SUBCULTURE AND STYLE
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SUBCULTURE AND STYLE
Subculture is a relative concept. The term suggests subordinance to a dominant culture, implying that a sort of superiority is inherent in the mainstream and recognizing mainstream culture as a more legitimate, valuable, or simply, “right” way to live (Smith, 2002) . This is ironic in that a subculture only exists in relation to popular culture, and consequently, a movement once defined as a subculture may cease to have that classification if and when the subcultural practices in question are embraced and practiced by a more heterogeneous audience. It is significant, however, to note that the essence of the original subculture is unquestionably transformed as it is adopted by a mainstream audience.
Despite the problems which can be associated with 'subculture' the term continues to be widely used as a centrally defining discursive trope in much sociological work especially on the relationship between youth, music and style.
Thornton (1996) examines three distinct cultural hierarchies: the authentic versus the phony, the ‘hip’ versus the ‘mainstream,’ and the ‘underground’ versus the ‘media.’ According to Thornton (1995), 'authentic' subcultures are largely constructed by the media, members of subcultures acquiring a sense of themselves and their relation to the rest of society from the way they are represented in the media. Thornton (1996) states that the best definition of a subculture is, “a social group that has been labeled as such” (162). Moreover, since some practices are labeled “subculture” and some are not, and since this label or lack thereof is in fact quite arbitrary when examined objectively, the only reason a particular practice is a subculture is that the media named it so (Thornton, 1996).
Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony provides the most adequate account of how dominance is sustained in advanced capitalist societies. The theory addresses the seemingly naturally occurring qualities and properties of social hierarchy because, hegemony suggests the complex process by which domination is transformed into civic cooperation (Deetz, 1995). In 1977, cultural studies expert Stuart Hall commented that the term hegemony refers “to a situation in which a provisional alliance of certain social groups can exert ‘total social authority’ over other subordinate groups, not simply by coercion or by the direct imposition of ruling ideas, but by ‘winning and shaping consent so that the power of the dominant classes appears both legitimate and natural’” (Hebdige, 1979, 15-16).
The few in control of money, legislation, and mass communication simply aspire to convince the many to conform to a “natural” normative structure that those in power promote to assure their continued position of dominance in the future. Additionally, Hebdige (1979) points out that challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them; rather it is expressed obliquely, in style. The objections are lodged, the contradictions displayed at the profoundly superficial level of appearances. The styles associated with, for example a rave culture, are misunderstood, largely because the media and non-participants wrongly associate every object that represents rave culture with drug use. It is possible that this representation is purposeful and designed to thwart the realization that, “Style in subculture contradicts the myth of consensus” (Hebdige, 1979).
The classic misconception surrounding youth subcultures is basically the notion that they are a culture based not on style but on the use of certain illegal drugs. In reality, drug use is not limited to youth subcultures, rather it is simply a part of modern society. Moreover, other subcultures such as skinhead, punk, rockers, new wave, rave and gangsta have been associated with deviancy. This is so because of their images.
According to Brake (1974), style is made up of three main ingredients: image, which includes costume and accessories; demeanor, which includes gait, posture and practice; and argot, or the use of a distinct vocabulary. With such identifying characteristics or style in mind, Brake described the early British skinheads as:
“Aggressive working-class puritans in big industrial boots, jeans rolled up high to reveal them, hair cut to the skull, braces, and a violence and racism [that] earned for them the title "bovver boys," "boot-boys" on the look out for "aggro" (aggravation). Stylistically they have roots in the hard moods, forming local gangs called after a local leader or an area. Ardent football fans, they were involved in violence on the terraces against rival supporters. They espoused traditional conservative values, hard work, patriotism, defense of local territory, which led to attacks on hippies, gays and minorities. They became a metaphor for racism .... "Puritans in boots," they opposed hippy liberalism, subjectivity and disdain for work, attempting to "magically recover the traditional working-class community" (75-76).
Style is an essential and distinguishing part of subculture. It is often a form of communication between members of a subculture with each other and with the mainstream. According to Hebdige (1979), the confusion surrounding different subculture objects and practices provides a perfect illustration that the conflict between hegemonic culture and subordinate culture can be encapsulated in a single object, so the tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture- in the styles made up of mundane objects which have a double meaning. Hebdige (1979) adds that objects “warn the ‘straight’ world of a sinister presence- the presence of difference… On the other hand, for those who erect them into icons… these objects become signs of forbidden identity, sources of value” (2-3).
Members of different subcultures express themselves and communicate their membership allegiance through style. Particular aspects of style often function to give new meaning to ordinary objects or practices. Such commodities are indeed open to a double inflection: to ‘illegitimate’ as well as ‘legitimate’ uses. These objects can be magically appropriated; ‘stolen’ by subordinate groups and made to carry ‘secret’ meanings: meanings which express, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination (Hebdige, 1979). These new meanings are usually only available to and understood by members of the subculture, and non-members often misunderstand the new meanings. Hebdige (1979) refers to this as the subversive implications of style.
The related concept of 'lifestyle' provides a useful basis for a revised understanding of how individual identities are constructed and lived out. 'Lifestyle' describes the sensibilities employed by the individual in choosing certain commodities and patterns of consumption and in articulating these cultural resources as modes of personal expression (Chaney, 1996). Certainly, there are numerous instances of lifestyles which are intended to reflect more 'traditional' ways of life, notably in relation to class background. For example, British pop group Oasis and their fans promote an image, consisting of training shoes, football shirts and duffel coats, which is designed to illustrate their collective sense of working classiness.
All of this is not to suggest that 'lifestyle' abandons any consideration of structural issues. Rather, 'lifestyle' allows for the fact that consumerism offers the individual new ways of negotiating such issues. Thus, as Chaney (1996) observes, 'the indiscriminate egalitarianism of mass culture does not necessarily reproduce the structured oppressions of previous social order. Or rather . . . these oppressions can more easily be subverted by the very diversity of lifestyle' made possible via the appropriation of selected commodities and participation in chosen patterns of consumption (1994:81).
In critically evaluating 'subculture' as a valid framework for the sociological study of youth, music and style, Bennett (1999) have identified two main issues. First, there is a problem of objectivity as subculture is used in increasingly contradictory ways by sociological theorists. Secondly, given that in studies which use 'subculture' in relation to youth, music and style there is a grounding belief that subcultures are subsets of society, or cultures within cultures, such a concept imposes lines of division and social categories which are very difficult to verify in empirical terms. Indeed, at the most fundamental level, there is very little evidence to suggest that even the most committed groups of youth stylists are in any way as 'coherent' or 'fixed' as the term 'subculture' implies. On the contrary, it seems that so-called youth 'subcultures' are prime examples of the unstable and shifting cultural affiliations which characterize late modern consumer-based societies.
Bennett, A. (1999) Subcultures or neo-tribes? Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste. Sociology, Vol. 33.
Brake, M. (1974) The skinheads: An English working class subculture. Youth and Society, Vol. 6, pp. 179-200.
Channey, D. (1996) Lifestyles. London: Routledge.
Deetz, S. (1995) Transforming Communication, Transforming Business. Hampton Press.
Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.
Smith, E. M. (2002) From the war on drugs to a war on subculture: media, law and the future of rave. Thesis presented to Newcomb College Tulane University.
Thornton, S (1996) Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. New England: Wesleyan University Press.
__________ (1995) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge: Polity.