Essay on Youth Culture: Dick Hebdige’s Theories of Youth Subcultures

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In this essay, I will be looking at Dick Hebdige’s theories of youth subcultures specifically the case study of punk. I will be considering the key theories he outlined in his book including bricolage, homology and the types of incorporation, as well as how this links to the relationship between punk and the media.

Dick Hebdige’s work on punk is key for understanding how youth subcultures, form, grow and eventually end. His work on the punk subculture back in the late 1970s/ early 80s was based on fusing work from Althusser (ideology) and Gramsci’s (theory of hegemony). Hebdige used these notions to examine the struggle, negotiation and incorporation of subcultures into dominant ideology.

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A big influencer of Hebdige’s work was Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols (as proposed by Roland Barthes). The sign within semiotics is made up of a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the something you see (the physical existence of the sign) and the signified is the concept that is represented in the sign. For example, a flag is a physical object, but its signified concept could be nationality. Other concepts taken from semiotics are connotations and denotations. The denotation of an object is its literal meaning and its connotations are cultural associations connected with it. These connotations only have meaning because of how our culture views them. As Hebdige discusses meanings are not always fixed.

Hebdige uses the semiotic readings outlined in these theories to analyse the youth subculture of punk. He says that the punk style is a culmination of previous post-war British youth subcultures, repurposing culture to make a style which is oppositional to the ‘norm’. To describe these subversive practices Hebdige quoted Umberto Ego’s phrase of “ … ‘Semiotic guerrilla warfare’ (Eco 1972)” - (Hebdige 1979, p.105). While he calls this appropriation of old symbols ‘warfare’ it is merely symbolic. Punks broke social boundaries using their clothes as a direct message to people outside the subculture, for example, the band ‘Siouxsie Sioux’ attempted to appropriate the swastika symbol simply to shock the older generation. Their clothes and the message it gave off undermined the current discourse. This was seen at the time by the punks as a way of rebelling. While it had the desired effect and was a shocking act of rebellion it arguably makes them look as though the subculture was accepting the far right.

In his book, Hebdige outlines three key concepts that link to youth cultures: the first is bricolage. He believes that this concept can be used to explain how subcultural styles are constructed. Hebdige uses a quote from Clarke (1976) to define what bricolage is, it is: “…when the bricoleur re-locates the significant object in a different position within that discourse, using the same overall repertoire of signs, or when that object is placed within a different total ensemble, a new discourse is constituted, a different message conveyed.” - (Hebdige 1979, p.104). Essentially, he is saying that bricolage is taking something old and then giving it new meaning, however, the bricoleur (i.e. the person repurposing the object) doesn’t necessarily know that the process is happening, it might be beneath their consciousness. By making this appropriation of an object and placing it in a new context it creates an objection to the dominant ideology.

An iconic use of bricolage punk subculture is when fans used every day, self-made styles such as bin liners, safety pins and other items which resist the aesthetic value of mass production and commercialism.

Looking at an academic understanding of punk Hebdige puts focus on the ‘spectacular’ style of punk pertains in culture. He looked particularly at the homological fit between punk style and punks working-class position. “Punk claimed to speak for the neglected constituency of white lumpen youth… ‘rendering’ working classness metaphorically in chains and hollow cheeks, ‘dirty’ clothing… and rough and ready diction” - (Hebdige, 1979, p63). By this, Dick Hebdige is saying that the punk youth subculture claimed to be from the streets. Through punk’s ‘signifying practices’, Hebdige argues that punks occupy a rather different position regarding class resistance than the other working-class subcultures. Through their absurdity and their chaotic behaviour punks, rather than being placed inside the working classes and resisting the culture of their parents they are instead positioned outside. “The punk ensembles … did not so much magically resolve experienced contradictions as represent the experience of contradiction itself” - (Hebdige, 1979, p121). Punk was therefore set apart from other subcultures in terms of its resistant potential.

Equally the spikes, bullet belts and bright hair colours are a rejection of consumer culture. “These ‘humble objects’ can be magically appropriated; ‘stolen’ by subordinate groups and made to carry ‘secret’ meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination.” - (Hebdige, 1979, p.18). Hebdige’s semiotic reading of this is that the style is being used to demonstrate poverty and gain a sense of community. He is saying that these ‘secret signs’ are used to create a look which makes punk stand out. Style is the main expression of resistance, it signifies difference so that they can be distinguished from the social/ cultural norms (the mainstream). By creating resistance, they attempt to break away from mainstream youth subculture.

