Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rites of Passage: Adulthood



In the past couple of months a lot of things have happened to transition me firmly into “adulthood.” I got a full time job, cut my hair shorter, started paying off student loans, applied for Grad School and last night officially bought a car under my name. All these things are the staples, the milestones if you will, in the journey to becoming an adult. Or so this is what our society says.
This then got me thinking about all the societies and cultures out there, past and present. The definition of adulthood and the milestones involved with it are completely different than ours. The official definition of adulthood is “the period of time in your life after your physical growth has stopped and you are fully developed” (Webster’s Dictionary). So what it seems to come down to is a biological condition. On the other level it’s defined as the “state (and responsibilities) of a person who has attained maturity” (Webster’s Dictionary). So basically if we combine that together on an anthropological level we can determine this definition of adulthood: The period of time in your life after you are fully developed and you have taken on responsibility after attaining mental maturity.
Already we can see tons of holes in that definition. First, everyone matures physically at different rates, especially when it comes to the different sexes so how do we calculate that? Second, what exactly defines mental maturity? Lastly, what sort of responsibilities are we talking about? These questions are the ones that cause all these different staples of the journey into adulthood in different societies.
So let’s start with our society then. In American culture initial adulthood starts at puberty, thus fulfilling the biological requirement. Then you have the usual graduating from High School and going either into college, trade school, traveling around the world or right into a job. Then after any of those you journey into your “career” whatever that may be. At that point some move out of their parents’ house (some even before this) and take on the responsibility of paying for their own rent, insurance, bills, etc. Thus you have reached the pivotal point in adulthood.
Other societies are nothing like this, especially when you look at past societies. In most hunting and gathering societies adulthood was achieved at the same time biological maturity did. Boys became men around the ages 13 – 15 and jumped right into foraging for food and killing animals for sustenance, fur and other things. Girls matured usually around this same period and tended to the household of their parents or they married another man in the tribe and took to his household. In some other societies during times of war a boy would become an adult as soon as he could fight properly and in some just wield a weapon. They were then sent off to fight alongside their fellow clansman/tribesmen.
These two examples are still going on now in some parts of the world. They then would constitute the taking on of responsibilities as part of biological/mental maturation thus becoming an adult.
When we think about it, all of these things even in our own society are rites of passages. Even though I usually don’t like quoting Wikipedia I really like their definition of rite of passage: “A rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person's progress from one status to another. It is a universal phenomenon which can show anthropologists what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures.” So the journey into adulthood itself is a rite of passage and then there are various others associated with it. For example graduating from High School/College, getting a job, getting a car, etc. are all rites of passage for our society. In the other societies, taking on the responsibility of hunting, caring for the household and going off to war would be the rites of passage. Now those might not seem like the other ritual events that you think of when you think of rites of passage (wedding ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, ritual dances, etc) but at their core they are.
What it comes down to on a personal level is that my journey into adulthood started with my going through puberty, becoming a “woman” and everything, but it is still ongoing. There are many rites of passage along the way that I still have to go through. What defines these in my opinion is based on the different cultures and societies. Everyone’s is different and goes through different stages. There are anthropologists out there who spend their whole life studying these rites and delving more into this whole concept of “adulthood.” The before mentioned just happens to be my take on it so go ahead and put your own takes in, you know I love discussing things! (Pending that Blogger decides to actually let me comment on my blog).

4 comments:

The Writing Revolutionary said...

First of all, fantastic post. I've always pondered this idea of several tiny instances of rites of passage that are not as openly celebrated as marriage, bar mitzvah's, etc. Let me begin my quoting you: "In American culture initial adulthood starts at puberty, thus fulfilling the biological requirement. Then you have the usual graduating from High School and going either into college, trade school, traveling around the world or right into a job. Then after any of those you journey into your “career” whatever that may be. At that point some move out of their parents’ house (some even before this) and take on the responsibility of paying for their own rent, insurance, bills, etc. Thus you have reached the pivotal point in adulthood." I agree 100% in your description, although I believe there are instances of great difference, a generalization that is pushed upon most of those growing up in the states is your depiction of the American "adulthood". I just thought this deserved a little more thought. Since I enjoy the ever so complex world of capitalism and it's oppressive tendencies, could this construction of the American "adulthood" been manufactured by those before us for a purpose? Does capital (economy) shape our "adult" lives? Does how much money we earn tell us if we are adult or not? I may be trying to dig where a survey wasn't conducted, but perhaps there is something more to the "shaping" of this American "adulthood" than meets the eye.

You also mentioned biology as being a part of American "adulthood": "In American culture initial adulthood starts at puberty, thus fulfilling the biological requirement." I thought this was a brilliant point to make! Most of what I have been told/agree/seen/read for myself is that biology (and the language that expresses it) is unique in the Western World. I am currently in a bind with this idea. Part of be laughs and scoffs at science at trying to find a "gay gene". On the other hand, I find that homosexuality, bisexuality, etc all have one option in common: a culturally constructed view. Now, I am not advocating that homosexuality is a choice, but I am advocating that most of our sexual desires--whether they be physically, mentally or spiritually--have to do with what we treasure in any given culture. The idea of "attractiveness", I would argue, is a construct of the world/reality around us.

Some have approached me with the idea that perhaps biology and culture exist in this realm of bio-culture. Perhaps those who advocate the position that it is both biology and culture have a point, but I have yet to fully grasp the idea of the two joining since biology, in all it's glory, is a construct of our western reality. I mean, c'mon, even the sperm and the egg story we were told as young adults was completely genderded!

I apologize if I went completely off the topic of your post, but it was your post that sparked these thoughts that I have had for quiet some time.

Besides, I'm still an undergrad and you are graduate. What do I know? :/

Kallan said...

What a great post, Sammi! Well-written, very thoughtful. I have long thought that part of our problem in America with our youth is the total lack of rites of passage. If you consider a "sweet 16", driver's license, etc... to be rites of passage, then so be it. But, I love the way indigenous cultures (including those of the americas) have created elaborate ceremonies to mark transitions. Ah for the good OLD days ;)

Lilac Wolf (Angie or Angela) said...

Love it! I still don't feel like an adult lol

The Writing Revolutionary said...

It just occurred to me that most of our rites of passage have something to do with market brand names/corporations (big business). Sweet 16: currently based on the idea of a car. Driving: DMV fee's, insurance, vehicles. Marriage: 40 million dollar a year industry (that says a lot). Purchasing a home: the banking industry gets your money.

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