The post-subcultural turn: some reflections 10 years

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The post-subcultural turn: some reflections 10
years on
Andy Bennett
To cite this article: Andy Bennett (2011) The post-subcultural turn: some reflections 10 years on,
Journal of Youth Studies, 14:5, 493-506, DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2011.559216
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The post-subcultural turn: some reflections 10 years on
Andy Bennett*
School of Humanities, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia
(Received 2 November 2010; final version received 27 January 2011)
This article investigates and evaluates the key tenets of the post-subcultural turn
as this has informed discussion and debate among youth culture researchers
during the last 10 years. While the post-subcultural turn has produced a wealth of
new analytical tools and conceptual approaches, as well as providing a basis for
several anthologies, it has also given rise to a series of critical concerns regarding
the viability of post-subculture as an alternative approach to the study of youth.
A key, and perhaps predictable, criticism of post-subcultural theory is that it
adopts a na¨ıve, and essentially celebratory, stance regarding the role of the
cultural industries in shaping the identities and lifestyles of youth. Similarly, it has
been argued that, despite the claims of post-subcultural theory regarding the
emergence of new, individualised and reflexive youth identities, one does not need
to look very far to see evidence of the on-going role played by structural
inequalities in shaping the life chances, and cultural affiliations, of youth. Where
then, does this leave youth cultural studies? What, if any, are the insights,
theoretical and methodological, that can be drawn from post-subcultural turn? In
view of the critical debates inspired by the post-subcultural turn, what should be
the key criteria for youth cultural studies over the coming decade?
Keywords: post-subculture; subculture; youth; style; identity
During the 1990s and early 2000s, a body of work emerged which argued that the
concept of subculture, as this had been applied to the study of style-based youth
cultures during the previous 25 years, had become redundant as a conceptual
framework. Although precise opinions as to the reasons behind this varied between
theorists, a general postulation held that youth identities and indeed social
identities per se had become more reflexive, fluid and fragmented due to an
increasing flow of cultural commodities, images and texts through which more
individualised identity projects and notions of self could be fashioned (Muggleton
2000). This ‘post-subcultural turn’ in the study of youth culture became the locus for
a number of studies and edited collections (see, for example, Muggleton and
Wienzierl 2003, Bennett and Kahn-Harris 2004) and also sparked an on-going
critical dialogue between theorists as to the continuing validity, or not, of subculture
as a viable theoretical and analytical framework in youth cultural research (see,
Bennett 2005, Blackman 2005, Hesmondhalgh 2005, Shildrick and MacDonald
The impact of post-subcultural theory on youth cultural studies has been
significant. Indeed, as this article will presently argue, post-subcultural theory
*Email: [email protected]
Journal of Youth Studies
Vol. 14, No. 5, August 2011, 493506
ISSN 1367-6261 print/ISSN 1469-9680 online
# 2011 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2011.559216
contributes much to our understanding of the cultural dynamics, informing young
people’s everyday appropriation of music, style and associated objects, images and
texts. Although at one level establishing the basis for a new paradigm in youth
culture research, post-subcultural theory has by no means supplanted subcultural
theory as basis for youth research. Indeed, exponents of the latter have raised a series
of critical concerns in relation to the post-subcultural turn. A common criticism of
post-subcultural theory suggests that, as an approach, it is theoretically too loose to
offer a cohesive set of alternative, analytical and empirical concepts for the study of
youth culture. A further criticism of post-subcultural theory is that it adopts a na¨ıve,
and essentially celebratory, stance regarding the role of the cultural industries in
shaping the identities and lifestyles of youth. Thus, it is argued, despite the claims of
post-subcultural theory concerning the decline of class-based youth identities, one
does not need to look very far to see evidence of the on-going role played by
structural inequalities in shaping the life chances and cultural affiliations of youth.
Other critical observers have suggested that, in emphasising reflexive individualism
as a motor-force in the construction of contemporary youth identities, postsubcultural theory effectively depoliticises youth culture. A final criticism suggests
that post-subcultural theory’s positioning of youth’s stylistic affiliations as a
moveable feast overlooks more established examples of youth cultural style that
do not seem to obey the new laws of fluidity and temporality observed by postsubcultural theorists.
