Youth Cultures

Revision notes for the second part and second option of Acquiring Culture.

  • Created by: Anna
  • Created on: 23-12-10 17:28

The Origins of Youth Culture

The modern concept of youth emerged in the early 1950's, it came as a result of several different social changes occuring at the same time. Including:

The increasing economic power of young people: mass rebuilding after the second world war meant that there was full employment, which also introduced disposable income to many families and therefore more could be spent on youth. Abrams (1959) demonstrated that real earnings of young people increased over 50% between 1938 and 1958.

The impact of American culture: in the 1950's rock and roll music was in full swing in America and its popularity spread to Britain. Mass globalisation helped American brands spread overseas such as CocaCola and Nike, this globalisation is still relevant today.

Longer transition between childhood and adulthood was a result of the length of time spent in education being increased. This meant that adult responsibilties were taken later on in life, resulting in a period of time in which young people were physically mature without the responsibilties.

An increase in the birth rate occured after the Second World War. During the war many young couples were seperated meaning that for many, their first sexual experiences were delayed. Because of this, when men were released from the armed forces there was a huge birth rate increase.

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Youth-Constructed or Natural?


We naturally go through hormonal changes eg: girls going through puberty will naturally show symptoms of pms, causing moody behaviour- symptoms often attributed to stereotypical teenagers.

Aging is a natural process, therefore so must childhood.


Childhood has different meanings in different societies eg: in modern Western society children are bubble wrapped and protected, UK age responsibilty: 12 but other parts of the world its different, India age of responsibilty:7.

Aries said that after industrialization society saw children differently and began to worry about their emotional and physical wellbeing. Before children were economic assets and had to provide for the family had little or no education.

These show us that childhood is culturally constructed as the idea of childhood depends highly on the society it is based in eg: in Africa children are expected to hunt and other dangerous jobs it is considered the norm. But in Western society this is considered immoral and unsafe.

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Key Characteristics of Youth Culture

Abercrombie et al (2000) have suggested that it has three distinguishing features: leisure, style and peer group (consumption is also relevant).

Leisure: For men in the 1950's to the 1970s life's main focus was work. Every aspect of life: income, social standing, political attitudes and even general identity depended on occupation.This continued into the 1980s when leisure started to become just as important.

Importance of Style: This is composed of two elements: how one appears to others and how one sounds to others. Appearance is very important in giving clues to society, how one sounds is just as important and is demonstrated by argot (special language).

Consumption: Youth culture is based on consumption. Disposable income is more available for youth leaving them able to buy clothing, music and other items relating to their cultures and serve as a kind of membership of a particular form of youth culture.

Peer Groups: This refers to a group of young people who share the same interests and attitudes. Young people have a strong affiliation to their peer groups and functionalist sociologists argue that a peer group provides a bridge between childhood and adulthood.

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Functionalist approach: youth as transition

Functualists believe that if something exists, then it must have a purpose in society.

 Parsons argued that youth culture is a rite of passage it acts as a transition from childhood to adulthood. Young people have to find a way of moving away from the security of family and moving into the career world, youth culture provides a link between the two conflicting values.

Eisenstadt took these ideas a step further, he argued that young people need a way of distinguishing themselves from their parents. They have to move from the ascribed position of being a child to the achieved position of being an adult in their own right. However this period is stressful and youth culture acts as a mechanism for this.

Age: a new social division

Roszak (1970) argued that a new division was emerging between young people and the older generations. Values, interests and behaviour of youth were replacements for divisions based on class, gender and race.

Murdoch and McCron (1976) argued that youth culture was a "generation in itself" a whole new culture which would radically change society, eliminating outdated divisions of social class.

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Marxist approach: subculture as solution

According to Marxists, society is in constant conflict and the ruling classes do all they can to control the working classes values this is known as hegemony and is achieved through control of the mass media and values taught in school. A group of marxist sociologists from the CCCS studied youth subcultures.

Halls and Jefferson (1976) argued that young working class people are the hardest to control because of their lack of responsibilties and because they are not yet tied into the capitalist system. Partly explaining why there is so much control over young people by the police and other authorities, this became known as "critical cultural studies approach".

Conflict theorists believe youth culture is a form of resistance against capitalism and is therefore hostile towards the dominant culture. Youth culture is an inarticulate way of resolving the problems faced by working class youth and a way of expressing anger and frustration.

