Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 2005 Issue »

    Editor's Review: Adolescent Boys edited by Niobe Way and Judy Y. Chu

    Lionel C. Howard
    New York: New York University Press, 2003. 380 pp. $29.99.

    Research on the experiences of adolescent boys of color, as well as working- class, gay, and bisexual boys, has often focused on underachievement, sexual promiscuity, emotional absence (in relationships, for example), and, more broadly, pathological behavior among these populations (Canada, 1998; Garbarino, 1999; Gibbs, 1988; Grier & Cobbs, 1968; Kimmel, 1994; Kunjufu, 1984; Messner, 2001; Pollack, 1998). Such research has also sought to describe the process by which these boys construct their masculine identity while paying relatively little attention to the sociocultural, political, and historical context that mediates their development. Moreover, social science research continues to measure their masculine identity against hegemonic definitions, which are largely determined by a select group of males in American society — namely, White, Protestant, middle-class, and heterosexual men (Chen, 1999; Howard, 2004; Hunter & Davis, 1992, 1994; Kimmel, 1993, 1996).

    Recognizing the complexity of identity construction in general and masculine identity in particular, psychologists Niobe Way and Judy Chu offer a collection of research that centers on race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and socioeconomic status in the attainment of male identity. In Adolescent Boys: Exploring Diverse Cultures of Boyhood, Way and Chu push back against research that often has and continues to present a monolithic archetype of masculinity by offering research that instead challenges the misrepresentation of these boys, understands the relevance of context and culture, and attends to the nuances of their lives, while also giving the boys a voice in the process of development. This text is of particular importance because it moves beyond simple conjecture and the anecdotal evidence often cited in the discussion of boys’ development, especially boys of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, by providing rich empirical evidence and chapters grounded in sociological and psychological theory. Furthermore, Adolescent Boys brings together a coherent and consistent body of literature on a topic that is often relegated to a single chapter or afterthought in similar books and edited volumes. Most important, however, is that it takes into account adolescent boys’ own perspective of the issues and obstacles that concern them.

    Adolescent Boys is divided into five parts: identity development, family relationships, friends and peers, sexuality and romantic relationships, and schooling. In this review, I briefly survey each of the five parts, identifying the central themes and findings while attending to the methodological and theoretical underpinnings of the research. I also locate the respective parts within the larger discourse on boys’ development and provide examples, where appropriate, to ground my review and critique. After reviewing each part, I conclude by identifying what I understand to be the larger theme(s) spanning the various parts and discussing the implications of the research for boys’ development.

    Identity Development

    In part one, Identity Development, authors Lee, Walker, Stevenson, and Chu explore the adolescent boys’ struggle to reconcile and negotiate conflicting and changing identities. For many of the boys under study, adolescence is a difficult period during which they are challenged to present themselves in ways that are congruent with peers and social stereotypes (e.g., athletic, virile). The authors suggest that for boys of diverse cultures, the challenge extends beyond simply fitting into hegemonic and stereotypical ideals of boyhood that are espoused in and out of school, but also includes reconciling expectations that are grounded in their specific cultural experience, racial group, and social class.1

    While some may argue that all boys face similar challenges, these authors necessarily complicate our understanding of masculine identity by highlighting the fact that boys typically located on the periphery of what is acceptable and valued experience a greater struggle, given their frequent subordination — usually by males of hegemonic masculinity — of their socioculturally specific masculinities when located within a Western framework. For example, Western societies often characterize Asian American males as frail, submissive, and effeminate, whereas in their culture, care and respect for one’s family is valued (Song, 2004). Negotiations between these conflicting values of what it means to be an Asian American male often result in various permutations of masculinity. For example, in her qualitative study of Hmong boys attending a majority White high school, Lee identifies three masculine identities: traditional Hmong (which puts at center respect for parents, elders, and family); new ideal (which seeks to balance Hmong and American cultural expectations); and counter-culture (which resists hegemonic definitions of masculinity). While these permutations are specific to Lee’s study participants, her findings confirm those of other researchers (e.g., Chen, 1999; Franklin 1984, 1986), who also identify various types of masculinity that are racially, ethnically, and culturally specific.

    Another important finding is that like their female counterparts, boys have both a public and a private identity. The public identity is characterized as more “visible, peer oriented, and assertive,” while their more private side is “more reflective and vulnerable” (p. 35). Although the identification of two discrete identities is not new and has been framed in different ways (e.g., internal vs. external, authentic vs. socially constructed; Gilligan, 1982; Howard, 2004; Kimmel, 1987, 1992), it underscores the influence of existing sociological and psychological microstructures (e.g., communities, family, and peer norms) on boys’ development. The authors remind us that identity is not constructed separately from these microstructures, but in relation to them.

