Notes on (Sub)Cultural Studies


The CCCS examined emerging youth cultures as ‘subcultures,’ a term indicative of class divisions and resulting subversions.  Working class subculturalists cultivated style and leisure practices symbolically expressing “an antagonistic relation to the prevailing culture and ideological practices” (Willis 1977: xiii).  Styles or forms reflected resistance or ideology.  CCCS theorists used semiotics to ‘read’ these performances, carried out through a bricolage of commodities in which ‘texts’ become fragmented, old meanings are subverted or replaced with new meanings in their re assemblage.
The first chapter of Resistance through Rituals, “Subcultures, Cultures, and Class,” functions as a kind of manifesto for the Birmingham School.  Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, and Roberts identify Gramsci’s hegemony as “the moment when a ruling class is able, not only to coerce a subordinate class to conform to its interests” (101).  This is all done under the “consent” of those dominated under the dominant class; this is battled within “civil society and the state,” including culture (102).  This leads to the reproduction of class and naturalization or legitimization of class structure (Hall 102).  Not only are relations of dominance and subordination maintained, but “the ‘consent’ of the subordinate class” is acquired (Hall & Jefferson 39).  Under hegemonic conditions, the control of ideology is to such an extent that it “prescribes, not the specific content of ideas, but limits within which ideas and conflicts move and are resolved” (Hall & Jefferson 39). This means that those in subcultures are to be the reproduction of the working class they come from and resist such control.  The middle class has “counter-culture” as opposed to “subculture”.  Such counter-cultures also rebel against the dominant culture; however, they are a part of the dominant culture and “generalize an internal contradiction for the society as a whole (Hall & Jefferson 69).  Because of this difference in social and cultural location, the middle class counter culture is argued to be more focused on ideology, politics, and culture.  Middle class counter cultures also differ from working class subcultures in that they are “diffuse, less group-centered, [and] more individualized” (Hall & Jefferson 60).
Subcultures act as a form of resistance, particularly through argot, style, and cultural signs.  Argot is defined as that “which classifies the social world exterior to them in terms meaningful only within their group perspective, and maintains its boundaries” (104).  Style is related to this in that it is an “active organization of objects with activities and outlooks, which produce an organized group-identity in the form of shape of a coherent and distinctive way of ‘being-in-the-world’” (108).  Raw materials were provided within consumption industry for style, however youth subcultures did not use them in the capacity which they were produced, but by “subverting and transforming these things, from their given meaning and use, to other meanings and uses.”  This signals a change in cultural signs, which “’mean’ only because they have already been arranged, according to social use, into cultural codes of meaning, which assign meanings to them” but can “change or inflect their meaning” through use.  “They develop…a set of social rituals which underpin their collective identity and define them as a ‘group’ instead of a mere collection of individuals” (Hall & Jefferson 47).
Another seminal work from the Birmingham School is Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  Hebdige particularly focuses on the punk subculture, reflecting “the tensions between dominant and subordinate groups” (Subculture 2).  Particularly spectacular youth subcultures display connections with the ‘parent’ culture, or that of the class the members are from, as well as the dominant culture, with specific focus on institutions such as school and work.  Style can consist of an ideological form as well as a commodity form; “the creation and diffusion of new styles in inextricably bound up with the process of production, publicity and packaging which must inevitably lead to the defusion of the subculture’s subversive power…they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise” (132).
Style is read in a multitude of ways; Hebdige specifically examines it as bricolage and as homology.  Bricolage is the “’juxtapos[ition of] two apparently incompatible realities [i.e. ‘flag’: ‘jacket’; ‘hole’ : ‘teeshirt’; ‘comb’: ‘weapon’] on an apparently unsuitable scale…and…it is there that the explosive junction occurs’ (Ernst 1948).”  Specifically within the punk subculture Hebdige is studying, “the conventional insignia of the business world – the suit, collar and tie, short hair, etc.- were stripped of their original connotations – efficiency, ambition, compliance with authority – and transformed into ‘empty’ fetishes, objects to be desired, fondled and valued in their own right”.  Homology is another manner of style, “using it to describe the symbolic fit between the values and life-styles of a group, its subjective experience and the musical forms it uses to express or reinforce it focal concerns”.  Within the punk subculture, “safety pins and bin liners signified a relative material poverty which was either directly experienced and exaggerated or sympathetically assumed, and which in turn was made to stand for the spiritual paucity of everyday life.”  Though the raw material was provided by the industry, subcultures use commodities to “express forbidden contents…in forbidden forms…”(Subculture 91).  These “forbidden forms” can include the subversion of intended meaning of an object.  “[T]he breakdown of consensus” and “the challenge to hegemony”  is “expressed obliquely, in style” “at the level of signs” (Subculture 17).
Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, similarly exams subcultures resistance towards “authority” (Willis 11).  Learning to Labour is an ethnography of a group of working class boys at a secondary school in England.  The boys, who call themselves the ‘lads,’ eschew formal education, skipping school and harassing teachers and fellow students.  Instead the boys are immersed in a working class culture that values activities such as smoking, having sex, and manual labour. The lads “reproduce themselves in an antagonistic relation to the prevailing culture and ideological practices.  Self-determination does not imply, however, that a new society is produced thereby; but it does mean that the future can never be as certain as the best laid plan of institutional authorities would have it” (Willis xiii).