CCCS argue that that each generation encounter the same problems but in different circumstances so the forms and styles change over time.The CCCS analysed the symbols through semiotic analysis which is the study of signs. The analysts then began to decode the meanings behind the clothing, hair and music of working class subcultures.

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Youth Subcultures

1950s-1960s: Teddy Boys-alcohol, edwardian clothes, rock and roll, Mods-amphetamine, scooters, mohair suits, parkas and soul music. Rockers-motorbikes, leather, alcohol, rock and roll.

1960s-1970s: Hippies-progressive rock, cannabis and LSD and Asian style, long hair, Skinheads- short tight jeans, shaved heads, racism, Doc Marten boots, ska music, Rasta-cannabis, reggae, dreadlocks, religious affliation to Jamaica, respect for body (foods)

1980s: New Romantic/New Wave-amphetamines, adrogony, historical fantasy, dress and cosmetics,glam rock, Punk-anarchists, spiky hair, ripped clothes, glue-sniffing, piercings, punk music, ******* clothing.

1990s: Hip-Hop-baggy pants, designer clothes, rap, trainers, cannabis, cocaine, Grunge- heavy rock, ripped and dirty clothing, heroin, Rave-clubbing, ecstasy and designer drugs, cocaine, garage, remix, light sticks, baggy pants, loud colour, Goths-piercings, black clothing, death metal, androgony.

2000: Chavs/Townies-cannabis, alcohol, sports clothes, hip-hop, RnB, heavy jewellery, Emos-cannabis, sexual blurring, emotional rock, dyed black hair, thick glasses, anorexic thinness.

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Marxist evaluations of working class subcultures

Teddy Boys: Hall and Jefferson (1976) analysed the Teddy Boys trademarks for example the Edwardian style jackets, suede shoes and bootlace ties. They argued that the use of the jackets and shoes, possessions which were typically associated with the upper classes, showed the teddy boys contempt for the upper classes by usurping the clothing style of their supposed "social superiors".

Skinheads: Phil Cohen (1972) conducted a similar study on skinheads. Skinheads were an exaggerated version of traditional working class values, compromising of cropped hair, braces, half-mast jeans and Doc. Marten boots. Their clothes represent a caricature and reassertion of solid, male working class toughness.

Punk: **** Hebdige (1979) suggested that a process of bricolage (reuse of ordinary objects in a different way to create challenging new meanings) was used in the punk movement. Punk was a response to the dominance of the media. Hebdige refers to this as the "blank generation" as the only thing punks have in common in that they don't connect to anything and reject.

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Evaluation of Black subcultures

Sociologists were accused of ethnocentrism, ignoring Black subcultures in favour of spectacular subcultures favoured by white subcultures.

Hebdige (1979) suggested that the first subcultural style was the Rudeboy culture. "Rudies" based their subculture on looking cool and dealing in cannabis and pimping.

Sivanandan (1981) argued that these cultures emerged in Britain as a result of the experiences of a second generation of black young people who were raised in Britain and yet were still marginalised because of their race. They formed subcultures driven by their opposition to a racist and capitalist society.

The media response to this was different to their response to white subcultures, there were attempts to exploit them by media and leisure industries. Hall et al (1978) pointed out that young black men were closely linked by the media to street crime.

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Brake (1984) agrees with the idea that youth cultures are a form of resistance to capitalism but also notes that they do nothing to alter the power and economic differences that make it difficult for working class youth.

-However they are magical meaning they are an illusion. While they appear to provide a way out for each new generation they are a trick that youth use to convince themselves that they are different and unique to their parents.

-Brake also looked at middle class subcultures and suggested that these are more likely to be countercultural, meaning that they can provide a complete cultural alternative eg: political, religious; to the existing culture.


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Criticisms of the Critical Cultural Studies approa

Stan Cohen (1972) argued that the writers wanted to find resistance in lower class subcultures because they are biased towards it. They therefore interpreted argot and style in a way that supported their political beliefs.

The approach completely ignores middle class youth because according to this approach, middle class youth do not face the same problems as the lower class.

Critical cultural writers credit the working class youth for creating sophisticated subcultures. Cohen suggests this is naive, ignoring the medias effect on young people.

McRobbie(1991) criticised the CCCS for ignoring girls subcultures. Arguing that they are very different to boys subcultures in content and style and do not fit into the framework of the conflict approach.

