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Sport in Society

Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics

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Surface and substructure: beneath surfing's

commodified surface

Mark Stranger

To cite this article: Mark Stranger (2010) Surface and substructure: beneath surfing's
commodified surface, Sport in Society, 13:7-8, 1117-1134, DOI: 10.1080/17430431003780054

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Published online: 10 Sep 2010.

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Sport in Society
Vol. 13, No. 7/8, September October 2010, 11171134

Surface and substructure: beneath surfings commodified surface

Mark Stranger*

Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania, Hobart 7001, Tasmania, Australia

This article discusses the important role that surfings own culture industry plays in the
internal dynamics of the surfing subculture and at the nexus between the subculture and
mainstream society. It looks at the Big Three surfing culture companies Quiksilver,
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Billabong and Rip Curl and their trajectory from grass-roots, cottage-industry businesses
to global corporations. An alternative model to Marxs modern (economic) base and
(social) superstructure is proposed; i.e., an (economic) surface and (social) substructure.
This alternative model provides a useful framework for examining the dynamic between
the postmodern surfing subculture and the economy (both its own and the mainstream
economy). The model depicts a substructure consisting of surfings social formations and
sectors, based upon shared foundational experience of transcendence a sublime loss of
self in the act of surfing. Surfings culture industry is shown to provide goods for insiders
and present a commodified surface of symbolic tokens for mainstream consumers
of surfing style, and in the very process act both as a bulwark against mainstream
subsumption and an agent of postmodernization within the mainstream.

The commodification of subcultural style is often theorized in terms of a division between
authentic insider producers and mainstream appropriators; between resistance to and
incorporation by the dominant culture. This paper will show that despite surfing style
being incorporated into the dominant culture, this model does not fit the surfing subculture.
The historical context in which the contemporary surfing subculture and its grass-roots
industry evolved in Australia resulted in a benchmark for authenticity in the surfing culture
industry, not only in Australia but globally. Any company wishing to participate in the
surf-culture market is measured against this benchmark and the result is a key factor in
determining their success within the subcultures own market, as well as in the mainstream
market for authentic surf fashion goods. As a consequence, the surfing-culture industry
remains an integral part of the subculture, and one that has so far been instrumental in
maintaining boundaries between the subculture and mainstream society.
In order to explain the relationship between the subculture, its culture industry, and
the dominant culture (or mainstream) it is necessary to first provide a brief outline of the
embodied experience of surfers, of surfings social formations, and the nature of the
subculture. I will then provide an outline of the emergence of the surfing culture industry
in Australia, in particular the rise to prominence of three key companies Quiksilver,
Billabong and Rip Curl their role in constructing and maintaining the cultural
boundaries between the subculture and the mainstream, and the reflexive dynamic that
characterizes the relationship between the industry and the subculture.


ISSN 1743-0437 print/ISSN 1743-0445 online

q 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17430431003780054
1118 M. Stranger

The original research that informs this work included 10 months fieldwork at 15 general
locations, with each location including multiple surfing sites and some surfing-industry
sites. The ethnographic study covered all states and territories (except the land-locked
Australian Capital Territory) and most of the surfable coastline of Australia, ranging from
crowded urban beaches to coastal towns and isolated desert campsites. Besides participant
observation, there were 31 taped interviews with key people, including industry CEOs,
magazine editors, surf shop owners, professional surfers, surfing sport bureaucrats, surfing
legends and local identities. One-hundred-and-twenty-nine questionnaires were
administered at 18 different surfing sites.
Information was also sourced from the surfing subcultures books on surfing and surfers,
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surfing video productions, magazines and websites, internal and public documents from
surfings sporting bodies and commercial companies (including reports, correspondence and
promotional material). These were a direct source of information for historical, social, cultural
and technical data, and also objects of analysis as cultural artefacts in their own right.
At the time of conducting the study I had been involved in surfing for nearly 30 years,
including 15 years on the margins of industry and professional surfing through an
involvement in my brothers surfboard manufacturing business.1 My status as a surfer
allowed me quick access to the subculture at each new location. By simply going surfing
I could establish my credentials as a journeyman surfer. My status as an industry insider
gave me access to key people in industry, professional surfing and the sports bureaucracy.
Since completing this ethnographic study I have continued participating as a keen surfer
and observer of the subculture and its culture industry. This paper incorporates
developments and observations since the original study2 and addresses some of the wealth
of literature that has since emerged on surfing and similar activities.3

Self, sociality and subculture

The surfing subculture is essentially a postmodern4 phenomenon hypercommodified,
operating through an aesthetic reflexivity rather than a modern rational paradigm, and
blurring the boundaries between work and play, between sport and art, and between
classes.5 An aesthetic reflexivity facilitates a lifestyle that embraces the risks involved in
the pursuit of ecstatic communion with nature; not for secondary beneficial outcomes (e.g.,
physical fitness, psychological well-being) but for the intrinsic value of the experience
itself.6 Flow theory provides an insight into the nature of the ecstatic thrill experienced
in surfing and how it can foster escalating levels of risk-taking as a consequence of an
addictive desire to repeat the experience.7 I have described it as an experience of
the sublime mirrored though an appreciation of the sublime in the power and beauty of the
ocean, both in situ and simulated through images of waves and surfing in the subcultures
magazines, video productions and on the internet.8
Flow theory explains these ecstatic moments of transcendence as resulting from a
challenge to an individuals skill to the extent that they are so engaged in the activity that
they lose any sense of distinction between themselves and the world around them:
Because of the deep concentration on the activity at hand, the person in flow . . . loses
temporarily the awareness of self. . . . At the most challenging levels, people actually report
experiencing a transcendence of self . . . The climber feels at one with the mountain . . . The
mountaineer does not climb in order to reach the top of the mountain, but tries to reach the
summit in order to climb.9
Sport in Society 1119

