The sociology of ‘hipsters’

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

This is much more interesting than many articles of this form (the bit about punk vs hipster dancing made me laugh). But I’d still love it if some cultural sociologists did real work on this. I’m really interested in a convergence of subcultural style which doesn’t permit identification. There clearly is a cultural tendency here (on my two visits to Berlin last year I was fascinated by how easily I could have been in East London at points) but one which seems to engender little subjective identification and often inculcates disidentification. It’s an emptying out of (sub)cultural content, until all that is left is pure pose. Then you get Normcore and there’s no longer even a pose.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that hipsters are the “end of Western civilization” but, as someone whose trajectory of identity development was intimately bound up in performing anarchism and performing punk, they do rather irritate me. As a sociologist however I find my own irritation rather fascinating and something succeptible to analysis. So please cultural sociologists: do some work on this. Otherwise I’m going to have to take a year off, read shit loads of Jeffrey Alexander and start spending my free time lurking around East London watching and talking to hipsters. I’d rather not do this if possible but the topic becomes ever more interesting as a I think more about it.

There is the ‘hipster’ as cypher for socio-cultural change:

This is because hipsters are a recognition that something larger is happening – change is happening; neighborhoods and cities are looking different and are being inhabited by different people. The need to understand what is happening seems to drive much of the hipster debate. The logic seems to be – if we can figure out who is changing the neighborhood then we can stop them or make pleas to their humanity to join our way of doing things.

There is the hipster as cultural response to emerging adulthood.

There is the hipster as a cultural style tied to a stage of the lifecycle, with a meaning internal to that biography.

Matt Lodder just made some really interesting points on Twitter:

20 responses to “The sociology of ‘hipsters’”

  1. The discussion arose in a classroom I was in last semester. After my classmates and i took a kitchy hipster quiz that cited PBR twice, all but one of us was “part hipster”. The debate that followed ended with many of us of the opinion that in, an effort to understand the difference between “millenials” and other generations, the media created the hipster as an archetype. Though the hipster archetype is an amalgam of some traits prevelant in youth culture it is still an oversimplification. The trouble comes, as with any archetype, that some come to adopt the archetype as an identity and personify it; this makes it hard to say that the hipster isn’t real. Still, the tandem phenomenon of socially and environmentally conscious youths who grew up post-punk and digitally native, and socioeconomic concerns pushing youths to simultaneously consume into debt and patiently wait for the baby-boomer retirement wave that will likely only reveal the death of the middle-class makes the only logical path a self-aware bricolage fueled by distrust of corporate and media structure, an occasionally passive-aggressive refusal to comply, progressive politics and celebratory heterogeneity.

  2. I’m developing a mild complex about the fact being ‘post-punk’ is so axiomatic for so many people.

  3. It relates to a genre of music, but also to a cultural awareness that punk prescribed its own rules. Although some may find that they can relate to the concept of post-punk for many reasons, the few that feel they are following no rules may simply be following less defined rules of culture, style, etc. One example I would pose for the “post-punk” phenomena is that I have known people who have parents who still ascribe to a punk aesthetic and mindset, to which they would ultimately rebel (I have a friend with a similar situation with her goth mother, now she loves folk music). I have also had too many “no true scotsmen” conversations with punks telling me the right and wrong ways to be punk for me to ever adopt the moniker. Of course, I can only speak for myself, but I would consider the inclusion of the word “punk” in the designation “post-punk” must partially be an acknowledgement of the path which counterculture has taken.

  4. My guess: “hipster” has something to do with craving “authenticity” while being aware that authenticity is a mass-produced commodity, wanting to show that you haven’t “sold out” while being aware that the posture of not having sold out is itself for sale. Not being able to acknowledge being a hipster could result from what Bourdieu called an “interest in disinterestedness”, i.e. only being able to reap symbolic profits from a social practice as long as you don’t appear to be in it for the profits.

