Monday, October 20, 2008

The Locus of Self: Youth Culture and Commodification

 ‘Youth’ is a concept used to demarcate a particular stage in the life-span development of an individual. This period in a person’s life is considered formative in the creation of their identity. Interdependence and independence are essential to an individual’s sense of self and place within social groups. Consequently the sub-cultures and peer groups which youths involve themselves in are a shaping influence on their sense of identity. The sociology of youth culture has sought to understand the nature of this collective sense of identity, its relation to adult culture and societal structures. Youth culture can often seem permeated with oppositional defiance, youth defining their identity in contradistinction to adult culture. The issue arising from this phenomenon is whether youth culture challenges the dominant structures of society. Or can youth culture be viewed as hedonistic and an expression of superficial rebellion and political conservatism. To address these issues this paper will first define ‘youth’ and ‘culture’, further elucidating the formation of youth identity through their particular consumption patterns and the effect of this consumption on society’s dominant structures. In answering the question, the paper will ascertain whether Youth culture represents resistance to the status quo or commodified compliance.

It has been argued that ‘youth’ is an invented category imagined after World-War Two (Nilan, 2007, p. 113). Currently youth has come to represent a specific demographic, roughly those individuals between the ages of ten and their late twenties (Nilan, 2007, p. 113). The exact nature of this transformation from childhood to adulthood is highly culturally specific and differs between societies (Nilan, 2007, p.113). There are numerous factors which influence the dynamic of youth within high income economies situated in Australia, North America and Western Europe. Lengthening of the human life span and structural changes in the labour-force that require a greater skill set and therefore more education have all influenced the nature of youth transition (Nilan, 2007, pp. 113-4). Erikson (1968, p. 165) postulated that adolescence is a crisis point, the stage in an individual’s life when they start to form an identity via their ability to deal with this crisis. As a specific demographic ‘youth’ has been associated with particular cultural and consumption practices. The surfing youth sub-culture exemplifies this, having particular consumption patterns. Their culture is associated with bright colours and casual clothing expressing a “laid back” identity and cultural dynamic (Morgan, 2006, p 143).

Culture is a system of collectively held values and norms (Nilan, 2007, pp. 113-4). Youth in their struggle to define themselves for themselves, help to forge a generation gap, forming a particular system of values and norms. ‘Youth culture’ has become a term to denote this difference, but even within this ‘culture’ differentiated from adult culture there are many sub-cultures and stratums of youth (Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, Roberts, 1993). The patterns of consumption have become an increasingly important determinant in the construction of youth identities (Croghan, Griffin, Hunter, Phoenix, 2006, p.463). Exemplifying this phenomenon, Gilbert (2007, p. 9) argued that young Australian women practice smoking as a means to project their individuality and self-determination. This projection of identity to another is accompanied by the individual’s re-statement of their own identity for themselves. The process whereby individuals construct their identity through consumption of commodities is the commodification of the self (Woodward, 2007, p.162).

The notion “I am what I consume” is the defining characteristic of the commodified self (Woodward, 2007, p. 162). This is an expansion of Marx’s (1986) notion of commodity fetishism, that within capitalist society the commodity becomes the locus of social value. A commodity’s use-value becomes “a reality only by use or consumption” (Marx, 1986, p. 44). The value of commodities within identity construction is their value as signs. The sign is a concept utilised by Barthes (1993, p. 109) to denote an association between an object (signifier) and its message (signified), where the object is used to communicate a culturally recognisable meaning. Subsequently inanimate objects encoded with meaning are used to communicate an individual’s ‘self’ and identity to others (Woodward, 2007, p. 159).

Baudrillard (1981, pp. 123-4) held a similar conception, that the commodities which one consumes have a “sign value”, created in a “system of differentiation”. A hierarchy of signs is used to form a social logic of differentiation, as these signs mediate relations within and between groups (Baudrillard, 1981, p. 123-4). In an ethnographic analysis of youth culture, the importance of authentic consumption, of choosing the right brand to belong to a social group and delineate between other groups, was a reoccurring theme (Croghan, et al. 2006, p.474-5). One youth commented on another youths attempt at fitting into the group by buying counterfeit Nikes with an inverted tick. This kind of consumption was deemed inadequate and fostered a negative social identity among the young people studied (Croghan, et al. 2006, pp. 469-470). As consumption practices have become an important marker of a person’s individuality and social status, consumerism has become an integral feature of youth culture. Furthermore, consumption acts to demarcate between sub-cultures and social groups.

