Getting a life in rural America: Life course models, derailment, and resilience among Cherokee and Anglo emerging adults

Ryan Andrew Brown
Dept. of Anthropology, Emory University
July, 2006


Early poverty and psychosocial stress is associated with mental and physical distress through a variety of life course processes. However, we know little about individual and cultural models of the life course, and such knowledge is likely to increase our understanding and precision of the mechanisms underlying such associations. To this end, I conducted an anthropological analysis of life course processes among 348 Cherokee (n=149) and Anglo (n=199) youths (aged 19-24) participating in a longitudinal study of mental health, the Great Smoky Mountains Study (GSMS). Youth life course trajectories, perspectives, and experiences were assessed through the Life Trajectory Interview for Youth (LTI-Y), a novel card sort instrument developed via the participation of 132 youth collaborators.

In the LTI-Y, exposure to childhood poverty diminishes many (but not all) life course expectations and patterns of attainment, and this effect is unevenly distributed across individuals and groups. Resilient participants are found to up-regulate models of social support and individual coping in response to life course risk, and also appear to "opt out" of cultural norms of achievement.

By assessing life course dimensions both for the self and for a perceived social norm ("average Americans"), the LTI-Y describes the social comparative space between self and other. Individual conceptions of the distance between self and other (social contrast) are associated with the justification of the self and the consolidation of motivation for key domains of life course attainment. Concordance between individual life course attainment and the attainment of other youths (attainment similarity) is linked to early life course risk, as well as current psychosocial status (dysphoric mood).

Analysis of ethnographic and life history, data illustrates how risk-taking and violence are associated with the construction of masculinity and selfhood among Cherokee and Anglo youth. Meanwhile, the fortuitous provision of hope and purpose through the accrual of personally salient cultural goods can help individuals desist from previously destructive and self-destructive paths. Among Appalachian youth, childbearing (both planned and unplanned) may be a potent generator of hope and positive outcomes, and this seems to play a special role among Cherokee youth.