To a large extent, the tensions and conflicts between subcultural and postsubcultural theory remain unresolved. Arguably though, whatever criticisms might
be directed towards post-subcultural scholarship, it does serve to expose some
significant weaknesses in subcultural theory. Given this situation, what are the
critical insights, theoretical and methodological, that can be drawn from postsubcultural turn? The purpose of this article, then, is to review the key tenets of the
post-subcultural turn, investigate some of the key criticisms that have been directed
towards it and attempt to resolve some of the problematic issues that continue to be
associated with post-subcultural theory and the post-subcultural turn. Having
worked through and established the essential strengths, and also some potential
weaknesses, of post-subcultural theory, the final section of the paper offers some
suggestions as to how future research might combine critical tenets of both
subcultural and post-subcultural theory in its investigation of youth cultural forms
and practice.
Key concepts in post-subcultural theory
The term post-subculture was introduced by Steve Redhead (1990) in response to
what he perceived as an apparent breakdown of previous youth subcultural divisions
evident in emergent dance music culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The term
was significantly refined and developed into a full-fledged conceptual approach by
David Muggleton (2000) in his book Inside Subculture: The postmodern meaning of
style. Like Redhead, Muggleton situates the transition from subcultural to postsubcultural youth during the 1980s and 1990s, which he describes as ‘decades of
subcultural fragmentation and proliferation, with a glut of revivals, hybrids and
transformations, and the coexistence of myriad styles at any one point in time’ (2000,
p. 47). Using a combination of Weberian and postmodern analysis, Muggleton
494 A. Bennett
argues that the pick and mix approach to style evident among the respondents in his
study is due to the increasing proliferation of youth styles, and the prominence of the
retro market, combined with the new postmodern sensibilities of style in which
individualism has surpassed an emphasis on collectivity as a means by which social
actors seek out desirable visual images, and construct sociocultural identities, for
themselves. The development of post-subcultural theory has subsequently seen a
range of conceptual frameworks employed, most notably ‘neo-tribe’, ‘lifestyle’ and
The concept of neo-tribe was originally developed by French sociologist, Michael
Maffesoli (1996) as a means of addressing what he perceived as new patterns of
sociality associated with the onset of postmodernism. According to Maffesoli, the
neo-tribe is ‘without the rigidity of the forms of organization with which we are
familiar, it refers more to a certain ambience, a state of mind, and is preferably to
be expressed through lifestyles that favour appearance and form’ (1996, p. 98). Neotribe theory was subsequently used in two empirical studies of contemporary dance
music conducted by Andy Bennett (1999a) and Ben Malbon (1999). Central to both
of these studies is the contention that the apparently fluid membership of the dance
club crowd is indicative of a neo-tribal sensibility inspired both by the fragmentation
of youth style and the fragmented text of dance music itself a product of digital
sampling and the mixing and ‘mashing’ techniques employed by disc jockeys (DJs)
(see, for example, Langlois 1992). Core to the neo-tribal approach in the study of
youth culture is the way in which it allows for new understandings of how and why
young people are brought together in collective affiliations. In contrast to subcultural
theory, which argues that individuals are ‘held’, if not ‘forced’, together in
subcultural groups by the fact of class, community, race or gender, neo-tribal theory
allows for the function of taste, aesthetics and affectivity as primary drivers for
participation in forms of collective youth cultural activity (Bennett 1999a).
The concept of lifestyle was first introduced in the work of Max Weber and
subsequently applied by American sociologist Thorstien Veblen as a means of
examining issues of wealth and status among the emergent leisure classes of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Chaney 1996). During the 1990s, there was
a resurgence of interest in lifestyle theory, spearheaded by the cultural turn and an
increasing focus on cultural consumption as a basis for the construction of identities
and lifestyles in a context of what Giddens (1991) referred to as reflexive modernity.
A key figure in the resurgence of lifestyle theory was British sociologist David
Chaney who offered a critical distinction between lifestyles and ways of life.