If you get an incredible barrel [ride inside a hollow wave] you just scream . . . its an
overwhelming exhilaration. . . . The chase for dangerous waves and challenging situations, for
power, pushing the limits . . . the risk factor; its very important. You feel stoked [thrilled]
when you have nearly been killed . . . its weird (Pam Burridge interview).10
When you abandon yourself to the rhythm of the wave and become part of that rhythm you get
that arrested time . . . The ecstatic moment is increased in intensity with an increase in size and
the critical nature [difficulty and danger] of the wave (Wayne Lynch interview).
In these moments of peak experience11 the individual is said to transcend the social and
experience the true self. I argue that this is a foundational experience for the surfing
subculture; i.e., the shared knowledge of this transcendence of the self constitutes a form
of collective consciousness12 that exists on a global scale. The foundation is constantly
renewed through the lived experience of its members, relived and reinforced through their
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moments of sociality, and underpins the culture in all its authentic social formations and

Social formations
Postmodern approaches typically depict any community experience as transitory. Bauman,
for example, claims that any order that the postmodern individual experiences is the
product of local, emergent and transitory sociality as opposed to the relative stability
provided by modern social structures.14 Maffesoli takes a similar approach with his
concept of transitory neo-tribes, which he claims replace the mainstream social structure
with multiple sites of interactive processes.15 This neo-tribalism emerges through the
actions of groups of people simply being together (e.g., at concerts, bars, sporting events),
the development of a collective consciousness, and the ecstatic transcendence of the self
within the group. For Maffesoli, these neo-tribes are transient and fluid, existing only
within the moments of sociality that create them. Simmels concept of sociability, which
he described as the play-form of association,16 appears to be almost indistinguishable
from the sociality described by Bauman and Maffesoli. Both are said to provide the
possibility of transcendence, but Simmel saw the need for sociability to be anchored to
real life in some way.
Here Simmel provides a key to understanding the transience and emptiness of neo-
tribes, constituted as they are on the basis of individuals simply being together and
dissolving when they are not (together). In contrast, the existential experience of real life
could hardly be more intensely felt than when risk-takers confront the dangers inherent in
their edgework activities.17 The intensity of the shared foundational experience, the
commitment of time and resources to the lifestyles and the development of skills needed to
pursue it, all contribute to the relative stability of these groups, which I have called
grounded neo-tribes.18 It is indicative of this stability that 50% of respondents to my
studys questionnaire claim to have been surfers for 10 years or more, with 84% of all
respondents surfing an average of at least once per week throughout the year.19 The 2005
2006 Sweeney Report states that 88% of surfers who responded to their survey surfed at
least 36 times per year.20 Surfing culture, like windsurfing, is a culture of commitment.21
But the individuals own embodied experience of ecstatic communion is not
necessarily typical of every surfing experience. Its a foot-on-the-summit feeling, a sense
of climax. It comes rarely, and the hope that it will come again soon keeps spurring you
on (Midget Farrelly).22 The greater the skill level of the surfer the harder it is to challenge
it. The thrills involved in flow are often referred to as addictive by surfers, and participants
in other sports.23 Although the pursuit of risk is not normally an end in itself for surfers,
1120 M. Stranger

risk does act as a catalyst in the challenge-to-skill equation, and this leads to the search for
larger, more powerful and difficult waves. Its like a drug. You get the thrill fairly easily
at first, but then it becomes harder to achieve and you have to ride larger and larger waves
in order to get that feeling again (Mike interview).24
For big and powerful waves to be surfable there needs to be a coming together of a
number of natural elements, including large swells, off-shore winds, and the correct tides.
A surfer needs a combination of flexible lifestyle and luck in order to be in the right place at
the right time. All the elements may only be in harmony for an hour or two before
the conditions change, and they may not come together again for many weeks. Here the
sociality involved in the subculture around campfires, at pubs and parties, and the often
long hours spent in search of waves plays an important role in sustaining surfers between
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the less frequent but more intense foundational experience. The shared knowledge of the
foundational experience transcends spatial and temporal boundaries through surfings
collective consciousness, which is reinforced through storytelling and through the
photographs and video productions that animate surfings moments of sociality, presented
by the surfing media on a global scale.

The term subculture, especially in its CCCS (Centre for Contemporary Cultural
Studies) modes, has been widely criticized as being inadequate to describe the variety of
subcultural-type social formations of the current day.25 By broadening the definition
beyond working-class male youth to encompass counter-cultural formations and taste and
style based formations, the term can be said to lose its explanatory power. However, it is in
this broad sense that I maintain it retains its usefulness. Firstly, as an umbrella term to cover
the many alternatives and variations on the concept of subculture that have emerged in
recent years. Secondly, because the notion of resistance and incorporation, which is a key
theme of CCCS approaches, remains a valuable tool for understanding the more stable
subcultural formations, like surfing and many other alternative/lifestyle sport formations.
Resistance here is not that of a class struggle or an anti-capitalist stance, but a resistance to
subsumption by the mainstream.26 The model of resistance I present briefly in this paper,
and explain in more detail elsewhere,27 includes the notion of resistance via incorporation.
This approach describes the relationship between the subculture and dominant culture as a
dialectical one. This accounts for the increasing problem of identifying a mainstream
against which the subculture can be defined, in terms of an emerging synthesis a
postmodernization of the mainstream.
Beneath the commodified surface that the industry presents to mainstream consumers
the symbolic tokens, the surfing style is a substructure based upon a foundational
experience. The subcultures own grass-roots culture industry is an integral part of that
substructure and plays a key role in the mediation of surfings collective consciousness
through the creation and dissemination of images and meanings, myths and legends. The
surface they maintain acts as a nexus between the subculture and the mainstream through
which the industry reinforces the boundaries of the subculture. They sell tokens that
declare the distinction between the subculture and the mainstream and confirm to the
mainstream consumer their outsider status, albeit an outsider with a glimpse of something
beneath surfings commodified surface. But none of this is unproblematic, and as the
remainder of this paper will demonstrate, the relationship between the industry and the
subculture is complex, sometimes inconsistent, sometimes turbulent, and as might be
expected, inherently fluid.
Sport in Society 1121