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Feminism and girl subcultures

McRobbie and Garber (1976) comment that the place of a young girl in youth culture reflects her place in society. The range of activities available to females in subcultures is far more limited than what is for men.

Youth cultures allow men to have "temporary flights" away from the responsibilties and constraints imposed on men, but females are denied this because of greater parental control  and the constraints imposed on them concerning appropriate sexual behaviour.

This results in bedroom culture where girls spend the majority of their time in their bedrooms more recent studies by Lincoln (2004) confirmed this, however noting that in recent times the introduction of televisions and the internet meant there are more external influences

Thornton (1995) studied the dance music scene of the 90s and discovered while females were more likely to go clubbing than males they achieve less status because they were stereotypically thought to prefer mainstream pop music.

Reddington(2003) takes a more positve approach focusing on the participations of women in subcultures that are generally ignored for example: Vivienne Westwood played key role in punk fashion.


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Late Modernity: consumerism and countercultures

Traditional industrial economic arrangements which started to decline in the second part of the 20th century are called modernity while modern society arrangements are late modernity (characterised by choice and stress on the individual).

The shift between these two has very important implications for the study of youth culture, pointing youth subcultural studies away from resistance and towards countercultures and consumerism/leisure.

Countercultures: This term is used to describe cultures that "counter" societies current structure. The term was developed by Marcuse (1964) and Roszak (1970). One of the first examples of this was the hippie culture who rejected societies use of violence and replaced it with images of love and peace. Although these cultures were critical of existing social arrangements, they were composed of all kinds of people and working class resistance did not come into it.

Consumerism and leisure: In general most youth cultures are seen as non conformist and as making a political statement. Coleman (1980) however argues that the approach focuses to heavily on the "spectacular" youth cultures and that most youths actually choose to conform. In general young people are still fairly conservative as shown by Chatterton and Hollands (2001) study of nightlife in Newcastle. And Roberts (1997) study on gender patterns.


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Postmodern Youth Cultures

Postmodernism challenges sociology by arguing that social phenomena is impossible to understand. According to Bauman (1993) there is no coherent structure to the world as it is complex and confusing.

Widdicombe and Wooffitt (1995) encouraged young people to talk openly about their experiences without enforcing a structure onto them like the CCCS. They argued that youth cultures have no fixed meanings.

Analysis of youth subcultures moved away from notions of opposition and towards the idea that subcultures were more about style than anything else. Roberts (1997) argued the young people pick and choose their styles and fashion from what they see around them. There is no underlying opposition or hidden meaning.

Maffesoli (1998) suggested that youth cultures have now been replaced by more fluid groups called neo-tribes. This term is used to describe a wide range of groupings which all have a common interest being a "shared ethic" ie: warmth, companionship. They are based on "elective sociality" (based on the desire to be together).

Postmodernists raised the question as to whether youth cultures were created by young people or was a creation of the mass media and commercial interests.

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Postmodern Perspectives on Youth and The Media

Some sociologists like Cote and Allahar (1996) see youth subcultures as products of media manipulation. According to this view young people are the "dupes" of the media and youth subcultures are purely used for the media and fashion industries to make money.

Giroux (1998) argues that multinational companies take advantage of the social divisions and how easy they are to manipulate. Arguing that differences of religion, race, locality and gender are "marketing categories" that can be sold music and clothes to.

Postmodern approaches take a different view.

Kahane (1997) suggests that contemporary youth subcultures are in fact a genuine attempt to create new and exciting subcultures based on the enormous choice of music, fashion, language and lifestyles available to young people.

Thornton (1995) suggests that youth culture is a combination of both. Youth cultures can be manufactured by commercial interests but then taken up by young people and refashioned but they also can be authentically generated by young people and then get commercialised.

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Globalization and hybridized youth subcultures

An important element of postmodernism is globalization. 

Luke and Luke (2000) argue that influences derive from films, music and other media that are found globally. They suggest the idea of a hybridized youth culture where young people take inspiration from the global media and then adapt it to fit their local environment.

Postmodernity and race

Gilroy (1987) argued that we can understand ethnic minority youth through diasporas (patterns of dispersal) created by the postcolonial migrations. People who have left their places of origin have links there but must adapt to a new environment. Therefore all ethnic minority youth subcultures are a mix of their cultural origins and present circumstances implying that ethnicity is flexible which is hybridity.


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A fantastic set of flashcards which is great for revision and which can be an excellent tool to use when planning questions also. Great job.

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