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How Adolescents Learn Risk Behavior: Violence, AIDS, Drug Use and Eating Disorders

Matt McDonough

The purpose of this review was to explore how adolescents learn behaviors that expose them to risk. Adolescence is defined as, “the time period around biological maturation termed puberty in English (Fabrega and Miller 1995).” Risk behaviors were identified as those exposing the adolescents to violence, HIV/AIDS, drug addiction, and eating disorders. The review necessarily assumed that adolescents have no natural desire to put themselves at such risks. Yet, research shows certain populations of adolescents suffer from high levels of these risks. Like Fabrega and Miller, I acknowledge difficulty in studying a basic concept such as adolescence cross-culturally, but still hope to uncover something useful about adolescent learning.

In the oldest article within my review, Anthony Burton writes that anthropology does not have adequate methods for studying adolescents (1978). In the most recently written article in my review, Jason Hart writes that anthropology could be, and is not being, used to help adolescents (2006). My review of articles written in the intervening years supports both authors, suggesting that anthropology of adolescents has produced few consistent methods, and little widely applicable knowledge.

All articles, however, spend time describing an influence that precedes behavior. The influences are not consistent across all four identified risk behaviors, and within each one, trends emerge. Violent behavior seems to come from internal teaching of survival within marginalized populations. Drug use also seems to be tied to marginalization, and with identity issues. Risk for HIV/AIDS seems to rise when traditional teachings about sex fail to account for the dangers of STDs. Increase in eating disorders can only be linked to a combination of factors. Western media seems an important factor, but not the only factor, in these later two behaviors. The only real consistency between all articles is many cite a myriad of interrelated factors that encourage risk behaviors. Few of the adolescents themselves seem to seek the risk out.

A second process in the establishment of risk behavior is replication. Many mechanisms that cause replication of risk behaviors exist in the articles, such as sexual scripting, peer standing, ethnic identity, a culture of fear, and many cultural traditions. Adolescents rely heavily on replication of adults’ and peers’ behaviors to understand what to do and many situations. In many cases replication overrides what outsider adults tell the adolescents.

This research is too preliminary to draw any concrete conclusions. While suggesting two important processes, influence and replication, and some trends within them, this review can not define what they are, and should instead be used to identify questions anthropologists need to ask. Anthropologists must explore all the avenues of influence, move beyond a myriad of interconnected factors and begin identifying and mapping individual ones. Anthropologist must understand the messages being received, or not received, and how this increases risk. Anthropologists must learn how replication works and how it might be used to change dangerous behaviors. Anthropologists may possibly come to understand adolescents as having a unique culture amidst a larger one.

Annotated Bibliography

Adams, Kimberly, Roger G. Sargent, Sharon H. Thompson, et al. 1998

A Study of Body Weight Concerns and Weight Control Practices of 4th and 7th Grade Adolescents. Ethnicity and Health 5(1): 79-94.

The purpose of this study is to assess grade, race, socioeconomic status, and gender differences in perceptions of body size, weight concerns, and weight control practices between 4th and 7th grade students in South Carolina. Two random samples, consisting of a total of 1597 adolescents, participated in two questionnaire surveys. The study indicates that early in a child's sociocultural development, grade level, gender, race, and socioeconomic status are influential in the perception of ideal adult body size and opposite gender ideal adult body size.

South Carolina



Weight control

Body size perceptions

Cultural anthropology

Anderson-Fye, Eileen P. 2004

A “Coca-Cola” Shape: Cultural Change, Body Image, and Eating Disorders in San Andres, Belize. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 28:561-595.

This article explores why the community of San Andres, Belize, has been relatively resistant to eating disorders when other postcolonial nations with similar characteristics of social transition, gender, role flux, and upward mobility have not. Anderson-Fye details that all adolescent girls participate in a local custom of pageantry that establishes “multiple attainable ideals” of feminine beauty. This local custom reinforces traditional Belizean forms of beauty and counters the influence of Western media in this community.