The surfing culture industry28

An overview
In its postmodern form, aestheticization operates within, and substantially in concert with,
a (hyper)commodified environment.29 The commodification of surfing has been integral to
the subcultures development. It is so pervasive that there is no part of the culture that has
not been affected; no uncommodified space with which to contrast it. Even the
foundational experience is commodified through the surfing-culture industrys promotions
(see below). This de-differentiation of base and superstructure is described by Lash as the
colonization of the commodity by culture.30 Similarly, Jameson claims that culture now
cleaves almost too close to the skin of the economic to be stripped off and inspected in
its own right.31 In this section I examine the surfing-culture industry in order to
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establish its role as part of and its impact upon the surfing subculture and its social
In spite of the conflict surfers had with the established authority on the beaches (i.e.,
the Surf Life Saving Association and local councils),32 the mainstream media initially
embraced the new surfing culture. This is perhaps not surprising given the dynamics
between pleasure and discipline at play in the wider community in the early 1960s and
trends towards individual expression and self-discovery:
All the mass media and channels of publicity have thrown their weight behind the surfies: the
Sunday newspapers carry surfing supplements, disc jockeys plug surf music remorselessly,
the advertising agencies flatter and glamorize the beach life. They know what the coming
thing is.33
But while surfing culture was being appropriated and sanitized for popular consumption
and marketing, the subculture was developing independently in a more subversive
direction through its own magazines, its own movies and an affinity with the co-emergent
counter-culture movement. The elements of conspicuous display34 in the Californian
scene became a part of the booming scene in Australia as well, with vandalism, wild
parties and general antisocial behaviour becoming distinguishing features of the new
surfing subculture.35
By the late 1960s the contradictions between the mainstream version and the more
subversive reality had become apparent and surfing temporarily lost its market appeal
within the mainstream.36 During this period a cottage industry began to flourish from
within surfings own ranks, supplying (and cultivating) a demand for surfing accessories
and a unique style of clothing. While mainstream companies had their backs turned, the
opportunity for them to move in and develop the surfing market, and thereby influence the
nature of the burgeoning surfing subculture, was lost.

The Big Three

The surfing culture industry in Australia is dominated by three large companies
Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl all of whom consistently rank amongst the top-five
surfing industry companies internationally.37 In typical post-industrial fashion, their
products are now made offshore in developing countries. Their first world bases
concentrate on product development, design, distribution, marketing and promotional
activities. At the time of writing they are the three top-ranked surf companies in the world.
The influence of these companies is significant on a global scale.38
The Big Three have their critics within the subculture, and their dominance of the
surfing-culture industry is not always healthy in a free market sense.39 However, I argue
1122 M. Stranger

that their position within the subculture, in combination with their broader commercial
success, has made them bulwarks of resistance to subsumption within the dominant culture
and appropriation by the mainstream culture industry. This has occurred through the very
process of hypercommodification, which: (1) creates symbolic boundaries and tokens for
the surfing subculture; and (2) markets these symbols to mainstream consumers, reinforcing
the boundaries while allowing the consumption of a taste of the surfing aesthetic.
Importantly, this commodification has occurred without alienating significant numbers of
core surfers. One key element in maintaining the link with core surfers is that the companies
supply good-quality functional items40 (as opposed to purely symbolic goods) that the core
accepts as genuine insider products. Key amongst these has been their wetsuits. Through
advances in wetsuit design and the flexibility of material, surfing has become possible or
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simply more enjoyable in a wider range of climates and water temperatures.

The Big Three all came from within the Australian surfing subculture in the late 1960s and
early 1970s; surfers supplying commodities for surfers that the mainstream culture industry
failed to deliver (due to their withdrawal as outlined above) and playing a significant role in
the development and marketing of surf fashion. While all three produce functional items
for the surfing community (e.g., wetsuits), a significant portion of their income (if not most)
now comes from the sale of surf fashion and accessories sold to non-surfers. By capitalizing
on their historical significance and continuous connection with the subculture, they have
been able to ward-off infiltration of the subculture market by outside (mainstream)
companies and also, dominate the mainstream market for surf-culture products.
Rip Curl was founded in 1969 in the Victorian town of Torquay by two surfers, Doug
Warbrick and Brian Singer, who made surfboards for the local market. In 1970 they began
making wetsuits designed for surfing, something that no other company was doing in
Australia at the time,41 and by 1973 they were the market leader in Australian sales. They
now also produce clothing and accessories, and have corporate licensees in countries
including the USA, France, South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Japan. In
1998 it was estimated that they supplied over a third of the world market for surfing
wetsuits42 and in 2003 it was reported that they had 8% of the global surf-wear market with
an annual turnover of $340 million.43 In 2009 LaFrenz claimed that Rip Curl was the third
largest company in the $8 Billion (AUD) board sports market.44
Quiksilver was also founded in Torquay when, in 1973, Alan Green left Rip Curl to
concentrate on clothing in partnership with another surfer, John Law. Quiksilver has since
expanded into wetsuits, fashion and other accessories. It has licensees across the globe,
including Europe, Japan, Brazil, USA, Canada, South Africa, Chile, Indonesia, Mexico,
Turkey and South Korea. Quiksilver is now a publicly listed company based in the US, and
Green and Law were retained as advisers to the company.45 In 2003 Quiksilver was
reported to be the worlds largest surf-wear company with an annual turnover of $1.7
billion (AUD).46
Billabong started on Queenslands Gold Coast in 1973 when a surfboard maker,
Gordon Merchant, formed a business partnership with his wife and began making
boardshorts.47 The company is now publicly listed in Australia and produces wetsuits,
clothing and fashion accessories with markets that have expanded into Europe, the US, and
Japan. Billabong is said to have 11% of the global market with an annual turnover,
reported in 2003 to be $490 million (AUD), making them the second largest surfwear
Sport in Society 1123