More recent theorists have revisited the research of the CCCS and its semiotic legacy.  Limiting the label of ‘subculture’ to working class has been widely criticized for assuming class cultures are both homological and distinct along class lines (Muggleton 2000, Thornton 1996). More contemporary studies have found subculturalists are reluctant to identify with a particular political ideology or group, often seen as another form of “imposing authority, conformity and uniformity” 150.  Instead postmodern theory has influenced the examination of identity not as fixed, absolute, or authentic, but instead eclectic, fragmented, and fluid (Muggleton 2000: 77).  In retrospect the ethnographer’s want of class resistance and a politically charged youth movement lead to escalating and over-theorizing the discourse of subcultures (Ferguson & Golding 1997).  While a milieu of resistance might exist, it is often a vague or ambiguous opposition to a parent or conformist culture as opposed to larger authoritarian systems or power.
In Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen argues theorists of the Birmingham School “decode the style in terms only of opposition and resistance,”  “historical development of a style [is examined] as being wholly internal to the group – with commercialization and co-option as something which just happens afterwards,”   confusion concerning “consciousness and intent” of the subject, that the lives and identities of subjects “do not always coincide with what they are supposed to stand for,” and beginning the study with those already committed as opposed to beginning with class and why some join and others do not.  Cohen  poses instead that one should examine “first, the actual observable external form, the ‘thing’; secondly, the indigenous exegetics offered either by ritual specialists like priests…; and finally the attempt by the social scientist to contextualize all this, particularly by reference to the field…”

Other theorists have jettisoned the term ‘subculture’ entirely, re-theorizing post subcultures, clubcultures, and neo tribes (Redhead 1997, Muggleton & Weinzierl 2003).  Michel Maffesoli’s conceptualization of the ‘neo tribe’ in place of ‘subculture’ is a substantial departure from the CCCS’s approach.  Unlike traditional studies of subculture Maffesoli argues that the tribe is fluid, “ a state of mind, and is preferably to be expressed through lifestyles that favour appearance and form” (1996: 98).  These blurred boundaries would not contribute to rigidity of inclusion and exclusion nor emphasis on authenticity.  Instead neo tribalists have multiple cultural affiliations, which themselves “are integrative and distinctive at the same time” (Muggleton & Weinzierl 2003).  While the openness of the neo tribe networks can account for historical developments in globalization and consumption, the capacity for political organization is limited by the wants of the individual.
Theoretical restrictions to the subversive potential of subcultures have not gone unquestioned.  Maffesoli’s network of neo tribes has been adapted to include alliances between activists and apolitical tribes (Muggleton & Weinzierl 2003).  The distinction between those subcultures centered around politics and those centered around pleasure has been challenged as a false construct.  The development of “carnivals of protest” and “anarchist bazaars,” whereby actions performed are “committed to pleasure and politics,” epitomize the merging of supposed incongruous elements (St. John 1997:65). Nevertheless within these studies of politicized subcultures there remains an underlying privileging of masculinity, reproducing stereotypes within activist cultures as well as academia.