Female body image

Eating disorders



Cultural anthropology

Asencio, Marysol W. 1999

Machos and Sluts: Gender, Sexuality, and Violence among a Cohort of Puerto Rican Adolescents. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 13(2):107-126.

This article describes the beliefs and rationales for gender-based violence among a cohort of low-income Puerto Rican American adolescents. Asencio conducted a three-year study of 150 low income, innercity Latino adolescents through participant observation, informal groups, and formal interviews. Asencio details the creation of gender-based identities in the adolescents, “machos” for boys, “sluts” for girls that inform their behavior toward the opposite sex. Puerto Rican adolescents can use these identities to justify violence and male dominance.
New York City

Puerto Ricans




Cultural anthropology

Assal, Adel, and Edwin Farrell 1992

Attempts to Make Meaning of Terror: Family, Play, and School in Time of Civil War. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 23(4):275-290.

This article describes the attempts of Lebanese adolescents to confer meaning onto their lives while living though intense periods of Civil War. Assal and Farrell first present an emic (insider’s) view of life for the children, and then frame their stories in categories such as war, politics, religion, family, play, boredom, career, school, and acceptance of a warrior identity. Children initially terrified by war are slowly pushed through the forces of poverty and boredom to join militias. Members of militias are able to explain and control the terror but ultimately begin a new cycle for the next generation of adolescents.

Children in war

Culture of terror

Ethnography in war

Cultural anthropology

Burton, Anthony 1978

Anthropology of the Young. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 9(1):54-70.

This author writes that anthropology, as a discipline, does not have adequate methods for studying the young. Burton states that youth differ from adults in two main senses, youth are dependent, biologically and economically, and youth “see the world in quite different terms.” Anthropological studies of youth, including adolescents, have focused on enculturation and cultural transmission, but these studies reveal problems in definition, description, dependence, and development of the youth. Anthropology must now “enter the head” of the youth to determine how this happens.




Anthropology of education

Cultural anthropology

Burton, Linda M. 1997

Ethnography and the Meaning of Adolescence in High-Risk Neighborhoods. Ethos 25(2):208-217.

This article explores the question of how ethnography can help to understand adolescent development among African American adolescents growing up in high-risk neighborhood in a northeastern U.S. city. Burton states that human development researchers have not yet systematically examined meanings, patterns, roles, and behaviors involved in adolescent ethnic/racial minorities in high-risk environments. Burton conducts a five year study of urban African American adolescents. Her work shows high-risk adolescents experience accelerated life course, diffuse age hierarchies, and inconsistent role expectations creating a different conception of the period of adolescences versus those in lower risk environments.

Northeastern United States

African Americans

Racial minorities


Life course

Cultural anthropology

Devine, John 1995

Can Metal Detectors Replace the Panopticon? Cultural Anthropology 10(2):171-195.

This article tackles the complex problem of school violence. Devine reports that, at the time of writing, 41 New York City high schools had metal detectors and large squads of security guards. These security measures, however, have exacerbated the problem by decreasing the authority teachers can, and are willing to exercise over the situation. The result is a “climate of fear” that dictates violence as a necessary tool of survival. Devine states that more ethnography is needed to understand how this violence is passed on from year to year.
New York City

High school

Violence in schools

Security in schools

Cultural anthropology

Eyre, Stephen L., Valerie Hoffman, and Susan G. Millstein 1998

The Gamesmanship of Sex: A Model Based on African American Adolescent Accounts. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 12(4):467-489.

The authors draw on vernacular-term interviews, in which listed vernacular terms are explored for deep meaning, with 39 African American adolescents from suburban San Francisco, and sociological game theory, to develop a model of cognition related to sex. Stages of the sexual gamesmanship include courtship, duplicity, disclosure, and prestige. The article concludes by stating that sexual gamesmanship may play a role in the social learning process through constructing social reputations of boys and girls in an opposing fashion.

San Francisco

African Americans



Game theory

Medical anthropology

Fabrega, Horacio, and Barbara D. Miller 1995

Towards a More Comprehensive Medical Anthropology: The Case of Adolescent Psychopathology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 9(4):431-461.

