What is Resistance?
Resistance is a complex social phenomenon that can include a broad range of behaviors and actions. Resistance can occur at the micro level of individual people all the way to the macro level of protests that bring down whole governments. Given the broad nature of resistance, this page focuses on resistance which occurs amongst subcultures and reviews some of the broad theories and categorizations of resistance. Subculturalists oppose a culture they view as hegemonic and see the dominant culture as one that enforces conformity. A cornerstone for many of these subcultures is the act of resisting this system and living in a way that contradicts what the population as a whole agrees upon to be “normal” and “polite.”
Subculturalists resist the norms and values of a culture they see as exerting ideological and coercive control over their lives. Through their resistance, subcultures undermine the hegemonic social meanings and power relationships that influence our actions in many ways (Haenfler 2014). As these subcultural participants resist the dominant system, Raby (2005) argues that resistance varies between pleasurable and playful rebellion during childhood and adulthood, to moments of deviance from social norms in which individuals focus effort into directly contesting specific agents of social control.
There is a very wide range of ways that resistance has been conceptualized in sociological literature. Hollander and Einwohner (2004) reviewed hundreds of articles and found that given the multitude of ways that scholars define resistance, there are two basic, essential elements that define resistance: action and opposition. Action is the idea that resistance is not a quality or state of being, but active behavior done in opposition. Opposition means, broadly speaking, that resistance is against someone or something that is seen as unjust or unfair. In other words, opposition is the degree of deviance from the dominant culture. Given these basic commonalities, it is no wonder that many scholars apply resistance to a vast range of behaviors. However, many scholars disagree over the idea of intent, the extent to which resistant individuals must see themselves as resisting (Hollander and Einwohner 2004). The relevance of public recognition is also unclear. Scholars have differing opinions on whether or not resistant acts that go unnoticed still count as resistance (Hollander and Einwohner 2004).
Categorizing different types of resistance neatly into separate types of deviance is both difficult and undesirable because it simplifies the complex nature of resistance. Williams (2009) argues for a nuanced understanding of resistance. He reviews three important ways in which authors have framed resistance in past research (passive-active, micro-macro and overt-covert), and further argues that these elements are continuums rather than distinct dichotomies or “boxes” into which one can place resistant acts.
Types of Resistance
Micro, Meso and Macro Level Resistance
At the micro level, a participant of a subculture may personally act against stereotypes and stigmas that are systemic of cultural hegemony, using teachings from a subculture to resist this system’s effect on their own life. One example of micro level resistance is a goth using goth subcultural style as a way to resist middle class values of appearance as well as set themselves apart from the conformist mainstream.
At the meso level, a participant of a subculture may challenge norms and expectations in a group of people, trying to make change or achieve greater understanding while never reaching out to so many people that they become well known. They work toward an ideal of a subculture, influencing those around them. For example, a straight edge subculturalist trying to “convert” other punks into a lifestyle free from drugs, alcohol and promiscuous sex engages in meso-level resistance.
At the macro level, a participant of a subculture may organize a collective group of people to resist a common societal ideology together. The purpose of organizing may be to give personal support to the struggles of other people, or to create political change. In either case, it is a large scale, bold decision to put oneself out there and be seen by the populace. An example of Macro level resistance is the Rock Against Racism movement, which gained prominence in the 1976 after the British political sphere was becoming increasingly racist and xenophobic with the rise of the national front. The Rock Against Racism movement utilized punk’s DIY media structure to actively mobilize resources into anti-racist movements to combat the spread of racist ideologies in 1970s British culture (Roberts and Moore 2009).
Overt and Covert Resistance
Overt resistance is visible and recognized as resistance by targets and observers (Holland and Einwohner 2004). Covert resistance is intentional resistance which goes unnoticed by targets, yet culturally aware observers recognize the act as resistant (Holland and Einwohner 2004). One example that shows how resistance falls on a continuum between covert and overt resistance is Riot Grrrl ‘zine making. Zine making allows Riot Grrrls to resist the way patriarchal culture makes women silent and obedient by giving women a means of expressing themselves and to question authority figures (Schilt 2003). Riot Grrrls who make zines use a combination of covert and overt resistance because zines give grrrls the opportunities to resist sexism and gender roles while allowing them to remain anonymous and hidden (Schilt 2003).
