Substance and Subculture: Finding Meaning in Late Modernity

As a goth, you have more than likely heard the terms subculture, counter culture, culture and possibly neo-tribes, used as descriptors for our community, often interchangeably, and often without a grasp of what they mean or how they apply to goth in a practical sense. Let me start by saying, while I am not a sociologist, having several years of study under my belt, I feel I have a fairly good grasp on the basics.

The goal of this article, is to explain, accurately, and in brief, the background, meaning, and application of each of these terms for the layman. (I include myself in that category). I will also posit my own thesis, or perhaps more accurately, state my position on neo-tribe as it pertains to goth and culture as a whole in late modernity. I hope that giving clarity to the terms surrounding goth will help inform future discussions among adherents and help to better explore the meaning of our participation in the community, in a personal and communal sense.

HISTORY:

I'd like to give a very brief, simplified history on the concept of subculture, as that has informed the theory and subsequent re-workings of the term. The current dictionary definition of subculture is "a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture." As far as general definitions go this is fairly tenable as a reference point for understanding subculture. However, as with any field of study, a comprehensive understanding of subculture is fairly more complex than a simple one sentence summation.

The study of and distinguishing of groups set apart from the mainstream began in the 20's with sociologists like Gordon, A. Cohen, Becker, and Riesman. This was known as the Chicago school of theory. The traditional schools of theory start with recognizing groups set apart from the mainstream, with distinguishing features, and mores or ideals that are not held by the mainstream, or thought of as deviant, by the dominant culture. The distinction of the Chicago school was they theorized that subcultures came to be through dissatisfaction with class status and social disorganization theory.

In the late 60's the Birmingham school came to be, noted subcultural sociologists McRobbie and Hebdige came out of the Birmingham school. This school linked subcultures to social class, in relation to societal conditions with a heavy emphasis on Marxist–structuralist theory. The rebellion of punk emerging as working class rebellion to the dominant bourgeois class is a good example. These are the two main schools of thought when it comes to traditional subcultural studies.

Another significant development came about in the 90's with research by Sarah Thorton, further fleshing out and updating the concepts of subculture. The most notable addition was "subcultural capital" which described cultural knowledge and commodities acquired by members of a subculture, which raised their status and helped differentiate participants from members of other groups.

As time went on, these traditional theories of subculture came under heavy criticism in their conclusions, research methodology, and definitions, most of which I will not cover here as they are not relevant to the discussion. However the point to make here, is that the construct of subculture in modernity, what it means, how it occurs, how it is structured etc. are ever debated and occasionally reworked, as we will see with neo-tribes later on.

SUBCULTURE:

If we can glean anything from the previous section, it is that subcultural theory is occasionally in a state of flux, as it is reexamined and reworked. So now we can discuss the more important aspect of subculture, what does it mean and how is it applied in late modernity. My current framework for subculture comes from goth sociologist Paul Hodkinson, in his 2002 book, Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture.

"Contrary to the implications of Chicago and Birmingham versions of subculture, participation in the goth scene did not appear to entail the same 'problem solving' function for all members and neither did it signify any specific or all-important subversion of consumer culture. The culture encapsulated significant elements of diversity and dynamism, its boundaries were not absolute, and levels of commitment varied from one individual to another."

As stated, Hodkinson's version of subculture is a rework of the term, not a complete foundation up re-imagining. He combines theory's of both the Chicago and Birmingham school's, while updating them to reflect modern identities, severing the link with resistance and subversion, (as we will see with counter culture), class conflict, and several other connotations.

A subculture, then, is broken down into 4 indicative criteria.
Consistent distinctiveness, in that the group shares a consistency of style, tastes, and values, shared communally by participants, that are distinct from other groups. (accounting for slight variation between individuals)
Identity, in that "participants have a clear and sustained subjective sense of group identity" a sense of like-mindedness with other goths regardless of geographic location, and [the subculture is] often regarded as the single most important part of their identity.
Commitment, in that participation in the subculture "accounts for a considerable proportion of free time, friendship patterns, shopping routes, collections of commodities, going out habits and even internet use."
Autonomy, in that while still part of society and the politico-economic system of that country, "a good proportion of the productive or organizational activities which underpin it (the subculture) are liable to be undertaken by and for enthusiasts."

