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University of California Press
Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City / Edition 1

Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City / Edition 1

by Natasha Kumar WarikooNatasha Kumar Warikoo
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Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In this timely examination of children of immigrants in New York and London, Natasha Kumar Warikoo asks, Is there a link between rap/hip-hop-influenced youth culture and motivation to succeed in school? Warikoo challenges teachers, administrators, and parents to look beneath the outward manifestations of youth culture — the clothing, music, and tough talk — to better understand the internal struggle faced by many minority students as they try to fit in with peers while working to lay the groundwork for successful lives. Using ethnographic, survey, and interview data in two racially diverse, low-achieving high schools, Warikoo analyzes seemingly oppositional styles, tastes in music, and school behaviors and finds that most teens try to find a balance between success with peers and success in school.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520262119
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/09/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Natasha Kumar Warikoo is Assistant Professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

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Balancing Acts

Youth Culture in the Global City
By Natasha K. Warikoo


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-26211-9

Chapter One

Understanding Cultural Incorporation

A simple explanation—offered by scholars, policy makers, and educators alike—for seemingly self-defeating youth behaviors such as fighting in school and talking back to teachers is that they stem from a rejection of the dominant ideology of equal opportunity and education as keys to success. This oppositional stance is thought to embody itself in hip-hop and rap music and style among minority youth. Using this logic, a bill passed in 2005 by the Virginia State House of Delegates would have fined the display of undergarments, a style popular with both boys and girls, especially in urban areas (the bill died in the senate). Similarly, a few months after Virginia's "Droopy Drawers Bill," a shopping mall in Kent, England, seeking to curb "anti-social behaviors" at the mall, banned the wearing of "hoodies"—hooded sweatshirts often worn by young men. These acts show that adults think that youth styles matter and that they believe styles can symbolize antisocial behaviors and outlooks. Theorists of immigration have applied these kinds of theories about oppositional culture to their analyses of ethnic assimilation, suggesting that the adoption of American youth cultures among the children of immigrants can lead to poor school outcomes. But, what do the cultural practices and outlooks of children of immigrants really look like? This is the central question of this book.

In the following pages I unpack the cultural lives of children of immigrants in multiethnic schools in two global cities, New York and London. I describe and analyze the aspects of youth cultures that adults most worry about: attitudes, music tastes and clothing styles, behaviors related to conflict, and influences on peer status. These are dimensions of children's cultural worlds that immigrants are most concerned about and that academics emphasize when trying to understand the second generation's incorporation into U.S. society. Parents, policymakers, and academics alike hope that children of immigrants will not develop negative attitudes toward schooling, that they won't learn to listen to music and don styles that signal a counterculture or rebellion, and that they won't get into fights and become as outspoken and defiant as many of their American peers. These behaviors, according to both conventional wisdom and some academic writing, are the determinants of whether children of immigrants will succeed in their lives. So I took some time to focus on the cultural lives of second-generation teenagers to find out what their attitudes are, what music and styles they prefer, what their tastes mean to them, how they deal with conflict, and what determines peer status. By delving deeply into not only what students are doing, listening to, and wearing but also why they make the choices they make and what meanings those cultural symbols have to them, I paint a picture of urban youth cultures very different from the one perceived by advocates of the "Droopy Drawers" bills.

I found little evidence for oppositional peer cultures, and no evidence that perceptions of discrimination lead to low aspirations. Academic achievement is quite low in both high schools of my research: less than half of students graduate in the New York school, and less than half in the London site leave school eligible to apply to university. Although a minority of students did have some negative perceptions of opportunities, those cannot account for the predominant patterns of academic failure in both schools. Students engaged in behaviors thought to signify disinterest in education—they got into fights, talked back to teachers, and came late to class. These behaviors, however, coincided with positive orientations toward school. What explained the behaviors was the high importance teens placed on peer status, for which they needed to socialize, defend self-pride, show toughness among peers, wear the "right" clothing, and listen to the "right" music. This was especially true for boys. The similarity between taste cultures in New York and London suggests that the local influence of African American peers cannot explain the cultural adaptation process for children of immigrants in these low-performing schools; rather, there appears to be a global urban youth culture in which American hip-hop and rap are popular and that leads to black racial identity having high peer status in both urban settings.


