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volume 4
november 2001

One continent under a groove


  Rethinking the politics of youth subcultural theory
by Ben Carrington and Brian Wilson [*]
  The outer-national identifications and trans-local collectivities of dance culture force us to rethink the theoretical concepts and approaches of cultural studies. But, how? Exploring this question, Ben Carrington and Brian Wilson here take us on a short trip from Chicago to Birmingham and beyond, trying to reformulate the problematic of the "local" and the "global". To see the political implications of club cultures, they argue, we have to look at how the formations of post rave tourism fail or succeed in negotiating new spaces on the contested terrain of popular culture. Appadurai's concept of dimensions or "scapes" here may prove useful.
1 The mobile formations of post-rave tourism. Like all youth cultures, and especially those formed through associations with music cultures, the evolution of "club cultures" around the world can be attributed, in part, to the ongoing global processes of cultural borrowing. [1] Iain Chambers (1994: 80), speaking more generally about the dynamics of cultural hybridity, (inter)mixture and exchange, has argued that the "international medium of musical reproduction underlines a new epoch of global culture contact. Modern movement and mobility, whether through migration, the media or tourism, have dramatically transformed both musical production and publics and intensified cultural contact."

DJs and promoters travel to foreign countries, are exposed to fresh varieties of music and nightclubs, and ultimately integrate ideas gleaned from these experiences into their domestic dance music cultures. Touring DJs and imported albums influence local music-makers who combine the new material with their current work, thus creating something "new again". Images and ideas extracted from mass and alternative media are incorporated into local music production, fashion styles and club venues. In retrospect, what has emanated from years of this cultural "cutting and mixing" (Hebdige, 1987) is a fascinating but hazy relationship between a "global" clubculture and various "local" clubcultures.

  The increasing tendency for youth to travel to foreign scenes as "post-rave tourists" has meant that local cultures are becoming further defined by their diverse and transient membership. These mobile formations might well be described as reflexive communities in the extent to which they dissolve the boundary between producers and consumers, are actively entered into by their members rather than being proscribed by social location, are not delimited by simple time-space boundaries, and are based on cultural and symbolic — rather than formally material — practices.
  Emerging from this brief overview are key questions about the various ways that dance music flows into and through local clubcultures around the world, the trans-local forms of cultural resources this offers young people, and the ways these resources are adapted in the ongoing processes of identity construction.
2 From Chicago to Birmingham and beyond. There have been various attempts to explain youth subcultural involvement. Researchers who worked out of the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s and subsequently those associated with the American "delinquency" tradition focused on the ways that youth react to their sometimes marginalized social position — e.g., as working class youth in educational systems dominated by middle-class values. They showed how subcultural groups are formed by youth who share this social position, and how these groups construct alternative value systems that allow youth-members to "measure themselves" against more accessible "counter middle-class" standards.
  Building on these seminal works, scholars at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, England, showed how youth "reactively and proactively" expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo of post-war British society. By articulating themselves through spectacular forms of "style" — e.g., the extreme fashions of punks and skinheads — youth were believed to be symbolically and creatively "resisting", and in so doing, finding "solutions" to their problems. CCCS theorists called these "magical solutions" as a way of recognizing that subcultural involvement is only a temporary form of empowerment and escape that does not (necessarily) substantially challenge the dominance / hegemony of the ruling classes.
Although these works provided a crucial foundation for subsequent work on youth culture, they have been subject to systematic critique. In particular, the CCCS work often neglected non-class axes of identity formation and tended to focus on the spectacular, rather than everyday and mundane aspects of the lives of young people. [2] Moreover, and with the exception of Brake (1985) and Hebdige (1979), there was insufficient attention to the ways that youth cultures were influenced by subcultural traditions in other countries, and an extreme paucity of work that attempted cross-cultural comparisons that were informed by any rigorous empirical research.
  Although there was a growing literature on the impacts of mass mediated messages on audiences at this time (e.g., Morley, 1980), such work was seldom integrated into youth cultural studies. This lack of rigorous attention to the ways that youth subcultures could be theorized as "interpretive communities" meant that the various impacts of global cultural forces within local youth cultures was left understudied.
  Subsequent developments in cultural studies have questioned this lack of interest for cross-cultural influences. For many contemporary theorists the fin de siècle socio-historical backdrop is key to any explanation of the emergence and development of rave culture — and its descendant clubculture — at a time when many commentators have boldly pronounced the death of youth subcultures. Steve Redhead (1990) for example has challenged conventional understandings that the mass media and commercial culture "incorporated" and, in turn, "robbed" rave culture or other subcultures of their authenticity. Instead, he suggests that after the 1970s, subcultural authenticity became "impossible" because of contemporary culture's tendency to be self-referential, shallow, flat and hyper-real — i.e., a culture of effervescent, spectacular, fast moving, ever-present, "better than real" images.
