Notes 2 Theory 1 – Resistance Through Rituals

The following notes outline the theory behind this paper. It explores the relationships between dominant and subordinate cultures, parent cultures and subcultures as well as the post-war socio-political climate which has enabled the development of a separate youth culture and market.


Edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson


Theory 1 – Subcultures, Cultures and Class

The social and political meaning of Youth cultures are not easy to assess. Signified as a social problem by moral guardians, yet plays an important role to help understand and interpret that period. Youth as “a powerful but concealed metaphor for social change” (Smith et. al., 1975), a society which has “changed in ways calculated to upset the official political framework, but in ways not calculable in traditional political terms” (Smith et. al., 1975).

Is youth culture purely a construction of the media, a superficial phonomenon? Would need to find the correct relation between “organic” (permanent) and “conjunctural” (occasional/immediate/accidental).

  1. Some Definitions

Culture – The level which social groups develop distinct patterns of life. The group or class is the distinctive “way of life”. Their meanings and values is their “map of meaning” which is to make this understandable to its members, who in turn become a “social individual” who lives and functions within a culture. Also serves to modify and constrain how groups within a culture live their social existence.

Groups/Classes – Exist within the same society and share each other’s culture to some extent but cultures are differently ranked. Those that have the monopoly of power in society, the hegemony determines the extent and direction of an epoch. Groups and classes find ways of expressing their culture, their subordinate position and experiences. The dominant culture represents itself as “the culture”.

Subcultures – Subsets within larger cultural networks, AKA the “parent” culture, will share some things in common with that parent culture. Subcultures most exhibit a distinctive identity from their parent culture – activities, values and spaces, but as subsets there must be something that binds them with the parent culture. For example the Kray twins belonged to the criminal subculture yet belonged to the “normal’ life of East End working class culture. The “differentiating axis” of the criminal subculture from their “articulating axis” which binds them to their class.

Some subcultures are loosely defined stands or “milieux” within the parent culture, while others develop a clear identity and structure, These tightly defined groups which are also distinguished by age are referred as “Youth Subcultures”. Some of these subcultures only appear at particular times, become visible, are identified and labelled, then they fade or become so widely diffused that they lose their distinctive identity.

Subcultures continue to exist within the inclusive culture of their class from which they spring. They may project a different cultural response but membership cannot protect them from the experiences and problems that shape their class. Especially the relationship of the dominant culture and their subordinate position as a subculture within their parent culture.

“Youth Culture” is how the phenomenon of youth in the post-war period has been most common. That age and generation mattered most or that youth was classless or had become a class itself. So youth culture was exclusively identified with its styles, music and leisure pursuits. The gowing “teenage market” reveal two aspects:

  1. Youth groups fed off and appropriated this market.
  2. This market expropriates and incorporates things produced by the subcultures.

When examining the dialectic between youth and the youth market, bear in mind that individuals may move into or out of one or several subcultures. The relationship between “everyday life” and “subcultural life” of different sections of youth is an important question. Also the major concern for youth is their biggest occupation, passing the time. The dialectics of doing nothing.

  1. Youth: Metaphor for Social Change

These are the three stages of investigating youth subcultures from their phenomenal aspects to the deeper meanings:

  1. The qualitative novelty of youth culture.
  2. The most visible aspects of social change responsible for its emergence.
  3. The wider debate.

Robert’s account reminds to be cautious to refer to youth culture as a post-war phenomenon. His account describes Edwardian youth and point to a historical continuity that should be taken into account. However evidence suggests that the historical significance of the post-war period should not be ignored.

Firstly, the importance of affluence and consumption where the teenage consumer was the prime beneficiary. “Distinctive teenage spending for distinctive teenage ends in a distinctive teenage world” (Abrahams, 1959:10).

Secondly, the arrival of mass communication which influenced youth culture in two ways:

  1. The arrival of the means of imitation and manipulation.
  2. Youth culture was seen to represent the worst effects of this ‘mass culture” and its negative influence.