    Equally important is the significance of adults and peers in the process of identity construction. As the authors suggest, boys are clearly struggling to negotiate aspects of their identity that are and are not valued by significant people in their lives. Consequently, boys sometimes limit their full sense of self for the sake of maintaining their relationships. For boys of diverse cultures growing and developing in a sometimes racist, classist, and hostile world, these relationships are paramount for positive identity development, even though they may at the same time limit the possible ways of being masculine in their respective sociocultural milieu and in society at large. This point is deftly underscored by Chu’s research, which follows a group of adolescent boys for more than a year, closely monitoring experiences of gender socialization and how this affects interpersonal relationships. Reconciling discrepancies between other people’s views of them and their own, boys either internalize or resist the imposed expectations. Chu equates these strategies or patterns of responses to Piaget’s (as cited by Chu) concepts of assimilation and accommodation.

    Using various methodological approaches (e.g., surveys and semistructured interviews) and alternative theoretical stances (e.g., Way’s relational approach and Stevenson’s theory of hypervulnerability) rather than theories of pathology, the authors identify several key findings regarding identity development. Innovative and varied strategies ranging from standard surveys to photography further an understanding of boys’ development. Additionally, the authors locate their work within diverse and well-respected theoretical frameworks. Most notable is Chu’s use of relational psychology and Stevenson’s theory of development, which provide insight into the development of a public masculine identity that plausibly stands in contrast to how adolescent boys may define their sense of self in the private spheres of their lives. The author’s most important finding in part one, however, is that relationships are the “key to boys’ resilience as they strive to develop a sense of self that feels true to themselves and is grounded in reality” (p. 85). Boys who feel misunderstood in relationships are more likely to internalize hegemonic definitions of masculinity, while those feeling secure or validated in their relationships are seemingly able to resist sociocultural expectations of masculinity.

    Family Relationships, Peers, and Friends

    Building on the importance of significant relationships in the development of identity, parts two and three of Adolescent Boys closely explore the role of familial and peer relations in masculine identity development. The authors in these sections — Jefferies, Shek, and Zimmerman — explore select aspects of boys’ relationships, including issues of trust; the role of family in boys’ psychological well-being; and the role of fathers, peers, and friends in boys’ development of masculine identities. What is most clear is that familial relations not only contribute to boys’ healthy development, but also contribute to developmental challenges, in part through socialization practices.

    In parts two and three, the authors add to their more general musing about boys’ relationships by identifying themes that are more closely tied to boys’ sociocultural backgrounds. For example, in a qualitative study of trust with parents (see chap. 5), Jeffries not only identifies four themes of trust that are likely to be salient for all boys — obligatory trust, shared confidences, need fulfillment, and “always gonna be there” (p. 112) — but specifically highlights how each theme is or is not manifested among the diverse boys in his sample. Most important, he ties the themes back to boys’ individual sociocultural contexts. For example, the theme of obligatory trust was most common among Latino and Asian American participants, which is congruent with their collectivist cultural focus. In part three, Way also identifies distinct patterns in boys’ friendships that are connected to themes of intimacy, desire, and distrust. Way suggests that friendships are linked to the cultural context in which the boys develop. For example, in African American, Latino, and Asian communities, the notions of “community” and “brotherhood” are heavily stressed, thus making it “less difficult [for boys to express] vulnerability, emotional complexity, and sensitivity within their close male friendships” (p. 186).

    Parts two and three also further an understanding of boys’ relationships by moving beyond the hegemonic perspective on boys’ development to include research that investigates a non-Western perspective. The authors compare boys’ cross-cultural experiences, but avoid setting up a hierarchy of experiences, perspectives, and realties of boys’ relationships. Ultimately, the authors resist the assumption of a singular developmental experience or relationship archetype and then demonstrate this consideration in their socioculturally grounded methods and theories. For example, recognizing the limitations of existing studies on adolescent/parent relationships when applied to non-Western contexts, Shek develops and uses a culturally appropriate measure of family functioning in his longitudinal study of perceived family functioning and psychological well-being, school adjustment, and problem behavior among low-income Chinese boys.

    Chapters seven and ten also show how existing theoretical frameworks can be reconceptualized to further an understanding of boys’ development. For example, Tarver, Wong, Neighbors, and Zimmerman use resiliency theory to investigate suicide ideation, and Cunningham and Meaner reframe bravado attitudes as coping strategies employed by males of color. When researchers take such an approach, they recalibrate their analytical lens to identify the aspects of a boy’s personality (e.g., behavior and attitude) that are adaptive rather than maladaptive (Majors & Billings, 1992; Spencer, 2001). A focus on maladaptive behaviors has unfortunately been the focus of much research about boys of color and boys from low socioeconomic status communities (Clatterbaugh, 1998; Garbarino, 1999; Gibbs, 1988; Hall, 1995; Janey & Robertson, 2000). While the authors in Adolescent Boys do not name their theoretical reframing a political act, they necessarily challenge the pathological conclusions of researchers who fail to consider the ways in which boys make sense of the spaces where they are socialized and develop their identities and sense of self. The authors characterize boys’ relationships as complex and dynamic, and therefore offer a more sophisticated understanding of how boys are likely to experience relationships with significant adults, peers, and friends.