  Similarly Muggleton (1997; 2000) has extended this argument, suggesting that this era of "postmodernity" is inhabited by "postsubculturalists" whose "neo-tribal" identities are multiple and fluid, whose consumption is no longer "articulated through the modernist structuring relations of class, gender or ethnicity" and who are defined by their fragmented / multiple stylistic identities (Muggleton, 2000: 52). That is to say, they have a low degree of commitment to any subcultural group and high rates of subcultural mobility, a fascination with style and image, are generally apolitical, and have a "positive attitude toward media and a celebration of the inauthentic" (Muggleton, 2000: 52). In this context dance cultures are often seen as the archetypal postmodern youth formation.
3 Departure points for comparative work. This abbreviated overview of post-CCCS developments reveals several encouraging trends such as an increased engagement with critical ethnographies and revised models for understanding the types of involvements that youth have in cultural life that avoids perceiving young people as cultural dupes.
  Some of the more ambitious empirical projects are cross-cultural examinations. Most often authors who adopt a cross-cultural view of youth cultures, either provide a collection of studies conducted in various countries/regions and discuss the similarities and differences between these studies, or provide a general summary of "international" research on youth. These works are progressive endeavors with the admirable aim of attaining more culturally sensitive and inclusive understandings of youth culture.
  This body of "cross-cultural" work, however, has its shortcomings. Only some of this research engages theoretical issues related to "the global and the local" as part of cross-cultural analyses, beyond pointing out that local cultures interpret mass media in distinct ways. Often "the local" is left relatively undefined, with little regard for the fact that local identity is inherently a relational identity that can sometimes refer to regional and national identities. At the same time, cross-cultural work seldom develops micro-interactionist models that allow researchers to organize and more fully develop understandings of the generic social processes of youth group life.
  In other cases, micro-analyses powerfully describe local experiences with "global resources", yet provide little detail about the process through which these global resources enter youth scenes, or about how these "interpreted resources" are rearticulated and redistributed to other cultures. So, while the notion of cultural borrowing is central to one level of analysis in much of this work, the overall lack of research on cultural flows or "channels of influence" has meant that the concept has been left underdeveloped. Moreover, and underlying these concerns about the dearth of in-depth comparative work, is a relative lack of attention to issues of political economy, social stratification and inequality. It is almost as if, in the desire to move on from the perceived inadequacies of the CCCS work on youth culture, the broader attempt to map the diffusion of political and economic ideologies through the contested terrain of popular culture has been abandoned in the process.
4 Theorizing the transmission and interpretation of (popular / youth / music) culture. Among the various attempts to describe the dynamics of global cultural transmission, Appadurai's (1990) "five dimensions of cultural flow" remains one of the most comprehensive and useful guides for analysis. Appadurai suggests that these five dimensions, or what he calls "scapes", work in ways that prevent the construction of a homogenous culture: the scapes being ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, and ideoscapes. [3] The crux of Appadurai's framework is the assumption that the various "disjunctures" or interactions that occur between global cultural flows — as they relate to the various scapes — provide the analyst with crucial information about the complex ways that local cultures relate to global forces.
  Returning to our discussion of dance music cultures, this more elaborate approach to theorizing "the local" encourages researchers to consider the intricacies of youth tastes, e.g., preferences for various genres of dance music, such as house or jungle or trance; interpretations of this music, e.g., as an escape, as a form of resistance; and uses of it, e.g., making a living in a dance music-related occupations. This more flexible and integrated interpretive framework also allows the analyst to consider how youth might simultaneously be interpreters and producers of culture — creating "alternative" media that both reflects youths' understandings of global culture, while contributing to this same culture.
For example, the history of rave and clubculture shows how travelers — within the ethnoscape — contributed to the transmission of dance music culture from America and Ibiza to Britain, and then, subsequently, back from Britain to North America and parts of Europe. As noted in the introduction, the "post-rave tourist" has also emerged, as a clubber who travels to locations around the world with the explicit purpose of experiencing the club / rave culture of the area. [4]
5 Aesthetics and economic forces. Our argument is that existing work that examines the ways that youth create — locally distinct — music-related cultures, in spite of the potential homogenizing effects of global economic forces, needs to be attentive to the intertextuality of influences on youth cultural development — i.e., the way that traveling and travelers impact local scenes; the impact of various exposures to media — as well considering the cultural, political and economic "history" of these influences. Smith and Maughan (1998), for example, have argued for a political economy of dance culture that is characterized by youth participation in independent record labels, in nightclub promotion, and in DJ culture.
