Representing the juvenile delinquent: reform, social science, and teenage troubles in postwar Texas

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Bush, William Sebastian

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Using a range of archival, oral, and textual sources, this dissertation explores the history of how American “common sense” has conferred adolescent status selectively since World War II, when the teenager first emerged as a widely accepted cultural idea. It focuses especially on the prominent role of scientific experts in popularizing causes and solutions for teenage troubles, many of which continue to shape popular understanding. As historians have demonstrated, sociologists and psychologists achieved unprecedented prominence in the 1950s, often by publishing influential studies of “maladjusted” teenagers, alienated families, and “delinquent subcultures.” The dissertation illustrates the interplay of these dominant national narratives with local and regional reform efforts that have gone largely ignored by scholars. Not only were public debates over “youth troubles” more fierce at the local level, they sometimes wielded a surprising influence over state and national policymakers always eager to find models for new policies. Texas presents an especially representative setting for my study. Situated in the heart of the Sun Belt and “borderlands” regions, Texas’ growing political and economic clout, and racial and ethnic diversity, caused national observers to pay heed to homespun interpretations of juvenile delinquency. The state attracted top experts from the fields of sociology, psychology, and social work, who built up nationally and internationally known academic programs, research foundations, settlement house agencies, and juvenile justice institutions. Texas experts functioned as public intellectuals, circulating a series of narratives and images purporting to explain delinquency. Throughout the postwar era, they engaged multiple publics in discussions of troubled teenagers that prefigured today’s debates over the treatment of violent juvenile offenders and the disproportionate numbers of black and Latino youth in trouble. I demonstrate that research on adolescence and delinquency often sparked larger national arguments about race, poverty, family, and community. The dissertation’s close studies of big-city community youth programs, juvenile justice institutions, and grassroots activism on behalf of incarcerated juveniles seek to relocate teenagers from the periphery to the center of major trends in twentieth century American history.