Post-subcultural theory

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Post-subcultural theory

Consumption, individualisation and identity

Youth and subcultural style:
the critique

  • In CCCS work, style was read for its symbolic significance only i.e. how it reflected relationship to dominant culture.

  • This understanding rests on two unproven assumptions:

  • That subcultures comprised exclusively, or predominantly working class youth (Muggleton 2000)

  • That consumption of commodities was practised as a strategy of resistance (Bennett 1999).

Youth and style: taking consumption seriously

  • Postsubculturalism envisages consumption as creative process of youth style distinction.

  • This means that young people choose style, or elements of style, in the constant creation and recreation of identity.

  • Postsubculturalists pay significant attention also to the role of music in creating subcultural style

'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 classness. Therein, however, lies the essential difference between the concept of lifestyle and structuralist interpretations of social life in that the former regards individuals as active consumers whose choice reflects a self-constructed notion of identity while the latter supposes individuals to be locked into particular 'ways of being' which are determined by the conditions of class.'

(Andy Bennett, 'Subcultures or neo-tribes? Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste', Sociology, Vol.33, no.3, August 1999, Cambridge University Press, pp.599-617.)

Alternative understandings: ‘taste cultures’

  • One alternative to ‘subculture’ offered is the notion of ‘taste cultures’.

  • George Lewis, for example,draws on Herbert Gans’s work on audience to argue that music preferences of the young are neither monolithic mass tastes, nor a matter of idiosyncratic individual choice.

  • Taste cultures" are related to, but not fully determined by, such factors as social class, gender, ethnicity, age, media preference, and academic performance.

Alternative understandings: ‘scenes’

  • Scene’ describes local sites of cultural, especially musical, production and consumption.

  • For some, ‘scene’ is understood as having both local and global (transnational) dimensions (see Straw and Kahn-Harris).

  • For others they celebrate the transformative cultural potential of local communities (see Shank).

Alternative understandings: ‘Lifestyles’

  • Lifestyle’ originates in the writings of Max Weber and has been developed more recently by cultural sociologists like David Chaney, Mike Featherstone and Alberto Melucci.

  • With reference to young people, it is extolled most forcefully in the work of Steven Miles (Youth Lifestyles in a Changing World, 2000).

  • Miles argues that although youth identities are influenced by factors including race, gender, family upbringing etc, consumer lifestyles play an invaluable role for young people in maintaining a stable sense of coherence with which these other factors can interact.

‘Young people no longer depend on subcultural affirmation for the construction of their identities (if indeed they ever did) but construct lifestyles that are as adaptable and as flexible as the world around them… young people use their lifestyles which on the surface appear to be fragmented or ‘post-modern’, as a highly rational and modernist way of stabilizing their everyday lives.’

Miles, S. (Youth Lifestyles in a Changing World, 2000)


Youth subculture and the media

  • In the work of the CCCS, the media appear only ‘after’ the event of subculture, eg in role of commercialising a subcultural form.

  • Sarah Thornton’s (Club Cultures, 1995) critique suggests that the media do not only respond to subcultures but are central to the formation of 'coherent' subcultures and she identifies three layers of media engaged in the formation of club cultures:

  • micro media [flyers, fanzines, info lines, pirate radio etc];

  • niche media [the music and hip lifestyle press];

  • the mass media [tabloids, top of the pops etc].

  • Steve Redhead takes a more radical postmodernist position. Drawing on Baudrillard’s notion of ‘simulation’ he suggests that subcultures are no more than surface phenomena; ‘Authentic subcultures’, he argues, ‘ were produced by subcultural theories, not the other way around' (Redhead, S. The End of the Century Party, 1990).

Post-subcultural theory: Fragmentation of style

  • Steve Redhead first introduced the notion of post-subcultural theory to suggest that subcultural divisions had receded and past connections between style, musical taste and identity was becoming increasingly fluid, if not completely undermined.

  • Style appeared to be created and recreated constantly through a process of raiding and borrowing cross culturally and from the past.

  • Rather than articulating distinct subcultures, therefore, young people’s style appeared to reflect what Andy Bennett calls young people's 'unstable and shifting cultural affiliations'.


Muggleton's 'ideal type:'

  • no recognition of subcultural/conventional divide;

  • transient attachment to any one style which weakens boundaries between different subcultures and precludes oppositional reactions to other groups;

  • celebrate style, fashion and media rather than seeing affiliation as political gesture of resistance.

(see Muggleton, D., Inside Subculture. The Postmodern Meaning of Style, Oxford, Berg, 2000)

Post-subcultural theory: ‘neo tribes’

  • The CCCS notion of a youth 'subculture' implies the existence of a coherent sub-unit of society with some 'fixed' identity homologically reflected in its style. Postsubculturalists suggest that, in fact, youth cultural practice takes place within less permanent, more fleeting and more fluid cultural formations.

  • This reflects a response to the isolating impact of the speed and intensity of contemporary city life. The new cultural formations that develop are also intense but fleeting.

  • The notion of 'tribus' [(neo)-tribes] Maffesoli, 1996) is used by Bennett, Malbon and Hetherington to replace 'subculture'. ‘Tribes’ or ‘neo-tribes’ are:

  • small scale social configurations not located in class;

  • highly unstable because individual members of the group do not aim to keep up their community but rather to satisfy their individual needs which are effected via the group;

  • more interested in present than utopian ideas.

Wither subcultural theory?
What we should take with us

  • The ability to move between micro cultural practice and deeper social structural change.

  • Close attention to micro practices of urban life and way own identity is formed in relation to how others see you.

Wither subcultural theory? What we need to rethink

  • A more complex understanding of the structures through which young people are positioned [cultural codes of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and locality as well as class];

  • The study of youth not as fixed category in 'transitional' stage of life but the study of social, cultural, psychological and economic processes through which race, class, gender, dis/ability and sexuality are produced and reproduced in practice by various groups of young people;

  • The study of local variants of subcultures rather than focusing on differentiating only 'authentic' from 'commodified' subcultures;

Nobody does it better…

Perhaps better than anyone Phil Cohen, whose article on subcultural conflict and working class community had kick-started the theory of ‘youth subculture’ back in 1972, understood where it had all gone wrong. In 1986 he published this criticism of the direction of youth cultural studies had taken in the work of the CCCS:

'Life' was bracketted off from 'style' and style took on a life of its own. The analysis of real relations of social reproduction and their imaginary transformation... was gradually abandoned in favour of interpreting signifying practices in terms of their own internal devices of meaning. An idealist semiology replaced a positivistic sociology; the observation of 'teenage behaviour' gave way to the reading of texts in which youth functioned as 'signifier' or 'signified'. The youth question was thus radically disconnected from young people; it became simply the site of a multiplicity of conflicting discourses; youth had no reality outside its representation, no history other than the discontinuities which govern the present. (Cohen, P. 'Rethinking the Youth Question', Post 16 Centre, University of London Institute of Education, 1986)

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