When mainstream interest in the culture re-awakened in Australia with the

professionalization of surfing as a competitive sport, many surf-culture manufacturers
took the opportunity to break into the mainstream market, selling surfing style in major
department store chains. While this was a significant moment in the (re)incorporation of
surfing culture into the mainstream, it was a fairly short-term affair for the Big Three, who
either resisted the temptation or soon withdrew from these mainstream outlets in order to
avoid losing credibility within the subculture (a fate which had been the undoing of some
prominent US brands).49 Mainstream manufacturers were able to appropriate the surfing
style by producing surfwear under their own labels or, alternatively, purchasing existing
surfwear companies. But the Big Threes strategy of appearing to shun the mainstream
market fostered their subcultural image, which made their brands even more desirable to
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savvy mainstream consumers.

With the increased interest in surfing culture in Australia, most surf shops, once cult
enclaves intimidating to outsiders, began to change their focus, transforming into surf
boutiques and targeting the more lucrative mainstream market for authentic tokens of
surf culture. Entrepreneurs also moved in from outside the surfing culture to take
advantage of this lucrative new market, following the formula of the insider retail
businesses. These surf shops couldnt afford not to stock the Big Three brands, because the
mainstream public typically came to buy these authentic labels. As one surf shop owner
confided, he only stocked surfboards and wetsuits for the image; the real money is in the
clothing (from fieldnotes). An executive from one of the Big Three stated that surf shops
function as virtually our own chain of stores to sell from (Eric, interview).
As mentioned above, their influence is not always considered a positive one. Magazines
rely on their advertising to such an extent that when Quiksilver was convicted for false
labeling having declared that their wetsuits were made in Australia when in fact they
were made in China there was no mention of it in any of the surfing media. The editor of
one of the top magazines at the time said that the company had strenuously put it to him
that there was nothing to be gained by publicizing the case, and while there had been no
threat of withdrawing advertising he didnt want to let it get to that stage and agreed with
their request. We walk a fine line between trying to maintain our independence and not
upsetting these companies (Tim Baker, interview). And from another editor; I get
dictated to by the big companies as to what I can write editorially. Id love to do an expose
on them but I darent (Bill, interview).
The influence that the Big Three have over the surfing culture industry is pervasive and
formidable. In what follows I will discuss the way this influence affects the construction
and maintenance of cultural boundaries between the surfing subculture and the dominant

Cultural boundaries
The Big Three promote the distinction between the subculture and the mainstream. The
symbolic boundaries they create serve to keep mainstream leisure companies (such as
Nike) from gaining a foothold in the subculture market, while providing themselves with
access to the mainstream market via an image of authenticity. In the process the Big Three
dominate the hyper-commodified symbolic community mediated through surfing
magazines and video productions.50 The Big Three all endeavour to maintain their links
with the surfing subculture through their deference to the surfing experience and the myth
of the untrammelled surfing life. They do this through their marketing and myth-making
and by incorporating it into their corporate cultures and their corporate image:
1124 M. Stranger

[L]eading players in the trade still live and operate from the small-town surfing meccas in
which they started. They employ devotees of the sport on a flexi-time basis so that, from CEO
to floor sweeper, theyre free to slam the office door and bolt for the beach . . . Its this policy of
maintaining the rage . . . that has been fundamental in keeping the faith with core
Its not a policy to employ only surfers, but it is felt that there is an advantage to do so because
it keeps us in touch with our market. . . . When I was hired I was told by the executive director
that he expected to see me in the surf when it was good and not in the office. Its not a hard and
fast rule but it is a strong policy (Eric, interview).52
This approach is evident in the way that Rip Curl has conducted their annual meetings. They
are held aboard a boat cruising the Indian Ocean, stopping at remote island surf locations:
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On those trips, we make sure we take along people in their mid-20s who are already in the
management structure but are still progressive surfers so they are completely immersed in the
surfing lifestyle . . . They put us back on track if we older guys start losing the plot.53
While this corporate culture is clearly used as part of the companys promotional myth
making, it also serves to maintain the link with the subcultures collective consciousness.
The industrys connection with surfings foundational experience can be represented in the
shape of an inverted pyramid (Figure 1) that rests upon the sublime experience of surfing.
The first level supplies functional commodities to surfers, such as surfboards, wetsuits,
wax, leg-ropes and other surfing-related accessories.54 The next level up one step
removed from the experience supplies surfers with lifestyle commodities, such as travel
packages, magazines and video productions (that provide the means for communication
with other surfers beyond the local community) and clothing, accessories and the other
tokens of identification. These signs are also marketed in the final level where the surfing
image is sold to the mainstream as surf fashion. By providing the surfing community with
good-quality functional products directly linked to the act of surfing, the Big Three
maintain their credentials as insiders from the point of view of surfers and outsiders
(i.e., mainstream consumers).
This image of authenticity is further enhanced because the companies rarely sell their
products in overtly mainstream stores, but require outsiders to cross over into surf shops
(often simulated versions) to purchase their brands from within (simulated) subcultural
space, as a tourist might buy a genuine souvenir in an authentic native village.55 Many
of the industry heads have made a decision not to market in the mainstream shops and not
to advertise in the mainstream media (Eric interview).56

Mainstream nexus

Symbolic tokens

Lifestyle products

Functional products

Surfing experience

Figure 1. The surfing culture industry as configured by the Big Three. (Stranger, Risk-Taking &
Postmodernity, 217).
Sport in Society 1125

