Consumption and the Crisis of Teen Pregnancy: a Critical Theory Approach

ABSTRACT - Teen pregnancy is a growing problem in the United States. This paper provides preliminary findings from a critical theory study on how expectant teen mothers prepare materially for childbirth. Three contradictions between the subjective and objective situations surrounding teen births are discussed. The paper concludes by examining possible theoretically grounded programs of action for dealing with the problem of teen pregnancy.


Newell D. Wright and Jon Shapiro (1992) ,"Consumption and the Crisis of Teen Pregnancy: a Critical Theory Approach", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 404-406.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 404-406


Newell D. Wright, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Jon Shapiro, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and State University

[The authors would like to thank Julie L. Ozanne for her comments and help with data collection.]


Teen pregnancy is a growing problem in the United States. This paper provides preliminary findings from a critical theory study on how expectant teen mothers prepare materially for childbirth. Three contradictions between the subjective and objective situations surrounding teen births are discussed. The paper concludes by examining possible theoretically grounded programs of action for dealing with the problem of teen pregnancy.


The role of consumption during life transitional periods has received increasing attention in recent years (Schouten 1991a, 1991b; Roberts 1991; McAlexander 1991; Ozanne 1992; Wright 1991; Young 1991). Pregnancy may also be considered a period of transition, a time "betwixt and between" (Turner 1967) the expectant mother's past state as a non-mother and her future state as a mother. Consumption is an important part of this transition into motherhood as the expectant mother prepares materially for the upcoming birth of the child. The purpose of this study was to examine the role of consumption during the transition into motherhood.

As with previous studies of consumption and transition, we used indepth interviews in naturalistic settings to gather our data, and interpretively analyzed the results (McCracken 1988). Our initial informants consisted of first time parents or mothers, and we sampled across various populations for diversity. Specifically, we interviewed a middle class couple in their late 30's who had a home birth attended by a midwife, a couple in their 20's with financial constraints; an orthodox Jewish couple (Hasidic); an unwed hispanic teen mother; an adoptive mother; and an unwed teen Appalachian mother.

The initial results confirmed our expectations that consumption did play an important part during pregnancy, but we serendipitously discovered a potentially more important issue. The parents who needed material help the least received the most help (middle class couples), and those who needed the most material help, received the least help (unwed teen mothers). Hence, the focus of the study shifted from an interpretive study of consumption during pregnancy to a critical examination of the material needs of teen mothers following the critical theory methodology set forth by Murray and Ozanne (1991). Table 1 provides a summary of the critical theory methodology they laid out. This paper describes the preliminary results of the critical theory study.


Initial Stage of Critical Theory Research

The concrete and practical problem investigated in this study focused on how teen mothers prepared materially for their children given that they lacked the economic and social support of married, middle-class women.

This problem is both concrete and practical. Teen pregnancy is a growing problem in this country. Between 1960 and 1990 there was more than a five fold increase in teen births, from 91,700 to 500,000 (Dash 1989, p. 24-25; Los Angeles Times 1990). These births cost the federal government over $21 billion annually in Food Stamps, Aid to Dependent Children, Medicaid, and other social service offerings (Chicago Tribune 1990). One in six children of teenage mothers has a low birth weight and is more likely to experience physical and cognitive problems (Barnett 1987). In addition, teen mothers are half as likely to graduate from high school than the rest of the teen population, and, if they are married, they are 3 times more likely to be divorced or separated than couples who married in their 20's. One study showed that approximately 90% of the inmate population at Attica State Prison was born to teenage mothers (Evans 1986). Hence, the problem of teen pregnancy is both concrete and practical.

The relevant groups involved with this problem includes the teen mothers; the birth fathers (who frequently do not participate in the upbringing of the children); the children; grandparents and other members of the extended family; social service workers; and health care workers. These relevant groups were studied in this research.

Data Collection Stage of Critical Theory Research

Murray and Ozanne (1991) identified five steps in the data collection process. This research is currently at step three.