According to Chaney, lifestyles are ‘creative projects’ which rely on ‘displays of
consumer competence’, while ‘ways of life’ are ‘typically associated with a more or
less stable community [and] displayed in features such as shared norms, rituals,
patterns of social order and probably a distinctive dialect’ (1996, p. 92, 97). This
distinction has, in turn, informed applications of lifestyle theory by contemporary
youth theorists, such as Swedish sociologist Bo Reimer (1995) and British sociologist
Journal of Youth Studies 495
Steven Miles (1995, 2000). In examining the cultural consumption patterns of
contemporary youth, Miles suggests that late modernity has witnessed a ‘transition
from pragmatic and unified subcultural identities into a shifting mosaic and
juxtaposition of styles’ (1995, p. 36).
In an early paper focusing on the value of scene as a conceptual framework for
examining musical taste and collectivity, Canadian cultural theorist Will Straw
argued that scenes often transcend particular localities ‘reflect[ing] and actualiz[ing]
a particular state of relations between various populations and social groups, as these
coalesce around particular coalitions of musical style’ (1991, p. 379). This
conceptualisation of scene has been highly influential among post-subcultural
theorists. Many of the characteristics attributed to music scenes their function as
spaces for the coming together of individuals bound not by class or community but
by musical taste and related aesthetic sensibilities, their constant evolution and often
transient nature cohere with much of what has been said about the essence of the
post-subcultural turn. Such qualities of music scenes are considered key among
theorists who argue that scene is a more adequate framework than subculture for
exploring issues of collectivity and cohesion as these coalesce around popular music;
subculture, by contrast, is argued to be too rooted in essentialist assumptions
concerning the fixity of class and community (see, for example, Kahn-Harris 2004,
Stahl 2004).
Post-subculture: a fragmented discourse?
As previously noted, the post-subcultural turn has generated a significant amount of
critical debate among youth cultural theorists. An oft-voiced criticism of postsubcultural theory argues that it is not essentially a coherent theory at all, but rather
a hotchpotch of theoretical strands drawn from different theoretical traditions.
Arguably, however, one could make a broadly similar observation in relation to
subcultural theory. Even in its early deployment by American sociologists as a
mechanism for the study of patterns of social deviance, a number of different
subcultural models were developed under the umbrella term of the Chicago School
(see, for example, Merton 1957, Matza and Sykes 1961, Becker 1963). The
transgression of subcultural theory to a British context, via the Birmingham Centre
for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), involved a further set of modifications
that stretched from cultural Marxism through to the semiotic approach of French
cultural theorists Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss. By the time subcultural
theory, as re-modelled by the CCCS, began to figure in an international lexicon of
youth cultural research, much of this original theoretical baggage had been stripped
away, with the effect that subcultural theory became an increasingly ‘name only’ tag.
North American-based studies such as Deena Weinstein’s (1991) book Heavy Metal:
The music and its culture are testimony to this. In a clear acknowledgement of the
CCCS interpretation of style-based youth cultures along indices of class background
and experience, heavy metal in the USA is presented by Weinstien as a ‘working
class’ (or rather ‘blue collar’) subculture. Beyond this, however, Weinstien’s
engagement with the CCCS subcultural model of explanation remains somewhat
496 A. Bennett
limited. The underlying principles of working-class subcultural resistance as set out
by the CCCS (see Hall and Jefferson 1976) are not systematically redeployed in
Weinstien’s work; nor are they challenged or adapted in ways that offer localised
models of interpretation in a US context.