These simulated surf shops, or surf boutiques as they are disparagingly called, target
the mainstream market and are decorated with the symbols of the surfing subculture. They
display surfboards that they rarely sell, screen surfing DVDs and stock magazines, but their
target market is not the established surfer, it is the surfing neophytes and other identity
shoppers. These outlets can be found in malls and shopping centres all over the country,
including Alice Springs (in the heart of central Australia), and even in Paris, New York and
Dubai. The mainstream consumer can purchase a t-shirt which declares Only a Surfer
Knows the Feeling57 literally or symbolically and in doing so help in the maintenance
of difference which made the product desirable in the first place. They are not necessarily
pseudo-surfers58 but also postmodern consumers of style, experiencing to some degree the
surfing aesthetic; an aesthetic in opposition to the modern rational order. The aesthetic
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aura is then the consumers primary acquisition, with the article merely coming
alongside. . . . [A]esthetics altogether is not just the vehicle, but rather the essence.59
In this way the commodification of the surfing aesthetic markets the existence of the
secret (the feeling that only surfers know). A secret that unites those who know60 through
the subcultures substructure, and provides forms and degrees of pleasurable association
for those who dont, as they play with the symbolic tokens available on surfings
commodified surface. The notion of a substructure is consistent with the observation that
surfings neo-tribal configurations are grounded in a shared experience of communion that
facilitates and supports the surface. The surface in Figure 2 is the mainstream nexus in
Figure 1, and the foundational experience, which anchors the subculture in Figure 2, is the
optimum surfing experience to which the authentic surfing-culture industry is linked in
Figure 1.
The corporate image fostered by the Big Three helps ensure their dominant position
within the mainstream market for surfing culture, and promotes their insider status within
the subculture. This strategy is enhanced further by: (1) their sponsorship of large numbers
of promising young surfers; (2) the production of high-quality videos, magazine articles,
internet sites, and advertising, in which they promote themselves through myth and image
making as an integral part of the subculture; and (3) backing both sides of the long-
standing conflict within the subculture between those who see surfing as a sport and those
who see it as an art form:61 The dichotomy between soul surfing and competitive surfing
really does exist . . . The existence of the two elements of Rip Curls promotions
[competitive and soul surfing] is recognition of the dichotomy (Eric, interview).
The Big Three promote major surfing competitions and sponsor the top competition
surfers. At the same time they sponsor other highly talented surfers as soul surfers



Foundational experience

Figure 2. Surface and substructure.

1126 M. Stranger

(or free surfers) who, while they may compete occasionally, are promoted as free spirits
who live the mythical surfing life, travelling to exotic locations and surfing in their videos
and featuring in their magazine and online promotions.
The Big Three emphasize their roots in surfing, in their myths of origin, as part of their
promotional and marketing strategies. They maintain their links with the culture in a
variety of ways, including the incorporation of the surfing aesthetic within the corporate
culture. In doing so they have set a benchmark for others wishing to supply the surfing
market with its specific cultural goods. This can be seen as constituting what DiMaggio
and Powell call coercive isomorphism, whereby smaller or up-and-coming organizations
are forced to replicate the structural/cultural form of dominant organizations in order to be
seen as legitimate.62 Other companies must compete against the impeccable insider
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pedigrees of the Big Three in a culture whose myths embed surfing in opposition to the
The Big Three have become a dominant force in the creation and maintenance of
surfing culture, and the subculture has become significantly dependent upon them for the
construction and maintenance of the subcultures symbolic boundaries. But the success
that these companies have had in differentiating the subculture from the mainstream and
establishing themselves as the benchmark for authenticity has put them in a position where
their continued success within the surfing market (and as a consequence within the
mainstream market) depends upon the maintenance of their connection with the
subculture, both symbolically and demonstrably, through the foundational experience
upon which it rests.

Reflexivity and the surfing culture industry

According to Bernstein, Adorno saw the culture industry as the societal realization of the
defeat of reflection; it is the realization of subsumptive reason, the unification of the many
under the one.63 And while recognizing that creative interpretation occurs on both the
individual and collective levels, Giddens also laments that to varying degrees, the project
of the self becomes translated into one of the possession of desired goods and the pursuit of
artificially framed styles of life . . . a substitute for the genuine development of self.64
However, this study did not reveal a lack of reflection in the way that surfers
approached the consumption of their cultural commodities. Despite the best efforts of the
Big Three, the mainstream success of these companies is enough for many core surfers to
shun them in favour of smaller, equally authentic companies when buying surfing goods.
Some surfers refuse to buy surf label clothing altogether.65 The accumulation of
experience in their local surfing scene will inform the neophyte surfer as to the desirability
of certain brands or styles of clothing within the area they live. The diagram below
(Figure 3) shows that the percentage of surfers who wear a lot of surf label clothing is
much greater in the urban areas of Australia, where the symbolic tokens play a more
significant role in differentiating a surfer from the broader community. The percentage
decreases as these symbols play a less significant role; i.e., where an individuals identity
as a surfer is more likely to be known amongst the smaller general population.66 The
surfing subculture is clearly not a unified culture of homogenous tastes, styles or attitudes.
On a global scale, solidarity amongst surfers is a function of the collective consciousness
and a shared orientation to the pursuit of a life built around a passion for surfing. At the
local level, solidarity is contingent and fluid.
The industry supplies an inventory of ends and pool of means which go towards the
self assembly of a persons surfing identity,67 promoted through the surfing media, and
Sport in Society 1127

Urban Country Remote

11% 4% 11%
49% Some
40% A Lot

Figure 3. Surf label consumption by location type.