    Sexuality and Romantic Relationships

    Part four of Adolescent Boys explores issues of sexuality and the romantic relationships of adolescent boys. The authors explore boys’ intimate relationships (Tolman, Spencer, Harmon, Rosen-Reynoso, and Striepe), patterns of sexual and contraception behavior (Pleck, Sonenstein, and Ku), and the first sexual experiences of gay and bisexual boys (Savin-Williams). The authors in this section challenge misconceptions about boys’ sexual and romantic experiences (e.g., that they are predominantly hormone driven and emotionally disconnected from the actual experience of sex).

    As in previous parts of Adolescent Boys, the authors anchor their research in theories (e.g., scripting and feminism) and frameworks that are not traditionally applied to the study of boys’ development. As such, the authors counter the misconceptions that boys’ motivation for intimacy is driven solely by physical urges rather than emotional and psychological needs; that adolescent males are sexually irresponsible; and that identification as homosexual or bisexual is fleeting rather than an “expression of same-sex orientation that brings happiness, pleasurable gratification, and identity consolidation” (p. 271).

    A central theme in part four is the power of rejection. For boys seeking emotional intimacy and connection, and for those who are uncertain of their sexual orientation, adolescence can be particularly difficult because of fears of rejection or loss of significant relationships. As suggested by Tolman et al. (chap. 11), a boy’s search for emotional connection is highly private, even though society deems such connection vulnerable and weak. At the same time, a public search or outward presentation of desire for connection is likely to place boys at risk for rejection. Factoring in issues of sexuality (e.g., questioning one’s identity as homo- or heterosexual), the fear of social rejection is likely to magnify tenfold. Consequently, boys will actively suppress this part of their self for the sake of maintaining significant relationships. Thus, the question becomes how to help boys navigate the terrain of boyhood, which is embedded within sociocultural expectations that are likely to impede the sometimes perilous trip to manhood.

    Overall, part four of Adolescent Boys does a solid job in exploring the development of sexual identity among adolescent boys. The studies remind us again of the complexity of identity development and the power of hegemonic definitions of masculinity. Moreover, the chapters highlight the fluidity of sexual identity, sexual orientation, and the significance of boys’ relationships, all the while pushing readers to see boys as dynamic and ever-evolving individuals developing a sense of identity within a specific socio-cultural context. Lastly, through Savin-Williams’s chapter on bisexual and homosexual boys, Adolescent Boys begins to challenge the assumption of heterosexuality when studying boys’ identity and gender development.


    The underperformance of boys in school has been documented extensively over the past few years. The underachievement of African American boys has been an area of particular emphasis (e.g., Gibbs, 1988), with the result that they are often characterized as an “endangered species.” The sentiment of underachievement has also been applied to Latino, Southeast Asian, immigrant, poor, and working-class White boys alike (Lee, 2001; Willis, 2003). Furthermore, these studies often focus on explanations of underachievement rather than on factors that contribute to academic success for boys from diverse backgrounds. In part five of Adolescent Boys, the authors consider the support afforded boys (e.g., educational guidance) in the social context, school structures, and cultures, as well as the role of masculine ideology in boys’ schooling and literacy experiences.

    Although researchers are beginning to focus on what works for boys in terms of fostering academic achievement, there is still a misperception that the underachievement of boys of color and boys from low-SES communities is due to low motivation or inability to achieve (e.g., cognitive deficits). While motivation may still be an issue of concern, the claim of having limited cognitive capacity is racist and built on conjecture and culturally inappropriate measures.

    Countering these claims, the authors in part five highlight the various ways in which teacher expectations and beliefs, sociocultural contexts (e.g., generation status, gender, socialization practices), and environmental and cultural forces influence achievement. What is most important in this section is that they address both negative and positive factors influencing achievement. For example, Suárez-Orozco and Qin-Hilliard address the effect of gender-specific expectations and how they contribute to different levels of support, guidance, and encouragement among immigrant boys and girls — all of which influence academic achievement. Noguera and Conchas also find that supportive teacher-student relationships, a positive peer culture, rigorous curriculum, and familial and community support collectively contribute to the motivation and success of students.

    Careful not to forget the effects of larger structural forces on these boys’ lives (e.g., systemic racism and limited resources), Conchas and Noguera appropriately recognize that schools do not exist apart from these forces, and challenge schools not to further contribute to the vices that seemingly diminish the hopes and dreams of male students. More important, however, they encourage schools to partner with community and religious groups in their efforts to create a space where Black males feel supported and encouraged in their educational pursuits. It is most clear in this section that African American boys’ experience of schooling and their subsequent engagement and success are mediated by their sense of connection to school, their experience of meaningful peer and adult relationships, academic expectation, and quality of literacy experiences.