Passive and Active Resistance
The level of intention in a resistant act is the distinguishing factor between passive and active resistance (Williams 2009). Many subculture participants resist hegemonic cultural norms and engage in a deviant lifestyle without intending to change the larger system. This is passive resistance, whereas active resistance is a much more obvious, intentional attempt to disrupt the status quo. Subculture participants who live a certain way out of personal preference engage in passive
resistance, whereas subculturalists who make actions to confront and alter the dominant culture engage in active resistance. For instance, people who choose to not eat meat or dairy, but rarely talk about it are passively resisting, whereas vegan activists who join organizations to end factory farming are actively resisting.
Furthermore, resistance can occur among multiple aspects of the continuum at once. For example, overt resistance can exist on a macro or micro scale (Williams 2009). The World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle in 1999 show a situation in which resistance to hegemonic institutions was both overt and occurred on a macro scale.
Dominant Academic Schools in the Study of Resistance
The Birmingham School Theorists
The Birmingham school popularized the study of working class youth and the many ways in which they resisted middle class, bourgeois lifestyles. Birmingham school scholars saw working class youth resistance primarily through the lens of style and ritual (Hall and Jefferson 1976). Hebdige (1979) theorized resistance in terms of cultural appropriation, in which people take everyday objects out of their normal cultural meaning and integrate them into style to create new resistant and subversive meanings. One example of appropriation is the punk practice of using safety pins as peircings. Appropriating cultural objects into style challenges hegemonic meanings of consumption and disrupts dominant cultural representations of certain objects at the semiotic level (Hebdige 1979). The safety pin no longer holds things together, but resists normal material consumption by turning the safety pin into something that evokes shock and disgust in the minds of authority figures. Paul Willis’ (1977) study of working class ‘lads’ showed how scholars also theorized resistance through deviance. Working class lads inverted middle class values causing a subsequent valuation of the working class and a devaluation of the middle class as conformist ‘earoles.’ Lads’ deviant behavior in school towards authority figures and their inversion of social class hierarchies lead to their resistance from mainstream cultural values. As many scholars from the Birmingham School argue, this resistance is illusory or ‘magical’ because emphasizing working class values and performing poorly in school, ultimately causes working class kids to remain stuck in the working class (Willis 1977).
Post Subcultural Theorists
Post Subcultural Theorists question the effectiveness of the Birmingham school’s focus on style. They argue that in a postmodern society, “the potential for style itself to resist appears largely lost, with any intrinsically subversive quality to subcultures exposed as an illusion” (Muggleton and Weinzierl 2003). In other words, the semiotic resistance of style which the Birmingham School emphasized so strongly, has losts its shock value. The loss of shock value can also be traced to the tendency of corporations to market subcultural style as ‘the next cool thing.’ The commodification of subcultural styles causes style to lose any shock value and become an act of identity creation rooted in consumption (Clark 2003). In another critique of the Birmingham school, post subcultural theorists claim the distinction between a homogeneous mainstream society and an equally distinct resistant subculture is misleading. In a postmodern world, subcultural style, music and meaning becomes diffused, and maybe even accepted, in mainstream culture at a rate previously thought unimaginable (Muggleton and Weinzierl 2003). Post Subcultural theorists also challenge the notion of resistance as heroic, that is, resistance which is articulated action against a dominant group seeking to disrupt, challenge or change what the actor perceives to be dominant power relations (Raby 2005). According to post subcultural theorists, ‘resistance’ comes primarily in the form of a consumerist escape focused on personal fulfillment (Polhemus 1998 in Haenfler 2014).
Identities and Resistance: Race, Class and Gender
Due to the disadvantages some races experience in society, resistant movements spawn from oppressed racial groups. There are many uses of active resistance in protests concerning race such as the Black Lives Matter movement and pro-immigration marches. Many more people engage in passive resistance through actions such as listening to rap or hip-hop albums that criticize the presence of white supremacy in governmental structures. Many artists that write this kind of music promote the “ghetto lifestyle” which considerably deviates from hegemonic norms of polite and submissive living (Harrison 2008). Hip Hop artists claim racial authenticity in their work, implying that because of their racial identity, they can best represent oppressed racial groups . Hegemonic cultural values dictate that this music and the people who associate with it are deviant because they challenge the dominance of white culture.
People of every gender identity resist expectations and implicit rules. Some men break the boundaries of masculinity by professing adoration for traditionally feminine objects. Men in the ‘brony’ subculture, who are fanatics of the show My Little Pony, break gender boundaries by watching a show written for a female audience. The Riot Grrrl subculture is also a response to the sexism present in the male dominated punk scene. Gender queer youth defy all gender roles by not conforming to either the male or the female gender. Because of this intense level of resistance, they often form subcultures around a shared identity such as a fandom. Because of the constraints of gendered expectations on our lives, gender plays a large role in the presence of resistance in subcultures. For a more in depth discussion of intersectionality in sociology, this page is helpful.