Note: Taken from the questionnaire conducted at surfing locations around Australia. The
respondents were asked: Do you wear surf label clothing a lot, some, or none? (Stranger, Risk-
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Taking & Postmodernity, 224).

subject to the reflexivity of local surfing communities and peer groups. As the individual
gains knowledge of the subtleties of the local culture, the use of symbols becomes refined:
When I first went to the coast I was conscious to make sure I had a Rip Curl or Billabong
shirt . . . it was the in thing and to go to the coast and not have a Rip Curl shirt youd be a
tourist . . . It took me a while . . . I thought, why bother? I surf and so I dont bother anymore.
I guess I was a sucker, a sheep.68
Ford and Brown report that the longer a person has been surfing the less importance is
placed on surf fashion; the emphasis on fashion as an indicator of identity to outsiders
decreases in favour of a shift to performance as an indication of status to insiders. My
research is also consistent with these findings, with a decline in the use of surf label clothing
as the number of years experience of surfing increases.69 The same reflexive process is
evident in regards to other areas of cultural production, including the representations of
lifestyle, attitudes and behaviours that are mobilized to market the industrys products.
Surfing culture varies depending on national and local (current and historical) factors.
The industrys symbolic representations of surfing culture are accepted or rejected on
these grounds through the communicative activity in surfing communities everywhere; be
they small, tightly configured enclaves or larger, loosely configured communities more
reliant on the symbolic realm. Acceptance or rejection of the industrys offerings is clearly
a part of the cultural production process.70 And while the industry is a dominant player in
the process, it is not able to impose style unchallenged. Because the Big Three rely so
much upon their image as genuine members of the subculture for access to both the surfing
and mainstream markets, and because the credibility of this image is so dependent upon
the substantive truth of the claim, the subculture plays a significant role in mediating the
relationship between these companies and their mainstream markets.
The surfing-culture industrys links with the subculture, particularly those created and
maintained through the corporate culture of the Big Three, provide the structural basis for
what Giddens calls active trust: Active trust is trust that has to be energetically treated
and sustained. It is at the origin of new forms of social solidarity today, in contexts ranging
from intimate personal ties right through to global systems of interaction.71 In a sense, the
industry has a license to operate; i.e., to represent surfing, to market surfing style to
mainstream consumers, and make a substantial profit in the process. This license is a
product of active trust and is therefore in a constant state of review and renewal. Amongst
the issues key to the maintenance of trust are: (1) the companies retain their insider status;
(2) they present surfing culture in a manner that is broadly acceptable to surfers and that
maintains the differentiated status of the culture; and (3) the success of the companies
1128 M. Stranger

leads to the production of functional and lifestyle products that are of a high quality and
reasonably priced.

Summary and conclusion

Clarke et al.72 argue that a subcultures style exists within a total life-style package, and
that once commodified it becomes a novel consumption style, providing what
postmodern theorists might consider as free-floating symbols in the archive of styles.73
Through the commercial nexus with the mainstream, the surfing subculture becomes less
threatening and the subversive meanings attached to the symbolic tokens it markets to the
general public may become diluted, but they are not emptied of meaning. Nor is this
commercial infiltration of the mainstream simply a matter of winning space.74
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Surfing style is not free floating, it is attached to something real (at least for surfers),
and while the mainstream required an acceptable image in order to justify engagement
with the subculture, once engagement was achieved it was surfings oppositional image
that was appropriated75 much more than the rationalized sporting image; an example of
(symbolic) resistance via incorporation, a Trojan horse infiltration (postmodernization)
of the mainstream.76 For Lanagan, the process is one that alienates surfers from their
culture, causing them to recede from ownership of the pleasurable and playful lifestyle.77
But this approach doesnt account for the insider status of the Big Three, their link with the
foundational (surfing) experience, and the reflexive role that surfers play in legitimizing
and consuming their products. It is possible that as a result of their coercive
isomorphism78 the Big Threes corporate culture may outlive the reign of their founding
(surfer) entrepreneurs, and avoid the modern trajectory to alienated and alienating
bureaucratic organization. But as Lanagan rightly points out, the floating of Quiksilver and
Billabong on the stock exchange is problematic.79 Amongst other issues, there is a real
potential for the interests of the shareholders to be at odds with the maintenance of
surfings subcultural boundaries.80
The continued growth of the Big Three threatens to break the active trust that has
characterized their relationship with the subculture. It also threatens the integrity of the
subculture as something distinct from the mainstream. But it is important to recognize the
broader social context in which these processes are occurring. The movement of the Big
Three towards mainstream incorporation is a part of a broader aestheticization process
itself, i.e., the aestheticization of the mainstream (resistance via incorporation). The
impact of these dialectical machinations on the subculture is, like most things in this time
of rapid and erratic change, contingent upon too many factors to be predictable.
While the creative process involved in the surfing-culture industry is anchored in the
subculture then it will remain an integral part of the culture it helps to define. Rather than
an invasion of the surfing lifeworld,81 the industry functions as a crucial component of that
lifeworld. A consequence of the insider status of the surfing companies is that they are
subject to the ramifications of their own actions in a more profound way than simply
through the fluctuations of the market. The industry is a subset of the subculture and the
individuals involved in the industry are, to an important extent, a subset of the general
surfing population. The boundaries between these subsets, such as they are, have been
constructed in the context of trust and an aesthetic reflexivity, which is active within the
industry, inherent in the corporate culture of its dominant players, and in the surfing
subculture generally.
While the industry plays a substantial role in promoting surfing within the dominant
culture, it does so via the construction of symbolic boundaries between the subculture and
Sport in Society 1129

the mainstream, i.e., it markets symbolic tokens of surfing that declare its difference. The
affinity that the industry has with its subculture comes from a largely internal reflexivity (to
the subculture) and the de-differentiated subcultural habitus. To date the Big Three have
viewed the construction and maintenance of surfings subcultural boundaries to be in their
interest. This picture of oppositional postmodernism, which favours community and
collective identity,82 is constituted via an aesthetic anchored in the shared experience of the
sublime (the foundational experience which underpins the subculture) its grounded neo-
tribal configurations and its culture industry. However, this postmodern form is in conflict
with a concurrent mainstream postmodernism, which favours market governance and
individual distinction,83 and to which the surfing-culture industry is also linked through the
arena of competitive surfing.
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The relationship between the surfing-culture industry, competitive surfing, and the
dominant culture, is complex and unique, and has significant implications for the integrity
of the subculture and the industry. It is just one of several topics relevant to understanding
the dynamic between surfings substructure and its commodified surface that have not
been addressed in this paper.84 What has been presented is a theoretical framework
through which the surfing subculture (and similar social formations), with all its
complexity and contradictions, can be examined and better understood.

