored, whether neighbors will become involved in a family's affairs as a result of a child's behavior, and whether the child will experience those around him as being concerned about or indifferent to his conduct.

The analysis may proceed in a similar fashion with respect to the nature of actions which catch people's attention, what kind of people are affected, how they respond and for what purpose, etc. As a result, a definition of a juvenile delinquent begins to emerge which is different from either a legal, psychological or sociological definition. It often looks something like this:

A person may be said to be a delinquent and one person may be said to be more of a delinquent when:

1. the person is usually under the age of 18 but above the age of accountability (usually 6-8 years in the U.S.);

2. the person commits an act which threatens the interests of other persons;

3. the threatened persons are in a position to do something about it (degree of social power; likelihood of being taken seriously by others with power);

4. the threatened persons or their allies create or have created public laws and legal procedures to eliminate the threat;

5. the threatened persons or their allies invoke such laws and legal procedures.

A definition such as this -- which, by the way, will vary in some ways from society to society, especially as regards the limits on age -- points to the fact that the study of adult interests are key to understanding delinquency as well as conditions under which a definer of delinquency goes about dealing with it, etc. It further points to the fact that all persons and all definitions are not equal, that is to say, those who have greater influence over the social control mechanisms of the society have greater influence on the definition of harm and all it entails.

Such an approach sets the stage for a comprehensive analysis of all aspects of social life relative to a given topic. In the case of delinquency, we must examine the nature of persons, age, adult interests, social power, the legal system, and correctional system in order to grasp that which is said to be delinquency.

The process of defining a phenomenon is a matter of values and meanings rather than behaviors as such. At issue in the case at hand is not the psychic state of children but the values and social power of adults. If we were to proceed with the analysis this becomes even more noticeable. Take for instance, the issue of "threat to adult interests."

What are "adult interests?" Fundamentally they are whatever adults say they are to the extent they are in a position to enforce their wishes. But beyond that, one may start from the proposition that the category of "adult" is simply a stage in a developmental stage whereby all classified as "adults" were once classified as "children" and most "children" will one day become "adults." The issue then is not one of concrete, empirical categories but a process. Further, a collection of adults are already in existence and in control when beings enter the world as children. Children are by definition dependent on adults. Adults, by definition, have the responsibility not only of caring for children but converting them into a form valued in the prevailing social order, namely, desirable persons, however the term may be defined. This is an adult interest, and therefore to understand the relationship between adults and children it is necessary to understand what the concept of "desirable person" entails.

Asking persons, middle-class American adults in this case, what the term "desirable person" calls to mind, a variety of qualities will be offered, such as, honesty, responsibility, dependability, generosity, loving, etc. From my experience, groups spontaneously come up with a list of about thirty qualities which vary little from group to group and time to time. The socialization of children and assessment of conduct revolve around these qualities whether they are attained or not. They are the qualities reflected in fundamental principles enunciated in many philosophies of life around the world and are reflected in the Tao. (Lewis, 1947) Upon analysis, they are significant since without exception they involve expectations for individuals wherein self-interests are subordinated to the interests of others, especially when the vulnerabilities of others are at stake.

Examination of the concept of honesty, for instance, produces responses such as the following:

"What does 'honesty' conjure up in your mind?"

"Telling the truth. Saying what you really think?"

"Why is that a good idea? Why is it a desirable quality?"

"So people can rely on each other. They need reliable information."

"A child says to a person, 'You're fat!' Is that what you had in mind? It's being honest, saying what the child really thinks."

"No. That's cruel and tactless. A person can be too honest."

"You mean you tell a child to be honest, yet want him to lie on occasion? What's the difference between that and, say, lying to you about where he was last night?"

"Well, in the first instance, the lie is to protect the other person's ego which may be fragile. If it is important to comment on the person's appearance, there are other ways to get the message across. 'Tact' is what is called for. 'Tact' is a desirable quality, too. It tempers cruel honesty. Lying to me about where he was, on the other hand, is to protect himself from my authority and to hide him getting away with what I don't want him to do."

Through such analysis, therefore, it becomes possible to begin to establish the rules of conduct which link the parent, the child and the broader society. Further, contradictions often are revealed between the professed values of the parent and the actual behavior experienced by the child. Continuing the inquiry about honesty:

"What about telling your child to tell someone on the telephone that you are not at home when in fact you are?"