The third point was that the post-war period reflected the disrupted influence of the war. Breaks in family life and constant violence was held responsible for the “new” juvenile delinquency of the mid 1950s. However the dropping of atomic bombs and the possibility of life without a future instigated the “generation gap’ (Nuttall, 1970)

The fourth set of changes relates to education. The 1949 Education Act promoted “Secondary Education for All” and equally the meritocratic ideology of social mobility through access to higher education. Young people spending more time within age-specific educational institutions creating the pre-conditions for a specific “Adolescent Society”.

Lastly, the arrival of distinctive styles of dress and rock music presented through mass media, targeting the teenage market.

There was a much wider debate about the whole nature of post-war social change. The key changes were; “affluence”, “consensus” and “embourgeoisement”.

  • Affluence – The boom in working class consumer spending. Relatively better off.
  • Consensus – Acceptance by both political parties, ost 1945, of a mixed economy, increased incomes and welfare state. The drawing in of all classes together and the ending of major political and social conflicts.
  • Embourgeoisement – The assimilation of working and middle classes, sharing the same patterns, aspirations and values. Boureoisement of the working class.

Also the new “teenager” committed to style, music, leisure and consumption to a classless youth culture. (Zweig, 1961)

The pre-war social patterns eroded, the teenager was the beneficiary of the new opportunities. This translated into a generational gap as opposed to a social class “pecking order”. Youth was a new class, “the vanguard” of social change.

The relative affluence obscured the fact that the relative positions of the social classes remained. However the affluent miracle was built on the promotion of private consumption at the expense of the public sector.

Yet these reforms led to a socially-minded capitalism for the tories when they returned to power in 1951. The shared consensus led to “the politics of the centre”. Labour believed that a potential upwardly mobile working class voter would now be wary of a radical alternative to conservatism’s “bread and circuses”. However voting consensus could be mistaken. Working class voters may have favoured a left-leaning alternative, especially during and after the economic stagnation of 1956.

Embourgeoisement was the product of these factors. Increased affluence and a minor convergence of the working classes towards the social world of the middle classes. Social mobility.

  1. The Reappearance of Class

The social myth of a disappearing working class was challenged when it was discovered that poverty still existed and is a structural feature of capitalism. Proportionally income values had not changed since 1945. For example abundant white-collar clerical jobs had declined in status, widening structural divisions between “middle-management”, “supervisors” and the clerical “shop-floor”.

Elsewhere increased affluence caused a decrease in union militancy. The rise in expectations from workers as well as resistance to anti-union legislation in the 1970s led to a rise in militancy from unions as expectations remained unfulfilled.

Colin MacInnes (1961) noted that the “two nations” are no longer the rich and poor but teenagers and “all those that have assumed the burdens of adult responsibility” (MacInnes, 1961:56). Yet the teenage market itself was predominantly working class. The middle class teenagers tending to remain in education with less disposable income. (Abrahams, 1959: 13)

Subcultural studies during that time focussed on delinquency and “slum culture”. The frustration of working class youth to attain middle class status. Blocked opportunities. Some studies recognised the class basis of subcultures but these relied on the concept of subcultures as “problem solving” due to poor educational attainment leading to dead end jobs. Creating excitement and self-esteem through their collective identity. This premise ignores the specific development of subcultures and wider youth culture.

  1. Subcultures – An Imaginary Relation

Phil Cohen (1972) explores the ntra-class dynamic between youth and parents, using the East End working class. Their strengths depended on:

  1. The extended kinship network, offering support and stability.
  2. The ecological setting of the neighbourhood which shapes and supports local loyalties and traditions.
  3. The structure of the local economy.

Post-war development and the rationalisation of the family and the local economy led to depopulation of the community. The community split along two opposing types of social mobility. Upwards towards skilled, well paid jobs as the local businesses and economy died out. Moving away towards suburban redevelopments. Whereas the other was stuck in low-paid, unskilled work. Removed from familiar streets and neighbourhoods into high-rise schemes. Family ties fragmented from “extended families” into nuclear “families of marriage”.

