Members of a subculture—punks, goths, b-boys, etc.— distinguish themselves from the dominant culture through shared styles of dress, taste in music, leisure practices and modes of media consumption. And since the 1970s, critical cultural theory has argued that subcultures are potent sites of resistance and symbolic empowerment for disenfranchised youth. In this lesson, we take a closer look at the meaning of subcultural style, the moral panic that characterised the social response to subcultures, and examine how elements of subcultural aesthetics are subsumed into the mainstream through the cultural logics of late capitalism.
Are you a member of a subculture? If so, then you’re likely to know that it’s more than simply looking different or liking the same music as your friends. Subcultures are typically (but not exclusively) youth-orientated cultures that share a common class, race and resistance to the ideologies of the dominant culture.
Subcultures are disaffected social formations, responding to feelings of alienation and socioeconomic disadvantage through collective participation in ritualised leisure practices and underpinned by structural modalities of style. Dominant society often sees these groups as radical, immoral and deviant.
In this lesson, we are going to focus on the stylised resistance practices of subcultural groups and examine how taste, fashion, music, dance and media consumption functions as a temporary site of resistance and symbolic empowerment. We will also examine some of the social responses to subcultures including the concept of ‘moral panic’ and the processes of mainstream co-option. That is, how elements of subcultural style are subsumed into the mainstream through the cultural logics of late capitalism.
Just for fun, let’s begin by taking a quiz to find out which subculture might best suit our personalities. These quizzes are meant to be entertaining and silly but at the same time, they reveal some of the more subtle determinants of subcultural lifestyles practices.
Tweet your quiz results @CIU_SAE and we will discuss in class.
Theorising the unique style of youth cultures…
The map below provides an historic overview of western youth subcultures in the twentieth century and traces the development of youth subcultural styles (see patternrecognition.com). We can see in these graphic representations that most subcultures form around leisure activities such as music, dancing or sport.
However, the structural formation of subcultures cannot simply be attributed to mutual taste or shared leisure actives. Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote which provides a little more depth. All in-text references below can be found in the original article which is available via this linked reference:
Taylor, J. (2013). Claiming Queer Territory in the Study of Subcultures and Popular Music. Sociology Compass, 7(3), pp. 194–207. DOI: 10.1111/soc4.12021
“With an emphasis on juvenile delinquency,criminal gangs, social deviance and urbanisation, the study of what became known as subcultures began in the 1920s at the University of Chicago (Cressy, 1932; Whyte, 1943).
Some 50 years on, following the rise of post-war counterculture in the UK and US, social scientists and humanities scholars at Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) redeveloped theories of subcultural formation through their analysis of working-class style-based youth cultures of post-World War II Britain, such as teddy boys, mods, rockers, skinheads, bikers, hippies and punks (Hall and Jefferson, 1976).
Taking a neo-Marxist approach to class and power, subcultures were theorised by the CCCS as symbolic and aestheticised sites of stylised resistance to Britain’s socio-economic and political post-war structures.
According to the CCCS model, subversive activities of subcultural stylisation, commonly demonstrated via distinctive ritual practices, argot, music taste and fashion sense, functioned as away for young people to exercise their aversion to bourgeoisie cultural authority and differentiate themselves from their parents’ working-class culture.
Engaging in what Hebdige (1979) called semiotic guerrilla warfare and Clarke (1976) explains as subcultural bricolage, disenfranchised youth opposed the mainstream sensibilities of dominant culture, which they branded ‘straight’ or ‘square’. In its place, they configured new—‘authentic’—minority cultural identities and symbolic forms of meaning by appropriating, reorganising and recontextualising a range of stylistic artefacts.”
For a more in-dept overview of the theory, check out the video.
