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The continuing importance

of the cultural in the study


of youth
The academic study of youth culture has changed markedly in
the past two decades. The early 1990s saw a cultural turn as the
sociological focus moved from institutional and structural features
of society to the study of culture. Andy Bennett begins this article
with a critical evaluation of the cultural turn and its impact on the
field of youth cultural studies. Importantly for youth cultural studies,
this approach signalled a challenge to notions of culture as a direct
product of class relations. Bennett then looks at specific ways in
which the cultural turn has influenced recent theoretical, empirical
and methodological developments in the study of youth culture.

by Andy Bennett

he past 20 years have seen some significant developments in academic research on


youth culture. Not only have a number of new terminologies and theoretical
positionings come into play, but the field has also broadened considerably in terms
of the thematic issues now examined, discussed and debated. This can be aptly illustrated
by focusing on just a few of the most salient developments in the field. Thus, youth identity,
once held to be rooted in issues of class, gender, race and ethnicity, is now regarded as a more
reflexively articulated and contingent project of the self. Equally, the term youth culture is
itself now regarded as increasingly questionable, given the multi-generational followings for
punk, dance, hip hop, hardcore and other music and style-based genres once deemed to be
exclusively the domain of youth.
Concepts of space and place as these pertain to youth cultural practice have also been
acutely problematised through global media, travel and the increasing physical and/or virtual
mobility of many young people. In the context of research methodology too, new questions
are being asked about the value of insider research as the boundary between youth cultural
researcher and youth cultural participant becomes increasingly blurred.
Within the above theoretical and empirical developments, issues of culture loom large. While
culture was once regarded primarily as a product of underlying and structural circumstances

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and irreparable forms of social inequality,


the cultural turn of the early 1990s (see
Chaney 1994) recast culture as a dynamic and
participatory process through which social
actors play an active role in shaping their
everyday sociocultural environments (Bennett
2005). This article offers a series of reflections
on the ways in which the cultural turn the
switch of [sociological] focus from institutional
and structural features of society to the study
of culture (Wolff 1999) has influenced the
growth and development of youth cultural
research over the past two decades. In doing so,
the article considers the increasing importance
of culture, as redefined by the cultural turn,
as a means through which to understand and
interpret the everyday practices of youth.

Post-subcultural
Post-subcultural theory
theory arguably
Post-subcultural theory has become fashionable
provides a
as a means of describing a body of work that
emerged between the late 1990s and early 2000s
better handle
response to the problems identified with
than subcultural in
subcultural theory as expressed by writers
theory for
such as Stanley Cohen (1987) and Gary Clarke
addressing the (1990). Taking issue with the class-based logic
of subcultural theory, together with its lack
significance
of empirical engagement with the everyday,
lived experience of youth cultures, writers such
of cultural
as Bennett (1999), Malbon (1999), Muggleton
consumption.
(2000) and Miles (2000) put forward a series
of empirically informed studies which argued
that the cultural terrains of youth are far more
complex, in terms of the cultural affinities
they engender, than was previously supposed
by subcultural theorists. In particular, it was
argued, youth identities need to be regarded
as reflexively articulated lifestyle projects that
appropriate and combine resources from both
local, sociocultural environments and from the
global cultural industries.
Perhaps, predictably, the response to
post-subcultural theory has been quite
mixed. In some spheres of youth cultural
research, notably in relation to dance music
scenes (St John 2010) and music festivals
(Cummings 2006), the conceptual vocabulary
of post-subcultural theory has been regarded
as a positive innovation in addressing the
cultural dynamics and associated collective
practices of youth. In other areas of youth

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research, however, notably those focusing


on education and transitions, there has been
a critical backlash due to post-subcultures
alleged generalisations about reflexivity and
lack of sensitivity to localised issues of class,
gender, race and other manifestations of
structurally grounded inequality that continue
to impact on youth identities (Shildrick &
MacDonald 2006). Indeed, a number of youth
researchers argue that post-subcultural theory,
while offering important insights regarding the
power of consumer images, objects and texts to
evoke heightened levels of reflexivity among
youth, functions to re-emphasise the unequal
playing field upon which the game of youth
is played. It is suggested that those on the
periphery in terms of access to economic and
cultural capital have far less opportunity for
such forms of reflexive engagement with and
investment in the construction of identity (see,
for example, Roberts et al. 2007).
Arguably, however, the basis of the
post-subcultural theory project has never
been to exclude from consideration issues
of structural inequality. Rather, through
introducing reflexivity as a point of
consideration in relation to youth cultural
identities, post-subcultural research offers
new ways of understanding how such forms
of structural inequality can be negotiated by
youth through forms of everyday cultural
practice drawing upon the cultural resources
to hand, however limited these may be.
Notwithstanding the salience of the
above point, there is also a question mark
over exactly how new the cultural traits
identified by advocates of post-subcultural
theory actually are. Among most of
the theorists and researchers adopting
a post-subcultural perspective in their
work, there has been a key assumption
that a physical shift from subculture to
post-subculture occurred at some point
during the mid-1980s (a period in which
cultural theory began to acknowledge and
incorporate post-modernism). But perhaps the
critical issue raised by post-subcultural theory
is whether subculture, at least as it has been
used to describe the appropriation of music,
style and related objects, has ever been of real
value in the study of youth culture. Indeed,
Bennett (1999) maintains that the subculture

