Cultural Studies & Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style

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Cultural Studies & Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style

Shawn Pitre

Tendences dans l’étude de la musique populaire

Philip Tagg


Hebdige’s 1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style is now considered a classic in several disciplines. Associated with Cultural Studies and the Birmingham school, Hebdige’s book has been widely read by popular music scholars, all manner of social scientists, and fans of punk music and style alike. His work is basically a study of working class youth in 1970s England juxtaposed to their parents’ generation as well as immigrants from former or soon-to-be independent colonies, in particular Jamaicans. Hebdige’s work was a result of the need to understand a growing number of visible subcultures in Britain. In the following pages, I shall provide a summary of the work’s main points and proceed to highlight its importance of as well as its shortcomings. I begin with an initial examination of the academic, vocational and ideological currents that constitute Cultural Studies.

One cannot fully grasp Hebdige’s ideas and arguments without at least a basic understanding of the schools of thought in which he was educated. Cultural Studies, also known as the Birmingham School, was conceived in a Britain emerging from the industrial revolution. The School drew on a combination of anthropology, history, literary criticism and theory, Marxism, media studies, semiotics, structuralism, as well as sociology, especially the Chicago and Frankfurt Schools (Mattelart & Neveu, 9). The Chicago School had its beginnings in the creation of the first department of sociology in the U.S. at the University of Chicago in 1892. The scholars associated with the department were primarily interested in urban social behavior, deviance, and subcultures. Using the city of Chicago as their laboratory, they developed theories that drew upon participant-observation and took both individuals and social groups to be products of both their natural and social environments. The school came to dominate U.S. sociological thought until WWII. The Frankfurt School “offered a refuge for the leftist intellectuals during the years prior to Hitler’s takeover of Germany. It was the home of critical theory, a complex blend of sophisticated Marxist thought, philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary speculation, and social research” (Barfield, 206). Scholars associated with the school included Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. The Frankfurt School reacted against positivistic scientific approaches by drawing upon Marx’s views of materialism and upon the critical philosophy of Kant.

The work of several scholars with common interests drawing from the particular combination of disciplines mentioned above soon crystalized into what would become Cultural Studies. The New Left Review, begun in 1960, became the forum in which their ideas were most often articulated. Then, in 1964, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was founded at the University of Birmingham. The Centre’s areas of research included popular cultures, media studies, urban subcultures, and ethnic and sexual identity. The main goal of the Centre was to study cultural institutions and their interaction with and interrelation to society and social change (Mattelart & Neveu, 5). Thus the study of subcultures, ethnic groups and the question of race was intrinsic to Cultural Studies, especially in the 1970s (i.e. Stuart Hall’s 1976 Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Postwar Britain, to which Hebdige’s often refers in Subculture). Their research was done mostly on western capitalist industrial societies in Western Europe and North America, especially the U.S.

Postwar England had become a hotbed of immigration from former colonies. A growing South Asian and West Indian minority was making its presence felt, especially in urban centers. It was the general policy of the British government that individuals born in a colony had the option of immigrating to Britain. Even after many colonies had been given independence, those who were born in a country while it had colonial status were given this option to immigrate. However, in practice, this presented no potential demographic problem to England as many colonial citizens were simply too economically disadvantaged to consider a move to such a faraway place as the British Isles. On the other hand, beginning around the period of Indian and Pakistani independence in 1949 and throughout the sixties, British industry began growing steadily and this required an increased work force. By the time of Jamaican and Trini (this is an emic adjective for Trinidad) independence in 1962, Britain was in need of labor. The promise of jobs became the incentive for many Pakistanis and Jamaicans to immigrate. This brought many changes to urban English society for various reasons, not the least of which the collective fear, among the mostly homogeneous citizenry, of an incoming workforce that was markedly different culturally from themselves.

It was also becoming increasingly difficult for the existing English working class to subscribe to traditional colonial notions of supremacy over formerly colonized peoples because these newly naturalized migrant workers were becoming an intrinsic part of the British work force. However, paradoxically existing alongside this ethnocentrism and racism, was a simultaneous fascination among large sections of the English population for blacks and for West Indians in which an exoticization of the Other had been ascribed in the early days of colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean (Erlmann, 108; Mattelart & Neveu, 13). Indeed, it is one reviewer’s opinion that “what makes [Hebdige’s] study important is the way it highlights the increasing vulnerability of the ‘West’ to ideological currents once easily dismissed as distant illusions belonging to foreign lands and peoples” (Bilby, 211). In short,

When Black Jamaicans displayed their distinctive music, clothing, gestures, etc on the street and thereby took possession of a social space, white working-class youth were implicitly challenged to forge an equally “dense” style of their own. The mediations of this style were complex, because it embodied a fourfold signification: similarities and differences between white youth and blacks, similarities and differences between youth and their parents (Delaney, 182).
At the same time, the British economy was showing signs of decline in the 1960s after having been successfully reformed by the Labour party after WWII. Rising unemployment also contributed to conflicts based on class and race. Several Cultural Studies scholars such as Hebdige and Hall recognized a growing need to study these phenomena in an objective manner. In Subculture, Hebdige approaches youth subcultures as authentic bastions of counter-hegemony and resistance to the social injustices of the working class world. Delaney interprets these youth subcultures “as a vehicle of collective self-defense for working-class teenagers” (Delaney, 182). Hebdige thus considers style to be the most semiotically impregnated domain of subcultures and the arena, par excellence, for the negotiation of identity and power relations.

Early Cultural Studies scholars had specific agendas. Part of their ideological, methodological, and theoretical motivation came from outside academia, that is, “a tradition in adult education and vocational training whose basic philosophy was egalitarian” (Tagg & Clarida, 89). Indeed beginning in 1946, part of the labor party’s social agenda was to balance material wealth among, and even eliminate, classes in Britain. For the underlying motivation and philosophy of, what Tagg calls, “cult stud[s]” (Cultural Studies scholars), it is worth quoting him at length here:

To put it simply, if material wealth should be fairly distributed then so should access to culture and education. […] The original democratic educational agenda of cultural studies [was] to help empower the majority to understand, criticize and change their own conditions […] by making the cultural treasures and aesthetic values of the privileged classes available to the populace at large [as well as putting] the culture of the majority under the academic spotlight by documenting its everyday practices and by focusing discussion of its functions on matters of survival, subversion, resistance and opposition. (Tagg & Clarida, 89-93)
Before a closer look at Cultural Studies and how Hebdige’s book typifies this discipline, as well as a critique of both book and discipline, I present the following summary.

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