This has mostly been a non-commercial relationship over many years where I help out with
marketing and manage the website and Nick (my brother) makes my surfboards (http://www.
Stranger, Risk-taking & Postmodernity.
This paper draws on a monograph that updates the original thesis (Stranger, Surfing Life). This
publication expands on the analysis presented here and includes chapters on the contemporary
surfing subculture, self, risk and identity, and sportization, amongst others.
I use the term post-modern in a broad sense to include a range of post and neo-modernist
approaches that share an appreciation of the characteristics of contemporary social change, if not
the terminology and trajectory (see Kumar, From Post-industrial to Post-modern Society).
Lash and Urry, Economies of Signs and Space; Crook, Pakulski and Waters, Postmodernization;
Rojek, Leisure and Culture.
Stranger, Aesthetics of Risk; see also Ford and Brown, Surfing and Social Theory, 155 63;
Stranger, Sociology of Risk.
Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, Optimal Experience.
Stranger, Aesthetics of Risk, 273.
Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, Optimal Experience, 33.
All interviews cited in this paper were conducted as part of the original research (Stranger, Risk-
Taking & Postmodernity).
Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi,
(Optimal Experience), drew on Maslows concept of peak-experience for their flow theory.
Durkheim, Division of Labour.
Stranger, Risk-taking & Postmodernity; Surfing Life.
Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity.
Maffesoli, Time of the Tribes.
Simmel, Sociability.
Lyng, Edgework.
Stranger, Risk-taking & Postmodernity; Surfing Life. These grounded neo-tribes are consistent
with an oppositional postmodernism which Lash says is more oriented towards collective
identity rather than the isolated individualism of mainstream postmodernism which
corresponds with the tragic transience of Maffesolis concept of neo-tribes (Lash, Sociology
of Postmodernism, 37 8).
This level of commitment is indicative of the mostly core surfers surveyed across Australia.
1130 M. Stranger
Surfing Australia, Surfing in Australia. The Sweeney Report on sport in Australia is conducted
every two years, covering over 50 sports and providing information on Australias sporting
interests, sponsorship, media, events and athlete profiles (
The surfer respondents in these reports are not representative of the core surfing population.
Wheaton, Windsurfing.
Farrelly and McGregor, Surfing Life, 21.
Celsi, Rose and Leigh, An Exploration of High-risk Leisure; Stranger, Risk-taking &
Postmodernity; Sociology of Risk; Surfing Life.
Stranger, Aesthetics of Risk, 267.
Thornton, Club Culture; Hodkinson, Goth; Muggleton and Weinzierl, Post-Subcultures Reader;
Ford and Brown, Surfing and Social Theory; Wheaton, After Sport Culture.
Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture; Hodkinson, Goth; Wheaton, After Sport Culture.
Stranger, Risk-taking and Postmodernity; Surfing Life.
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The surfing-culture industry includes surfing tourism, media, surfing schools, professional
surfing, clothing and fashion accessories, wetsuits, surfboard manufacturing, and other surfing-
related accessories.
Lash, Sociology of Postmodernism; Jameson, Postmodernism; Crook, Pakulski and Waters,
Postmodernization; Lash and Urry, Economies of Signs and Space; Kumar, Post-industrial to
Post-modern Society; Featherstone, Undoing Culture; Welsch, Aestheticization Processes;
Malpas, Postmodern.
Lash, Sociology of Postmodernism, 197.
Jameson, Postmodernism, xv.
Pearson, Surfing Subcultures of Australia; Booth, Surfing 60s; Irwin, Surfing.
McGregor, Profile of Australia, 285.
Irwin, Surfing.
Booth, Surfing 60s.
Law, Surfing the Safety Net; Booth, Surfing.
Goatley, Barons in Boardshorts, 71 9. By discussing these companies as a group, I may give
the impression that the Big Three form some kind of cartel. This is not my intention. However,
while they are separate and competitive companies, their strategies in regard to the areas of
interest here have been so similar as to justify this approach.
Ford and Brown, Surfing and Social Theory, 56.
Gliddon, Mad Wax; Fitzsimmons, Sounds of Summer; Booth, Paradoxes of Material
Booth, Paradoxes of Material Culture; Wheaton, Selling Out?.
Prior to the availability of purpose-built wetsuits (first manufactured by ONeil in the USA),
surfers either used scuba-diving suits which severely restricted movement when paddling and
surfing or they braved the cold. During the Tasmanian winter, for example, surfers often wore
woollen football jumpers rather than the restrictive and expensive diving suits (Mike interview).
Goatley, Barons in Boardshorts, 79; Jarratt, Boys Town: Torquay, 76.
Hoy, Surfwear Companies Ride the Tide.
LaFrenz, Strong Quits Rip Curl. Board sports include surfing and its derivatives, such as
snowboarding, skateboarding, windsurfing, and kite-surfing. This classification reflects the
strategy of these companies to expand beyond surfing by first incorporating these related sports.
According to Bob McKnight, Quiksilver CEO, the longer-term goal for his company is to become
the dominant lifestyle brand for the global youth market (Transworld Business, Quiksilver
Buys Australian). The potential implications of these strategies for the role and standing of the
companies within the subculture and for the integrity of the subculture itself are significant (for a
discussion of these matters see Stranger, Surfing Life).
Transworld Business, Quiksilver Buys Australian.
Hoy, Surfwear Companies Ride the Tide.
Boardshorts were designed in the US to withstand the punishment that conventional bathing
costumes could not (Doyle, Morning Glass). They were longer in the leg, which helped prevent
chaffing on the inside of surfers legs that occurred as a result of straddling the board while
waiting their turn in the line-up for waves. The shorts became a medium for the display of surfing
style (through colour, prints and cut) and an enduring symbolic token for the subculture.
Hoy, Surfwear Companies Ride the Tide.
Sport in Society 1131
Gail Austen and Bill interviews. See also Goatley, Barons in Boardshorts; Doyle, Morning
Glass; Lanagan, Dropping In.
Increasingly the symbolic community is operating online. Independent forums are emerging that
are beyond the direct influence of the surfing industry.
Goatley, Barons in Boardshorts, 72.
This policy mimics the surf-shop and board-factory norms of earlier days when a sign on the
door might declare the business shut and the staff gone surfing. Whether or not this policy is
adhered to by executive and other backstage staff, it certainly isnt the case for retail staff in the
Big Threes own superstores.
Doug Warbrick in Pawle, On a Wave, 13.
Wax is rubbed onto the deck of the surfboard to provide grip while surfing. A leg-rope is a flexible
cord that is attached to the surfboard and the surfers leg so that the board is not swept or blown
away when the surfer falls off or otherwise loses contact with it.
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MacCannell, Empty Meeting Grounds.