  As the authors point out:
  "The aesthetic of dance culture cannot be separated from the organization of the economy, nor can the economy be separated from the culture, given that there is a cultural imperative to engage in these cultural activities — an individual sets up a label because he/she loves the music but that label will not survive unless it sells ... The availability of forms of technology has been vital to the formation of the aesthetic of dance music ... [It has allowed] the costs of production to fall, this allowing micro-labels to survive free from the major labels ... Most significant is the empirical reality that this is being done by young people themselves. They are using the technology, establishing their own labels, getting into distribution, organizing parties, becoming DJs. They are making the connections and linkages, they are establishing this social and economic structure separate from the major record companies, and often to a large extent separate from the formal economy itself" (Smith and Maughan, 1998: 225-226).
  While ethnographic research might unveil youths' experiences in negotiating these various influences, understanding the flows of culture also requires an understanding of the market practices of media / music producers through an examination of the placement of youth cultural images and the codes that guide these image placements — through a combined ethnographic, social semiotic and materialist approach.
  It would be a mistake to simply read young people's consumption — and production — within this scene as an index of cultural manipulation. We posit that there is a sense of agency in the ways in which young people, through their engagement with the dance scene, have developed a degree of skepticism around the truth claims made by the scientific knowledge industries. For example, the attempt to define dance cultures through a public health discourse, as inherently dangerous sites of unknown and indeterminate risk, have spectacularly failed to prevent young people from embracing, adapting and exploring the possibilities of dance culture.
  Hence why, despite the attempt of most Western governments to prohibit the consumption of narcotics especially amongst the "vulnerable" young, rates of consumption of Ecstasy, amongst other drugs, have remained high. Indeed it could be argued that the dance scene, by the extent and degree of its normalization of drug use, has challenged the hegemony of the anti-drug discourse such that a number of governmental agencies and States are having to radically rethink the effectivity of the "war on drugs" — Portugal's dramatic decriminalization of its drug laws in 2001 being perhaps the clearest example of this.
6 Negotiating new spaces. If social relations are primarily defined as being produced, in the last instance, by a particular set of (economic) determinants, then formations such as dance music cultures will always be seen as proxies for "real" oppositional politics. If, however, we acknowledge that the social field is constituted by multi-various power relations between different social groupings, none of which have an a priori claim to determinacy, then more qualified "moments of resistance" can be traced by careful and historically situated studies. As Gilbert and Pearson (1999) have argued, the key questions should not be:
  "... how likely dance culture is to bring down capitalism or patriarchy, but at what precise points it succeeds or fails in negotiating new spaces. In particular, it is not a simple question of dance culture being "for" or "against" the dominant culture, but of how far its articulations with other discourses and cultures — dominant or otherwise — result in democratizations of the cultural field, how far they successfully break down existing concentrations of power, and how far they fail to do so" (Gilbert and Pearson, 1999: 160).
  The emphatically outer-national identifications and trans-local collectivities that dance culture promotes should not be dismissed too readily in a political climate where appeals to forms of ethnic absolutism and nationalistic belonging are gaining increased legitimacy in many parts of post Cold-War Europe. Whilst talk of a "dance music diaspora" may be pushing the analytical categories too far, these grounded everyday encounters of cultural hybridity, musical exchange and international dialogue may prove to be effective organic responses to the fundamentalist and regressive programs of racially exclusive identity politics that have emerged in reaction to globalization's cosmopolitan impulses.
  From large scale events such as Berlin's Love Parade and Zurich's annual Techno Street Parade, to club nights in Rimini, London, Helsinki and beyond, there is a cultural formation that should not be ignored by social scientists. Whilst the notion of "one continent under a groove" may strike some as at best naive sentimentalism, or at worse sociological cultural populism, the decidedly utopian elements of contemporary dance culture may be illustrative of an already-existing pan-European identity that the technocrats of the formal European economic project could only dream about. The key question is whether social scientists have the conceptual tools to be able to make sense of these changes within young people's lives which can no longer be adequately theorized using static conceptualizations of the nation state or orthodox accounts of what constitutes political resistance.
  Authors' note
  This article is adapted from: Ben Carrington and Brian Wilson (2002), "Global clubcultures. Cultural flows and late modern dance music cultures." In: M. Cieslik and G. Pollock (eds.), Young people in risk society. The restructuring of youth identities in late modernity. Aldershot: Ashgate (forthcoming). A version of this article was also presented at the 5th European Sociological Association conference in Helsinki, Finland, August 28 - September 1, 2001. We'd like to thank participants at that conference for their critical feedback. Return to text
1. The term "clubcultures" refers to the youth cultural phenomenon that is associated with all-night dance parties at nightclubs or other venues, the production and consumption of various dance music genres — music "mixed" or electronically created by DJs — and with the use of amphetamine drugs — particularly MDMA or "Ecstasy" — to enhance the dance / music experience.
