Feed Your Mind: A qualitative study of youth, power and privilege

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Sari Knopp Biklen


Feed Your Mind, Youth, Power, Privilege

Subject Categories

American Popular Culture | Developmental Psychology | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education | Sociology of Culture


This dissertation is a qualitative study of a teen discussion group called Feed Your Mind that met every Wednesday from 7:00 to 8:00am near a public high school in a midsized, northeastern city. Drawing from data collected over three years of fieldwork--including participant observation, in-depth interviews, and the analysis of popular culture from a feminist, cultural studies perspective--this study explores how a group of mostly white, mostly bright, mostly middle class young people make sense of their lives in light of the dominant discourses that so often frame them.

Each chapter of the dissertation examines kids' talk to reveal the complex and often contradictory stories that make up their daily lived experienced. The kids at Feed Your Mind negotiate the tensions in their lives through active means, "Doing Youth," "Doing School," and "Doing the American Dream" as the chapter titles suggest. Chapter Four, "Doing Youth," explores what it means to be a youth and the work of self-definition that is played out around questions of who's smart, who's cool and the price one has to pay to claim such status. Chapter Five, "Doing School," moves to young people's conversations about their schooling, to examine how (white, middle-class) kids make sense of their public high school through a process of alliance-building in which familiar constructions of Youth vs. Adult are reinvented. Finally, Chapter Six, "Doing the American Dream," looks at the prevailing discourse of individualism that has shaped America's socio-political life since its founding, and the impact it has on the education of youth. This chapter documents how the young people at Feed Your Mind negotiate the tension between their commitment to social justice and equity on the one hand, and a powerful pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy that elides institutionalized oppression on the other.

I argue throughout the dissertation that privilege is always a factor in how Feed Your Mind kids "do" their lives. This study offers a perspective on the practices of securing and maintaining privilege, but it also suggests that privilege is not a monolithic status. The Feed Your Mind participants engaged in a struggle to make sense of the world as thoughtful, political and often progressive young people who were also deeply invested in their own success stories. Their work in the midst of this tension is about a resistance to, and the reproduction of, dominant constructions of youth, power and privilege.


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