I should point out here, as I will continue to stress, there is still debate among sociologist as to whether the term subculture is still viable and applicable to modern youth music cultures and other groups. Criticisms continue to arise and be discussed. Currently, after analyzing several of these papers and accounting for my observational research, and life long participation in the culture, I still hold to the definition set forth above as a workable theory for modern subcultures.

NEO-TRIBE:

I first happened upon the theory of neotribalism in 2012, with Andy Bennett's paper from 1999. If you previously read my paper on Cholo Goth, you have a basic grasp of the tenants binding neo-tribes, however I will record here a brief history, and much more expansive explanation of the term.

The concept of neo-tribe was first introduced in Michel Maffesoli's book in 1996, as a replacement for the theory of subculture, which was continued on in Bennett's work, among others. Hodkinson, myself, and other sociologists argue against neo-tribes as a supplantation of subculture, and several would have it discarded as a theory entirely. I would proffer that they are both valid theories, and both currently at work in today's society. I'll speak to that more, but first let's clarify what exactly neo-tribe theory entails.

Bellow is an excerpt from Christina Goulding's 2011 paper titled, 'Club Culture, Neotribalism, and Ritualized Behavior'

"First, neo-tribes are multiple and rarely dominate individual’s lives. Rather they represent temporary escape from the pressures and stresses of the everyday working week (Goulding, Shankar, & Elliott, 2002). Moreover membership of one neo-tribe does not exclude membership from other tribes or communities. On the contrary, neo-tribal theory stresses the occurrence of flows between different identities under different circumstances (Bennett, 1999).1436 C. Goulding, A. Shankar / Annals of Tourism Research 38 (2011) 1435–1453
     Second, neo-tribes are playful. Tied to multiplicity of membership neo-tribal membership is often devoid of long term moral responsibility (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001; Muniz & Schau, 2005). Instead, value is placed on the possibility to invigorate passion and generate social links through deconstructing and reassembling marketplace resources (Cova, Kozinets, & Shankar, 2007).
     Third, neo-tribes are transient. Connected to multiple identity and play, neo-tribes emerge and disappear as combinations of people and resources alter. This generates unpredictable and emergent experiences that may be critical and liberatory at one moment yet, at the next moment, mean little beyond sensory intensity and pleasure. This playful acceptance of rapidly changing and contradictory meanings engenders a balance of power between consumers and producers that oscillates between manipulation and emancipation (Cova & Pace,2006; Shankar, Cherier, & Canniford, 2006).
     Fourth, neo-tribes are entrepreneurial. Stemming from the possibilities for play, and an empowered and emancipated attitude to the market, are new paths for entrepreneurial ventures (Cova, Kozinets, & Shankar, 2007). Rather than relying on ready-made consumption resources, neo-tribes regularly produce or customize market offerings (Kozinets, 2007). These practices of bricolage alter the power balance between producers and consumers as neo-tribal members take the lead in dictating procedures of co-production (Shankaret al., 2006).
     Fifth, members of a neo-tribe have to learn the rules of engagement. They have to learn the codes and etiquette required to be a member of a particular neo-tribe. This is often highly ritualised as individuals move from being on the outside or fringes of the group to becoming a fully fledged member of that neo-tribe (Maffesoli, 1996)."

The contrasts between these two standards (subculture and neo-tribe) are fairly obvious, as is the fact that the two are not compatible or interchangeable. The concept of subculture is laid upon a foundation of substance, where as neotribalism is nearly devoid of substantive meaning, focusing rather on ephemerality and shallow, transitive identities.

IMPLICATIONS:

While we can see certain elements of neo-tribes may be applicable to goth, particularly the last two points, I would urge against trying to shift the subculture in the direction of transitive identities and non-substantive postmodern culture. As we have seen, and as will be examined, some ancillary groupings in the name of evolution, or modernity, have tried to do just that.

I spoke in my cholo goth article on how these new groupings (ie. pastel goth, nu goth, cholo goth, afro goth) can have negative effects upon a substantive goth subculture. I will not rehash those concerns here, however I would like to refine them, and look at what should be considered a neo-tribe, and what that means. My comprehension of neo-tribe theory has evolved and reified over the last 2 years as I've continued to research the topic and gain perspective. This in turn has caused a shift in my opinion and I'd like to point out, this is simply my opinion, and may continue to change and grow in the years to come.

