The Sociology of Hipsters

An interesting post on Sociology Lens yesterday made a useful contribution to the online debate about the sociology of hipsterdom which I briefly became completely obsessed with last summer:

This week in a local Massachusetts newspaper a columnist made a list of demands to the influx of hipsters into his neighborhood. In the article the author attempts to reconcile with how his city is gentrifying and seems to be making something of a plea to the newcomers’ humanity. The article sparked my interest and had me asking, what is a hipster?

The author himself admits that the term hipster is a generalization. To clarify his definition he writes, “If you would like a more precise definition, then I am addressing you if you identify with rebellious subculture(s), but you enjoy privileges associated with the dominant class; if your rebellion is more about recondite consumption choices than humane institutional changes.”

The author goes on to convey the aspects of community that he finds important, like participation in local clubs and politics, and asks that these newcomers join in. The author seems to define hipsters as a cultural subculture and an economic class with distinct consumption choices.

I actually quite like this understanding because it includes, albeit slightly crudely, the classed element which is often present in the anti-hipster discourse. I think this is sometimes overlooked by those seeking to oppose the anti-hipster discourse (is the idea of an outright pro-hipster  discourse (oxy)moronic?).

This  blog post then offers a neo-Weberian analysis of the figure of the ‘hipster’ which I find quite compelling:

Weber helps us to understand hipsters because while the instinct is to see cultural differences, the economic and political context of a hipster is extremely important. As the comments section illustrates, people are not convinced or comfortable with a simple definition of hipster. This is because hipsters are a recognition that something larger is happening – change is happening; neighborhoods and cities are looking different and are being inhabited by different people. The need to understand what is happening seems to drive much of the hipster debate. The logic seems to be – if we can figure out who is changing the neighborhood then we can stop them or make pleas to their humanity to join our way of doing things.

While Weber agrees that it is real people in real places making the world move – they do not make change in a vacuum. People make change in and with the help of social institutions: economic, political, and cultural. So what is a hipster? Seems to me a hipster is the newest cultural spotlight that takes our attention away from the politics and economics of change and instead turns debates into a witch-hunt – looking for who is to blame.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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2 replies »

  1. Here’s a recent analysis based on the idea that the conflict over the definition of hipster reflects a struggle to preserve the value of cultural capital in the “indie” cultural field:

    “For our participants, the hipster myth is the trivializing stereotype that threatens the value of their identity investments in the indie field of consumption…. By gleaning aesthetically meritorious forms of indie culture from the mainstream marketplace, these consumers leverage their field-dependent cultural capital in ways that distinguish them from stereotypical hipsters and also from indie consumers who have less status in the consumption field and hence lack the cultural license to flaunt the symbolic boundary between legitimate and illegitimate expressions of indie culture…. Owing to their high status position in the field, these consumers have a cultural authority to dismiss any resemblances between their consumption practices and the hipster icon as irrelevant trivialities or as an ironic comment on its corporate contrivances…. Once vested in the indie field, these consumers become reflexively aware of the hipster marketplace myth that has been culturally (and commercially) imposed on their identity practices. Rather than functioning as a source of attraction, indie consumers view this marketplace myth as a caricature of their aesthetic tastes, which threatens the value of their field-dependent capital. They employ demythologizing practices to insulate the field of indie consumption from the stigmatizing encroachments of the hipster myth and, in so doing, protect their field-dependent capital from cultural devaluation.”

    Zeynep Arsel and Craig J. Thompson, “Demythologizing Consumption Practices: How Consumers Protect Their Field-Dependent Identity Investments from Devaluing Marketplace Myths,” Journal of Consumer Research 37, no. 5 (February 1, 2011): 791–806, doi:10.1086/656389.

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