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Youth Cultures - Unpopular Cultures - The Language of Youth Subcultures
November 10, 1995

Academic work in youth culture has not been fashionable since the 1970s, when it flourished at departments like Birmingham University's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). Changed 1980s priorities (the demise of the Social Science Research Council) left it largely moribund. Signs of a recovery in its fortunes however are currently detectable. First came the think-tank Demos's major series on Generation X, and now three very different books destined for reading lists on subcultures, attempt to fill in some of the gaps.

Steve Redhead set up Manchester Metropolitan University's Institute for Law and Popular Culture, the self-styled "CCCS of the 1990s". Unpopular Cultures follows his earlier work in studying youth through the connections between law and cultural studies. Postmodernism features, if ambivalently. Redhead writes: "The histories and studies referred to . . . suggest the existence of a more widespread condition in fin de si cle legal and cultural theory which is inappropriately defined by the emergence over the past 10 or 15 years of labels such as 'postmodern jurisprudence' and 'postmodern sociology'."

An uneven book, Unpopular Cultures is too short to do its potentially vast subject justice. At more than 100 pages of text plus footnotes, it promises more than it delivers. There is an attempt to formulate a new typology to redefine the common ground between law and popular culture, notably an update of Cohen's "moral panic" theory for the 1990s. An "aesthetics of law" and "erotics of law" are also mentioned. However, many new ideas - translaw, dead law and hyperlegality - are left to single-sentence definitions in the glossary whereas the author's own preferences in film, music, and books are discussed at greater length.

As a journey through "the fertile deconstructed terrain where legal theory, deviance and cultural studies collide: a zone where there are no disciplinary boundaries or border/lines", Unpopular Cultures is an ambitious undertaking. New thinking in the area of historical and contemporary narratives on the law and popular culture is long overdue. Even if Redhead has not come up with all the answers, his book is an interesting and challenging read that will undoubtedly serve as a useful additional tool for future students of youth culture.

Vered Amit-Talai and Helena Wulff are from an anthropological background, which one could see as quite fitting for the study of the strange species called "youth". Their volume is a collection of monographs from fellow anthropologists from all quarters of the globe: Denmark, Brazil, the Netherlands as well as Canada and Sweden (from which the editors hail) and dear old Blighty. A rich variety of issues and youth groups are selected for scrutiny but a running theme throughout is that of the neglected status of youth in anthropology as a whole. Wulff offers by way of explanation: "Perhaps, like many other adults, anthropologists view youth as not to be taken seriously - occasionally amusing, yet potentially dangerous and disturbing." Another chapter addressing methodology is entitled "Anthropology's silent 'others'".

In the remainder of the book these "others" get a voice and we encounter schoolchildren in Birmingham, French-Algerian Rai music followers, Surinamese youth in Amsterdam and young people in Katmandu and the Solomon Islands. All these studies have their points of interest and most importantly draw attention to the fact that there is much more to youth culture than occidental fads, be they Brit-centric or variants from our American cousins. Although at times the text makes for demanding reading, Youth Cultures offers a fascinating insight into international developments in the field and concludes with a discussion emphasising what Amit-Talai rather oddly calls "the 'multi' cultural of youth".

Sue Widdicombe and Robin Wooffitt by contrasting are firmly located in United Kingdom traditions. Despite being a psychology text, The Language of Youth Subcultures in some ways has more in common with the 1970s CCCS work than Redhead's "cultural studies" tract. Widdicombe and Wooffitt resurrect the old term "subculture" and ethnography largely frames their findings, as in Amit-Talai and Wulff.

Extensive empirical data is presented in the form of personal accounts of "punks, goths and rockers" interviewed over two years at various youth hangouts. The transcriptions at first make baffling reading; festooned in square and round brackets, arrows, asterisks and other symbols to denote verbal inflection and intonation. The resulting theory, "the social identity approach" is "conversational and discourse analysis", rooted in the use of language in the identity, authenticity and affiliation bases of subcultures. This approach at least concentrates on the group members themselves. However it could be argued that it is more instructive to look at what people actually do, rather than what they say they do.

The Language of Youth Subcultures is a dense theoretical treatise, rather like the heavygoing Youth Cultures and unlike Redhead's reader-friendly self-consciously jokey prose style. It is not all revelatory. The finding that subcultural membership is not all-embracing is presented as new. Elsewhere 1970s subcultural theory is reaffirmed. A description of Punk's key aim being "to screw the system up" is seen as "a formulaic or idiomatic characterisation of 'resistance'".

There are obvious limitations: it is a "snapshot" not longitudinal. The choice of subcultures is questionable and scant attention is paid to gender and ethnicity. However as a psychological probe into group processes the book provides a refreshingly new standpoint for examining youth subcultures.

"Youth studies" per se has always been treated with suspicion for its patronising overtones. It is a highly problematic subject area precisely because many factors in the youth culture equation like "being cool" and not "selling out" are unquantifiable and intangible. Perhaps things are best summed up by the punk in the King's Road who tells Widdicombe and Wooffit:" I don't like labels ah jus: (sor(t)a) ss ahm jus: a human being really ('n) like everyone else but a bit different ah suppose(.)" Punctuation aside, I cannot agree more.

Rupa Huq is researching youth culture for her PhD, the cultural studies department, University of East London.

Youth Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

Editor - Vered Amit-Talai and Helena Wulff
ISBN - 0 415 10983 3 and 10984 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £12.99
Pages - 239

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