The authors seek to demonstrate the need for a more holistic model of medical anthropology that includes contributions from such disciplines as social history, anthropology, and psychology. They explore this model through cross-culturally examining three areas of adolescent psychopathology: anorexia nervosa, spirit possession, and social aggression. The authors use their model to display the complex interplay of urbanization, modernization, ethnicity, socioeconomic inequality, racism, and government policy that can promote adolescent psychopathology in both Western and non-Western societies.


Eating disorders


Medical anthropology

Cross-cultural psychiatry

Ginsberg, Pauline E., and Moraa Gekonge 2004

MTV, Technology, the Secular Trend, and HIV/AIDS: Why Kenyan Parents Need to Learn about Adolescent Development. Dialectical Anthropology 28:353-364.

Due to a generation gap, Kenyan adolescents are at an increasingly greater risk for HIV/AIDS. Ginsberg and Gekonge state that the life stage “adolescence” is not part of traditional Kenyan development. However, after increased urbanization and influence from the West, Kenyan children are displaying adolescent behaviors in increasing numbers. The introduction of Western technology has created a cultural gap between those that did and did not grow up exposed to Western ideas. The most dangerous result stems from Western television’s equating of sex with economic success and happiness. Against Western media, traditional Kenyan teaching of sexuality has been unable to protect Kenyan youth from the HIV/AIDS pandemic.




Social change

Medical anthropology

Hagan, John 1990

The Structuration of Gender and Deviance: A Power-Control Theory of Vulnerability to Crime and the Search for Deviant Role Exits. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 27(2):138-156.

Hagen joins structuration theory and power-control theory to explain gender differences in vulnerability to crime and corresponding gender differences in “deviant role exits.” He uses an analysis of data gathered from 430 adolescents and accompanying mothers in Toronto to demonstrate how domestic controls create different vulnerability for males and females. While seeking to protect female family members from the violent crime males are exposed to, these controls reproduce oppressive patriarchal family structures. Women in this environment are more likely to seek “deviant role exits” leading to higher levels of psychosocial distress and attempted suicide.

Gender roles


Structuration Theory

Power-Control Theory


Handwerker, W. Penn 2003

Traumatic Stress, Ecological Contingency, and Sexual Behavior: Antecedents and Effects of Sexual Precociousness, Sexual Mobility, and Adolescent Childbearing

in Antigua. Ethos 31(3):385-411.

This article reports a test of the hypothesis that adolescent sexual precociousness, sexual mobility, and childbearing are functions of family and economic factors that ultimately allow certain girls to empower themselves. Handwerker uncovers that two factors, exploitative family environment and current economic condition, existed in a complex relationship. Exploitative family environment, in which women were dominated by husbands and fathers created different behavior in different economic conditions, but different environments might create different behaviors in consistent economic conditions.


Sexual development



Exploitation in the family

Cultural anthropology

Hart, Jason 2006

Saving Children? What Role for Anthropology. Anthropology Today 22(1):5-8

The author discusses the role anthropology can play in saving children caught in modern day risk situations. The primary example used is the phenomenon of “child soldiers,” currently a priority for child-focused humanitarians and rights activists. Hart writes that labeling certain nations and peoples as “lesser primitives” is gaining fresh respectability. Anthropology must counter this overly simplistic and inaccurate notion by restoring the proper political and historic context. Ethnography of children’s everyday lives within war can reveal both the local and global forces at work.

Child soldiers

Child-centered ethnography

Forced recruitment

Cultural anthropology

Jean-Klein, Iris 2000

Mothercraft, Statecraft, and Subjectivity in the Palestinian Intifada. American Ethnologist 27(1):100-127.

Jean-Klein conducted work in approximately 60 households living in a neighborhood in Ramallah during 1989-90, the second year of Palestinian intifada. Building off of Peteet’s 1994 article, and Joseph’s work on cross-sibling relationships, this article explores the connection between the mother-son relationship and the nascent state. Jean-Klein shows that after claiming independence from their male elders, adolescent males learn “morality” from their mothers and sisters. By encouraging their sons to fight for the state, these women gain social authority in their communities.


