Hannah Heinzekehr | November 26, 2019
In Catherine Bolten’s recently published book, "Serious Youth in Sierra Leone," she presents findings on generational preconceptions and their impact on young men in Makeni, Sierra Leone. Her research has implications for everything from development to post-conflict reconstruction to how millennials are perceived and engaged around the world.
Bolten, associate professor of anthropology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs, tells the story of sitting with an elderly man on his porch in Makeni. Noticing young men nearby, the elderly man remarked that they were likely rebels. When asked how he came to this conclusion, the man explained that the young men were wearing low-cut jeans and sunglasses, smoking and hanging out on a porch — therefore, they must be rebels, despite the fact that none of these characteristics demonstrated anything definitive about the young men’s political affiliations or propensity for violence.
Over 16 years of ethnographic research, Bolten studied the methods employed by young men in Makeni to “perform adulthood” and counteract stereotypes. She studied specific strategies, such as wearing formal clothing and pursuing education, and the reception they received. Paradoxically, Bolten found that these so-called “adult” behaviors ended up reinforcing negative assumptions about young men in Makeni.
“Young men wearing suits are seen as bluffing or being stupid in the ways they are spending money,” said Bolten. “Or the youth hang out in tea houses wanting to be seen not smoking pot, but instead they are seen as young people wasting time hanging out.”
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