Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2016

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Over 14 months of participant observation at teen mom serving organizations, I examined competing and complimentary ideas between the teen moms and the staff of the organizations about what it means to be "responsible." Within neoliberalism, being a "responsible" person is seen as both an ideal and an obligation, and scholars have elaborated how within neoliberal regimes, processes of "responsibilization" occur. In this dissertation, I advance the notion of "competing responsibilities," in that both the programs and my teen mom informants believe it is important to be a responsible person but they differ on the key question of to whom one must responsible (or, for what one must be responsible). I argue that these competing obligations arise because the ideal neoliberal self is male, white, and middle-class, and thus raced and gendered subjects are faced with combining the competing responsibilities of being mothers and lower-income workers. While anthropological critiques of neoliberalism have largely focused on how neoliberal ideals are not appropriate or create contradictions within certain local, non-neoliberal contexts. I examine how even within a supposedly neoliberal environment and among actors all pursing neoliberal goals, contradictions still come to the fore for certain individuals, in particular black teen moms.

In Chapter 1, I situate my dissertation within the scholarship of neoliberalism and race, demonstrating how conflicting responsibilities occur in the lives of lower-income and mainly African American teen moms. In Chapter 2, I describe the research methods and organizational context in which this research was conducted. I centrally explore the realities of teen mother’s lives and the service organizations with which they interact. Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 each elaborate a different dimension of “responsibility,” that is, the different identities and obligations that teen moms are asked to perform. Chapter 3 historically situates the contemporary “responsibility” to prevent pregnancy. Chapter 4 argues the black teen moms are asked to perform “respectability,” and locates teen parenting interventions within the history of the politics of uplift within the African American community. In Chapter 5, I develop the notion of “uncertainty” as a strategy of dealing with the contradictory responsibilities of neoliberalism. In Chapter 6, I argue that the “responsibility” to become a good mother, conflicts with the responsibility to become a worker. In Chapter 7, I explore the contradiction that although support is one tool that can help navigate conflicting identities, it support is often not prioritized. Chapters 3 through 7 all emphasize the ways that neoliberal responsibilities create contradictions.

In Chapters 8 and 9, I focus on the practical question of how society might respond to teen parents by challenging the notion that “responsibility” should be the central organizing principle on which teen parenting intervention programs are based. In Chapter 8, I argue that although responsibility creates contradictions, the removal of responsibilizing structures by emphasizing “individual choice” actually constitutes abandonment. In Chapter 9, I argue for margins-to-center thinking – that by looking at teen moms, who are vulnerable because of a combination of factors, including gender, race, early childbearing, and poverty, the way competing responsibilities evidence in society as a whole can be illuminated. Thus I suggest two policies that seek to alleviate the contradictions in competing responsibilities faced by lower-income, African American teen moms.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Rebecca Lester, Shanti Parikh

Committee Members

Peter Benson, Jami Ake, Clarissa Hayward


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/doi:10.7936/K7KD1W9T