"Well, sure, why not? Of course it's a lie, I suppose. But I don't want to talk to the person. It's okay."

Such an instance reveals the existence of contradictions between the stated values of the parent and the actual values reflected in the parent's behavior. If the stated values of the desirable person reflected self-sacrifice and consideration of the interests of others before self, the actual behavior betrays the parent's interest not only in deceiving others to protect his own interests, but also his willingness to use his child as a tool to further his own interests. The problem is compounded by the vulnerability of the child vis-à-vis the parent. He cannot easily refuse. If he were to refuse, he could be regarded as resisting the parent's authority.

It is in this fashion, then, that talk can reveal the structure of social action which binds parent and child and both to the broader society. The data is generated by the parties themselves on their own terms. The reality is what it appears to be. All that is required of an observer is a knowledge of the ordinary language and sensitivity to the nuance of language and to the symbolic qualities of non-linguistic behaviors. Human nature, motivation, or other characteristics of persons thought relevant will be found buried within the concepts of the ordinary language which expresses the customs and practices of the culture. Other social causal forces need not be postulated by social science observers. It should be noted, however, that mechanistic causal factors may be involved in behavior -- alcohol or physical abuse, for example. Such factors may figure into the participants' meanings but do not determine their actions.

The same approach can, of course, be applied to the study of youth as youth. Again, what is necessary is not to approach the population with prior assumptions about a their nature, but, instead, be prepared to ask and listen to their talk. Actually, sociologists have done this in a variety of contexts for decades. Much of the history of the sociological study of youth has been characterized in one way or another by tapping into the talk of youth. Cohen's studies of gangs (Cohen, 1955) and Whyte's study of Street Corner Society (1943) used talk as a means for understanding the structure of gangs. Talk revealed frustrated aspirations for Ohlin and Cloward (1960). Sykes and Matza (1957) discovered the mechanisms for neutralizing a sense of responsibility for actions through talk. And Reckless (1957) used talk to examine the mechanisms for containing pressures for non-conformity to the values of the "desirable person" to mention a few notable examples.

The studies cited, while useful, have turned the concept of youth into a phenomenon as rigid and permanent as if it were chiseled in stone. They leave us far from understanding the process whereby a society reproduces itself, the process whereby a new, generation which takes orders is converted into an old generation which gives orders. Every new generation possesses independent consciousness and experiences a world not of its making. It is compelled to come to terms with its parental generation which in turn was compelled to come to terms with its own parental generation. Yet in spite of this -- and even because of this -- any given generation of youth is to some extent different from any other which has ever existed.

A questionnaire or statistical analysis can never help us understand meaning and values. On the contrary, uncritical positivism gives us a false sense of truth and misleads us as to the nature of youth-as-persons since persons know that other persons are capable of deceiving themselves and others, and that which may be stated in response to a questionnaire may reveal only what the respondent wants to be known. This may be the case with talk too, of course, but talk is likely to reveals the truth of the matter better, for in extended conversation under non-threatening conditions persons will begin to reveal their world in ways different from when confronted directly.

Any time authority is present, whether it be the authority of parents, the state or the scientist, one should expect that truth known through verbal responses to queries may be structured to meet the needs of the questioning authority. In any event, the presence of deception itself becomes valuable data in understanding the inner processes of the person. Indeed, deception may be the most important information found.

Recent dramatic social changes in a number of countries which were previous thought to be stable, suggest that authorities, including scientific authorities, merely elicited and heard what they wanted to hear, most especially from young people. Public authorities' understanding of youth -- and everything else, for that matter -- was clearly deficient and even self-deceptive. If truth is to be found, therefore, it is only to be found by going to persons on their own terms and in their own, ordinary language. There simply is no alternative.

Learning to Listen

But how to accomplish this? Opportunities to talk can of course be created, but they also present themselves constantly in the course of every day life. We must learn to listen.

For instance, prisoners in a local women's prison would often use the term "F-Troop" in their talk. Further, the term was always used in a context wherein it seemed to reflect something negative and something to be avoided, as in "Sally's going to make it to F-Troop if she's not careful," or "Sally just got back from F-Troop. They really messed her up. She's glad to be back." Whatever "F-Troop" was, it seemed to convey a sense of dread and be a place to avoid.