When bricolage is used in a youth subculture the common language that occurs in each of these subcultures creates homology. Hebdige views the formation of subcultures and such language as a grassroots concept. Subcultures have a homology of language; this where different cultural groups use similar phrases. This is the second key concept that Hebdige uses to explore the culture of punk, it is defined by him as ‘The symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group’ - (Hebdige, 1979, p.124). While punk advertised itself as being a subculture that was chaotic at every point, according to Hebdige (Gelder, 2005) this was only possible because of the style being so ‘thoroughly ordered’, essentially the punk youth subculture had a homology of style as they were anti-everything.

Hebdige’s view is the media is that is has a negative effect on youth subcultures. He believes that once a youth subculture is mentioned by the mass media (i.e. the tabloid presses) that it is the beginning of the end for that particular group. Hebdige (1979) suggests that media initially demonizes, and then gradually incorporates (and neutralises/ defuses) youth subcultures. In the first stage of demonization, the subcultures use bricolage and homology to fight back against the mainstream.

When discussing how the media portrays subcultures Dick Hebdige draws on the work of Stanley Cohen and his theory of ‘folk devils’ and ‘moral panic’. Cohen’s research was conducted around the era of the mods and rockers. One example he looked at was how the media demonizes youths to create moral panics around something which is in actual fact trivial, they blow events out of proportion essentially making so-called folk devils of normal youths. “As the use of the term ‘folk devil’ suggests, rather too much weight tends to be given to the sensational excesses of the tabloid press at the expense of the ambiguous reactions which are, after all, more typical.” - (Hebdige 1979, p.97). Because they don’t understand the culture the dominant ideology fears subcultures as oppose the norm. The mass media would rather sensationalise events to make a subculture look bad by calling their behaviour deviant. Cohen's observation about youths being demonized supports Hebdige’s theory as for him it is the first stage of the mass media attempting to bring down the subculture, therefore they retaliate by practising bricolage. The way subcultures are represented in the media makes them both more and less exotic than they actually are. This is because are hyped up by the media beyond what really happened. In both Cohen’s and Hebdige’s observations on youth subcultures, they say that these cultures are alienated and portrayed as ‘dangerous’, ‘boisterous kids’ likened to ‘wild animals’ (Hebdige 1979).

“The terms used in the tabloid press to describe those youngsters who, in their conduct or clothing, proclaim subcultural membership (‘freaks’, ‘animals . . . who find courage, like rats, in hunting in packs’) would seem to suggest that the most primitive anxieties concerning the sacred distinction between nature and culture can be summoned up by the emergence of such a group.” - (Hebdige, 1979, p.92)

This quote clearly describes the reaction from the media coming into contact with the punk subculture for the first time. You can see in the description that there is a clear demonization of the youth culture to try and distance the youth subculture from the mainstream. Hebdige talks about how the tabloid press uses these descriptions to make the subcultures seem less human by comparing them to ‘rats’ and calling them ‘freaks’, they play on innate human fears which in most cases were totally irrational, for example, while punks were outrageous, in actual fact they posed no major threat to society or culture.

According to Hebdige, over time the dominant ideology seeks out examples of cultural and political rebellion, such as the punk subculture movement and then tries to incorporate it into mainstream youth culture, also known as hegemonic recuperation. There are two main types of incorporation: the semantic (ideological) form and the real/ commercial (commodity) form. It is theorised by Dick Hebdige that the mainstream/ tabloid media uses incorporation to trivialise and then domesticate subcultures. This is done through the re-definition of deviant behaviour by dominant groups such as the media and the police, known as the ideological form of incorporation. “The Other can be transformed into meaningless exotica, a ‘pure object, a spectacle, a clown’ - (Barthes, 1972)” – (Hebdige, 1979, p.97). What was before portrayed as scary and dangerous is now seen as trivial and humorous. By making the subculture seem normal it returns punk to the family, it is no longer considered a threat to dominant ideology.

The commodity form, according to Hebdige, is the conversion of subcultural signs into mass produced objects, things like clothes and music. What was once considered original such as the punks with their heavy boots and jackets covered in patches are transformed into a commodity. In some respects, the commodity form is a bit like picking and choosing ‘safe’ elements of a subculture and using it to appeal to a wider mass market, thus changing the meaning of the sign. With punk they took the hairstyle and the clothes but left out the loud and offensive style/ music, essentially normalising the subculture. “Once removed from their private contexts by the small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce them on a mass scale, they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise.” – (Hebdige, 1979, p.96). By this Hebdige is saying that what was once exclusive to a certain subculture is then opened up to the public, it can then be exploited for profit. An example would be the punks wearing safety pins. Originally it was a way to show difference from ‘soft mainstream’ clothing brands but when a style is incorporated by the media it simply becomes fashion which totally opposes the original meaning of the physical object.