Hip-hop sub-culture is a distinctive identity within the broader youth culture with its particular set of signs and consumption patterns. This global ‘homogenous’ phenomenon though has particular interpretations within different localities and subgroups (Arthur, 2006, p. 140). In Australia, an example of this is the reinterpretation of the brand name FUBU to signify concerns of a local aboriginal community. Originally the brand name was utilised by the African American community to denote autonomy and independence (Arthur, 2006, pp. 140-1). This shows that signs can be co-opted and re-negotiated but the use of particular consumption patterns to promote collective identity is still present. Hip-hop culture is often thought of as anti-establishment in sentiment, but consumerism and the commodification of the self, which are defining aspects of wider culture and social structures, are maintained within the sub-culture. Debord (1983) postulated that the commodification of dissent is a technique by which rebellion is co-opted into the dominant structures of commodity culture. The recuperation of underground and deviant cultural movements into the mainstream culture serves to reinvigorate the commodity market with new trends and fashions. The surfing sub-culture demonstrates this process, where a culture that signified a retreat from “suburban materialism”, now has specialised shops that propagate a commodity constructed identity (Morgan, 2006, pp. 143-6).

This cultural dynamism, with its trends and fashions is integral to the maintenance of fundamental social structures. Modern capitalism, according to Keynesian theory requires consumer spending to maintain adequate aggregate demand, to minimise the effects of economic contraction and recession (Wonnacott & Wonnacott, 1982, pp. 142-143). The dissidence of youth constructing their identities through consumption patterns in attempted independence from adult culture performs a conservative function within social organisation of modern society. Some postmodernists have argued that this condition of “hyper-commodification” is an expression of freedom and identity play, emphasising the neoteric nature of commodities and signs breaking through old barriers (Woodward, 2007, pp. 161-2). This argument establishes the hedonistic nature of modern mass culture and the pursuit of self, but neglects economic (and some would argue) ideological function of consumption, and therefore its conservative role.

Marcuse (1972, p. 21) argued that consumption patterns serve a further ideological function in the maintenance of capitalism rather then merely in the economic sphere. Through the development of mass culture there is a levelling out of contrast, when individuals of hostile social groups attain satisfaction through the same cultural products. This superficial “equalization of class distinctions”, as expressed by Marcuse (1972, p. 21) unifies the population in a desire for ‘needs’, which support the continuance of the establishment. Contrasts between different identities and therefore subject positions within society have not been levelled out completely. The ethnographic research mentioned above, on youth culture highlighted the demarcation between social groupings, through varied patterns of consumption and therefore also by access to resources (Croghan, et al. 2006, pp. 474-5). The expression of difference through consumption patterns acts to maintain the basis of commodity culture, and the dominant structures of society. Consequently consumerism is fundamentally politically conservative.

Youth culture, in its hedonistic pursuit of self-construction through symbolic and conspicuous consumption is politically conservative. Conservatism is a nebulous and multifaceted set of ideas, philosophies and practices that aim to maintain the status quo (Heywood, 2002, pp. 46-7). If we accept Marcuse’s conceptualisation of consumerism, any form of resistance within the “one-dimensional” society (where difference is superficial), is inherently futile (Berman, 1997, p. 29). People having become so inured by the cultural hegemony of the establishment that antagonisms are no longer threatening to the status quo (Marcuse, 1972, pp. 11-12). This picture maybe unnecessarily bleak, but consumerism in general and within youth culture in particular serves to sustain the basis of modern capitalism and thus is politically conservative.

The attempt by ‘Youth’ to define themselves in contradiction to adult culture through particular consumption patterns, has established consumerism as an integral part of youth culture. Consumerism is inherently hedonistic with each individual pursuing their own ends in conspicuous symbolic consumption. Commodities used as signs are markers of social status and position within youth culture and therefore function as a system of differentiation between individuals. Deviant and underground cultural movements are highly compromised by identity construction through consumption patterns as these very practices are often co-opted into mainstream youth culture, introducing new trends that reinvigorate the market. Consumerism is politically conservative, on two fronts, economically and ideologically. On the economic level, identity construction through consumption drives aggregate demand. Therefore consumerism supports the continuation of capitalism by minimizing downward spirals in the economic cycle and furthering growth. On the ideological level, identity construction through consumption leads to a unification of the individual’s ‘needs’ with the needs of the establishment. Differences between consumption patterns only equate to different predilections in supporting the establishment. Hence modern Youth culture, in its hedonistic pursuit of self-gratification and identity construction through commodity consumption, is politically conservative.

Written by Mathew Toll.


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(written early 2007).

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