First Step

In the first step, researchers attempt to gain a subjective understanding of the informants they interview. Our subjective data was collected through participant observation and indepth interviews. Specifically, we have conducted participant observation of a support group for teen mothers who are still in school. Since most teen mothers drop out of school, we are also planning to participate in a teen mother support group for high school drop outs. We also conducted several indepth interviews with teen mothers at the health department of a small county in the southern part of the United States. We are planning to interview birth fathers for their perspective, as well as extended family members. Finally, we interviewed social service workers, and plan to interview physicians, health care administrators, and other relevant health care workers.



Second Step

The second step involves the examination of the historical development of the relevant social structures or processes. We have examined the legal structure of the health care system in the state in which we are conducting the study, as well as the health care and the social service structures to obtain a more objective understanding of the structures that impact on teen mothers.

Third Step

The third step involves coming to a dialectical understanding of the subjective and the objective data, and looking for contradictions between the intersubjective understanding and the objective social conditions. The remainder of this paper will examine in detail the initial contradictions we uncovered that affect teen mothers.

Breast Feeding. Teen mothers are unlikely to breast feed their babies. They don't feel it is important, they feel uncomfortable with large breasts, and they often rely on others to help tend the children while they work or go to school. Also, since they are sexually active, they feel some role conflict between "sharing" breasts with babies and boy friends.

Since most of the teen mothers are impoverished, they can't pay for the services of a lactician or other medical professionals while in the hospital to teach them how to breast feed or what to expect during the engorgement process. It appears as if the goal of the health care system is to get the teen mothers in and out of the health care system as fast as possible since their stays are usually being paid for by Medicaid, the state supported health care plan for economically disadvantaged residents, and the hospitals are losing money on each teen birth. There is also evidence that since teen births were usually traumatic and painful, health care workers want to spare them the further pain of engorgement and breast feeding.

This contradiction exposes the need to educate teen mothers about the benefits of breast feeding. However, our research showed that it would be better to stress the economic benefits of breast feeding (e.g., money saved) rather than the health benefits, since the teen mothers we interviewed or observed were largely unaware of the nutritional or health benefits of breast feedings, or these benefits were unimportant to them. As consumer researchers, we can help by producing and educational literature that is meaningful for and targeted directly to teen mothers, instead of using the traditional educational approaches that stress nutritional reasons for breast feeding.

Child Birth Services. The teen mothers we interviewed or observed are almost all terrified of giving birth, yet they are the least likely to seek out social services and child birth classes. Expectant teen mothers at the support group were so terrified of the thoughts of giving birth that they turned white and felt faint during a hospital visit. This topic came up frequently. Teen mothers we observed or interviewed rarely attended any child birth classes offered by the local hospitals or social services organizations.

Our research revealed there were two principle reasons for this. First, the teen mothers, who often did not have a partner with whom to attend these classes, were very intimidated by the older, more financially secure, married (or at least monogamous) couples who attended these classes. And second, since many teen mothers were impoverished and under the legal driving age, many had no way to get to the classes, even if they had the desire to attend.

Our research shows that the teen mothers have unique and pressing problems that are not being addressed by the prepared child birth classes being offered. This finding suggests a production orientation to prepared child birth classes rather than a market orientation may exist. The needs of the teen mothers are simply not being met by the hospitals and social services groups offering these classes. We suggest tailoring classes, following the marketing concept, to the specific needs of the teen mothers. Specifically, social services needs to design prepared child birth classes targeted to teen mothers, and perhaps even taught by a former teen mother. In this way, the participants will not feel out of place by attending classes with older, more financially secure middle class couples. Additionally, these classes should be prepared in conjunction with existing social services programs, since some programs already provide transportation for teen mothers to other social services offerings. Or perhaps they should be held near to government subsidized housing or other low income areas in which most of the teen mothers reside.