This reading of subcultural theory, as a fragmenting and increasingly incoherent
discourse, was central to a study by Bennett, published in 1999, in which he
… such is the variety of analytical perspectives in which subculture is now used as a
theoretical underpinning, that it has arguably become little more than a convenient
‘catch-all’ term for any aspect of social life in which young people, style and music
intersect. (Bennett 1999a, p. 599)1
Even in 1999, however, such an observation regarding the looseness of subculture
was by no means unprecedented. Thirty years earlier, American sociologist John
Irwin (1970) had noted the increasingly pluralistic ways in which subculture was
being applied in social theory; for Irwin, this situation was exacerbated due to the
emergence of the counter-culture and its proliferation of what he referred to as
‘subsystems and lifestyles’. Similarly, in 1974, in a paper published in the British
Journal of Sociology, Michael Clarke observed that:
The term ‘sub-culture’ is one that has been part of sociology for many years, and which,
like ‘role’, ‘class’ and ‘charisma’, whether or not it was in current usage before the rise of
sociology, is certainly now a feature of everyday language. As such it is very difficult to
think critically about it, but I suspect that were it to be introduced today as a new
concept in sociology it would be rejected as worthless. (1974, p. 428)
In terms of the claim that post-subculture is an inherently loose terminology then,
there are reasonable grounds for arguing that subculture is, in fact, no less loose in
terms of the myriad ways that it has been applied in sociology and cultural theory. In
effect, both subcultural and post-subcultural approaches have been derived from a
broad ranging set of theoretical traditions, with the effect that each embodies a range
of different analytical perspectives to the study of youth culture. Indeed, such are the
myriad ways in which youth culture is now approached as an object of study, from
both subcultural and post-subcultural perspectives, that it could be questioned
whether theoretical and methodological cohesiveness, in as much as this applies to a
discrete set of investigative and analytical tools, is achievable, or perhaps even
Post-subculture as cultural populism
A further criticism of the post-subcultural turn links it with the cultural populism
discourse identified by cultural theorists such as Jim McGuigan (1992). Thus, it is
argued, through its emphasis upon consumption as a key cultural practice among
young people, post-subcultural theory adopts an essentially celebratory stance that
champions a youth who indulges itself in what Ted Polhemus (1997) has referred to
as a ‘supermarket of style’. In reassessing this point, however, it would be fair to
argue that the notion of a ‘supermarket of style’, despite its surface appeal as a
descriptor for new modes of youth consumption, has had a decidedly negative effect
Journal of Youth Studies 497
in terms of situating post-subcultural theory. Drawn from a brief, essentially
descriptive essay published in Redhead et al.’s (1997) The Subcultures Reader, the
term ‘supermarket of style’ reduces post-subcultural youth to an instance of what
Callinicos (1989) would refer to as postmodern dandyism. In essence, the notion of a
‘supermarket of style’ reduces the stylistic sensibilities of youth to a game of ‘pick
and mix’, while youth itself is presented as being capable of little more than high
street consumption. As such the notion of a ‘supermarket of style’ critically
undermines the extensive efforts of theorists such as Muggleton (2000) and Miles
(2000) to illustrate how cultural consumption and an ever increasing flow of
commodities does not, in fact, eradicate any form of meaningful inscription within
style and associated cultural commodities by young people. Indeed, both Muggleton
and Miles are at pains point to the continuing relevance of a politics of style, as this is
articulated through the consumption practices of post-subcultural youth. Thus, as
Miles observes, against a backdrop of
…rapid social, cultural and structural change…[a] consumer imperative has…emerged
as a fundamental means of stabilizing young people’s lives. Such stability is not
manifested in the form of a deep-rooted sense of sameness, but in a flexible, mutable and
diverse sense of identity. (2000, p. 158)
The perceived emphasis of post-subcultural theory on individualism, fluidity and
fragmentation has also fuelled another criticism, namely around the limitations of
this approach in explaining the continued existence of earlier manifestations of youth
cultural style that appear more fixed and coherent. Thus, for example, Hodkinson
(2004) has argued that while post-subcultural theory’s reading of style as a more
individually derived, consumer-driven and inherently fluid and postmodern project
may be of relevance for some aspects of contemporary youth cultural practice, for
example in relation to dance culture, other youth cultural groupings, such as ‘goth’,
exhibit qualities of collective and stylistic fixity that adhere more closely to
conventional subcultural readings.
Arguably, however, even here the lines of division are by no means so tightly
drawn as Hodkinson suggests. In his celebrated analysis of punk rock style, Hebdige
(1979), in what now reads in many ways as a precursor to his epic postmodern
exegesis Hiding in the Light (Hebdige 1988), claimed that one of the things that set
punk style apart from previous ‘subcultural’ incarnations was its cutting up and
repositioning of previously opposed subcultural images on the surface of the body.
