Life Course Development of African American Men: A Social-Psychological Analysis

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According to life course theory, male development in the United States follows normative patterns within age-linked life stages. Each stage presents new challenges, that when met by the individual, result in increased complexity of the personality, enhanced cognitive, emotional, and social functioning, and positive racial self-identity and esteem (Erikson, 1983; Levinson, 1978; Valiant, 1977). Effective interactions with environmental systems are essential for healthy development to occur (Germain & Germain, 1996; Green & Ephross, 1991). Levinson (1978) believes that men create and try to fulfill a ‘dream,’ that is, an image of what they hope to become. Vocational achievement, satisfying family relationships, and a contribution to future generations – primary adult social roles - are generally considered to be the main criteria for successful manhood in the United States (Erikson, 1983). Race and ethnicity can have a significant impact on human growth and development among minority groups in the United States. Many African American men, for example, live a different and often less rewarding life course than that described by the mainstream human behavior theories. These men experience a range of difficulties in adult social role performance and feel compelled to create alternative lifestyles in adulthood (Bowman, 1989; Tucker & Mitchell—Kernan, 1995). As a consequence of racism, oppression, and poverty, many Black men lack the resources and opportunities to realize their potentials, i.e. their ‘dream’ (Allen-Meares & Burman, 1995; Gibbs, 1998; Hattery & Smith, 2007; Reese, 2004; Staples, 1982; Taylor, 1977). Research on African American men since the 1980’s has documented the many challenges they face in academic and vocational achievement, in performing family roles, and in maintaining physical and mental health. However, there is insufficient research that examines the course of these developmental issues throughout the lifespan. Also, there are few studies that have examined specific individual, family, and environmental factors associated with various psychosocial outcomes (Herbert, 1990; Mizell, 1999; Rasheed & Rasheed, 1999). Using existing data sets from several current longitudinal surveys, this study examines the extent to which the life course development of African American men is consistent with major developmental theories of successful adulthood (see Erikson, 1983; Levinson, 1978; Valliant, 1977; and others). Specifically, the study examines the factors associated with Black men’s ability to meet the developmental tasks of each adult life stage, maintain physical and mental health, and achieve self-actualization, despite adverse environmental conditions. Our results indicate that the availability of resources and opportunities (educational and vocational), a strong informal support system, and high self-esteem are positively associated with success in social roles and mental and physical health over the lifespan.


Keywords: African American Men, Life Course Development
Stream: Psychology, Cognitive Science and Behavioural Sciences
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr. Carl E. Bentelspacher

Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, Southern Illinois University
Edwardsville, Illinois, USA

I am a Clinical Social Worker and a Social Work Educator. I previously taught social work in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore. I have taught across the social work curriculum, including social policy, family and group intervention, human behavior in the social environment, and issues in social and economic justice. My research interests are: cross-cultural social work practice; coping strategies of families caring for relatives with mental illness; the characteristics and functioning of informal support networks, and, more recently, adult development issues of African American men in the United States.

Ref: I08P0229