/ dominant culture binary has always been


inherently problematic, given the multiplicity
of cultural dynamics that figure in the practice
and process of cultural consumption and
appropriation. To this end, post-subcultural
theory arguably provides a better handle
than subcultural theory for addressing the
significance of cultural consumption for
the formation and articulation of youth
cultural identities; indeed, the cultural traits
highlighted by post-subcultural theory may
have a legacy stretching back well before
the supermarket of style (Polhemus 1997)
or some dubious postmodern cultural
meltdown that is tentatively located in the
1980s (see, for example, Redhead 1990).
Some of the terminologies adopted by
post-subcultural theorists have also been
criticised on the grounds that they assume
an essentially celebratory stance in relation
to cultural consumption. In particular,
lifestyle has often been cited by critics
as glibly equating to a new postmodern
sensibility in which youth identities are tied to
a consumerist bent, festishised by a minority
who can afford to consume. Again, however,
the application of lifestyle theory is by no
means a new approach and, in the field of
sociology at least, predates the use of terms
such as subculture as a means of describing
the appropriation and inscription of images,
objects and texts as symbolic markers of
identity. Thus, as Chaney (1996) observes,
the concept of lifestyle has roots in the work
of founding sociologists such as Weber and
Simmel, each of whom were interested in the
value of consumer objects as a way through
which new forms of individual and collective
identity were articulated in urban settings
during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
That lifestyle is now commonly equated with
the celebration of consumerist trends and
fashions has much to do with the way the term
was coopted by commercial interests during
the late 20th century for use in the branding
of consumer objects and related products.
In many respects then, the work of Bennett
(1999), Miles (2000) and others constitutes
part of a revival of interest in lifestyle as a
critical sociological tool for the investigation
of practices of cultural consumption among
contemporary youth; practices that, it is

argued, cannot be reduced to analyses of social


class.
The broad series of terms applied by
post-subcultural theory which in addition
to lifestyle also includes scene and
neo-tribe has also lent momentum to
its development on an international scale.
Theorists and researchers across Europe, North
America, Australia and New Zealand now
draw on various aspects of post-subcultural
theory in their work.1 A point often made
about subcultural theory, as this was adopted
and deployed in the work of the Birmingham
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies,
was its UK-centricism (see, for example, Clarke
1990; Waters 1981). Indeed, it is interesting
to note that much of the work defending
the significance of subculture continues to
originate from the UK and ties the debate
back into a range of arguments that fixate
around the British class structure (or rather
the perceived impact of this on the cultural
dimensions of everyday life).
Certainly, the term subculture has, over
the past 20 years, achieved a global resonance
in academic scholarship on youth cultural
practice. However, it is arguably a different
semantic quality of the term that has given it a
global currency, that is its value as a descriptor
of aesthetic values and lifestyle practices
located at the more alternative or niche end
of the cultural lifestyle spectrum. An interesting
case in point here is surfing. Although
variously described as a subculture (see, for
example, Reed 1999; Stedman 1997), there is no
structural basis for such a description.
Surfing cannot be said to be class, gender,
race or even age specific. Rather surfing
culture does:
in fact encapsulate a range of different
sensibilities encompassing aspects of class,
[gender, ethnicity], locality, together with
style, technique and other forms of knowledge
and expertise (Baker et al. forthcoming).

In many respects, terms such as scene


and lifestyle are more suited to surfing and
related activities such as skateboarding
precisely because they do start from the
premise that these and other forms of youth
cultural activity are affectively rather than
structurally situated.

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The local and the global

At the level
of popular
media
reporting,
ICTs and
digital media
are frequently
linked to
negative
forms of youth
behaviour.