Cohen’s (1972) analysis interprets the relationship between the fate of a class and the rise of the subcultures. Yey what remained unexplored is the precise impact of certain forces on the parent culture and how these are experienced differently on its youth. For example, Mods exploring an “upward” mobility whereas Teds and Skinheads explored the “downward” option.

  1. Dominant and Subordinate cultures

Cohen has used class to clarify the concept of subculture and that relationship has been placed in a more dynamic historical framework. The subculture is seen as a specific reaction with its own “meaning structure”, its own “relative autonomy”.

The war and post-war situation hastened the changes already happening before the war. New technological industries represented a new sector whereas the legacy of the industrial revolution was in decline. Areas such as the South East benefited from this which influenced the ideological debate, North v South etc.

The wider economic forces dismantle and restructure the productive basis that working class culture has developed. Changes in housing follow a similar pattern. Post-war rehousing, new estates and new towns break up the traditional housing patterns. What is left behind is the decay of the “urban ghetto”. Some of the ghettos are selectively re-developed, attracting middle class families.

Regarding the ideology of affluence, for most of the working class there was no qualitative leap. It was a construct to lower the gaps. Affluence was an ideology of the dominant hegemony about and for the working class.

Hegemony works through ideology by inserting the subordinate class into its institutions and structures which support its power and social authority. Hegemonies are usually composed of an alliance of ruling classes, a “hegemonic bloc”, which requires a degree of consent of the subordinate class. The ruling classes not only rule but leads through and educative process, regulating life through cultural institutions and the law.

The ideology of affluence dismantled working class resistance through consent. Conflicts re-emerged as society polarised and the dominant classes adopted coercion in favour of consent, marking a crisi for the dominant hegemony.

The subordinate class has developed its own corporate culture,values and mores of life and class conflict is rooted in this culture. Despite the ideology of affluence “institutional solutions” structure how all classes coexist. These preserve the corporate culture of the working class, but also negotiate its relationship with the dominant culture. Counter-hegemonic power consist of a whole repertoire of responses to the power, forming a “negotiated version of the dominant system” (Parkin, 1971:92).

In the working class neighbourhood different strata of working class have won space for their own forms of life. This corporate culture exists in material and social form yet are socially and economically bounded. For example the local school is horizontally bound to its locality and vertically through authority, streaming and selection as its repertoire of control. However it is also possible for the “labour aristocracy” to provide radical leadership to win space through a repertoire of strategies.

  1. The Subcultural response

Subcultures are not simply ideological constructs, they also win space for the young and serve to mark out territory in the localities.Within these particular locations they develop structured relations between members. They explore “focal concerns” and develop a set of social rituals which underpin their collective identity to define them as a group. By adopting and adapting objects, goods and possessions they re-organise them into distinctive “styles”. These become embodied in rituals of relationship, as well as linguistically as argot which classifies the outside world to them in meaningful terms within their group.

However, subcultures have an ideological dimension. Subcultures provide a strategy for negotiating their collective existence within the “class problematic”. The problematic of a subordinate class cannot be resolved but it can be negotiated or resisted. Subculture’s stylised form and its attempts at a solution is pitched at a symbolic level and is fated to fail. There is no subcultural career or no solution for the problems of the subordinate class. They do solve but only in an imaginary way. For example, the Teddy Boy’s expropriation of upper class style of dress covers the gaps between their actual career and life chances, the “all dressed up and nowhere to go” experience of Saturday evening. Also the Mod’s cover the gap between neverending weekend and Monday’s boring resumption of dead-end work.

Working class subcultures are a response to a problematic which youth shares with its parent class culture. Which in turn structure the adolescent’s experience of that problematic through the socialisation of youth into a class identity using two informal agencies, the family and neighbourhood. The characteristics of a class are reproduced, not only through talk in the family, but through daily interaction in the neighbourhood. Through friends and relations that the distant world of work and face-to-face authority are appropriated.