Writing during a time of growing socio-economic dislocation in a British context,
Hebdige located punk’s fragmented style within the broader crisis confronting British
society. At over 30 years of distance, and in the light of the post-subcultural turn,
however, Hebdige’s descriptions of punk feels distinctly aligned with a postsubcultural youth sensibility in which previous stylistic trends were re-cycled and
mixed together. Indeed, it is interesting to note in this respect that some of
Muggleton’s (2000) ‘post-subcultural’ respondents self-identified as punks. Likewise,
Goth’s repositioning of punk, glam, heavy metal and to some extent new romantic
imagery could be regarded as a similar ‘cut-up and re-position’ approach and, thus,
essentially a post-subcultural rather than subcultural style. To follow this line of
argument to its logical conclusion, it is possible to identify ‘post-subcultural’ traits
among many of those ‘classic’ post-war youth subcultures studied by the CCCS;
498 A. Bennett
thus, Mod, Teddy Boy and Skinhead also drew upon and repositioned stylistic
elements from previous fashions and trends.
Post-subculture and politics
Blackman (2005) has suggested that, in its focus on aspects of youth style, postsubcultural theory critically overlooks some of the more politicised aspects of
contemporary youth culture, as seen, for example, among elements of rave culture
and the dance party scene. Indeed, according to Blackman, the political traits of
dance align more clearly with a ‘subcultural’, sensibility in terms of the concentrated
and coherent, anti-hegemonic discourses they serve to generate discourses, which
according to Blackman, often serve to operationalise distinct notions of class. One
wonders, however, if the emphasis placed on class as a motor-driver for political
awareness and action among youth has been, and is still being, overplayed here? For
all that the CCCS subcultural theory placed working-class youth subcultures in a
theatre of class struggle (Hall and Jefferson 1976), political action in as much as this
figured at all in the CCCS body of work on youth amounted to, as Waters (1981) put
it, a half-formed, inarticulate radicalism; examples here included, disruption of the
school environment (Willis 1977), territorialism (Jefferson 1976), and ‘doing nothing’
(Corrigan 1976). As Hall and Jefferson’s (1976) Resistance Through Rituals itself
suggests, the more obvious political affront (this being in the years just prior to
punk) had come not from subcultures but from the hippie counter-culture. Even
here, however, an attempt was made to cast the counter-culture in essentially
Gramscian terms. Thus Clarke et al. argue, if working-class subcultures presented a
threat to middle-class power from without, then the ‘middle class’ counter-culture
posed a similar threat from within:
…spear head[ing] a dissent from their own, dominant, ‘parent’ culture. Their
disaffiliation was principally ideological and cultural. They directed their attack mainly
against those institutions which reproduce the dominant cultural ideological relations
the family, education, the media, marriage, the sexual division of labour. (1976, p. 62)
As non-CCCS observers at the time argued, however, to locate the counter-culture as
the purview of the white, middle-class student was, in itself, an essentialism. Thus,
according to Clecak, the counter-culture, when viewed in its entirety, appeared more
like an umbrella term for a diverse range of activist practices that were both crossclass and multi-ethnic. The counter-culture, suggests Clecak, politically enabled a
wide range of social groups whose collective goal was ‘to find symbolic shapes for
their social and spiritual discontents and hopes’. (1983, p. 18)
Clecak’s observation again suggests that youth culture has perhaps always been
resistant to the forms of reductionism placed on it by subcultural, and indeed countercultural, theory that the growth and development of youth cultures as forms of
cultural practice, including their political motivation and intent, locates precisely
within their capacity to transcend structural categories and encompass trans-local
influences, ideas and memberships. As more recent empirical research illustrates, this
case can clearly be made in relation to contemporary youth cultural formations such
as punk, dance and hip hop (Bennett 2000, 2006). Moreover, as the work of McKay
(1996, 1998) and others illustrates, recent youth-based forms of DIY (do-it-yourself)
Journal of Youth Studies 499
activism and protest, such as the Anti-Road Protest and Reclaim the Streets, also
comprise a diverse range of participants from different class and educational
Post-subculture and the negation of class
A further dimension of the criticism directed at post-subcultural theory is the charge
that the latter assumes an equal capacity among youth for consumption irrespective
of class, income and, to some extent, geographical location (see Roberts et al. 2009).