  The culture's roots lie in the 1970s and early 1980s American dance music scenes of New York, Chicago and Detroit, and more recently in Britain where "rave culture" emerged in 1988 during what came to be known as the "second summer love". In Britain in particular, the subsequent criminalization of the rave scene — a partial result of moral panics about rave-related drug use — and incorporation of the rave scene — by the mainstream music industry — led the culture to become grounded in "nightclub" venues, and that is how ravers, in effect, became "clubbers". Return to text
2. This overview, while a useful summary for our purposes, does not capture the full complexity of the work conducted in America or Britain. For example, American work by Miller (1958) and Matza (1964) in some ways departed from traditional "delinquency theory", with Miller arguing that traditional explanations of subcultural activity underestimated the link between working class culture and deviant youth subcultures, and Matza highlighting the importance of "chance" encounters and "bad timing" in determining a youth's tendency to "drift" into a delinquent lifestyle.
  At the CCCS, both Willis (1977) and McRobbie (1977) studied unspectacular groups and emphasized the ways that symbolic forms of resistance actually reinforce existing structures of class relations/inequality. There were also methodological differences in the work that emerged from the CCCS, where Willis (1977) and others privileged critical ethnographic methods while others, such as Hebdige (1979), preferred social semiotics and textual analysis. Return to text
3. Ethnoscapes refers to the flow of people around the world — e.g., tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guestworkers and other moving groups. Technoscapes refers to the flow of technology — e.g., the export of technology to countries as part of transnational business relocations. Finanscapes refers to the patterns of global capital transfer. Appadurai (1990: 298) argues that the global relationship between these three scapes is "deeply disjunctive and profoundly unpredictable, since each of these landscapes is subject to its own constraints and incentives ... at the same time as each acts as a constraint and a parameter for the other."
  Augmenting these first three scapes are mediascapes and ideoscapes. Mediascapes refers to mass media images, to the modes of image distribution — e.g., electronic or print media — and to the ways that these images allow viewers to gain access to other parts of the world — and thus become part of "imagined communities." Ideoscapes refers to images that are invested with political-ideological meaning — e.g., the images presented by governmental groups justifying a military action, or images created by social movements attempting to overthrow power groups. Return to text
4. British satellite and terrestrial television companies continue to make programmes such as Ibiza Uncovered (BSkyB) and Around the World in 80 Raves (Channel 4) aimed at this newly found constituency of clubbing tourists, who can now enjoy the spectacle related to the post-rave tourist gaze without ever having to engage with the old modernist tradition of actually leaving their front rooms to experience the club sensation. Return to text
  • Appadurai, Arjun (1990), "Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy." In: Theory, Culture and Society, 7, 2/3: 295-310.
  • Brake, Mike (1985), Comparative youth culture. The sociology of youth cultures and youth subcultures in America, Britain, and Canada. London: Routledge.
  • Carrington, Ben, and Brian Wilson (2002), "Global clubcultures. Cultural flows and late modern dance music cultures." In: M. Cieslik and G. Pollock (eds.), Young people in risk society. The restructuring of youth identities in late modernity. Aldershot: Ashgate (forthcoming).
  • Chambers, Iain (1994), Migrancy, culture, identity. London: Routledge.
  • Gilbert, Jermey, and Ewan Pearson (1999), Discographies. Dance music, culture and the politics of sound. London: Routledge.
  • Hebdige, Dick (1979), Subculture. The meaning of style. New York: Methuen.
  • Hebdige, Dick (1987), Cut 'n' mix. Culture, identity and Caribbean music. London: Comedia.
  • Matza, David (1964), Delinquency and drift. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • McRobbie, Angela (1977), Working-class girls and the culture of femininity. (Unpublished MA thesis, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, UK).
  • Miller, Walter B. (1958), "Lower class culture as generating milieu of gang delinquency." In: Journal of Social Issues, 14, 3, 5-19.
  • Morley, David (1980), The nationwide audience. Structure and decoding. London: British Film Institute.
  • Muggleton, David (1997), "The post-subculturalist." In: Steve Redhead (1997), The clubcultures reader. An introduction to popular cultural studies. Malden Ma.: Blackwell, 185-203.
  • Muggleton, David (2000), Inside subculture. The postmodern meaning of style. New York: Berg.
  • Redhead, Steve (1990), The end-of-the-century party. Youth and pop towards 2000. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Smith, Richard J., and Tim Maughan (1998), "Youth culture and the making of the post-Fordist economy. Dance music in contemporary Britain." In: Journal of Youth Studies, 1, 2: 211-228.
  • Willis, Paul (1977), Learning to labor. How working class kids get working class jobs. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981 (originally published as "Learning to labour." Farnborough: Saxon House, 1977; reprint with a new introduction and afterword).
  Ben Carrington teaches sociology and cultural studies at the University of Brighton, England; Brian Wilson is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, working on the fields of cultural studies and sociology, with a focus on media studies, deviance, youth, social inequality, social movements, and qualitative methods.
  2001 © Soundscapes