photographic index

ba digital photography london south bank university

Andy Bennett: Subcultures or neo-tribes?

Bennett, A. (1999) Subcultures or neo-tribes? Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste. Sociology Vol. 33 No. 3 August 1999: 599–617
[reading notes by paula roush; to reference the article, download the author’s essay using the link below]

essay available as .pdf for download subcultures-or-neo-tribes.pdf

Points for discussion
Is the now mainstream concept of ‘subculture’ essentially flawed by a perceived rigidity in the forged relationship between musical and stylistic preference?

Is it possible to formulate a more adequate framework for the study of the fluid cultural relationship between youth, music and style by relying on the concept of neo-tribalism?

Is such fluidity a centrally defining aspect of consumer-based youth cultures since the establishment of the post-war youth market, visible for example, in contemporary urban dance music?

The author, goes on to propose the concept of ‘neo-tribalism’ to account for contemporary urban dance music scene, as this accounts for the postwar sensibilities, characterised by the use of sampling, both in terms of music and personal style (two examples: prog rock and bhangra )

concepts: subculture, neo-tribe, life style

Concept: Subcultures
Source: Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS)
Date: 1970s- early 1980s
meaning: sociological explanations of the relationship between youth, style and musical taste
heavy reliance upon the subcultural theory

Cohen’s ‘Subcultural Conflict and Working Class Community’ (1972).

youth subcultures were seen as facilitating a collective response to the
break up of traditional working-class communities as a result of urban redevelopment during the 1950s and the re-location of families to ‘new towns’ and modern housing estates.

‘the latent function of subculture is this – to express and resolve, albeit “magically”, the contradictions which remain hidden and unresolved in the parent culture [by attempting] to retrieve some of the socially cohesive elements destroyed in [the] parent culture’.

Subcultures form part of an on-going working-class struggle against the socio-economic circumstances of their existence and, as such, subcultural resistance is conceptualised in a number of different ways.

John Clarke’s study of skinhead culture: the skinhead style represents ‘an attempt to re-create through the “mob” the traditional working class community as a substitution for the real decline of the latter’ (Clarke 1976:99).

Teddy boy
Jefferson’s examination of the Teddy boy style: the Teddy boy style reflected the Ted’ s ‘“all-dressed-up-and-nowhere-to-go” experience of Saturday evening’
(Jefferson: 1976:48).

The relative affluence of the Teddy boys allowed them to ‘buy into’ a middle-class image – the Edwardian suit revived by Saville Row tailors in 1950 and originally intended for a middle-class market.

The Teddy boys’ ‘dress represented a symbolic way of expressing and negotiating with their symbolic reality; of giving cultural meaning to their social plight’ (Jefferson 1976:86).

Similarly, the mod style was a reaction to the mundane predictability of the working week and that the mod attempted to compensate for this ‘by exercising complete domination over his private estate – his appearance and choice of leisure pursuits’
(Hebdige 1976:91).

Girls subcultures

Teeny Bopper
“Teeny Bopper” culture is constructed around the territory available to girls, the home and the bedroom’ (McRobbie 1976:219).

Female beats
US beat culture during the 1950s, female beats’ appropriation of second-hand middle-class fashions from the 1930s and 1940s ‘issued a strong sexual challenge to the spick and span gingham-clad domesticity of the moment’ (McRobbie 1994:143).

Limitations of the Concept of ‘Subculture’

Recent years: increasing criticism of the CCCS approach
Contemporary: the term subculture survives
Meaning: it has become a convenient ‘catch-all’ term for any aspect of social life in which young people, style and music intersect.

‘Authentic’ subcultures were produced by subcultural theorists and media
not the other way around.In fact, popular music and ‘deviant’ youth styles never fitted together as harmoniously as some subcultural theory proclaimed.
(Redhead 1990:25)

There is very little evidence to suggest that even the most committed groups of youth stylists are in any way as ‘coherent’ or ‘fixed’ as the term ‘subculture’ implies.

On the contrary, it seems to me that so-called youth ‘subcultures’ are prime
examples of the unstable and shifting cultural affiliations which characterise
late modern consumer-based societies.
(Bennett 1999)

the term ‘subculture’ is deeply problematic in that it imposes rigid lines of division over forms of sociation which may, in effect, be rather more fleeting, and in many cases arbitrary, than the concept of subculture, with its connotations of
coherency and solidarity, allows for.
(Bennett 1999)

Despite the problems which can be associated with ‘subculture’ the term continues to be widely used.

Masquerade: Post-modern-persona

The ‘postmodern “persona”’ moves between a succession of ‘site-specific’ gatherings and whose ‘multiple identifications form a dramatic personae – a self which can no longer be simplistically theorized as unified’ (Shields 1992a:16).

Concept of tribus or ‘tribes’ (Maffesoli)

Tribe is ‘without the rigidity of the forms of organization with which we are
familiar, it refers more to a certain ambience, a state of mind, and is
preferably to be expressed through lifestyles that favour appearance and form’

tribalisation involves
‘the deregulation through modernization and individualization of the modern
forms of solidarity and identity based on class occupation, locality and
gender . . . and the recomposition into ‘tribal’ identities and forms of
sociation’ (1992:93).

The concept of tribes illustrates the
shifting nature of collective associations between individuals as societies
become increasingly consumer orientated (1996:97–8).
– it is less a question of belonging to a gang, a family or a community than of
switching from one group to another.
Maffesoli (1996:76)


‘Lifestyle’ describes the sensibilities employed by the individual in choosing certain commodities and patterns of consumption and in articulating these cultural resources as modes of personal expression
(Chaney 1994, 1996).

A lifestyle is ‘a freely chosen game’ and should not be confused with a ‘way of life’, the latter being ‘typically associated with a more-or-less stable community’
(Kellner 1992:158; Chaney 1994:92).

Ex: British pop group Oasis and their fans promote an
image, consisting of training shoes, football shirts and duffel coats, which is
designed to illustrate their collective sense of working classness.

The concept of lifestyle allows for the fact that individuals will also often select
lifestyles which are in no way indicative of a specific class background. A
fitting example of this is the chosen lifestyle of the New Age Traveller which
brings together young people from a range of social backgrounds who share
‘an identification with nomadism that is seen to be more authentic than the
sociality of modern industrial societies’
(Hetherington 1998:335).

Neo-Tribalism and Urban Dance Music

Concept: Neo-tribes
Source: Maffesoli
Current cultural theory/

“those groupings which have traditionally been theorised as coherent subcultures
are better understood as a series of temporal gatherings characterised
by fluid boundaries and floating memberships.”
(Andy Bennett)

example of neo-tribalism:
urban dance music scene
contemporary forms of DJ (disc-jockey) orientated music,
such as house and techno, banghra(british asian underground), prog rock, hip hop, …

the musical and visual style mixing exemplifies the essential eclecticism of post-war youth culture
thus forces a revision of our understanding of the way in
which young people have characteristically perceived the relationship between
style, musical taste and collective association.

The increasing eclecticism or urban dance music is breaking open
and redefining conventional sensibilities of consumer taste as the individual
enters a ‘technological dreamscape of . . . reconstituted sound’ (Melechi

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  3. […] Photographic Index, 2010, ‘Andy Bennett: Subcultures of neo-tribes?’ [Online] Available at: […]

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