CONSTELLATION: Academic Research Into Subcultures – Session 6

In this session, we looked at two academic research groups – The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies also known as The Birmingham School and Post CCCS also known as Post sub-cultural Theory.

What are the Characteristics of Subcultures according to the CCCS (The Birmingham School’s) Research?

The Birmingham School feel that Subculture is constructed in relation to a dominant culture and that it always defies society in some way. They state that Subculture is carried and associated with the youth of society and that it emerges when individuals in similar circumstances feel themselves to be isolated or neglected by mainstream society.  They say that subculture has a delicate relationship with the media and was a reaction against it. The school puts high emphasis  class and gender and makes the point that subcultures are derived by working class youths, predominantly masculine rebelling against society and the parent culture (the establishment). This is referred to as “symbolic resistance” (Osbergy, 2004 p.116) – a political or ideological act fighting the system through rituals. Rituals create a group identity mostly through appearance and style, they are how you can spot the punk in the room for example but they also suggest homology and Bricolage. Homology being a set of values and beliefs that are shared within a subculture and Bricolage meaning changing the meaning of objects to reflect these values. The Birmingham school are adamant that Bricolage is a part  of sub-cultural identity. However, there are criticisms of their research.

Criticisms of the Birmingham Schools Research

First of all, saying that working class people only did subculture isn’t accurate. Every sub-cultural gang is a variety of genders, backgrounds, classes etc. What about political statements against the system? Bricolage is evident in subculture but can you not just like a style and experiment with different fashions? They made general assumptions and stereotyped. They didn’t suggest that females were part of subculture whereas for example we know that there was a feminist attitude in punk, punk women defied the Barbie doll look and rebelled against the parent culture by doing so. O’Brien’s work suggests in fact that if women wanted to be equal they were attracted to the punk subculture. Gender Bias is a criticism of the Birmingham School. They oversimplified the complex social make up of many youth cultures but the Birmingham Schools work is important because it says that street style is a valid subject to study and that is their contribution.

What are the findings of Post-CCCS research into Subcultures? (Known as post sub-cultural theory or post modern subcultures)

Post sub-cultural theory refers to subcultures as Neo-tribes.  Neo- tribes allow members to wander through multiple group attachments. The post sub cultural view is that there is a style in subculture but there is not necessarily a political statement or ideology behind it. However, they do say that there is a political statement in attitude, rather than style.  They maintain that you can have punk views and sensibility for example without wearing safety pins and ripped clothes.  The Birmingham School suggested everyone in subcultures has a look and an attitude but post sub-cultural theory suggests that there is a more complex process of selecting style. They state that the boundaries between subcultures are blurred. One week you could have a goth look and the next week you could be dressed like a punk, in their opinion, this doesn’t mean your beliefs have changed. CCCS suggested the fact that you were part of one gang, you followed the rules of a subculture in the 1970s but in the 1990s, the post subcultures said that you could float between cultures. The Post modern approach is that there is a mash-up stylistically, and there can be a mixing of styles. The media is important in their approach. The CCCS said subculture was a reaction against the media but the post sub-cultural view is that the media have always played a part in sub-cultural style and have helped define it,  for examples inspiration from musicians in the media. They say they have a symbiotic relationship – subculture uses the media and the media uses them. Post modern research suggests that subculture is far more fluid with less clear boundaries and less clear identities. The picking and choosing of style is apparent and identities are not fixed by Gender and class. They maintain that you can wear a style without making a political statement.

What unites the Birmingham Schools research and the Post Sub-cultural theory?

Bricolage unites both teams, it is evident in both’s research. CCCS suggests that Bricolage always has a meaning relating to society. Post modernists maintain that people gather objects to create a style and say something about themselves.

SUMMARY: Academic Theories and Terms

(Muggleton, 2000) suggested that subculture is merely a “stylistic game to be played”  committing yourself to a sub-cultural scene is far less evident in the 21st century.

The act of adopting many styles  and creating a mash-up of them is known as a “supermarket of style” (Polhemus, 1995)

Neotribalism  – (Maffesoli,1996) The feeling of togetherness but its is informal and not necessarily because of style. You can have a community, but it doesn’t have to be manifested stylistically. You may be part of a certain community if you go and listen to music and another if you are watching football for example.

Postmodern Spaces – “The airport departure lounge” (Turner,1999) – The Idea that you are only part of a community for a certain amount of time and then you float into another community/identity.

Distinctions between Travelers and Tourists (Sweetman,2004) – suggests that subcultures are one of the other. The travelers follow the rules of one subculture/part of a goth gang for example. The people are still around today but tourists are the ones floating around, hanging around with the goth for a little while and then moving on. Both are in existence. It is not the death of the 1970s subcultures, but 1990s floating subcultures exist alongside them.

Objectified Sub-cultural Capital (Thornton 1995) – Sub-cultural capital is objectified by well made hair cuts and music. Objectified sub-cultural capital refers to the objects that say “I am a punk” for example. (external)

Embodied Sub-cultural Capital (Thornton, 2004) is the idea of being in the know. Using but not overusing slang. Words, Speech and Attitudes. Part of being cool is not making it look like you are trying too hard.

This session was highly interesting and it was definitely beneficial in looking at the research of both groups. In terms of analysing subculture it was valuable to look at the opinions of researchers in the 1970s and the 90s and contrasting them. I would say that the post modern view is a lot more valid today, but without the Birmingham School I may not have been studying subculture anyway as they put across the point that is was valid to study.

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