As it turned out, "F-Troop" was the title of a popular television program, and it was being used to refer to Building F of the prison compound. The prison buildings were identified by letters of the alphabet, and Building F was "Admissions and Classifications," a seemingly innocuous function. The prison structure, which was quite modern in terms of contemporary psychology and sociology, was oriented around a medical model of deviancy. The prisoners were "sick" and had been sent to the institution not for punishment but for treatment, so the theory. It followed from the model that proper diagnosis of the "malady" would be essential for proper treatment, so the initial phase of the "patient's" stay was spent in Admissions and Classification before the person was released into the general prison population. It was also during this time that the true power of the institution was experienced by the prisoner, since it was otherwise not an unpleasant place to be. During this time the prisoner was kept in isolation from the general prison population and generally deprived of the sorts of freedoms and benefits provided. A "relapse" indicated a "misdiagnosis" and the prisoner would be sent back for "re-evaluation" (i.e., solitary confinement.) The term "Admissions and Classifications" comes from psychologists and sociologists who conceived of the prisoners as sick and hence in need of diagnosis and treatment by specialists. The prisoners' reality, however, was one of pain and deprivation, and they responded to the system accordingly.

Freiere (1970), when teaching poor Brazilian peasants to read, discovered that the best way to teach reading was to tap into the streams of consciousness of the peasants and to use the concepts which conveyed their reality among themselves as the basis for learning to read. After spending some six months in the community simply observing, he was able to describe the key elements in their lives through their language. As it turned out, their oppression by landlords was the source of their greatest misery and the most important topic of their talk. He quickly taught them to read by teaching first these concepts since they focused on the conditions controlling their lives. That he was getting close to understanding the truth of the dynamics of the peasants' lives was indicated by the fact that he was ultimately expelled from the country by the government for being subversive.

Discovering inner social reality is no easy matter. Freiere lived among the Brazilian peasants for many months to gain their confidence. This suggests that a participant observation methodology is appropriate. One must be mindful, however, of the possibility of the participating observer creating the very reality he is seeking to discover.

But for research on youth, participant observation is even more difficult because those who are interested in studying youth are themselves no longer young. Researchers who themselves were once young have joined the "enemy," so to speak. Biological factors are an undeniable element of identification of and with a collection of young people at any time. It is for this reason that doing undercover police work with youth, for instance, is extremely difficult. Old people do not "pass" well for young people, and as a result police typically try to use small adults who are particularly youthful in appearance. Even so, adult language and mannerisms often betray the undercover detective.

Adults may work with children and affect a child-like demeanor, thereby seeking to gain the confidence of the children. To a point this may be useful, but adults are not children and children will come to resent and ridicule the adult who tries to be like a child. Such an adult will never be completely trusted and in the long run will be rejected and excluded from the very life he seeks to understand.

Perhaps a better way would be to involve young people themselves in the study of themselves. The only person who is likely to be able to pass for a young person is another young person. In many U.S. high schools so-called "natural helpers" are identified and trained to act at lay counsellors for youth. A "natural helper" is a high school student who other students informally seek out for help, guidance, or a sympathetic ear. They come to school administrators' attention through students identifying them as persons whom them respect and to whom they look for support. With additional training in crisis intervention, such "natural helpers" have turned out to be important elements in crisis-intervention and therapeutic programs for youth.

It might be well to utilize such persons as means for developing information about the nature of youth and youth problems. The problem this presents, however, is that such persons are seen as "natural helpers" precisely because other young people regard them as trustworthy, a quality of youth's conception of a "desirable person." To the extent that adult authority wants to study youth for the purpose of controlling and directing it, natural helpers would lose their credibility quickly if they were to be seen as agents of adult authority. "Trustworthy" in that context means not revealing confidences to adult authority.

The Process of Humanity

At root the questions raised by ordinary language analysis are concerned with the process of becoming human. Becoming human is a process; children and youth are not things and neither are parents or adults. Rather these are terms reflecting general stages of development through which all must pass. All adults have been children and youth and most children and youth will become adults. All are or have been passing though, each responding to reality as it finds it. Each converses among itself and with its opposite.

Children talk about their limited past and their great future, their relations with other children and other children's power; and their problems with adults and adult power. They talk of ways to overcome adult power; they talk of adults' responses to children trying to overcome adult power; and they talk of children's responses to adults' responses to children trying to overcome adult power.

