1.2. Birmingham School

15 June 2021

Before I look at the non-deviant subcultures, I would like to address one other side to subculture theory. This comes from the Centre for Contemporary Culture Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham. The Chicago School identified that crime and deviant actions are strongly related to the environments in which criminals and deviants lived. The research conducted at CCCS Birmingham post World War II provided new insights and developed new theoretical perspectives about identifying gangs of delinquents, which the CCCS would coin as ‘subcultures’. This research at the CCCS investigated the forming of subculture and how subcultures identified, in part, through their clothing, symbols and artefacts. In other words, identification through reification. The unification through fashion came about due to the economic and educational changes after World War II. This time saw an explosion of youth culture that occurred for a variety of different reasons. The expansion of education created a larger space between youth and adult responsibilities; the growth of film, television and the music industries increased youths’ exposure to pop culture and alternative ideas (Haenfler, 2014, p. 7-9). With more diverse input from a broader spectrum of cultures and fashions through media, the youth generation had a wider variety of choice to identify with. This opportunity was culturally new and affected society. To understand how these new opportunities affected society, it is essential to look at two different social strata. One was the rapid expansion in the middle classes that were, however short-lived, quickly giving way to deindustrialization and urban decline. Once the Conservative Party government headed by Margaret Thatcher came into power, free-market capitalism was unleashed and undermined the social safety net was. This act drove a divining rod into the society that disintegrated communities and class (Haenfler, 2014, p. 7). The tensions that neoliberalism created in working-class families in the UK can be understood similarly to that which happened in Chicago. The feeling of transformation as industries closed down and families reshuffled due to urbanisation must have, as the Chicago school theory states, created an environment, which deviant gangs grew that the Birmingham school classified as subcultures. Urbanisation affects mainly the working classes, and as a result, different subcultures are said to have arisen in the UK from working-class families. Ken Gelder’s (1997) writes in his summary of criminologists Albert K. Cohen (1955) study of delinquent gangs:

[As] the working-class community is displaced and the city developers move in, working-class youth subcultures live out a kind of ‘symbolic’ or ‘magical’ occupation of the place their parents had once called their own.

(Gelder 1997, p. 82)

As well as pointing to the environmental outcome that urbanisation has on the working class, what also is referred to in Gelder’s words is a more significant divide of premodern cultural ideologies of parents to the modernist ones of their children. The children only can imagine what their parents had experienced growing up and played out a type of fantasy where they territorialize their new environment. The youth also share in a material identity through the new consumer economy that distinguishes them from their parents. Subcultures in the new consumer economy became influenced by choice, which the parents did not have in abundance. Moreover, Subcultures emerged due to the tensions created between families that did not survive the deindustrialization and the families that stayed in their middle-class status. British sociologist Richard Hoggart (1957) writes that culture is the conflict between the classes. Another way to look at the results of the disintegration of a community and the rise of a more significant class divide is to view the middle class as what defines the cultural and social hegemony of the time, and the working class as one that struggles to keep up with the demands of this cultural and social hegemony. The demands of material gain and purchasing power: owning a house and a car and buying the latest trending fashion created a greater divide between the classes, as it was a type of lifestyle not possible for working-class families. It was difficult for the younger working-class generations to afford to leave their families. It resulted in claustrophobic family tensions, which resulted in an increase in early marriages, which was a practical way to afford housing costs to leave their parents home (Cohen, 1972). 

The media emphasised the difference in living conditions and situations between the classes. The media reflected the different social situations of people, which had an influential contribution to culture. Youth generations in the working class become aware of the social divide between themselves and the middle class and the generational conflict the working-class youth had with their parent's culture. Sociologists Phil Cohen (1972) points to, as did Albert K. Cohen (1955), to the difference of culture between parents and their children and says, 

It seems that the latent function of subcultures is this: to express and resolve, albeit ‘magically’, the contradictions which remain hidden or unresolved in the parent culture. The succession of subcultures which this parenting culture generated can thus all be considered so many variations on a central theme — the contradiction, at an ideological level, between traditional working-class puritanism and the new hedonism of consumption; at an economic level, between a future as part of the socially mobile elite or as part of the new lumpenproletariat. Mods, parka, skinheads, crombies all represent in their different ways, an attempt to retrieve some of the socially cohesive elements destroyed in their parent culture and to combine these elements selected from other class fractions, symbolising one or other of the options confronting it. 

(Cohen, 1997, p.89)

These subcultures that Cohen lists: Mods, parka, skinheads, crombies all had spectacular styles that held ideological meaning beyond mere fashion. The image of each subculture resulted from the destruction of premodern ideologies of parent culture mixed with the spectrum of choice that came with the new consumer economy. The media and the social environment inspired what subcultures looked like, as theorist and sociologist Dick Hebidige observed: “Punk’s borrowed from immigrants - Caribbean Reggie” (1979). 

These spectacular fashions became the way subcultures were defined, and by becoming definable, parents and the media stigmatised the subcultures. As well as symbols of solidarity, the ideological meaning behind the spectacular images symbolised a form of resistance against the cultural and social hegemony and differentiated the subculturists from their parents’ premodern working-class ideologies, and in doing so, they found a feeling of liberation from the confinements of their class through their subculture. 

It is evident that due to the economic growth and increase in consumer goods, new technology and an expansion in education gave the youth generations options and new perceptions of the world that differed from their parents and their grandparents. The cultural and social awareness of this change within the working class separated them from the other classes as they did not have the financial backing or social support to achieve the dreams that choice brought. The working-class youths' dissatisfaction manifested in a ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) ethic type of creativity. As they could not afford the latest fashion or trend, they would redesign what they had and what they could afford, creating unique spectacular fashions and styles identifying the subcultures. The symbolic image of the spectacular fashion created a social identity that empowered the subculuturists’ in a fractured class system. It is in the subcluturists’ unified identity of fashion and music that the subcultures are signified. The Birmingham school theory classified uniformed delinquent group as subculturists, that stigmatised the term subculture with delinquent behaviour that followed those subculturists. However, as I pointed to as Park did, the city was an incubator for all types of gatherings of people and not just deviant types. In the next chapter, I will examine how subculture theory changed and evolved to encompass non-deviant types.  

1.3. Post Subculture Studies