Researchers there developed the concept of youth subcultures both in theoretical as well as empirical terms. We can talk of working class youth subculture that is grounded within the parent culture although possessing its own youthful elements. Social class analysis tended to predominate in the work of the Centre with an application, especially under the directorship of Stuart Hall, of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and other neo-Marxist readings. (Hall and Jefferson 1976)
Mods may have aspired to be better dressed and more sophisticated than their contemporaries, giving an air of being middle class but they were mainly destined to remain working class because of their relatively poor educational attainments6.
Some had white collar jobs of sorts, working in offices but only at lower grade levels with few opportunities for upward social mobility even if they wanted it. Their subculture was a spectacular but only temporary escape from work and home, especially when enhanced by drugs such as pep pills.
It must be said that the present generation of youthful drug-takers are not the first and probably won’t be the last.
Many mods found that pills could prolong the escape and keep the fun going all night, in the newly established all-night clubs. In the words of Hebdige, it was a ‘revolt in style’ only. (1979:106) The Birmingham School paid attention to these and other subcultures of the period, with their swan song perhaps the accounts of Punk Rock in the late seventies.
(Hebdige 1979) We can ask whether skinheads were ‘magically’ trying to get back their lost working class community or whether punks were really true masters of the semiotic, giving alternative meaning to everyday, mundane objects like bin liners and safety pins.
(Hebdige, op. cit. ) In the final analysis, class was the predetermining factor, which was not totally acceptable to feminists and other commentators who wanted to add more recognition of the diversities of race, even sexuality.
Contemporary sociological thinking, research practices and analysis of youth seem to be moving away from viewing youth as fitting into a number of identifiable youth subcultures, especially with regard to the clubbing phenomenon that began in the late 80s and has continued until now. Thornton (1995) indicated this in her work and other commentators take this up. Diversification and fragmentation has occurred to such a large extent within all sections of society, including youth, that subcultures are difficult to locate, let alone describe and analyse.
Ben Malbon writes ‘unity of identity, and in particular an identification with a specific sub-cultural grouping, appear to be far less significant in contemporary youth culture than has been recognised by theorists of youth culture up to now. ’(1998:277-8) He refers to the trend of recent work on youth as highlighting ‘stylistic non-conformity. ’ Malbon prefers to use the label ‘tribes’ (op. cit:278) which has been employed elsewhere, and New Age travellers sometimes take the term for themselves, eg. the Dongas Tribe.
(McKay 1996) It may be the case that it was the theorists, in particular sociologists, who sought to discover and perhaps impose subcultural identities upon youth when the ‘classic’ youth studies of the sixties and seventies were being carried out by the members of the Birmingham School, for example. Malbon cites Redhead (1990:25) here who stated ‘authentic sub-cultures’ were ‘produced by sub-cultural theories, not the other way around. ’(Malbon op. cit:279) This may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and negating completing the value of subcultural theory.
Perhaps it has to be recognised that subcultural theory may have worked in the 60s and 70s but the changed context of the 90s needs new forms of analysis which bring in theorists like de Certeau (1984) on the use of space and identity. Contemporary Britain remains divided in terms of class and ethnicity in many ways but the predominant, somewhat overbearing centrality of class seems to be in the process of being transcended. These differentiated identities can be linked to behaviour and whether there are links between other sub-groups or ‘tribes’ of youth.
In one sense, the clubbing phenomenon has brought together diverse groups as Malbon as well as Thornton discovered. It is true to say that to some extent going to clubs, dancing to rave, house, drum and bass and other popular musical forms as well as using popular drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy, may transcend class barriers. In another way of viewing this situation, youth can, to some extent, be considered as a class in itself, with subcultures transcending their social class context.
The imagination and potential of youth are also considered as marketable commodities not only by manufacturers and advertisers but more recently by the governments. According to Cooper (1997), we have seen ‘a very successful commercialisation of teenagers. They’re held up as an ideal, and used to sell everything and anything. ’ (Cooper:23) This adds to the already existing contradictions in the position of contemporary youth.
1. Thomas H. (1999) The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, New York: Avon Books 2. Thornton S. (1996) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, New York: Wesleyan University Press