Post-subcultural theory, it is argued, wholly fails to comprehend the extent to which
structured inequalities continue to inform both young people’s access to cultural
commodities and their ultimate use of such commodities in the fashioning of
identities. Such forms of inequality, it is maintained, continue to play a critical role in
many neighbourhoods and regions, impacting on access to leisure resources and
strongly informing young people’s sense of themselves and their peer group
allegiances (Shildrick and MacDonald 2006). In response to this it is important to
state that cultural consumption is actually a many sided phenomenon significantly,
something that has often been overlooked by consumption theorists themselves
and does not purport merely to the buying of goods and services and the necessary
levels of economic capital to do this (Bennett 2005). On the contrary, cultural
consumption defines a broad range of activities though which individuals access and
culturally appropriate cultural objects, texts and images. In the case of youth culture,
this invariably extends to appropriation and innovative inscription of objects, texts
and images already circulating in particular local spaces and, increasingly, on
the Internet (Bennett 2004). Indeed, as an established body of work on youth culture
illustrates, some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the developed world have
produced some of the most significant and long-standing youth cultural innovations,
a notable example in this respect being hip hop. From its origins in New York’s South
Bronx district (see Lipsitz 1994, Rose 1994), hip hop, which, interestingly, is seldom
referred to as a ‘subculture’ in academic work, rapidly became a global youth
cultural phenomenon (see Mitchell 1996, Bennett 2000). Although populist discourse
would have it that the global spread of hip hop was largely achieved through the
commercialisation and commodification of rap, one specific element of hip hop, this
is an oversimplified account. For example, as research has illustrated, before its overt
and rapid commercialisation in the mid-1980s, rap began crossing the Atlantic to
Europe through impromptu performances in local bars by African-American
soldiers stationed in Germany and elsewhere on the European continent (see, for
example, Bennett 1999b, 2000). Similarly, Fogarty’s (2006) work on b-boy culture (or
break dancing as this became better known during its peak popularity in the mid1980s) reveals a vibrant DIY industry of home-made videos produced by and
disseminated through a global network of b-boy enthusiasts eager to learn new dance
moves and techniques from one another.
It is equally significant to note that the global reach of hip hop in this way has
also involved a considerable degree of localisation, as specific urban and regional hip
hop scenes have formed, often involving multi-ethnic and cross-class forms of
affiliation (Mitchell 1996, Bennett 2000). Such a transformation of hip hop points to
the danger of drawing universal messages about the sociocultural meaning of youth
cultural practices on the basis of isolated case studies based in particular regions and
500 A. Bennett
neighbourhoods. In the early 1980s, Gary Clarke proclaimed that a key problem with
the subcultural theory of the time was its primarily metropolitan perspective. Citing
the example of Hebdige’s (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Clarke suggested
that Hebdige’s reading of punk ‘begins with a heat wave in Oxford Street and ends
in a Kings Road boutique’ (1981, p. 86). The provincial resonances of punk, argues
Clarke, never feature in Hebdige’s account; yet the study claims to offer a
sociocultural interpretation of the punk style. Arguably, the same problems may
occur in studies of specific provincial youth cultures where everyday engagement in,
for example, krumping, graffing, mcing and so forth are interpreted essentially as
finite expressions of structurally underpinned everyday experience; research on
similar stylistic practices in other regions and provinces with varying demographics
of class, educational background and occupational status may reveal their use in the
expression of a very different set of local, everyday experiences (see, for example,
Bennett 2000).
To this can be added the issue of regions where economic growth and social
mobility further complicate the influence of structural factors on popular culture and
leisure. For example, on-going research on youth cultural formations in Australia’s
Gold Coast region reveals acute problems in applying conventional, class-based
subcultural models due to relative levels of affluence and high quality of life across
the social strata. In the Gold Coast region, the extracting of straightforward
relationships between youth, class, style and associated cultural and leisure practices
thus becomes a highly problematic proposition (Robards and Bennett forthcoming).
To take one example of a popular youth activity in the region, surfing, although a
number of local groups and gangs, notably the Palmy Army (a working-class youth
gang from the Gold Coast’s Palm Beach neighbourhood) engage in this activity,
surfing per se cannot be said to be a class-specific activity the local surfing culture
does ‘infact encapsulate a range of different sensibilities encompassing aspects of
class, [gender, ethnicity], locality, together with style, technique and other forms of
knowledge and expertise’ (Baker et al. forthcoming).