The predominant theory of assimilation in the United States today concerning the immigrant second generation (U.S.-born children of immigrants) is segmented assimilation theory (Portes et al., 2005; Portes and Rumbaut, 2001; Portes and Zhou, 1993). Segmented assimilation theory provides an explanation for divergent outcomes. Using an integrated structural-cultural explanation, it argues that the trajectory of ethnic communities depends on which segment of U.S. society—the upper-middle class, the ethnic enclave, or disadvantaged minority communities—families are incorporated into (Portes et al., 2005; Portes and Zhou, 1993). The theory suggests that three factors differentiate the post-1965 wave of immigrants from prior waves, leading to the possibility of downward assimilation: (1) a predominance of immigrants who are racial minorities in the United States; (2) a bifurcated labor market in which most jobs for the low-skilled are low-paying service-sector jobs rather than the unionized manufacturing jobs that many earlier immigrants were able to take; and (3) proximity (of some) to the problems of the urban inner city. The first two factors are structural explanations; the third includes a cultural explanation, suggesting that cultural influences, not just the structural hazards of proximity to poverty, lead children of immigrants to either a positive or a negative orientation toward U.S. society. The racial and class makeup of a child's neighborhood leads to either a positive or negative cultural orientation, and cultural identities, in turn, determine educational and delinquency outcomes. It is the cultural dimension of the third explanation—proximity to inner-city culture—that this book addresses.

These three influences lead to three possible trajectories, according to segmented assimilation theory: First, highly skilled immigrant families living in predominantly white, middle- and upper-class neighborhoods are most likely to experience upward assimilation, in part because the second generation adopts the American dream and becomes like their native white peers. Second, low-skilled minority immigrants and their children can be sheltered from the problems of the inner city by living among coethnics in ethnic enclaves; these families will experience "selective acculturation," assimilating well into the economy while retaining the positive influence of ethnic culture and ethnic social networks. Third, low-skilled minority immigrant families living among other disadvantaged minorities may assimilate into the urban underclass, and hence their children may demonstrate "reactive ethnicity" in response to perceived discrimination and experience downward assimilation. Youth in the last group adopt the "adversarial subculture" of the "values and norms" of the inner city's "outlooks and cultural ways," including "deviant lifestyles" (Portes et al., 2005; Portes and Zhou, 1993).

British sociologist Tariq Modood (2004) has suggested that segmented assimilation theory is applicable in the British context, as well, and can explain the high levels of university enrollment among Indians and Pakistanis and the relatively low levels for Afro-Caribbeans. Modood explains the different levels of university enrollment by pointing to differing modes of cultural assimilation, arguing that successful immigrant groups in Britain have managed to avoid British working-class culture, which he describes as "popular culture, often American-derived, ... of Hollywood, ... music, clothes, fashion." In contrast, Afro-Caribbeans "have come to be a leading-edge presence [in this working-class culture]," leading them to lower achievement (Modood, 2004, 102).

The segmented assimilation hypothesis of cultural incorporation into local settings begs for an empirical investigation into the cultural lives of children of immigrants from high-achieving and low-achieving groups, and into the meanings attached to participation in popular hip-hop culture. No major research in the United States has taken a holistic look at youth culture in all its dimensions among the second generation, across ethnic groups (Skrentny, 2008; Stevens, 2008). Researchers have assumed, however, that culture matters and influences processes of incorporation into American society, including academic achievement. This lacuna is in part due to the complexity of culture, and of academic achievement. We care about cultural assimilation because we think it plays a role in academic achievement. However, studies analyzing the myriad structural influences on academic achievement, in addition to cultural ones, cannot do justice to the complexity of the ways in which children of immigrants adopt and adapt the peer cultures in school. In setting up my research, I recognized this tension in previous studies whose worthy goal was to explain differential academic achievement between ethnic groups. Attempts to do both, however, haven't allowed for the complexity of culture and its meanings and motivations and thus have lead to simplistic cultural explanations. That is why in this study I decided to hone in on culture.

The cultural explanation for downward assimilation theory is tied to American-style ghetto poverty and, in particular, the influence of urban African American culture. However, the theory has not been put to the test of international comparison. To understand the degree to which uniquely American residential patterns and racial formations shape cultural orientations among children of immigrants, I had to step outside the American context. London and New York City have much in common, but the history and contemporary significance of race in the United States and in Britain are significantly different. Among other things, the United States' legacy of slavery has led to a highly segregated African American population, in contrast to Britain, where the minority populations have come largely from former colonies and where blacks have high rates of residential and marital integration with whites (Massey and Denton, 1993; Peach, 1996; Model and Fisher, 2002). Still, I encountered surprisingly similar peer cultures among teens in New York and London, suggesting that the "contaminating effect" of African American peer culture cannot explain low achievement at the New York school. Scholars, it seems, have been too quick to accept and adopt explanations based on stereotypical accoutrements of African American poverty when explaining downward mobility in education among children of immigrants. Furthermore, I found that second-generation Indian students were the most likely group to report experiencing racial discrimination as part of their schooling experiences. This discrimination, however, came not from teachers and administrators but from peers. Second-generation Afro-Caribbeans, in contrast, reported experiences with discrimination outside school, in public places, from adults. Given these findings, one cannot explain attitudes and behaviors of low-achieving Afro-Caribbean students, as some have done, as stemming from a reaction to perceived discrimination from school authorities.