In recent times these new groupings (nu goth, pastel goth, etc.) have been coming into vogue, using the word goth with the addition of an adjective. While many of these groupings came into being around the same time, I think blanket labeling them as neo-tribes would be incorrect. Many of them share similar traits in that they are postmodern, make use of appropriation, and are made possible, or at least increasingly plausible, by how common place the internet has become, the increase in diverse commercial goods, and how youth are increasingly finding their identity in superficial online personas and communities.

I find difficulty in placing certain groupings such as nu goth, afro-goth, pastel goth, cholo goth and the like, under a sociological term, I don't believe they fit as a subculture, culture, or even idioculture. I feel these groupings (non neo-tribe groups like street goth, pastel goth, ghetto goth, nu goth, health goth etc.) require further research, at least on my own part, before any conclusions can be drawn; I still see the potential for the acculturation of the goth scene, as these groupings, and more importantly, the tourism mindset of participants, gain in popularity among the youth, and potential recruits to goth. While these groupings are fairly consistent, with agreed upon boundaries (usually aesthetic based), they are also fairly superficial in nature, with adherents who, from contact I've had with them, identify themselves in a transitive manner. While the groupings themselves are generally distinct and not prone to ephemerality, participants tend to drift in and out of these groupings as presented in the above neo-tribe section. Below is a quote form one such participant:

"I’ve been called: Goth, Metal, Alternative, Hipster, Biker Girl, Inked, Twee, Electro, Normie, Punk, Mod, Pin Up, Kawaii, New-Wave, Nerd, Mainstream etc. (Tons of names I don’t know)
I don’t identify with any group.  I’m not changing styles every 5 mins. Different people just perceive things differently. I’ve been made fun of for being too weird, not weird enough, too girly, too tomboy-like, too thin, too big, there is a point where you just have to wear what you like. If one day that is all black and the next day it is grey and black or lavender and black, then fine."

She then further expresses the ephemerality and temporal nature of the tourist mindset, expressed through neo-tribes:

"I think it is good that the internet has allowed people to bond from different subcultures. It is simply an extension of globalization. There is a loss of identity, but also that identity under a label is not just a security blanket for those who identify with it, but also a cage. I mean that if by identifying as a Goth, you cannot also identify yourself as: steampunk, a comic nerd, a pastel Goth, a nu-Goth, industrial, cyber Goth, etc… You end up missing out on meeting new people, listening to new music, enjoy different aesthetics, and stay current in today’s culture."

Interestingly, she specifically states that her identity is not a part of any one of these subcultures, as she finds them too exclusionary. She finds subcultures problematic in that participants can not adhere to the values and ideals of multiple subcultures. Rather, she claims her individuality through playfully floating between multiple cultures, putting on different hats as the mood takes her. This is, in my view, a very accurate portrayal of these late modern, neo-tribeal identities. I propose we must then understand neo-tribes, as Bennett suggests, as constructed fluid identities, as opposed to pre-exisiting and fixed identities presented by more substantive groupings. I would posit, a neo-tribe, is not so much a grouping in the sense of a subculture, that new identities are created and destroyed at will, but rather the desire for unrestricted participation in all, or a plethora of subcultures, without the substantive and exclusionary nature that comes with the subculture. That these neo-tribes should be viewed from an individual perspective, rather than a loosely structured grouping that shifts with the whims of a large group of participants. Contrary to what Bennett suggests, however, I do not believe this is a replacement of subculture in late modern lifestyles, simply an alternative option for modern youths. I agree with Hodkinson in that neo-tribes will not outright replace subculture and rid us of these substantive groupings.

Bennett says:
" From this point of view the group is no longer a central focus for the individual but rather one of a series of foci or ‘sites’ within which the individual can live out a selected, temporal role or identity before relocating to an alternative site and assuming a different identity."

While I agree with this, he goes on to say this in turn means the existing subculture groups then lose significance and substance themselves, losing permanence and tangibility. While I agree with Hodkinsons refute of this point, I would make a caveat that if a large enough portion of group adherents participate in these floating memberships, the subculture itself is in danger of being absorbed, acculturated, or dissolved. This is not, however, a forgone conclusion.

