Subcultural Studies and the Scholarly Goth Subculture Perspectives

Leah Bush

Leah Bush

The majority of research on subcultures, in both North America and Britain, has been through sociological lenses. In the early twentieth century, the work of various scholars at the University of Chicago conceptualized subcultures as groupings of deviant youth in a situational context.

The term “subculture” has undergone various revisions and evolutions since its origination in the first half of the twentieth century at the University of Chicago, and there remains significant sociological debate over the term.

Two opposing viewpoints can be found in Hodkinson’s ‘Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture,’ an argument for the retention of the term “subculture” on the grounds of Goth subcultural solidarity, and David Hesmonhaldagh’s 2005 article ‘Subcultures, Scenes, or Tribes? None of the Above’ in The Journal of Youth Studies, a sociological critique of Andy Bennett’s concept of “neo-tribes,” and Hodkinson’s “subcultural substance,” which concludes that the entire concept of youth culture should be considered obsolete and irrelevant.

The early theories of the Chicago School conceptualized groups of youth sharing similar styles as having innate ties to gangs and social deviance. This research provided the framework for the theories of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), and the 1976 anthology ‘Resistance through Rituals,’ which interpreted post-war British working-class youth cultures as symbolic of resistance to the dominant hegemony of society.

The theories of the CCCS were the first to examine the role of the subcultural audience in ascribing meaning to popular music, style, and popular culture, and the first CCCS study of subcultures to incorporate ethnographic elements remains the most influential: ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style,’ by Dick Hebdige, which traces the development of the British punk movement as a case study of spectacular subcultures.

Subcultural style can be understood as a coded response to societal changes which affect entire communities.

Hebdige legitimized the academic study of music and style-based subcultures, and touches upon what have become the major themes in subcultural studies: the formation of group identity through difference, the importance and creation of subcultural style through “bricolage” (the appropriation of mainstream styles to serve a subversive purpose), and the trajectory of subcultures as they inevitably become co-opted by the mainstream.

Individual identity is not a concern for Hebdige — Subculture contains his personal conclusions on the meaning of style-based subcultures based on participant-observation research and a semiotic approach to the study of subcultures.

Beginning in the 1990s, subcultural theories broke down traditional notions of subculture as a definitive grouping based on shared styles and tastes. Sociologist Andy Bennett’s article ‘Subcultures or Neo-Tribes?’ proposes an entirely new framework — the fluid concept of the “neo-tribe” — as a replacement for the term “subculture” in understanding the relationship between youth cultures, music, and style.

By applying Michel Maffesoli’s definition of the “neo-tribe” as a temporal grouping based on pluralistic social identities and lifestyles to urban British dance cultures, Bennett forms a new cultural model which he argues is more applicable to post-modern societies than class-based CCCS theories which draw clear boundaries of musical taste and style. However, Bennett does not ask participants who favor this new genre-less music to describe how they define themselves. Do they view themselves as part of a single subculture, many subcultures, or none at all?

According to CCCS-trained sociologist Paul Hodkinson in ‘Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture,’ the first study of the Goth subculture to incorporate ethnographic methods, Goth contrasts sharply with post-modern theories of fragmented subcultures because of the features of Goth which distinguish the subculture from more temporal groupings of youth.

Based on a study of British Goth in the late 1990s, Hodkinson’s sociological analysis of the Goth subculture centers around his reworking of subcultural theories to emphasize Goth as an independent grouping that does not require opposition to a dominant capitalistic culture.

In contrast to David Muggleton’s “post-modern” and Bennett’s “neo-tribal” theories emphasizing subcultural fluidity and fragmentation, Hodkinson argues that the features of Goth imply a level of cultural substance which distinguish Goth from more temporal groupings of youth.

These four indicators of subcultural substance are distinctiveness in ideals and tastes, subcultural identity, subcultural commitment, and a relatively high level of autonomy in media and commerce.

Hodkinson’s analysis of Goth style, identity, and subcultural consumption practices are formed around this basis of Goth as a community. Topics investigated are Goth subcultural style, subcultural belonging, friendship and subcultural commitment, and subcultural consumption practices. Although Hodkinson’s discussion of the subculture seems comprehensive at first glance, Goth is not without serious shortcomings.

The major limitation of his sociological analysis is that he examines Goth only on the macro level and does not attempt to elucidate the meaning of Goth for individual participants. Hodkinson is not particularly interested in the lives and opinions of Goths themselves, and finds no shared structural, psychological, or political meaning to Goth style, a curious assertion for a subculture with extreme longevity and a consistent emphasis on the macabre.

Most academic research on the subculture has been performed in Britain, and the majority of scholarly researchers are participants in the subculture writing from positions of insider knowledge. Because so many scholars are subcultural members, little tension is apparent within Goth subcultural scholarship other than discussion of the controversial role of the vampire in relation to subcultural style.

Goth is described by these insider scholars as an educated, middle-class subculture marked by exceptional peacefulness and a high degree of tolerance of different lifestyles.

Brill describes Goths as unusually educated and literate with an intellectual stance allowing for critical reflection on philosophical questions.

Sara Martin observes that Goth is primarily internalized, and is about “living one’s own life within a self-made fantasy Gothic world whose main referents are shared with others but where asocial rather than anti-social behavior is the rule.”

David Shumway and Heather Arnet argue that the morbid Goth aesthetic is representative of a desire to escape everyday life which is misunderstood by outsiders as a coveting of death.

But despite primary research indicating Goth’s peacefulness, many studies on the North American Goth subculture by outsiders continue to paint Goth as a dangerous and violent youth phenomenon erroneously linked to the April 1999 Columbine High School mass shootings in Littleton, Colorado.

Catherine Spooner writes that Columbine dragged Goth from the private into the public sphere, shifting the realm of Goth from feminized private spaces associated with dressing up and dancing, to public spheres associated with masculinized violence.

Goths became scapegoats after the Columbine murders, with high school students being sent home from school for wearing “strange” attire and authorities encouraging teenagers to call hotlines to identify “odd” or “weird” people.

Carolyn Rutledge, Professor of Education and Health Services at Old Dominion University, links the young gunmen, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, to Goth, arguing that Goth culture attracts teenagers who have a distrust of society and have suffered past abuse and surround themselves with people, music, and activities that foster angry or depressed feelings.

Goth was perceived as enough of a societal menace post-Columbine that the town of Blue Springs, Missouri, received a $273,000 federal “Goth Grant” to investigate and combat Goth culture.

Yet minimal scholarship has been done to combat the erroneous perspective on Goth as a violent youth cult. In the 2002 issue of the literary journal Gothic Studies, Martin argues that the absence of Gothic Studies scholarship on the Goth subculture has allowed for media misrepresentations of the subculture as violent and “highlighted our glaring ignorance of the dynamics of exchange between the literary subcultures of the past and the popular subculture of the present.”

The only ethnographic studies of the Goth subculture in North America were performed in the late 1990s and published in the 2006 anthology ‘Goth: Undead Subculture,’ and the studies focus on expressions of identity during adolescence and young adulthood.

Joshua Gunn’s study ‘Dark Admissions: Gothic Subculture and the Ambivalence of Misogyny and Resistance,’ constructed through cultural critique and interviews with self-identified young adult Goths, informs this project by viewing Goth as an experience rather than a cultural image for semiotic deconstruction.

For Gunn, Goth is ambivalent, an individualized subcultural ideology created through “darkness,” a term that holds multiple meanings depending on the individual Goth being consulted. But how do Goths continue to understand this darkness once they move into middle age and take on adult responsibilities? What do their adulthoods look like?

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