Anthropologists’ definitions of culture include symbolic and behavioral components, both of which are crucial to one of the positive features of settings we identify below. First, cultures are symbolic systems of shared beliefs, doctrines, values, and, importantly, meaning. They provide underlying conceptions of “how to be” and of “the good life and how to live it” (LeVine et al., 1988; Shweder et al., 1998). Both anthropologists and sociologists (e.g. Durkheim, 1951) have shown that individuals’ embeddedness in (and sense of belonging to) a coherent cultural system is crucial to their well-being and experience of meaning. Without it, adolescents and adults experience alienation. Second, and interdependently, cultures are systems of behavior. They include practices, behavioral scripts, language—normative ways of doing things—and these are often organized around institutions (Shweder et al., 1998). In most cases, these systems of behavior have evolved over hundreds of years and provide a well-honed framework for community life. Development involves being socialized into the norms of one’s culture, learning to use the behavior repertoire to achieve culturally meaningful goals. Acquisition of this knowledge of a cultural system is sometimes described as acquisition of cultural capital: it is knowledge that allows them to function effectively within that culture.
A problem with the simplified account offered thus far is that it presents culture as singular and static. Yet even in traditional cultures there are competing cultural ideas (Turiel, 1999) and in the United States there is a noisy marketplace of multiple cultures, culture wars, and changing systems of meaning and behavior. Adolescents have to sort through and choose among numerous alternative frames of meaning and ways of acting. Furthermore, the differing institutions that deal with adolescents may operate with conflicting cultural values and norms—the relationships that constitute meso- and exo-systems can be impeded by incompatible world views (Comer, 1988). For example, LaFromboise and Graff Low (1998) illustrate how adolescent behavior that Euro-American counselors view as bad can be viewed as a sign of progress by Hopi adults.
For Erikson (1968), the developmental task of adolescents faced with this noisy marketplace is to draw on and wrestle with the issues and contradictions of his or her society and historical period. The adolescent needs to choose values, decide what cultural group to belong to, and figure out how he or she relates to other cultural groups. This process is often more difficult for individuals in disenfranchised minority groups, who may confront conflicting cultural definitions of who they are and