Legal Status of Teen Mothers. Teen mothers are legally required to take care of their children, yet, until they are 18 years of age, they cannot legally sign contracts, such as those necessary to rent a trailer or apartment. On the one hand, they are legally responsible for providing shelter for and taking care of their children, and on the other hand, they are legally prevented from obtaining shelter. Since many teen mothers are estranged from or no longer live with their parents or with the birth fathers, this is a particularly difficult situation for them to be in.

A related problem focuses on health care. On the one hand, the teen mother can authorize medical services for her child, but, on the other hand, she must get parental authorization if she is to receive any medical attention at all.

Teen mothers are treated like children, but they have an adult job to do. These two legal constraints may prevent the teen mother from obtaining the shelter and/or medical services needed to care for herself and her child. As researchers interested in consumption, it was curious for us to discover legal constraints that thwarted consumption in two such crucial areas as shelter and medical care. Action in this area is necessary to change the legal standing of teen mothers, or at least allow them the legal rights to take care of their children.

Fourth and Fifth Steps

The fourth step will involve discussing alternative ways for each of the relevant groups to see the situation of the teen mothers, and the fifth step will involve participating in a theoretically grounded program of action to change the existing social conditions that are oppressing teen mothers. While we have not yet entered the fourth and fifth stages with our research, our potential contributions as consumer researchers may include increasing awareness of the contradictions faced by teen mothers to health care and social services workers, lawmakers, and other relevant parties to allow the teen mothers access to the goods and services they need to meet their legal obligations as parents. Dissemination of the results of this study might include traditional outlets (e.g., journals, conference proceedings) as well as nontraditional outlets (e.g., TV and radio talk shows, health care trade publications, Reader's Digest) to raise public consciousness of the unique and pressing consumption needs faced by teen mothers and their children.


Teen mothers, who are usually impoverished and need material goods the most to prepare for the upcoming births, often receive the least material help. This paper detailed the preliminary findings of a critical theory study examining the material problems faced by teen mothers. Specifically, three contradictions derived from subjective and objective research were discussed, and potential, theoretically grounded courses of action set forth.


Barnett, Alva P. (1987), "Consumer Perceptions of Black Adolescent Mothers," Child and Youth Services, Vol 9, No. 1, 53-73.

Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1990, Report: Welfare Tab For Teens Soared In 1989.

Dash, Leon, (1989), When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Evans, Therman E. (1986), "Societal Hypocrisy Helps To Promote Teenage Pregnancy," Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol 78, No. 5, 361-364.

Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1990, Study Of Youths' Problems Finds A Generation At Risk.

McAlexander, James H. (1991), "Divorce, the Disposition of the Relationship, and Everything," in Advances in Consumer Research, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 43-48.

McCracken, Grant (1988), The Long Interview, Newbery Park: Sage.

Murray, Jeff B. and Julie L. Ozanne (1991), "The Critical Imagination: Emancipatory Interests in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 18 (September), 129-144.

Ozanne, Julie L. (1992), "Materialism and Coming of Age in the Mormon Faith," in Advances in Consumer Research, eds. John F. Sherry and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, forthcoming.

Roberts, Scott D. (1991), "Consumption Responses to Involuntary Job Loss," in Advances in Consumer Research, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 40-42.

Schouten, John W. (1991), "Personal Rites of Passage and the Reconstruction of Self," in Advances in Consumer Research, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 49-51.

Schouten, John W. (1991), "Selves in Transition: Symbolic Consumption in Personal Rites of Passage and Identity Reconstruction," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 412-425.

Turner, Victor W. (1967), The Forest of Symbols, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Wright, Newell D. (1991), "The Role of Consumption in the Rite of Passage into Adulthood," unpublished working paper, Virginia Polythechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061.

Young, Melissa Martin (1991), "Disposition of Possessions During Role Transitions," in Advances in Consumer Research, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 33-39.



Newell D. Wright, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Jon Shapiro, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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