As discussed earlier, many subcultures focus their resistance on class structures. Low income youth in Willis’ ethnography resisted the cultural hegemony of the middle class in schools and reevaluated characteristics of the working class (Willis 1977). However, class resistance is not only about working classes resisting the upper classes. For example, the goth subculture uses goth style to resist “conformist” middle class attitudes and standards of appearance. Yet, goth also allows middle class youth to remain safely in the middle class because goth has the potential to be a transitive state based on appearance. Middle class adults also are more likely to tolerate goth style as long as it does not interfere with middle class values such as good performance in school (Wilkins).
Resistance in Media
A video about tattoos and how subcultures use physical marking to distinguish themselves through overt resistance
This is a brief clip about the rise of subcultures which discusses how history is typically told from the viewpoint of societal elites. Studying resistant subcultures is a view of history that begins to see social life at the margins of power. Studying the “margins” of social life allows us to see how individuals in these categories engage in resistance.
Key Scholars and Scholarship
Hebdige’s book focuses on the way style is appropriated from mainstream meanings and incorporated into new subversive styles that create semiotic resistance. He is part of the Birmingham School.
Resistance Through Rituals Edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (1976)
One of the most important publications to come out of the CCCS/Birmingham School which theorized youth subculture resistance through style and ritual.
The Post-Subcultures Reader by Rupert Weinzierl and David Muggleton
This book is an anthology of writings in the field of post-subcultural studies. The introduction by Muggleton and Weinzierl synthesizes key beliefs, theories and practices of scholars within this field.
Pretty In Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys Subculture by Lauraine Leblanc
This book focuses on resistance in the punk subculture through the lens of gender. Leblanc focuses on how girls conceptualize resistance in a subculture that claims to resist mainstream social hierarchies, but actually reproduces a patriarchal ordering of gender within the subculture.
Patrick Williams “The Multi-Dimensionality of Resistance in Subcultural Studies”
This article reviews how sociologists frame resistance into categories of macro/micro, passive/active and overt/covert. An essential nuance that Williams adds to the literature is that these categories are not separate boxes into which resistance falls, but in a continuum.
Jocelyn A. Hollander and Rachel L. Einwohner “Conceptualizing Resistance“
This article notes how the use of the word resistance in sociological literature has been used so widely that it may begin to lose a coherent meaning. Einwohner and Hollander review the literature on resistance and note two common elements in all uses: oppositon and action. They also identify some ways in which confusion over what constitutes resistance arises which are: recognition and intent.
This article shows how resistance can be both overt and covert by showing how Riot Grrrl zine making allows adolescent women to challenge patriarchy while remaining anonymous. This article provides further evidence of William’s idea that resistance is a continuum.
David Muggleton has authored several books on subcultures from the Post Subcultural Perspective. He is the editor of the Post-subcultures Reader and Inside Subcultures: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. In his introduction to the latter book, he describes his experiences studying punk. In 1976 he describes gradually becoming involved in the punk scene by changing his clothing and musical tastes. He describes reading Hebdige’s (1979) book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, and finds that it had little relevance to his life experiences in the punk scene even after he could better understand the book with his degree in sociology. Muggleton feels that CCCS/Birmingham scholars did not give enough attention to ‘subjective viewpoints of youth subculturalists themselves” (Muggleton 2000). Given the disconnect between his lived experiences in the punk subculture and what Muggleton calls ‘grand theories’ of the CCCS school, he advocates for postmodern sociological literature that focuses more on ethnography to understand how subculturalists define their own acts of resistance.
Stuart Hall was an early leader in the field of subcultural studies. He helped to shape the Birmingham school of thought, and directed programs there for over ten years. He retains a large amount of recognition due to heavily publicized essays about the state of British society, his racial heritage, and several theories of hegemony. He created a philosophy on encoding and decoding, in which he theorized that an audience receiving a message interprets the message differently based on many factors, and dominant systems send out specific messages for their own benefit. Hall has a lengthy list of publications in the realm of sociology, many of which describe how subcultures deal with their differences with the hegemonic system and resist its control.
Ross Haenfler (Ph.D.) has authored several books and articles about subcultures. He gained prominence in the subcultural resistance field after writing “Rethinking Subcultural Resistance: Core Values of the Straight Edge Movement” which detailed the straight edge movement and the ways resistance is enacted within. He is now a key figure in the ageing punk scene, and continues to publish work on subcultural scenes.
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