Male adolescence

Intergenerational relationships


State building

Cultural anthropology

Kaufman, Carol.E., Janette Beals, Christina M. Mitchel, et al. 2004

Stress, Trauma, and Risky Sexual Behavior Among American Indians in Young Adulthood. Culture, Health & Sexuality 6(4):301-318.

This article explores the relationship between adolescent trauma and later levels of sexual activity. The authors conducted their study among a population of Northern Plains Native American Indians with a vibrant family life, yet living in an impoverished areas and suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. A representative group of 289 17-25 year olds underwent interviews about 15 types of traumatic experiences and 10 types of stress. Kaufman et al. find that the presence trauma, and multiple traumas, in adolescent life correlates with more casual sex partners, especially for women.
United States Northern Plains

Native American Indian



Sexual behavior

Medical anthropology

Marcelin, Louis Herns, James Vivian, Ralph DiClemente, et al. 2005

Trends in Alcohol, Drug and Cigarette Use Among Haitian Youth in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse 4(1):105-131.

Marcelin et al. report on prevalence of alcohol, drug, and cigarette use of adolescent Haitians living in three communities in Miami-Dade County, Florida. The authors conduct participant observation and in-depth interviews with 557 adolescents including those both US and Haiti born, poor and middle class, and urban and rural. The authors find that use of drugs among Haitian youth is relatively low compared with regional and national adolescent data, but increasing due to marginalization and access to U.S. street culture.

Miami-Dade County

Haitian adolescents

Social marginalization

Alcohol and drug use

Health science

Marsiglia, Flavio Francisco, Stephen Kulis, and Michael L. Hecht 2001

Ethnic Labels and Ethnic Identity as Predictors of Drug Use Among Middle School Students in the Southwest. Journal of Research on Adolescence 11(1):21-48.

The article explores survey data from 408 seventh-grade students from a large city in the southwestern U.S. to determine how the ethnic labels, Mexican American, White, African American, and mixed ethnicity combine with ethic identity to predict drug use. Findings indicate that two dimensions of ethnic identity, consistency and pride, predict drug use in opposing ways. Minorities, non-whites, who view their behavior, speech, and looks as consistent with their ethnic group report more drug use, while Whites report less, but ethnically proud white students report more drug use, while ethnically proud minorities report less.

Southwestern United States

Mexican Americans

African Americans

Mixed ethnicity

Drug use

Cultural anthropology

Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor, Melanie Gallant, Chris Brouillard-Coyle, et al. 2004

The Sexual Scripts of Kenyan Young People and HIV prevention. Culture, Health & Sexuality 7(1):27-41.

This paper uses scripting theory to develop an in-depth understanding of Kenyan adolescent sexual experiences. Maticka-Tyndale et al. review interviews with single-sex focus groups of Kenyan children aged 11-16 years. The interviews reveal that sexual encounters are typically the end result of an elaborately scripted sequence of events that proceed from expression of interest through intercourse. Both boys and girls feel pressure to engage in sex and discomfort and reluctance to deviate from the script. Maticka-Tyndale et al. state that knowledge of the script will reveal points where effective HIV prevention knowledge and materials can be introduced.


Scripting theory

HIV Prevention



Public health

Montgomery, Winifred 2004

Who is Informing our Young People about AIDS, and Why Aren’t They Listening. Dialectical Anthropology 28:365-376.

Montgomery explores the disconnect between the amount of information available to American adolescents about HIV/AIDS and the high incidence of the disease in certain populations. Montgomery identifies black and Hispanic youth, young injection users, and gay and bisexual youth as groups of Americans with disproportional high levels of HIV/AIDS. Montgomery concludes that at-risk populations of adolescents will listen if the message is linguistically and culturally appropriate, and that non-governmental organizations must forge relationships with community-based organizations to deliver the prevention programs.
United States



At-risk populations

Clinical medicine

Applied anthropology

Peteet, Julie 1994

Male Gender and Rituals of Resistance in the Palestinian “Intifada”: A Cultural Politics of Violence. American Ethnologist 21(1):31-49.