Class also structures the life-chances of young people by determining the distribution of achievement and failure. However, despite the shared class situations youth encounters these within different institutions and experiences from those of their parents. The three main areas: Education, work and leisure. Education has the most impact as the most “paramount reality” as it cannot be easily avoided. The transition to work from school requires learning the formal and informal cultures of work. Whereas leisure and recreation provides a more negotiable space than the workspace. Although these form the corporate culture of a class, it wads the growth of the “teenage consumer” that generated an outlook specific to age, a “generational consciousness”.

  1. Sources of Style

Main Points:

  1. How class and generational elements interact to produce a distinctive group style.
  2. How materials available to the group are constructed and appropriated.

The young are within the “parent” culture and also encounter the dominant culture through institutions formed by that dominant culture, school, work and leisure.

Youth cultures arise at the intersection between the parent and dominant cultures. They borrow and adapt the resistant and negotiative from the parent culture with their encounters with the institutions of mediation and control. They apply and transform to situations and experiences of their own group-life. They develop distinctive outlooks which have been structured by the parent culture, such as group-mindedness, territoriality and conceptions of masculinity.

These “focal concerns” are defined by the parent culture and these are reproduced in subcultures. But some of these concerns are specific which consist of the materials available to build identities (dress/music/argot) and contexts (activities/sites).

Subculture identities imprint a style on the thing with which they are identified. Appropriation of dress or music does not make a style. The activity of stylisation is what produces an organised group-identity. Phil Cohen identified four modes; dress, music, ritual and argot.

Working class subcultures could not have existed without “disposable income” and the growth of a specific youth market. The new youth industries provided the goods but not many authentic styles. The objects were used to construct distinctive styles by subverting and transforming these objects into other meanings and uses.

Commodities and also cultural signs invested by the dominant culture. Their meanings have already been arranged into cultural codes of meaning. So it would be difficult for a working class lad to turn up for work dressed in a bowler hat without, either, aspiring to a bourgeois image or to take the piss out of the image. Expropriation of the meanings of these commodities, or “social hieroglyphs”, subvert their original meaning.

However this re-signification was achieved by many different means. A subculture would borrow from a system of meanings into a different code, also modifying what has been produced or used by a different social group, or exaggerate a meaning to change its meaning. Another way was to combine forms according to a secret language or code where only members possessed the key. Group life enabled the appropriation of these objects, structure their use into a collective self-image.

New meaning emerge from these things bought together to form a new stylistic ensemble, forming a unity within the groups relations defining their public identity. This can lead to negative labelling and stereotyping.

We can broadly distinguish three aspects:

  1. Structures – Set of socially-organised positions in relation to major institutions and structures.
  2. Cultures – Range of socially-organised responses to these social conditions. Though cultures form a set of traditions, they must always be collectively constructed anew for each generation.
  3. Biographies – “Careers” of particular individuals, their identities and life histories are constructed from collective experiences. These only make sense in terms of the subcultures and cultures through which the individual constructs.
  1. The Rise of the Countercultures

Distinctive kinds of “expressive movements” among middle-class youth, for example the Hippie movement and the cultural revolt of the student protest movements. The phenomenon of the counterculture.

Working class subcultures are clearly defined collective structures, “quasi” gangs. Whereas middle class countercultures are less group centred, a diffuse counterculture milieu. These milieux blur the distinctions between necessary and free time and activities by attempting to explore alternative institutions and new patterns for living. They tend to construct enclaves within the dominant culture. Unlike the working class youth who appropriated their existing environment, the middle class countercultures would form alternative societies and underground institutions as their parent class affords the space to drop-out.

