Subcultures, Style, and the Power of Social Movement Symbols

While I am loathe to begin a Daily Disruption by linking to notorious clickbait website Buzzfeed, this recent list of reasons why “punk is dead” popped up a number of times in my social media circles and it got me thinking about the intersections between subcultures and social movements, as well as what social movement theory could draw from contemporary work on audience studies.

The obvious message throughout the piece, and the reason the list was making the rounds on my social network feeds, is that punk is “dead” when it becomes institutionalized, mainstreamed, commodified, or popularized. In fact, while at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York this past summer, I did actually stop by the Met’s “Punk” exhibit, a loud, gaudy pastiche of lights, colors, and music, featuring punk fashions created by famous designers. The walls of the exhibit are marked up with graffiti, but when I came across a spot in the wall where someone had written, with a pen, “THIS ISN’T PUNK,” I actually couldn’t figure out if what I was looking at was an actual expression of righteous anger from a museum patron angry over punk rock being put on display in an exhibit or just another piece of self-aware fake graffiti put there by the museum itself.


The notorious CBGB bathroom recreated in the Met’s Punk Exhibit

The understanding that popular culture that is established and commodified becomes drained of power has deep intellectual roots. Dick Hebdige (1979) argued, in his classic book Subculture, that subcultural style is often about resistance, but becomes “frozen” when it becomes commodified, forcing it to lose its edge. This idea has been contested by later theorists, notably Angela McRobbie (1988) and Sarah Thornton (1996), both of whom suggest that Hebdige ignored that media attention and consumption often factor into subcultures from early on. In effect, there is no neat dividing line between a “pure” subculture and a “commodified” one. More recently, the sociology of media has methodologically turned to audience studies to better understand what, specifically, audiences get from cultural products as opposed to creating researcher-imposed categories such as “pure” or “commodified” on them.

Just as subcultures are generative of identity and meaning, social movements, too, are laboratories of symbolic innovation. Likewise, the symbolic innovation of social movements can be, as Hebdige suggests about subcultural style, drained of their power. Prime examples are Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “I have a dream” speech, now often quoted by conservatives to push against many of the things King actually stood for (see Dyson 2000), or the ubiquity of the famous “Che” t-shirt. These instances suggest that the discourses and symbols generated by social movements can be twisted, disconnected from their context, or used for ends that they were not intended for. Conversely, though, one could imagine how the mainstream penetration of these symbols and ideas, even if unmoored from their primary meaning or context, could inspire people to seek out their origins, leading to an increase in awareness of and commitment to the various frames and ideologies promoted by social movements.

While it’s easy to look at something like Johnny Rotten in a commercial for butter and say “punk is dead,” it also means that the idea that “punk” is supposed to be anti-establishment has diffused far enough to make a list such as the one linked above funny to a lot of people. It’s worth pointing out that various cultural critics have been saying “punk is dead” since the 1970s (or 1980s, or 1990s, etc.), and this list will most likely not be the last word on it, yet new young people continue to find the subculture and get turned onto anti-authoritarian messages in it, suggesting, as mentioned above, a more complicated relationship between subcultures, the media, and commodification than is often assumed.

Can we say the same thing, then, about social movement symbols and, if so, how do we explore that? I can imagine an “audience studies” in the sociology of social movements where we examined how differently positioned audience members interpreted the discourses and symbols of social movements. When I conducted my master’s thesis research on Global Justice activists, many admitted that they first entered the movement with an amorphous understanding of the movement’s politics, lured instead by the symbolic dimension of the movement. These participants often first picked up on this symbolic dimension from their participation in subcultures such as punk rock or hip-hop, both of which circulate movement discourses and symbols as well as serve as pools of potential adherents for movements (see note 2 below). In fact, this blog recently featured a great essay discussion on Art, Music, and Movements that explores some of these very issues. Personally, I suspect that in the same way that the Met’s punk exhibit is easy to chuckle at but may represent some deeper social resonance or significance, those Che t-shirts that are undeniably eye-roll inducing might be worth rethinking from an audience studies perspective.

Note 1: It must be noted that, punk tends to be associated with young, white men. It is, then, worth pointing out that many of the pictures in the linked Buzzfeed article prominently feature people of color or women (or things coded as appealing to women such as the boy band One Direction), suggesting a submerged (assumedly unintentional?) theme through the pictures that punk is something for white guys and loses its power when it diversifies.

Note 2: I hope to explore the connection between subcultures and social movement more thoroughly in a later Daily Disruption, looking at recent work by Haenfler et al. Moore and Roberts, and Leach and Haunss.

1 Comment

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One response to “Subcultures, Style, and the Power of Social Movement Symbols

  1. Pingback: Subcultures, Style, and the Power of Social Movement Symbols | Nonviolent Action Network

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