A further area of youth cultural research


that has developed rapidly over the past 20
years focuses on the relationship between
the local and the global in youth cultural
practice. Although debate continues as to the
nature of the local in a world where popular
music, style and other cultural commodities
associated with youth circulate in a global
flow, empirical studies of local youth cultures
have opened up some important new areas of
concern around the interface of global culture
with young people located in specific cities
and regions around the world.
Notable here is the work of Mitchell (1996)
and others on the localisation of rap and
hip hop culture (see also Bennett 2000) and
Pilkingtons (1994) highly insightful research
on various aspects of Russian youth culture.
There are, however, still some significant gaps
in this research. For example, there is a dearth
of research on the localglobal dynamics of
youth culture in countries such as China and
in many parts of the Asia-Pacific region, even
as it becomes clear that there are large youth
consumer bases in these places for popular
music and other forms of popular culture and
leisure.
Given Australias geographical location,
a greater push towards academic knowledge
exchange and international linkage with
researchers in the broader Asia-Pacific region
is arguably of significant importance and a
crucial next step for youth cultural research
in that part of the world.
Even within the western cultural
sphere, however, there is also significant
scope for further work on youth culture in
terms of its globallocal connections and
relationships. Indeed, as emerging research
on the internet is illustrating, information
and communications technologies (ICTs)
and related forms of digital media offer
opportunities for new, trans-local and global
forms of communication, and affective
bonding, between youth cultures across the
globe (Robards & Bennett 2011). As such:
we can no longer take it for granted that
membership of a youth culture involves
issues of stylistic unity, collective knowledge
of a particular club scene or even face-to-face

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interaction. On the contrary, youth cultures


may increasingly be seen as cultures of
shared ideas, whose interactions take place
not in physical spaces such as the street,
club or festival field but in the virtual spaces
facilitated by the Internet (Bennett 2004, p.163).

The concept of youth cultures as mediated


collectivities is an area in which a great deal
of fruitful work is yet to be done. It is also an
area that would benefit from significant further
funding from granting bodies concerned with
research on contemporary cultural trends.
Indeed, as research on youth and digital
media develops, it is of critical importance that
both funding bodies and researchers remain
cognisant of the fact that ICTs and other digital
media present young users with a broad
spectrum of possibilities in relation to a range
of pursuits spanning leisure, lifestyle, education
and so on.
At the level of popular media reporting,
ICTs and digital media are frequently linked
to negative forms of youth behaviour. While
issues such as cyber-bullying are an unfortunate
by-product of a media-empowered youth,
at the same time an over-concentration on
such themes in social and cultural research
carries with it an explicit risk of generalisation,
essentialism and moral panicking in relation
to young peoples everyday use of technology.
Broad acknowledgement also needs to
be made of the more positive cultural and
creative practices engendered among youth
through their use of technological devices.
Examples here include the use of the internet
in the circulation of knowledge and skills
underpinning forms of youth-based activity
such as breakdance (Fogarty 2006) and
skateboarding (Borden 2001). Similarly, ICTs
have become important platforms for the
honing of young peoples skills in relation to a
variety of practical applications such as radio
broadcasting (Baker 2010) and the facilitation of
local networks among young people for creative
activities such as dance, music, and drama
(Ditton 2010). As such examples illustrate,
rather than merely giving rise to negative and
antisocial forms of behaviour among young
people, digital media and related forms of
technology can also foster more positive
outcomes by offering young people pathways
to cultural and creative empowerment.

Youth culture and ageing


A further area of youth cultural research
in which there is significant potential for
theoretical and empirical development is
the relationship between youth culture and
ageing. Although a small body of work in this
area is now beginning to emerge, this is by no
means exhaustive in its range and scope.
Central to existing work in this field
is the contention that the stylistic and
aesthetic practices once firmly associated
with definitions of youth culture, as a
category circumscribed by age, are becoming
increasingly multi-generational (Bennett
2006; Holland 2004; Taylor 2010). Thus, it is
argued, the term youth culture can no longer
be defined as an age-specific category; rather
youth culture increasingly comes to describe
a range of stylistic sensibilities and aesthetic
practices acquired during youth-hood but
worked on and developed over time in such a
way that they become more permanent features
of identity and lifestyle over the duration of
the life course (Bennett forthcoming; Bennett &
Hodkinson forthcoming).
The preservation of aspects of youth
cultural identity and attendant leisure and
lifestyle practices during the post-youth life
course can be linked to broader attitudinal
changes towards ageing and the life course that
characterise late modernity (see, for example,
Crawford 2006; Blatterer 2007). The media and
cultural industries have significantly influenced
these changes. Thus the increasing role of
the media and associated forms of popular
culture in the representation of ageing bodies
and, by definition, ageing identities has led to
significant shifts in the way people think about
and conceptualise the ageing process (Blaikie
1999). As a consequence of this, once clearly
defined divisions between generations in terms
of leisure patterns and lifestyle preferences are
becoming increasingly blurred.
As such, the emergent strands of work
on ageing and youth culture are beginning
to present a series of questions relating to the
future of youth to this area of research. To
begin with, questions must be asked about
the continuing validity of the term youth
culture itself when clearly many of the forms
of cultural practice that previously marked