Arguably then, the critical question raised by the subculture/post-subculture
debate for contemporary youth studies is not about whether to factor in social
structure as an analytical frame of reference, but how to position it as an object of
study? Certainly, studies that begin with structural issues as a given and work back
from this point promise little in the way of an answer to this question. As Chaney
argues, a key problem with structurally informed approaches to the study of
contemporary cultural forms
…is that they try to close off the processes of the production of meaning. Such theories
cannot allow the free play of irony and reflexivity in cultural discourse …Putting it at its
simplest, such theories assume that social entities such as class exist, one might say in
the real world, and then they are talked about, represented and experienced as cultural
matters. It follows that the dynamic relations of the former can be used to explain the
character of the latter. (1994, pp. 4849)
As Chaney’s observation implies, a more fruitful approach to the question of class in
youth cultural research would be to afford greater emphasis upon structural
experience itself as reflexively managed through the creative appropriation of
cultural resources. What this means in essence is the development of an analytical
Journal of Youth Studies 501
framework that allows for the fact that contemporary youth identities are organised
around a reflexive interplay of local experience home, school, work, friendship,
peer group, language, dialect and so on together with cultural resources drawn
from a trans-local sphere of youth cultural practice music, clothing, literature, TV,
cinema, Internet, dance, sport and physical exercise, etc. Thus far, attempts to create
and work within such an analytical ‘fusion-zone’ have been less than satisfactory.
A pertinent example here is Willis’s (1990) study of youth, consumption and cultural
practice in which the concept of grounded aesthetics was employed as a means of
mapping the everyday use of cultural objects and resources among people. In effect,
however, grounded aesthetics reads in many ways as a revamped version of Willis’s
(1978) previously deployed conceptual framework ‘homology’. Both approaches seek
to locate everyday cultural practice within a series of ideological and aesthetic
languages derived from an underlying, and inherently rigid, series of structural bases
related to class, gender, ethnicity and so on.
Conclusion: (post)-subcultural futures
Ultimately then, there would seem to be increasing mileage in the development of a
refined strand of youth cultural studies in which elements of post-subcultural and
subcultural theory are combined to forge a more effective mapping of a
contemporary youth cultural terrain in which youth identities forge an increasingly
complex mix of global and local cultural influences. Thus far, little progress has been
made in this direction with subcultural and post-cultural studies continuing to be
represented, by and large, as discrete areas of youth cultural research. (see, for
example, Shildrick and MacDonald 2006). Indeed, the gap between the two
approaches has arguably widened as subcultural perspectives have become increasingly aligned with research that investigates substantive, socio-economic issues
pertaining to youth, for example, deviance (Presdee 2000), risk (Morrissey 2008) and
transitions (Hollands 2002) such research remaining essentially quite negative
towards the theoretical and methodological interventions of post-subcultural theory,
particularly in relation to the significance of cultural consumption. Work in this field
that does acknowledge cultural consumption as a feature in young people’s lives
arguably employs a rather limited analytical vocabulary; this is characterised by a
tendency towards merely categorising and quantifying patterns of cultural consumption rather than employing an in-depth analysis of the dynamic interplay
between structural experience and cultural consumption in the formation of local
instances of youth cultural practice (see, for example, Roberts et al. 2009). By
contrast, work employing a post-subcultural perspective, such as Bennett (1999a,
2000), Miles (2000) and Muggleton (2000), although suggesting a more complex and
reflexive interplay between youth identities and cultural consumption, is inevitably
compromised through reliance on small, qualitative data-sets (Hesmondhalgh 2005).
In order to determine more fully the nature and extent of the interplay between local
experience and global flows of consumption, leisure and lifestyle among young
people, large-scale qualitative and quantitative data-sets are required.
The realisation of a large-scale, multi-method approach is, thus, one obvious
point where subcultural and post-subcultural theorists could meaningfully collaborate. Such a project would aim to provide a rigorous empirical assessment of the key
tenets of post-subcultural theory through utilising significantly larger, and more
502 A. Bennett
diverse, samples than previous post-subcultural studies have been able to achieve.