Countercultures take a more ideological or political form as they articulate their opposition to dominant values and institutions. These countercultures are a feature of the mid-1960s, in particular the “hippies” which helped a wider sub-cultural milieu to come into existence, shaping style, dress, music etc. Yet this culture fragmented into different strands and fed into the the drop-out and drug subcultures of the time. The two most distinctive strands flow in one-way towards a utopian alternative culture and the other towards political activism.

Like the working class subcultures, the countercultures were also seen as marking a “crisis in authority”. The “delinquency” of one and the “disaffiliation” of the other marks a loss of deference to “betters and elders” and was seen as a crisis among the youth of the dominant class. This dissent from their own dominant parent culture was directed at the institutions which reproduce the dominant cultural relations, attacking the bourgeois ethic by subverting them from the inside through negation.

The middle class has also been affected by the division of labour and the growth of white collar, managerial strata in communications, management and marketing. The expansion and partial democratisation of education was also central to changes in the composition, character and problematic of this class. The crisis in the youth of this class expressed itself as a crisis in the educational and ideological apparatuses.

The culture of the “bourgeois” man; emotional restraints and repressions, commitment to the protestant work ethic, career, competitive achievement and possessive individualism, forms a cultural integument (protection). The post-war reorganisation eroded this culture. The middle class culture was disturbed by the cultural upheaval of this “unfinished revolution”.

The growth of “permissiveness”, the swinging rather than sober life, caused the middle class to take fright and conjure demons. They imagined they were undermined by a conspiracy by progressive intellectuals, soft liberals, pornographers and the counterculture.

Gradually a struggle emerged between the traditional bourgeois (petit-bourgeois) strata and the more progressive modern middle classes. The traditionalists bewailed the “crisis in authority”, whereas the progressives boosted, incorporated and exploited it commercially. The revolt of the middle class youth and its trajectory owes much to its ambivalent starting position between the two “moral worlds” of the system.

The countercultures performed an important task on behalf of the system by pioneering  and experimenting with new social forms which ultimately gave it greater flexibility. Despite the efforts to create an alternative press it did not bring the system to its knees, instead the mainstream became more permissive. The mystical Utopianism was viewed as unscientific and over-ideological.

The counterculture’s emergence marked a failure of the dominant culture to win over the “brightest and the best”. The cult of “being true to your own feelings” becomes dangerous when society no longer want you to feel them. Between 1968 and 1972 the counterculture fell into “alternative” paths and utopian solutions. Others adopted a harder approach of political protest and community activism, converging with working class politics. It has fragmented but not disappeared.

Alternative lifestyles and values with radical politics is a continuing feature. However, the working classes recognise that the this “cultural revolution” is only a thinly disguised middle class elitism. Individual act of self-liberation is economically impermissible.

Counterculture inhabit a dominant culture, albeit negatively, are strategically placed and represent a rupture inside the dominant culture.

  1. The Social reaction to Youth

In 1950s “youth” became a metaphor for social change. A vanguard party of a classless consumer society to come. Social change, although beneficial, was seen to erode the traditional institutions of that society. The boundaries of society were being redefined marking the inception of “troubled times” for the status quo, giving rise to the displacement of social anxiety onto scapegoat groups. This is the origin of “moral panic” by identifying a “responsible enemy”. The most visible of these youth groups were involved in dramatic events which triggered off moral panics, signifying a crisis of authority with youth playing the symptom and scapegoat.

Reactions to these groups took a variety of forms. Modifications to youth services, prolonged debates about the decline in influence of the family and clampdown on truancy and indiscipline in schools. Added to this was a new set of moral panics around middle class youth and permissiveness and was interpreted as undermining social and moral stability, the active agents of social breakdown. The “politicisation” of the counterculture through protests was seen as the “subversive minority”. A succession of trials and legal actions as well as legal controls against youth’s political wing and the widespread use of conspiracy charges, extended the law to industrial relations, strikes and picketing. The birth of the “Law ‘N’ Order” society is cracking down on youth and the permissive society, the dominant culture seeks to find folk devils in youth which that society has fail to win their hearts, minds and consent.

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