Something that proved Problematic, for punks was Hebdige’s view of punk authenticity and how it was affected by consumption. He takes a negative view of consumer culture’s tendency to appropriate elements from a subculture, “irrespective of the startling content of the style: punk clothing and insignia could be bought mail-order by the summer of 1977” – (Hebdige, 1979, p.96). “As soon as the original innovations which signify ‘subculture’ are translated into commodities and made generally available, they become ‘frozen’ ” .i.e. Punks who had not witnessed the subcultures inception could not claim to understand it. This is a form of ‘policing the culture from within’ claiming that if you didn’t know or do certain things then you weren’t considered a ‘real punk’. By moving punk out of a subculture and bringing it into mainstream culture, punk seems unauthentic, they appear to just be mindless followers of the popular style, something that the punk movement was opposed to.

When a youth subculture is incepted and incorporated by the mainstream it merges with the mainstream. thus, meaning that fans of punk, for example, are mixed in. It becomes less of a subculture and is redefined simply as youth culture. To the original founders of subculture, it feels like group lost its authenticity of style. For example, fans of the punk subculture might accuse certain bands or iconic figures of ‘selling out’, some would regard this as the death of a cultural group as it is no longer different from dominant ideology.

Hebdige says that when a group starts to get incorporated into the mainstream media then it is essentially the end of that subculture. Although Hebdige believes the media has a negative impact on subcultures. However, this cannot so simply be the case, it is a complex issue, therefore, the response should not be black and white, as without publicity from the mainstream media then the subculture would not be known. This point is especially true for the punk era since there was nothing to connect and communicate with like social media so the only way to publicise the subculture would be through newspaper articles and broadcasts on television.

Opposing theorists like Sarah Thornton would criticise Hebdige’s idea that when a subculture receives attention from the media it is the end of the subculture. Also, Hebdige’s analysis of youth subcultures and their relationship only discusses the male side of the culture. It would have perhaps been a more accurate account if he investigated both male and female practices of the subculture and how they differ.

Further criticism of Hebdige’s theory is that when he talks about ‘the media’ he treats it as though it is only one entity with a singular purpose to serve. It is important to make a recognition that there are multiple forms of media, not just this evil corporation out to demonize youth subcultures. In her book, Sarah Thornton talks about the distinct levels of media. At the lowest level, there is micromedia which include things such as flyers and posters, next there is niche media such as specialist magazines and the top end of the scale is mass media which includes the tabloid press which Hebdige refers to. “…press are crucial to our conceptions of British youth; they do not just cover subcultures, they help construct them.” - (Thornton 2013, p.231). While it could be argued that some of the forms of mass media were used to present youth subcultures in a negative way, it is an unfair assumption that Hebdige refers to them all as one, ‘the media’. In actual fact forms of micro media and niche, media can help spread the word about a subculture in the forms of event and gig posters, they can also be used as a means of communications between followers of that group. Thornton’s view provides a much more accurate view of media and how it affects youth subcultures. It is clear from these distinctions that not all media is bad as suggested by Hebdige.

In conclusion, Dick Hebdige’s analysis punk using semiotics provides a very good explanation and overview of how youth subcultures are formed as well as the practices that go in within the group. His points on how punk rejects the mainstream culture through uses of bricolage and homology offer an insight to how something can be taken by a social group and then encoded with a different meaning, for example, punks with their use of safety pins to reject mainstream fashion. I agree with his view of the mainstream media that once a subculture becomes known to the media, commercial culture tries to take parts of it to remake for generic culture. With the example Hebdige uses in the case of punk it is ironic that a subculture dedicated to resistance and being different ended up part of consumer culture.

However, I do believe that when referring to the mass media it is important to distinguish between different types. I believe that the relationship between youth culture and the media isn’t just a simple fact that harmful it goes much deeper. Critics such as Sarah Thornton suggest a better approach suggesting that the role of the media in youth cultures is more dynamic and multifaceted than Hebdige proposes.

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Essay on Youth Culture: Dick Hebdige’s Theories of Youth Subcultures. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from
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