    While part five informs our understanding of the schooling experiences, it only begins to answer the question of what works for boys. It is necessary, therefore, to continue to raise questions about the experience of schooling for boys — namely, examining how they are unique and similar across and within their social location (e.g., class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigrant status), and whether or not specific factors contribute to their academic success and motivation.

    In sum, the authors in part five of Adolescent Boys contribute to an expanded understanding of academic achievement as it relates to immigrant and African American boys. These studies ultimately highlight the ways in which schools, communities, and families can work interdependently to foster academic motivation and success among boys, thus pushing back against the myth of “anti-intellectualism” and low cognitive ability. As with previous sections of the book, a salient theme in these chapters is the importance of relationships. In particular, the ways in which meaningful and supportive relationships between boys, male peers, and significant adults (e.g., mentors, teachers, administrators, family members) contribute to a positive sense of self and ability, which in turn helps to foster academic motivation and success (Spencer, 1999).


    Adolescent Boys: Exploring Diverse Cultures of Boyhood contributes to a broader and more nuanced understanding of boys’ development. Questioning the commonly held assumptions about boys and masculinity, the authors utilize an assortment of methodological and analytical strategies and techniques to provide empirically grounded evidence that ultimately contributes to a deeper understanding of boys’ lives. While a few studies have some methodological shortcomings (e.g., using a single item to measure suicide ideation, self-reports, and secondary data) and limited conclusions (e.g., failing to discuss issues of trust for gay or bisexual boys, and the complexity of having multiple marginal identities, like being Latino and gay), they still contribute to an expanded view of masculinity (beyond hegemonic and stereotypical definitions) by attending to the nuances that not only celebrate the unique factors of adolescent boys from diverse backgrounds, but also highlight the aspects that make them similar.

    Adolescent Boys expands the discourse on what it means to be a boy and masculine in both a Western and non-Western context through its amplification of boys’ voices across various cultural contexts. More importantly, however, Adolescent Boys challenges the limited and often skewed male images perpetuated by media, superordinate male groupings (e.g., heterosexual vs. homosexual men), and Western men (Hall, 1995; Harper, 1994; Messner, 2001; Oliver, 1989; Pierre, Mahalik, & Woodland, 2001) by giving voice to adolescent boys growing up in diverse cultures of boyhood.

    Individually and collective, the authors in Adolescent Boys enrich the discourse on boys’ development by highlighting the diverse ways in which the boys under study construct and negotiate their masculine identities. In particular, we are reminded of the uniqueness of boys within and across diverse backgrounds. Although it can be helpful to think of masculinity across the lifespan as a monolith, we risk failing to unearth the nuances of boys’ experiences that ultimately contribute to the development of identity. Furthermore, the authors underscore the challenges that boys face in their efforts to construct, negotiate, and hold on to a masculine identity that feels most authentic and supported in their relationships with significant adults and peers.

    Lastly, Adolescent Boys reminds us as educators, psychologists, and adults generally interested in youth development of the “importance of time, place, and location” (Howard, 2004, p. 53) in the development of identity in general, and masculinity in particular. Rather than offering “simple solutions for how to fix boys or quick tips for how to raise boys” (p. 9), Adolescent Boys promotes an understanding of boys that moves beyond the stereotypical representations in its challenge of traditional (and pathological) theories of boys’ development. To this end, Way and Chu have assembled a well-researched collection of studies that not only demonstrates the importance of context in development, but also will prove useful to researchers and practitioners alike.

    Lionel C. Howard
  2. Share

    Winter 2005 Issue


    Katrina and Rita
    What Can the United States Learn from International Experiences with Education in Displacement?
    From the Editors
    Interview: U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (full text)
    Gender Differences in Factors Leading to College Enrollment
    A Longitudinal Analysis
    Maria Estela Zarate and Ronald Gallimore
    Youth Radio and the Pedagogy of Collegiality
    Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chávez
    Similarity and Superunknowns
    An Essay on the Challenges of Educational Research
    Ralf St. Clair
    Editor's Review: We Are All the Same by Jim Wooten
    Priya G. Nalkur
    Editor's Review: Adolescent Boys edited by Niobe Way and Judy Y. Chu
    Lionel C. Howard

    Book Notes

    The Edison Schools
    By Kenneth Saltman

    Vocabulary Instruction
    Edited by James Bauman and Edward Kame'enui

    Political Education
    By Christopher Cross

    Against Common Sense
    By Kevin Kumashiro

    The Trouble with Ed Schools
    By David Labaree

    Prairie Town
    By Jacqueline Edmondson

    Contested Policy
    By Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.