Though conceptually rooted in political subversion, recent studies have taken issue with diversity in subcultures.  In Clubcultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital, Sarah Thornton studies relationships within the urban British raver subculture.  She finds established hierarchies are reproduced at a subcultural level.  She applied Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital within subcultures, discovering a ‘hipness’ as capital.  ‘Subcultural capital’ derives from being ‘in the know’, wearing the ‘right’ clothing, having the ‘right’ haircut, liking the ‘right’ music, and moving the body correctly within a given situation (1996). Class can be a factor, but it is often “willfully obfuscated by subcultural distinctions…a fantasy of classlessness” (1996: 12).  Gender, on the other hand, is of far more consequence.  Female subculturalists either “acknowledge the subcultural hierarchy and accept their lowly position” or if they participate they “reject and denigrate a feminized mainstream” (1996: 13).
From the early developments in the field of cultural studies feminist theorists have criticized the unspoken exclusion of female subculturalists.  In her early studies of subcultural organizations, Angela McRobbie found gender to be the “central organizing principal” within subcultures (2000: 14).  The culture of girls, their membership in subcultures, the roles they play, and how they define themselves required further study (2000: 14).  McRobbie concedes this lack is in part based on the perceived gender identity of the researcher.  Access to females and their willingness to communicate can be difficult due to the “closed, suspicious world of girls” (2000: 4).  The dynamic between the ethnographer and the female participants is altered depending upon the gender of the researcher and entry into more private sites of study.
As in Thornton’s research, a number of other feminist scholars have found social hierarchies privileging males and masculine qualities within typically male dominated subcultures (Reddington 1997, Leblanc 1999, Thornton 1996).  Nancy Macdonald found female graffiti writers had to ‘get up’ more often and in difficult places to prove they were not “timid, delicate little thing[s]” (2001: 130).  In contrast, Doreen Piano found that the female role in the punk subculture was based around a division of labor whereby women’s role is “one of ‘doing’ (making zines, playing in bands, reading zines, organizing conferences) rather than in ‘being’ (viewed as spectacle)”(1997: 254).  Norma Mendoza-Denton‘s female members of gangs would “smile now, cry later,” put on a tough facade and hid their emotions.  The aesthetic appearance of the girl gang members, however, was critiqued and the females labeled lesbians when they did not conform to cultural ideas of femininity (2008).  While in some cases these adjustments towards masculine traits are argued to “enhance [the female’s] self-esteem” (Leblanc 1999: 220), for the most part “[m]ale[s]…work to prove they are ‘men’, but female[s]…must work to prove they are not ‘women’”(Macdonald 2001: 130)
Both female centered and explicitly political, riot grrrl is a music based subculture embedded in third wave feminism (Gottlieb and Wald 1994, Siegel 2007, Piano 2003, Kearney 1997, Leonard 1997).  In the early 1990s riot grrrl developed as an offshoot and response to the traditional male centered punk.  The subculture is activist, using the DIY cultural forms of zines and songs to address issues such as abortion, rape, and incest.  Though in ideology riot grrrl recognizes intersectional identities and inequalities, the subculture is based around a traditionally white musical form and maintains punk’s inadvertent racial exclusions (Piano 2003, Schilt 2005).

Clarke, John et al. “Subcultures, Cultures and Class: A Theoretical Overview.” Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain.  London: Harper Collins, 1976.

Ferguson, Margorie & Golding, Peter 1997.  Cultural Studies and Changing Times: An Introduction.  In Margorie Ferguson & Peter Golding (Eds.), Cultural Studies in Question (pp. xiii-xxvii).  London: Sage.   

Gottlieb, Joanne & Gayle Wald 1994.  Smells Like Teen Spirit: Riot Grrrls, Revolution and Women in Independent Rock.  In Andrew Ross & Tricia Rose (Eds) Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture.  London: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart.  “Encoding, Decoding” In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.): Culture, Media, Language.  London: Hutchinson.

Hebdige, Dick.  Hiding In the Light.  New York: Routledge, 1988.

Hebdige, Dick.  Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  New York: Routledge, 1979.

Kearney, Mary Celeste 1997.  The Missing Links: Riot Grrrl-Feminism-Lesbian Culture.  In Sheila Whiteley (Ed) Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender.  London: Routledge.

Leblanc, Lauraine 1999.  Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture.  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.   

Leonard, Marion 1997.  ‘Rebel Girl, You Are the Queen of My World’: Feminism, ‘Subculture’ and Grrrl Power.  In Sheila Whiteley (Ed) Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender.  London: Routledge.

Macdonald, Nancy 2001.  The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York.  New York: Palgrave.

Maffesoli, Michel 1996.  The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage.

McRobbie, Angela 1997.  The Es and the Anti-Es: New Questions for Feminism and Cultural Studies.  In Margorie Ferguson & Peter Golding (Eds.), Cultural Studies in Question.  London: Sage.   

Mendoza-Denton, Norma 2008.  Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs.  Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Muggleton, David & Weinzierl, Rupert 2003.  What is ‘Post-Subcultural Studies’ Anyway? In David Muggleton & Rupert Weinzierl (Eds.), The Post-Subcultures Reader.  New York: Berg. 

Muggleton, David 2000. Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style.  New York: Berg.

Piano, Doreen 1997.  Resisting Subjects: DIY Feminism and the Politics of Style in Subcultural Production.   In David Muggleton & Rupert Weinzierl (Eds.), The Post-Subcultures Reader.  New York: Berg.

Reddington, Helen 1997. ‘Lady’ Punks in Bands: A Subculturette? In David Muggleton & Rupert Weinzierl (Eds.), The Post-Subcultures Reader.  New York: Berg.

Redhead, Steve 1997.  Subcultures to Clubcultures: An Introduction to Popular Cultural Studies.  Malden, MA: Blackwell. 

Schilt, Kristen 2005.  ‘The Punk White Privilege Scene’: Riot Grrrl, White Privilege, and Zines.  In Jo Reger (Ed) Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women’s Movement. New York and London: Routledge.

St John, Graham 2008. Protestival: Global Days of Action and Carnivalized Politics in the Present. Social Movement Studies. 7 (2): 167- 190

Thornton, Sarah 1996. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital.  Hanover: University Press of New England.

Willis, Paul 1977.  Learning To Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs.  New York: Columbia University Press.