    One thing that often seems to be ignored in discussions of hipsters is their social origins. Are there working-class hipsters? Since fashionable authenticity often seems to gain its legitimacy from connections to dominated groups (e.g. the appropriation of the Palestinian keffiya), I’m guessing that the desire for this authenticity reflects a desire to show that one has a soul despite occupying a relatively privileged social position.

  5. I think there’s an element of hipsters as cyphers for gentrification so it’s class bound in that sense. Although perhaps in a more complicated way – though the Great British Class Survey was problematic in some respects, it’s possible that ’emergent service workers’ might be a useful category here.

    Re: Bourdieu, I suddenly remembered coming across an analysis of hipsters from this perspective. I’ll go and look for it.

  6. Re: Bourdieu and hipsters, you might be thinking of N+1 magazine’s symposium-book “What was the hipster?”

    Is it really true that this particular convergence of subcultural styles doesn’t “permit identification”, just because participants in the subculture refuse to “unify” under a single, outward-facing label (e.g. “punk”, “Mod” etc)? As you say, an East Londoner can easily identify, and identify with, the Berlin branch of his tribe. The tribe (essentially the young creative class) intuitively understands that the 20th century technique of self-applying a label makes you more vulnerable on several fronts (internally and externally), so they don’t do it. I’m not sure it’s because each ‘hipster’ is fundamentally opposed to the idea of being part of a wider subculture, as though that would compromise his/her cherished individuality.

    (A major red herring argument is “they are all trying to be individuals, but they end up looking and acting the same”. The premise is faulty. Like other subcultures of the past, they are looking for an alternative to the mainstream – not because it is the mainstream, but because the mainstream sucks. They are happy to follow fashions that they believe have been authored by people like them, not by corporations/The Man. This seems pretty reasonable to me.)

    Furthermore, the term ‘hipster’ is almost always used as a pejorative, applied from the outside – surely this is the simplest explanation of why people decline to “acknowledge” that they are hipsters?

  7. I see what you’re saying. I spoke to a friend recently who researches punk sub culture and she pointed out that the overwhelming majority of ‘punks’ she spoke to disowned an identity as punks, despite dressing like punks, going to punk gigs and living or socialising in squats. So perhaps there’s a broader trend here. But the fascinating problem, which applies as much to my original post as to your comment, concerns the ‘they’ we fall into talking about. I don’t accept that ‘hipsters’ is a nonsense concept, nor do I accept it’s just a derogatory label – I think there is a ‘they’ beyond both of these options but I don’t know how to pin it down.

  8. Hipsterism isn’t an alternative to the mainstream, it *is* mainstream. The clothes we’re talking about are designed and sold by multinational corporations, and marketed using slogans like “Join the Revolution”.

    The question “who is a hipster” is like the question “who is a writer” that Bourdieu dealt with in “The Rules of Art”, in that the participants in the field are engaged in a constant struggle over where the boundaries of the field should be drawn. He called this “conflict over definitions”, or “classification struggle” (as opposed to “class struggle”). Rather than try to impose his own definition on a contested category, he ended up deciding to construct his object of study by including all those who were involved in that very struggle.

  9. But the interesting point made by the tweeter embedded in the post is that intensely committed activities get subsumed under the category of ‘things that hipsters do’ – personal concerns get explained away as social affectations. This is a striking example of precisely the critique someone like Andrew Sayer makes of Bourdieu.

  10. @Mark

    Agreed, there is definitely a “they” – that N+1 book is a pretty good starting point for mapping “them” out.


    Let me rephrase: the hipster has an “Other”, which can be usefully understood as the mainstream or ‘mass’ consumer. Top Gear, SuperDry, Jamie’s Italian, etc. While multinational corporations are often able to tap into the hipster market, I think it has to be accepted that large parts of hipster subculture do remain “off-grid”. It’s a relatively large and privileged subculture and a relatively non-oppositional subculture, but it’s still a minority culture and there is still a meaningful sense in which you could contrast hipster taste to mainstream taste.