On the other hand, Maffesoli suggests neo-tribes may form to reject individuality in order to become driven by an unconscious community. I would contend, this may be true during temporal gatherings such as raves as shown by ethnographic research in the UK, but apart from that, neo-tribes are still highly individualized. Aside from the above quotes, we already know individualization is a byproduct of modernity (as shown by Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens), and I would suggest this has, in combination with drastically increasing consumer choices becoming available, spurred the move of some towards these transitive identities (neo-tribes).

Finally, I'd like to reiterate the disparity between goth subculture and this idea that we can turn goth into an anything goes, neo-tribe mentality. Hodkinson says:

"Subcultures, then, can be seen as distinguishable from more fluid elective collectivities by their level of substance, something indicated by the relative satisfaction by a given grouping of the criteria outlined. It remains important to recognize that even the most substantive of subcultures will retain elements of diversity, that some individuals will adopt elements of their values without any particular commitment, and that even the most committed participants are not somehow isolated from other interests or priories. At the same time as emphasizeing these elements of fluidity, though, this book seeks - by focusing in relative terms on levels of identity, commitment, coherence and autonomy - to infer that subcultures are more notable for their substance than for their ephemerality."

CULTURE:

As we continue on through, I would like to touch on the debate among goths as to whether or not goth is considered a culture or subculture as well.

Traditionally culture is viewed as the predominant collective of knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits of a society. Culture is defined by attributes such as social sharing, religion, history, language, economics, arts, music and government.

The most important distinction here is that subculture exists in context of a dominant culture; it can represent any number of objection, rejection, confirmation or exaggeration of the cultures' values. But if the traits or mores of a group would not make sense outside of the context of a larger culture they're also part of, it's "sub". As mentioned above, while goth attains some level of autonomy in a socioeconomic and structured ethics sense, it is not fully autonomous from the larger cultural climate.

We could then view, for example, American society as being composed of a few predominate cultures, and any culture within those, would be considered a subculture. This becomes problematic in that it is an oversimplification of culture, and especially subcultural studies. While it does allow, by that reasoning, for subcultures to also be considered cultures, it misses the complexity and minutia of subcultural groupings. This view of culture, in my opinion, is extremely constricting, implying there is a very small number cultures, and any other grouping of knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and habits must then be considered a subculture, until it achieves widespread adoption by a large portion of the population. This also makes translocal cultures problematic, as they may have an expansive population, but remain minorities within each region they live.

Of course this view of culture is not the only one, "most current social scientific approaches to culture focus on symbols and on the behavior that derives from symbolically expressed ways of thinking and feeling, reflecting a definition of culture as a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." source

Indeed, a cursory search online will show that many indicators of culture are similar to theories of subculture, with the distinction of size, and the distinction that subcultures embrace values that differ from mainstream culture. The issue of population discussed above, in my unprofessional opinion is too limiting of culture and should not be considered as an indicator.

There are of course other ways to view distinctions between the two, as one sociology student told me how she views the transition from subculture to culture:

"Once a subculture has matured beyond a single generation in a more or less recognizable form, with some adaptions - as with Hippies - they carry with them a more defined cultural importance and therefore exert a greater sphere of influence beyond the parameters of their own "scene" - perhaps cultural influence is a better phrase. Punk has also transcended similar restrictions to become a cultural influence rather than a subculture in the strictest sense."

She is not alone Hodkinson (2012) and Sweetman (2009) also question whether the similarities in "consuming, collecting, socializing, and sharing an identity" between subcultures, is broad enough to warrant consideration of these communities simply as cultures. Although with this comes the question of whether these communities should be considered separate at all. Hodkinson specifically calls for further research into this topic.

Whichever course we take, society is complex and diversified, containing a plurality of cultures or subcultures. In this instance, I am not able to say with confidence which view is correct or incorrect, as I do not have enough of a background of research to make an informed claim. Hodkinson is keen to continue the use of the term subculture, in keeping with traditional subcultural theory, and I would tend to agree with him, I do not think his reworking of subculture is mutually exclusive to the view of goth as a culture, however, even though parts of the theory behind it may be.

While I cannot tell you which term is correct, whatever term you use, there is no denying goth has had a cultural impact, and remained a substantive collective of individuals, for nearly 40 years.