Arguably, such testing would also prepare the way for a clearer, more nuanced and
locally sensitive analysis of where and how patterns of consumption, leisure and
lifestyle map onto structural experiences of class, gender, race and so on.
A series of critical questions would need to inform such an approach. Most
importantly, work of this nature would need to ascertain to what extent, and in what
specific kinds of way, ascribed features such as class, ethnicity and gender continue to
play a structuring role in the making of youth cultural identities? As noted earlier, a
critical drawback with many studies utilising or influenced by subcultural theory is
the tendency to begin with the assumption that such features do structure youth
identities to a significant extent and work back from this position (see, for example,
Bo¨se 2003, Blackman 2005, Shildrick 2006). To begin from the point of view of
acknowledging the presence of such features within a range of possible influences,
both local and global, and then moving towards an assessment of their overall
impact on the formation of youth identities would, thus, be a significant innovation
in itself.
Within this mode of investigation, a second question that the project would need
to address is what, precisely, is the role and impact of consumer goods and different
forms of media and new media in the making of young people’s identities? At the
time of writing, work on this topic continues to progress across a range of national
settings. In particular, youth and new media is a quickly developing area of interest,
particularly in relation to online social networks and other forms of Internet-enabled
communication between young people (see, for example, Harris 2008, Olson 2008,
Robards and Bennett forthcoming). Problematically, however, this research still
remains confined to small-scale projects and postgraduate research theses. Moreover,
to date, the findings of this work amount to a far from complete picture of the highly
complex ways in which digital communication media influence notions of youth
identity and impact young people’s cultural associations with their peers, both locally
and trans-locally.
A project combining subcultural and post-subcultural perspectives would also
ideally address three critical ‘givens’ as these arise in the discourse of the postsubcultural turn ‘fluidity’, ‘multiplicity’ and ‘temporality’. In post-subcultural
discourse, it is largely taken for granted that young people’s tastes, interests and
cultural affiliations are fluid and inter-changeable. However, beyond the small
handful of published studies discussed above, there is very little in the way of reliable
data to assert such claims at a wider sociocultural level. Nor is there any clear
understanding of how such identified post-subcultural shifts in the youth cultural
landscape are in themselves patterned by forms of local experience. Similarly, further
and more rigorous testing is required to ascertain the extent to which young people’s
identities are ‘multiple’, in the sense of being divided between a number of
simultaneous interests and affiliations?
Finally, and taking into account the other areas of investigation already outlined
above, significantly more information is required about the degree to which young
people’s identities draw upon or are structured by identifiable collective groupings?
Although post-subcultural theory has presented credible arguments as to how and
why the collective cultural affiliations of youth can be seen as changing in ways that
embrace new, more fluid and interchangeable dimensions, little data exist to suggest
Journal of Youth Studies 503
what kinds of collectively endorsed aesthetic, cultural and other lifestyle discourse
and practices inform these.
The purpose of this article has been to critically evaluate the key tenets of the
post-subcultural turn. This began with a review of some of the main theoretical
interventions suggested by post-subcultural theorists in the light of problems
identified with the body of work associated with the subcultural tradition in youth
cultural research. Attention then turned to addressing a number of key criticisms
that have been directed towards post-subcultural theory since its inception in the late
1990s. Irrespective of the extent to which post-subcultural theory is considered to
offer accurate and reliable conceptual and empirical frameworks for the study of
youth, there can be little doubt that it has opened up new areas for discussion in
relation to the importance of class, gender, race and ethnicity in the formation of
individual and collective youth cultural identities. Within this, post-subcultural
theory has prompted new questions about the significance of cultural consumption
in the lives of young people, and the relationship of contemporary youth cultural
practices to local and global influences (Bennett 2000). Nonetheless, a series of
important questions remain unanswered in relation to the nature of youth culture,
questions which, in themselves point to limitations in both post-subcultural and
subcultural approaches to the study of youth. Given this situation, the final section
of this article has offered some initial suggestions as to how post-subcultural and
subcultural researchers could fruitfully collaborate on a project designed to address
the limitations associated with these respective approaches and provide more
comprehensive data about the cultural practices of youth in contemporary social
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