See also Goatley, Barons in Boardshorts, 72; Gliddon, Mad Wax; Lanagan, Dropping In.
This appear to be less the case outside Australia.
Billabong adopted this slogan referring to surfers shared knowledge of sublime experience.
Irwin, Surfing.
Welsch, Aestheticization Processes, 3 4.
Maffesoli, Time of the Tribes, 90 1.
There are two ideal type orientations within surfing subculture: those who support the
sportization and typically the commercialization and professionalization of surfing, at one end
of a continuum (Elias and Dunning, Quest for Excitement); at the other end are those who oppose
the organization and commercialization of, what they consider to be, an art form a form of self-
expression that should be kept remote from the hype and interference of sporting bureaucracies
and the interests of big money. The latter were dubbed soul surfers when surfing culture was
predominantly embedded in the counter-culture scene of the late 60s and early 70s (Pearson,
Surfing Subcultures of Australia). While the link with a counter-culture lifestyle is no longer a
dominant feature of surfing culture, the soul ethos is an important trope within the subculture,
central to the way many, if not most, surfers think about surfing including professional surfers
and industry operatives. In reality, the distinction between these two ideal types is blurry and
best understood in terms of the dialectical relationship between the post-modern subculture and a
post-modernizing dominant culture (Stranger, Risk-taking & Postmodernity; Surfing Life).
DiMaggio and Powell, The Iron Cage Revisited.
Bernstein, Introduction to The Culture Industry.
Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 198.
Gliddon, Mad Wax; Lanagan, Surfing; Beal and Weidman, Authenticity; Wheaton and Beal,
Keeping it Real; Wheaton, Selling Out? Ford and Brown, Surfing and Social Theory.
It is also interesting to note that the largest percentage of respondents who wear no surf label
clothing are from urban areas. However, the data is distorted for the remote areas in this regard.
At one of the two remote locations surveyed (both isolated coastal desert surf camps no running
water or electricity but plenty of sharks and snakes), I was unable to get responses from the long-
term locals, who, from my own observations (which were supported by regular visitors)
completely shun the wearing of any surf label clothing. Their anti-commercial stance stretches to
actively resisting any surf-media coverage of the location. See Green, Terror in the Saltbush for
a journalists account of this location and the locals antagonism towards the media and
professional surfing.
Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity, 191.
Versace, Fashion and Fanatics, 19 20. See also Ford and Brown, Surfing and Social Theory,
72 77. For other sports see Donnelly and Young, The Construction of Identity; Wheaton, Just
Do It; Windsurfing; Selling Out?.
Ford and Brown, Surfing and Social Theory, 72 77; Stranger, Surfing Life; see also Wheaton,
Selling Out?.
Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture.
Giddens, Risk, Trust, Reflexivity, 186.
Clarke et al, Subcultures, Cultures and Class, 188.
Crook, Pakulski and Waters, Postmodernization, 36.
McGuigan, Cultural Populism, 96.
1132 M. Stranger
Humphreys, Snowboarders; Goatley, Barons in Boardshorts.
Stranger, Surfing Life.
Lanagan, Dropping In, 181.
DiMaggio and Powell, The Iron Cage Revisited.
Lanagan, Dropping In. Rip Curl is also expected to go public, but at the time of writing, they
have not done so (LaFrenz, Strong Quits Rip Curl).
This point has not been lost on at least one smaller company, with Kuta Lines declaring in a
magazine advertisement: No shareholders just surfers in Tracks, November 2002.
Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action.
Lash, Sociology of Postmodernism, 137 8.
These issues are discussed in detail in Stranger, Surfing Life.
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Details at time of interview
Austen, Gail. Female; urban location; ex-competitor; founder of the Australian Womens Surfing
Association; surf shop proprietor.
Baker, Tim. Male; urban location; past editor of major surfing magazines; past editing director of a
surfing magazine publishing company; freelance surf media journalist.
Bill (alias). Male; surf industry town; surf magazine editor and publisher.
Burridge, Pam. Female; country location; professional surfer; former world champion.
Eric (alias). Male; surf industry town; ex-competitor; Big Three company executive; former surf
magazine editor.
Lynch, Wayne. Male; country location; ex junior world champion; prominent counter-culture figure;
surfboard shaper.
Mike (alias). Male; urban location; pioneer surfer; businessman.