Adults talk of their greater past and increasingly limited future; their relations with other adults and other adults' power; and their problems with children and children's power. They talk of ways to overcome children's power; they talk of children's responses to adults' trying to overcome children's power; and they talk of adults's responses to children's responses to adults' trying to overcome children's power. Adults never forget (although they may seem to) that they were children in a world not of their making; and they are always mindful (although they may not show it) that now they constitute the most significant part of the world children experience which is likewise not of their own making.

The adult-child relationship is essentially chaotic in that, for all the planning and intent, the factors which enter in are largely unpredictable -- external factors such as the people who live next door, the technology which alters the activities of life, economic and political arrangements of the day, the products in stores, the messages in the mass-media. None of these is predictable or controllable, and each has the most profound effect on the lives of all concerned. It is up to individual children and adults to come to terms with them as best they can. The past often bears only scant resemblance to the present, and the future may bear even less resemblance to the present.

It is in this context that talk is key. Talk provides the basis for managing this chaos; it is the mechanism for imposing order on the chaos. A desirable person is one who can manage chaos effectively, one who can protect his own interests effectively without loss of self through the destruction of others around him. The ordinary language carries the rules of order as well as conveys the process to the outside world.

Ordinary language analysis, then, points us away from regarding youth as a category of things which has concrete existence over time. It reminds us that questionnaires tell us only what the creators of questionnaires want us to hear, not what we need to hear. It tells us that adequate understanding of those persons who are passing through the early years of life can only be accomplished if they are involved in their own development, education, socialization and study. It says that the most valid social science is the one that takes members of a society seriously as if the were human beings.

Understanding Youth

So, how can ordinary language analysis help us understand youth? Whose talk should we listen to? Political parties, clubs, organizations, charismatic individuals? Unfortunately, each creates for youth a concrete reality even in the face of change. Over time representations of youth will become entrenched and develop their own vested interests as they insist that youth be molded to fit their own needs.

This can be avoided by maintaining constant contact with constantly changing reality by talking to the constantly changing faces of young people as they move through the process of aging. Sociologists, above all, are in the position to describe this reality of independently of any interests in controlling or manipulating youth, if they are willing to do so.

But it may be too late. Youth may be an anachronism -- at least in the Western industrial nations. The distinction between child and adult is increasingly becoming blurred. Rapid, mass communications and computer technology give children access to vast amounts of information heretofore reserved only for adults, and with that information has come an increasing ability to communicate independently of adults and make independent decisions. Independent sources of income gives children a degree of economic dependence from adults never before known.

Automobiles and mass transportation provide children mobility and anonymity of action never before known, and mass culture gives children standards of conduct and modes of expression and means of relating to each other beyond anything adults can comprehend, much less control.

Factory prepared foods and microwaves are increasingly making it possible for children even to prepare their meals without adult intervention. The increasingly ubiquitous fast food outlets enhance children's ability to fend for themselves without even coming home. In a very real sense, modern culture -- for better or worse -- is leveling the historic differences between many unequal categories of persons including children and adults.

Although this is happening mainly in Western industrial nations, newly industrializing nations are moving rapidly in this direction as they follow the models of the West.

Still, children are born into a world not of their making, and that alone means that their experiences will be different from adults. And they still are destined one day to give orders. That alone means there will always be something worth studying.

In English there is the saying, "Children should be seen and not heard" meaning that children should behave quietly under supervision and not interject themselves into the adult world of discourse and decision-making. Ordinary language analysis reflects the emerging philosophy that children can be heard, indeed must be heard. We ignore this at our peril, for unless we learn to listen and make listening the basis for our science, successive waves of youth will sweep sociologists aside as surely as they have everything else which has gotten in their way for the last 30 years.


Cohen, Albert K.

1955 Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. Glencoe, Il.: The Free Press.

Freiere, Paulo

1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Goffman, Erving

1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

Hampshire, Stuart

1965 Thought and Action. London: Chatto and Windus.

Harré, Rom and Secord, Paul F.

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1. Presented at the XII World Congress of Sociology, Madrid, Spain, July 9-13, 1990

2. Department of Sociology, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington 98926, USA; Tel. 509-963-1305, Fax: 509-963-1241; BITNET: CHASM@CWU

3. For reasons associated with history, etymology, and grammar, the noun man, as well as the pronouns he, his, and him, will be used in their generic sense throughout this paper.