COUNTER CULTURE:

I often hear goth, or subcultures in general, used interchangeably with the term counterculture, so I'd like to briefly clear this up as well.

There are a few defining factors of a counterculture, it must oppose and reject the norms of mainstream culture in some fashion, have an understood set of values and ideals which are counter to the mores of greater society, and often counterculture leads to some form of social impact which can trigger dramatic cultural changes.

There are several distinctions between subculture and counterculture, and the traits of counterculture simply do not exist within goth. Firstly, a counterculture must have  a stated or at least implicitly understood stance against some part of mainstream culture, with the desire to enact social change, Hippie's are a great example of this. For goth, there is no singular, agreed upon call to activism for some norm or more, counter to what is held by the mainstream. Some may cite a stance against capitalism or materialism, which may have been arguable of the post punk scene. However 90's goth forward, is actually very capitalist friendly, and often very materialistic in it's values. The closest goth may come, in my opinion, is that goth is a feminine culture, though the reason this can not be considered countercultural brings me to my next point.

A counterculture often operates on it's own system's, values, and beliefs directly opposed to mainstream culture, through which it seeks to enact change. While goth may be very feminine in it's performativity, gender norms, and even sexuality, there still does not exist a culture wide call to action. In fact there are very few notions you can ascribe to goth culture as a whole. Many goths may be atheistic in their theology, feminist in their ideology, or even nihilistic in their philosophy, however none of this can be said are inherent to the culture.

From Wikipedia: Typically, a "fringe culture" expands and grows into a counterculture by defining its own values in opposition to mainstream norms. Countercultures tend to peak, then go into decline, leaving a lasting impact on mainstream cultural values. Their life cycles include phases of rejection, growth, partial acceptance and absorption into the mainstream. During the late 1960s, hippies became the largest and most visible countercultural group in the United States. The "cultural shadows" left by the Romantics, Bohemians, Beats and Hippies remain visible in contemporary Western culture.

Counterculture is generally understood to have gone away in the 70's due to the mainstream adopting civil rights/liberties/gender equality etc as part of it's cultural values and ideals. For example LGBT counterculture has now become LGBT culture. So while there may be some congruence between goths divergence from mainstream norms in aesthetic expression, emotionalism, etc. goth can not be considered a counterculture by any traditional definition.

What we have seen with goth and other subcutlures in recent times, is a heavy reliance, or participation in consumer goods for expression and participation. This also makes the idea of counterculture problematic in late modernity. To further illustrate that point, Grant McCracken argues, commodities cannot be completely effective as a mode of dissent because they are made legible in a language written by corporate-capitalism. As he writes: ‘when “hippies,” “punks”, “gays”, “feminists”,“young republicans”, and other radical groups use consumer goods to declare their difference, the code they use renders them comprehensible to the rest of society and assimilable within a larger set of cultural categories. ...The act of protest is finally an act of participation in a set of shared symbols and meanings’.

CONCLUSION:

As stated, I am not a sociologist, or an academic, so I must reserve the right to change my opinion in the future. However, with the current information I have over the time I've spent doing research, I stand by the statements I've made. I regret not yet having the breadth of knowledge to make qualitative meaningful contributions to this field of study, however I hope my observations and predications, based upon my participation in, and observational research of goth, merit further thought, conversation or study by those more qualified than myself. Furthermore, I would love to talk about this with you in the comments if there are questions or corrections to be made, and if you do have formal training, or a differing opinion, please make that known. Additionally, you can e-mail me, CemeteryConfessions@Gmail.com

My hope is that through better understanding, and study of academic fields, we can better participate, expand, and support goth culture. My greatest point here, is to be aware of late modern, transitive identities creeping into an otherwise substantive, meaningful goth identity. That goth would carry on into the future, respectful of it's history, it's boundaries, it's depth of meaning, and sense of community.

-The Count runs the Cemetery Confessions podcast and The Requiem Podcast. For more info on The Count, click here.

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The Count

I have been a part of the goth subculture since I was 16. I am the owner and creator of The Requiem Podcast which has been around since early 2008 and also podcast award nominee Cemetery Confessions. I am also known as DJ Count. I am married, and a father to a beautiful baby bat named Link.