Subculture - London April 2011

Subculture and the Meaning of Style [book review]

By Digital Strategy — November 3, 2011 - 3:54 pm

The past year’s been an awfully topsy-turvy one, hasn’t it? Financial meltdown and slow job growth continues the plague the US, while burgeoning economic crises in Europe and unrest in the Middle East are leaving a mark. Naturally, each cause has an effect, and judging by the worldwide spread of Occupy Wall Street, the effects are certainly rippling beyond borders.

One incident in particular stood out amongst the recent unrest: the London/UK riots. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, chaos overtook the streets, with just one event as the tipping point. Yet in a unique manner, the riots were acted out via looting of shops and corner stores. In short, an attack on capitalism, from a segment of society not in extreme poverty, but lower middle class, working class, even. Clearly, Egypt and the Arab Spring this was not.

In most cases, at the center of each movement is an archetype: tied together by principles and outward identifying symbols (action, way of dress), we grasp at defining the face of revolution. What are the driving forces? To whom or what are they reacting? And most importantly, who are they? Capitalism as the target and motivating force of the London riots piqued my attention so much that in an attempt to greater understand the roots of the riots, I returned to a seminal work in the advancement of cultural study that I read several years ago, Subculture: the Meaning of Style.

Subculture: the Meaning of Style was published in 1979, and is author Dick Hebdige’s analysis of the origins and identifying markers – defined by style – of subculture in the United Kingdom. Consider it a primer on semiotics and the role of style in defining and distinguishing groups (re: subcultures) within society.

Recognizing the importance of subculture requires us to take a step back in time to 1964, when the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) opened at the University of Birmingham, England. Groundbreaking in its focus, the CCCS was the first to focus on the new field of cultural studies.  At the time of CCCS’ formation, the notion of youth culture was just beginning to take shape, while at the time of Hebdige’s analysis, youth culture and its myriad of subcultures had a firm grip on the attentions of a nation with a wave of youth protest movements and radically altered culture that may seem mainstream today.

With this in mind, Hebdige begins with the definition of culture, moving his analysis on to case studies and the function of subculture within general society. And while Hebdige focuses on British subculture (pre-Thatcher punks, skinheads and Beat hipsters), his methodology surpasses geographical boundaries.  With the notion of style at its core, Subculture isolates style as intentional communication, a signifying practice and outward symbol of a group’s attempt to go against the accepted and subvert the process of normalization, or the symbolic order driven by the cultural norms of a society.

The world’s turned upside, for certain, but Hebdige’s cultural study and methodology remain relevant today. We live in a world obsessed, overrun with and driven by subculture (hipsteria, anyone?). As marketers, our job is to understand our consumers: their needs, wants and desires, motivation. In order to understand, define – anticipate, even – a critical eye towards internal motivation and external signifiers are crucial in interpreting a rapidly evolving culture.

Digital media and an ever-morphing communication space upended the way groups in society form, interact and react. Hebdige analyzed subculture in a time when the means of communication as we’re familiar with today were barely in existence.

Subcultures that may’ve floundered decades ago are now given life and nourished with the widespread availability and breadth of digital connection. A quick glance at the worldwide spread of the Occupy Wall Street movement speaks volumes.  Hebdige’s methodology doesn’t serve to dissect subculture in entirety, but it’s an approachable way in (lest you find yourself overwhelmed by Barthes, et al).

And as for the London/UK riots, the London School of Economics and British newspaper Guardian recently teamed up in an effort to identify the cultural forces behind the carnage. Subculture may evolve into the mainstream eventually, but it always leaves an impact along the way.

Recommended Exploration

Reading the Riots (Guardian, ongoing)

In Zuccotti Park (The New York Review of Books, 11/10/11)

What Does Occupy Wall Street Mean for Marketers? (Ad Age, 11/7/11)

Demythologizing Consumption Practices: How Consumers Protect Their Field-Dependent Identity Investments from Devaluing Marketplace Myths (Journal of Consumer Research, 2/11)

Tapping Our Digital Behaviors to Ignite Social Change (code + construct)

The Hipster in the Mirror (New York Times, 11/12/10)

The Science of Hipsterism (Psychology Today, 9/8/10)

Goodbye, Stranger-Danger: Meet Collaborative Consumption (code + construct)


Image credit: Sarah Campbell


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