To embark on a study of second-generation youth cultures, I first had to figure out what culture really is. Culture is notoriously difficult to define. Some scholars focus on the production side, attempting to identify who and what defines the cultural products that individuals in society consume. Most often, these scholars are concerned about the hegemony of cultural production—that is to say, the subtle influences that corporations, the media, and other cultural producers have on consumers of culture. This perspective traces back to a Marxist orientation, in that it suggests that those who control the means of production dominate and control the production of culture in society. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) of the Frankfurt School were the best-known early proponents of this perspective.

The problem with research focusing solely on cultural artifacts is that it does not address the meanings that individuals attribute to those objects and to cultural practices. Individuals are not passive sponges that absorb messages presented to them without critique. For example, the Black Youth Project at University of Chicago has found that although the majority of black youth listen to rap music daily, most black youth also agree that "rap music videos have too many references to violence" (C. J. Cohen, 2007). That is to say, individuals are able to consume a product without agreeing with the messages the cultural producers have expressed or intended. In my own previous research, I have shown how second-generation Indo-Caribbean young women consume popular Indian culture, including Bollywood films, yet also critique the traditional gender roles the films portray as foreign and not for them (Warikoo, 2005a).

In this book I unpack the meanings that hip-hop and rap music and style have for second-generation teens in New York and in London, as well as the meanings of seemingly anti-school behaviors such as fighting and talking back to teachers, to gain a more nuanced understanding of their peer cultures. Without a careful look at the meanings that styles, music, and behaviors have for teens, it is easy to read rebellious tendencies and anti-school attitudes into the process of Americanization. In fact, I found that although hip-hop and rap music and style are very popular in both New York and London, these tastes do not coincide with anti-school attitudes or with a greater propensity to believe that discrimination prevents school success. Students told me further that they attempt to mitigate misreadings of delinquency and anti-school orientations in their styles by dressing with moderation—for example, boys choosing jeans baggy enough to be cool among peers, yet not so baggy as to elicit perceptions of delinquency. I also found that seemingly anti-school behaviors like fighting and talking back to teachers had more to do with a peer culture that emphasizes maintaining pride and self-respect than with dissatisfaction with or disinterest in school.

Another way to understand culture is to analyze its influence on behaviors. To address the ways in which individuals and groups employ "culture in action," Ann Swidler (1986) developed a theory of culture as a set of "scripts" or "tool-kits," consisting of "symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views," from which individuals draw when deciding what actions to take. Swidler detaches culture from values, insisting that cultural practices and understandings should not be assumed to entail particular values. This perspective helps us understand, for example, how poor single mothers, although not engaging in marriage in practice, still value the institution of marriage (Edin and Kefalas, 2005). Their actions borrow from scripts for behavior that they have in their cultural tool-kits for decision-making and behavior, which may differ from those of young women living in different environments and drawing from different cultural tool-kits. This perspective became most useful to me as I tried to understand the "attitude-achievement paradox" (Mickelson, 1990)—the paradox of positive attitudes, aspirations, and beliefs coupled with poor academic achievement—among many students in the schools I studied. I found that analyzing peer scripts for behavior and tastes explained behaviors that others attribute to anti-school values, which contradict students' expressed values. I also use the tool-kit framework to understand gender differences. I found that the cultural scripts for masculine identity led boys to place even greater emphasis on maintaining self-pride among peers, in the process sometimes compromising their chances for school success.


Excerpted from Balancing Acts by Natasha K. Warikoo Copyright © 2011 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

1 Understanding Cultural Incorporation 1

2 Music and Style: Americanization or Globalization? 23

3 Racial Authenticity, "Acting Black," and Cultural Consumption 46

4 Two Types of Racial Discrimination: Adult Exclusion and Peer Bullying 73

5 Positive Attitudes and (Some) Negative Behaviors 89

6 Balancing Acts: Peer Status and Academic Orientations 107

7 Ethnic and Racial Boundaries 125

8 Explaining Youth Cultures, Improving Academic Achievement 158

Appendix: Research Sites and Methods 179

Notes 189

Works Cited 197

Index 213

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"[A book that] pushes boundaries in ethnography on urban youths by examining culture beyond 'values' and 'codes'."—American Journal of Sociology

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