Critical Review of Hebdige's
Subculture: the Meaning of Style

Anthropology 113: Ethnographies of Popular Culture
K. Harper, Instructor
Copyright © 1997 B. A. Collie Collier

This paper is a quickie review of Hebdige's book, and contains some contrast/comparisons of other readings we had in class, as well as some speculations of mine on the nature of emerging subcultures. Pretty pretentious sounding on my part, I know... but it was still a good book! ;-)


Our current reading was D. Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Hebdige examines style, and specifically punk style, as a forum for counter-hegemonic speech for the disaffected working-class youth of England. The book has an extensive introduction, and is in two main parts. The introduction and first chapter discuss the concepts of culture and hegemony, and the difficulty of precisely defining them. Barthes' concepts of symbols as mythology for a culture is explored, and the intellectual framework is laid out for understanding the appropriation of mainstream symbols as counter-hegemonic and subculturally stylistic.

The book's first section presents the history of events that lead to punk, with specific mention of class and race, and their effects on the participants of the various youth subcultures. The second section discusses the different uses and forms of style, and how they are reclaimed by the hegemonic mainstream. The book's conclusion gives closure to the study, by exposing how the researcher on subcultures becomes, in a sense, a person apart; no longer fully and unconsciously subsumed in the hegemonic ideals of the mainstream culture, and rejected as an understanding and comprehending observer of the subculture by its members.

There are a great many specifics of style as mentioned by Hebdige that reflect the subcultural traits demonstrated by other subcultures we have studied. The use of style as revolt, as intentional communication, as bricolage; all of these are used by the American rappers and the Hungarian 'punks' to varying degrees of consciousness. The music as deliberate revolt against the status quo, as a voice of the people, is also common between all 3 movements, as are the efforts to break down the 'high-brow' dictate that mandates separation between artist and audience. Finally, the use of hatred of the 'Other' as a unifying technique is appallingly common, although the definition of 'Other' varies from movement to movement.

I find myself fascinated and appalled in my examinations of subcultures. On the one hand, I cannot but applaud the attempts at formulating a distinct identity and the deliberate recognition of the failure of the hegemony to deal with the problems facing its members - however unwanted my applause would be. On the other hand, I find the apparent need to vilify someone else in order to foster a sense of group identity repulsive. Any group or subculture that has to indulge in violence against some 'Other' in order to make itself feel more important and less impotent is to me ultimately an ideological failure. I find myself wondering if this ubiquitous xenophobia has anything to do with the apparent prevalence of males as initiators and leaders of each of these subcultures. I'd like to think it isn't so... but I don't have enough information to be able to tell one way or the other.

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    Last Updated: Fri Apr 21 2000