    Thinking of privilege: is the hipster perhaps a “surculture”? By which I mean, a tribe that rejects mainstream/mass taste not because it is threatened or marginalised by it and wants to destroy it, but just finds it bland and tacky and tries to “rise above it”, leave it behind? This might explain why some people find hipsterdom so vacuous and irritating – it’s sort of looking down on the world without making any particular effort to change it, because it has the means to carve out its own little self-sustaining bubble.

    Re: Bourdieu, it’s very tempting to use Bourdieu to understand hipster culture, but I wonder how far it can get you ultimately – but I’ve already gone on too long!

  11. “Let me rephrase: the hipster has an “Other”, which can be usefully understood as the mainstream or ‘mass’ consumer. Top Gear, SuperDry, Jamie’s Italian, etc. While multinational corporations are often able to tap into the hipster market, I think it has to be accepted that large parts of hipster subculture do remain “off-grid”. It’s a relatively large and privileged subculture and a relatively non-oppositional subculture, but it’s still a minority culture and there is still a meaningful sense in which you could contrast hipster taste to mainstream taste.”

    I’m sceptical that this is true. But it ultimately rests on a series of empirical questions which couldn’t really be addressed without deciding on some operational definition of ‘hipsters’ – suggesting that the sociology of hipsters is likely to be plagued by circularity from the outset. Alas (or maybe not).

  12. I think that’s a misunderstanding of Bourdieu, and confuses his claims with those of Thorstein Veblen, who he disagrees with. Bourdieu doesn’t say that, in general, socially determined practices reflecting social distinctions are insincere affectations or expressions of rational cacluation (although these certainly exist). Actually he says that, in general, those practices only work so well precisely because they’re sincere and heartfelt. One of the things that the concept of habitus does in Bourdieu’s theory is to eliminate the false dichotomy between things people do because they really believe in them and things people do that are objectively self-serving.

  13. “There is no way of getting out of the circularity unless it is addressed as such. It is up to the study itself to collect the definitions confronting each other, together with the vagueness inherent in their social uses, and to furnish the means of describing their social bases. For example, by analysing statistically how diverse indices of recognition as a writer (such as presence in book selection or literary prize lists) … are distributed among producers of books (socially characterized), and also by examining how the authors of book selection and literary prize lists and of definitions of the writer are themselves distributed in the space thus constructed, one could succeed in determining the factors which control access to different forms of the status of writer, and hence the implicit and explicit content of the definitions at work.” (The Rules of Art, p. 225)

  14. Hmm that makes me think I should read that book which has been sitting on my shelf for the last year….

  15. A final thought that just occurred to me: another exclusive group whose members don’t explicitly acknowledge their membership, and that polices its boundaries in part by means of ever-shifting criteria of style and taste (ever-shifting because as outsiders start to imitate aspects of the in-group style, the in-group is forced to abandon them and move on to something else), is the grande bourgeoisie.

  16. Yes it could, but I’m not doing another PhD!

    “At each level of the distribution, what is rare and constitutes an inaccessible luxury or an absurd fantasy for those at at an earlier or lower level becomes banal and common, and is relegated to the order of the taken-for-granted by the appearance of new, rarer and more distinctive goods; and, once again, this happens without any intentional pursuit of distinctive, distinguished rarity. The sense of good investment which dictates a withdrawal from outmoded, or simply devalued, objects, places or practices and a move into ever newer objects in an endless drive for novelty, and which operates in every area, sport and cooking, holiday resorts and restaurants, is guided by countless different indices and indications, from explicit warnings (‘Saint-Tropez’ — or the Buffet de la gare de Lyon, or anywhere else — ‘has become impossible’) to the barely conscious intuitions, which, like the awareness of popularization or overcrowding, insidiously arouse horror or disgust for objects or practices that have become common.” (Distinction, p. 246)

    And your website is actually useful and interesting !
    Thanks for that !

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