Subcultures- the solution or a problem?

I seem to have a new reading theme every day. The day before yesterday my theme was ‘subcultures’. I was always the first person to start rolling my eyes and looking at the clock when anthro tutes would deteriorate into undergrad students thinking they have found something amazing by finding a sudden problem with the notion of culture by finding it difficult to situate themselves within a culture. It is not that my classmates were slow so much as I clearly carry a strong opinion on the fluid nature of identification. While I think that people have a wide range of ways of identifying themselves with and against others, there are some identities that then limit or influence further identifications and also opinions.

I have come across an article in the Journal of Consumer research which starts with the line, ‘The most powerful organizing forces in modern life are the activities and associated interpersonal relationships that people undertake to give their lives meaning.’ (Schouten and McAlexander 1995) This article is looking at consumption among Harley Davidson Motorcycle Club members and the authors use the term ‘subcultures of consumption’. The conclusion they draw is very Bourdieuian, ‘Our study reveals a hierarchical structure based on status, the source of which is one’s commitment to the subculture’s ideology as manifested in patterns of consumption.’ (Schouten and McAlexander 1995: 59).

Gelder situates subculture studies in the history of the Chicago School and traces its development alongside the Chicago School’s commitment to studying urban life (e.g. Gelder 2007). As a student who is embarking on a study of a geographic piece of Melbourne’s urban life, I am wondering can I do this without a commitment to subcultures. Subcultures are attractive, especially for a time limited research project. You can justify who does and who does not participate (or get a voice) in your study on the basis of their self-identification, not only self-selection. It does not really matter what the ‘mainstream’ says about them, what you need to capture is what the subculture says the mainstream says about them. If I do not have such boundaries in my project does that mean I need to get equal representation of different groups, but if I am starting off by not wanting to impose my own classificatory system onto people how could that even work?

At the moment I think I have this idealistic view of fieldwork and I think I will be able to remember people I meet and somehow map them onto the geographic, community participation, life plan and social relationships landscapes. However, I also realise I am going into a Melbourne suburb, not a village, and I am really going to need incredible luck to be able to speak to anybody who is not active in local community groups. I could look at the ‘subculture of community participants’, but that is hardly going to let me get anywhere with my research is it? Oh dear!

Gelder, K. 2007. Subcultures : cultural histories and social practice. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge.

Schouten, J. W., and J. H. McAlexander. 1995. Subcultures of consumption: An ethnography of the new bikers. Journal of Consumer research 22:43-61.


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