- On the Case of Youth: Case Files, Case Studies, and the Social Construction of Adolescence
Case files and case studies occupy a significant place in histories of mental illness, sexuality, and “delinquency,” and historians have considered the ways case files and case studies construct subjective categories and social problems. This paper foregrounds questions of age, and I ask how young people have been conceptualized within New Zealand case files and case studies between 1900 and 1960. I suggest that, within the case record, the texts of adolescent subjectivity reveal wider concerns around work, discipline, respectability, and social order, along with changes in social science research and writing. At the same time, I argue that case files and case studies have played an active role in the social construction of adolescence in New Zealand’s past.
Ronald Grant Gilbert stares at the photographer, eyes wide open and his mouth set on a straight line. This seventeen-year-old porter was arrested in 1908 in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, for breaking, entering, and theft. His likeness features in a volume of police photographs of prisoners, and one of his two pictures is a little more wistful than the other (figure 1). The accompanying text reveals that Gilbert was born in Tasmania, had brown hair, blue eyes, and a “small scar on left wrist, burn mark on right arm,” and two arrests for theft. On another page we meet Charles Thomas Scoringe, also seventeen, a freckled tinsmith of Italian descent (figure 2). Scoringe’s entry details his previous form for theft. Committed to Burnham Industrial School as a youngster, he escaped on several occasions. Each time he went a-thieving, and each time was apprehended.1
Gilbert and Scoringe were not unique. There are a great many other adolescent boys in this leather bound volume, held in New Zealand’s national archives. Many of the boys were aged between sixteen and nineteen; most were convicted for theft. [End Page 50]
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Gilbert and Scoringe had committed crimes, but other adolescents generated case files for different reasons.2 Those committed to reformatories, hospitals, and mental health facilities appeared in logbooks or loose-leaf files that record their individual particularities: name, age, history, class background, and behavior. Such records “keep track” of their subjects, assisting warders and doctors to monitor young people over a period of time. They illustrate the institutional power of the case file, an apparatus of authority that interpellated its subjects in highly specific ways.3
The case study is the case file’s social scientific cousin. While the case file focuses on institutionalized individuals, the creators of case studies weave individual lives into a wider narrative in order to illustrate a broader theoretical or empirical point. During the twentieth century, social workers, educational psychologists, and sociologists used case studies to further their analysis of social “problems.” In the process, these professionals laid down their own claims to knowledge and authority. While the case file reflected the rise of institutionalization, the case study signalled an increasing social science focus on social ‘problems’.
This article explores the case file and the case study in relation to New Zealand’s young people between 1900 and 1960. Both of these mediums, I will suggest, did more than record individuals and groups. Instead, they actively constructed their participants as certain kinds of subjects. More broadly still, [End Page 51] case files and case studies played an important role in the construction of adolescence as a distinct phase of life. When we read case files and case studies, we see how adolescence has been constructed as a category that changes over time and how young people have been interpellated into the discourses and practices of their society. Petty thieves Ronald Gilbert and Charles Scoringe are but two figures whose files evoke the history of adolescence.
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In the following sections of the article, I consider the ways in which adolescence can be said to be socially constructed on...