out youth as distinctive are now shared across


generations. Indeed, in many ways youth
culture is now much less an age-specific
category than a descriptor for a range of
aesthetic sensibilities and lifestyle practices
through which individuals locate themselves
in the cultural landscape, irrespective of
age. Conversely, youth culture, rather than
being regarded as a given descriptor for a
discrete set of youth-based practices, may be
an increasingly contested term as different
generations strive to inscribe it with notions
of authenticity and value associated with
particular eras of youth culture and associated
generational memories (Bennett 2001).
The relationship between visual image,
style and musical taste, as this has been
previously associated with youth culture, is
also increasingly complicated by the ageing
process. Thus, as individuals age, conventions
of visual style and image strongly associated
with specific notions of youth cultural
belonging and collective identity may
often become less central to, or apparent, in
individual representations of identity. Rather,
ageing individuals will often tone down or
abandon a visual image altogether as notions
of identification with a particular generation,
era and cultural referents such as music
become more internalised (Bennett 2006;
Holland 2004).

many of
the forms of
cultural practice
that previously
marked out
youth as
distinctive
are now
shared across
generations.

Insider research
A final area of youth cultural research
that has begun to develop in the wake of
the cultural turn relates to what is being
termed insider research. Increasingly,
those researching particular youth cultural
settings have pre-existing connections to and
involvement in those settings with the result
that the researcherparticipant distinction
is becoming increasingly blurred (Bennett
2002). Although, on the one hand, offering
certain advantages, including ready access
to the fieldwork setting and facilitation of
participant observation, the insider researcher
role is also prone to a number of problems.
Thus, as Hodkinson (2005) observes, one
potential disadvantage associated with the
insider approach is the assumption of existing
insider knowledge on the part of the

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researcher, with the result that respondents


will either dumb down their responses or
attempt to test the researchers (sub)cultural
integrity. Given this situation, there is a clear
need for insider researchers to balance their
own feelings of agency and affectivity with
the needs of the research being conducted.
In particular contexts, for example, where
issues of loyalty, belonging and inclusivity/
exclusivity are being focused on, the testing of
the researchers insider status by participants
may yield important data on discourses
and processes of reflection involved in the
boundary making of youth cultural groups.
A further issue associated with the
insider approach and one that has yet
to be fully acknowledged and critically
addressed in youth cultural research is
the influence of the researchers agency and
affectivity on the collection, interpretation and
presentation of the data. As work in the field
of auto-ethnography is beginning to illustrate,
the previously assumed maxim of researcher
objectivity is increasingly unsustainable
(see, for example, Anderson 2006). Indeed,
there is now increasing emphasis upon the
value of insider researchers utilising their
agency and affectivity as research tools in the
fieldwork process. As indicated above, in the
field of youth cultural research, engagement
with such issues has, thus far, been quite
limited. Malbons (1999) important work on
contemporary dance club culture has made
some significant inroads in this respect,
specifically through its attempt to prise open
the affective meaning of dance movements
from the point of view of dancing subjects (as
explicated through Malbons own experiences
as a dancing subject embodying the sonic
stimulus of the music). Similarly, preliminary
research by Driver (2011) on the Gold Coast
hardcore scene also utilises researcher agency
and affectivity as an interpretive research
tool in both data collection and the process
of analysis. Utilising Pinks (2009) concept
of sensory ethnography, Driver, a member
of the Gold Coast hardcore scene, seeks to
understand meanings of space and place
as these are understood and articulated
through the embodied experiences of
scene participants in their construction and
enactment of the scene.

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Conclusion
This article has offered a series of reflections
on the current status of research into various
forms of youth cultural practice both in
Australia and in a broader international
context. As the article has illustrated, the
field of youth cultural research has expanded
rapidly over the past 20 years both in terms
of its theoretical breadth and the range of
empirical issues now being studied. Indeed,
such is the depth and diversity of youth
cultural research that it begs significant
questions about the nature and definition
of culture as a motor force in the broader
everyday lives of young people. There remains
a temptation among many academics working
in other areas of youth research to consider
forms such as music, fashion, media and
creative practice as principally bound up with
leisure and thus peripheral to more pressing
issues pertaining to youth, for example
transitions, health and wellbeing. However,
now is arguably the time for greater attention
to cultural questions about youth and how
the integration of such questions into broader
youth research agendas can be achieved.

Notes
1. For an example of the impact that
post-subcultural theory has had on the
international community of youth culture
researchers, see Muggleton and Weinzierls
(eds), The post-subcultures reader (2003).

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Youth Studies Australia

author
Andy Bennett
is Professor of
Cultural Sociology
and Director of the
Griffith Centre for
Cultural Research at
Griffith University
in Queensland,
Australia. He is
Editor-in-Chief
of the Journal of
Sociology. He has
authored and edited
numerous books
including Popular
music and youth
culture; Cultures
of popular music;
Remembering
Woodstock and
Music scenes (with
Richard A. Peterson).

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