This article examines the attainment and enactment of manhood and masculinity among adolescent Palestinian males. Peteet argues that beatings and detention undergone by the youths are crucial for the creation of their adult moral selves and lay a cultural groundwork for their latter relations to foreign powers. Beating and detention create a power structure in which a lesser eventually overcomes a greater, paralleling a political and cultural aim of the people.




Construction of self

Cultural anthropology

Quintero, Gilbert, and Sally Davis 2002

Why do Teens Smoke? American Indian and Hispanic Adolescents’ Perspectives on Functional Values and Addiction. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 16(4):439-457.

Quintero and Davis examine reasons that Hispanic American and American Indian adolescents give to explain smoking. The authors compare the functional values of tobacco, including mood management, peer influences, and image maintenance, versus addiction. A total of 234 adolescents from 11 schools in 7 communities in New Mexico participated in 38 focus groups and 34 individual interviews. While emphasis of each factor involved in teen smoking varied across the groups, important similarities emerged in the basic reasons given by both ethnic groups for smoking, similarities that also tracked across other ethnic groups.

New Mexico

American Indian

Hispanic Americans



Medical anthropology

Rogers, Angie, Jane R. Adamson, Mark McCarthy 1997

Variations in Health Behaviors Among Inner City 12-year-olds from Four Ethnic Groups. Ethnicity & Health 2(4):309-316.

The authors conduct semi-structured interviews with approximately 50 adolescents from the four largest ethnic groups, Bangladeshi, Black African, Black Caribbean, and White, present in secondary schools in two inner London boroughs. Participants answered questions in the fields Diet, Exercise, Tobacco and Alcohol, and Parental Control of Social Activities. Comparing answers cross-culturally reveals inter-related factors such as social and economic disadvantage, religion, religious observance, parental restrictiveness, and fear of racial violence contributes to variations in health behavior.

Low-income urban populations


Ethnic minorities

Health behavior

Cultural anthropology

Ryan, Y.M., M.J. Gibney, and M.A.T. Flynn 1998

The Pursuit of Thinness: A Study of Dublin Schoolgirls Aged 15 y. International Journal of Obesity 22:485-487.

Ryan, Gibney, and Flynn use a self-report questionnaire to collect data about body weight concerns and slimming practices from 420 15-year-old Dublin schoolgirls of varying economic background. 59 percent of the girls report unhappiness with weight and 72 percent of those trying to lost weight were within or below normal weight categories. The authors reveal that many adolescent girls are willing to engage in potentially harmful slimming strategies irrespective of health implications.

Adolescent girls


Weight perceptions

Health science

Thianthai, Chulanee 2004

Gender and Class Differences in Young People’s Sexuality and HIV/AIDS Risk-Taking Behaviors in Thailand. Culture, Health & Sexuality 6(4):189-203.

This paper examines gender and class differences in Thai adolescent’s beliefs about sexuality and HIV/AIDS risk-related behaviors. Sixty female and male adolescents from three different socioeconomic backgrounds living in Bangkok volunteered for in-depth interviews. Thianthai relates that these adolescents have a culturally determined unequal distribution of sexual burdens and responsibilities with males expected to engage in sex early on and females expected to maintain virginity until marriage. Thianthai details that while class has a complex relationship with knowledge of HIV/AIDS, adolescents of all classes fail to realize they are at risk.




Risk preception


Medical anthropology

Villenas, Sofia 2001

Latina Mothers and Small-Town Racisms: Creating Narratives of Dignity and Moral Education in North Carolina. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 32(1):3-28.

This article highlights the difficulty a population of Latin American mothers faced while raising families in North Carolina. Villenas, after spending two years living in the community and recording histories, identified “benevolent racism” as the greatest challenge faced by the Latina mothers. Community members and social service professionals focused on identifying what Latino families lacked, as opposed to supporting their effective parenting methods. Latina mothers also had little help fighting against “bad influences”, exposure to violence and drugs, present in the community that did not exist in their home country.
North Carolina

Latina mothers




Cultural anthropology

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