Moral panic is an extreme social response to the belief that the moral condition of society is deteriorating at a rapid pace. In the 1950s post-war period, moral panics were rising in the UK, America and Australia over the alleged increase in teenage delinquency and subcultural gags. In Australia and New Zealand it was a single group known as the Bodgies (boys) and Widgies (girls) that caused the most social outrage. These young people wore Edwardian clothes, enjoyed listening to rock and roll, drank milk shakes at milk bars and were said to be highly promiscuous and violent due to their consumption of low cultural artefacts such as comics, Hollywood movies, and popular music. Such things were linked to increases in single mothers, poor parenting and drug use. Watch this short documentary on Brisbane’s rock ‘n’ roll scene below.
In the UK, similar concern was directed towards two rival subcultures, the Mods vs. the Rockers. But if the mods and the rockers were both anti-mainstream culture then why were they fighting? Watch this documentary below and discuss the connections between criminal gangs and subcultural style.
Is there any crossover? Can you think of any subculture wars that persist today? Take notes and discuss them in your tutorial.
If you liked completing the quiz above and want to know more about the styles, tastes, values and behaviours of the mods and rockers take this quiz. It’s fun!
Resistance through ritual, survival through style…
In the last lecture we looked at the New York ball culture of the 1980s and the dapper Sapeurs from the Congo as examples of cultures that had found a means of ritualistic and stylised survival.
Dick Hebdige’s iconic text Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), he describes the relationship between style and culture. Strongly informed by Marxist philosophy, style, he argues, is both materialist and subversive. Subcultures poach ordinary and iconic objects/texts/images/celebrities to define a social space separate from an all-defining mass culture, which symbolises the cultural struggle between those with power and those without. This is illustrated in the image below with regards to punk, hip hop and drag culture.
🎥 CRITICAL VIEWING TASK
Choose one of the videos below and investigate a subculture in a little more depth. Try to determine the ideologies that distinguish these examples as subcultures and identify some of the borrowed cultural artefacts used to articulate their ideologies and relationship to power. If you’re still struggling to understand these symbolic and ritualistic processes or just want to get into a bit more theory, try consulting the original cultural study of the Birmingham School Resistance Through Rituals (1975).
The next ‘big thing’…
In the last lecture we also discussed how subcultures become mainstream through a process of cultural appropriation or ‘borrowing’. A style develops as a means of collective expression and eventually a diluted version of the style enters the mainstream as a marketable commodity via mass and alternative medias. With this, means the ability to distort or discover the meanings of subcultures or ethnic cultural aspects of life or the commercialisation and commodification of such entities. The role of the media is not only to inform us on important topics, but also to alert us to social trends and entertain us with less important topics of human interests and aesthetics. Globalisation and commodification of subcultures can also lead to backlash as ‘true followers’ of the subculture bully and harass those deemed as ‘fakes’ or ‘wannabes’ who are trying to gain membership and seek belonging within a subculture after the time of its emergence into mainstream consciousness.
Drawing on Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, Sarah Thornton (1995) states,“the difference between being in or out of fashion, high or low in subcultural capital, correlates in complex ways with degrees of media coverage, creation and exposure.”
“Taste cultures” brought together by micro-media (such as flyers and listings), transformed into self-conscious “subcultures” by niche media (like the music and style press), and sometimes recast as “movements” with the aid of mass media (like tabloid front pages). She also analyses the changing status of the medium of recording, from a marginal, second-class entertainment in the 1950s to the much celebrated, dominant form of clubs and raves in the 1990s. Drawing from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Thornton coins the term “subcultural capital” to make sense to the distinctions made by “cool” youth, paying particular attention to their disparagement of the “mainstream” against which they measure their alternative cultural worth.
Can we really predict the next big thing? Read this 2012 piece from Time magazine and watch this short video on social sentiment analysis and share your insights with your tutorial group.
📚 PRESCRIBED READING TASK
This week’s reading is Gelder, K. (2007). Subcultures and cultural studies: Community, class and style at Birmingham and beyond. In Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice (pp. 83-106). London: Routledge.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING
Be sure to make use of the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.