Bennett, A (2002) 'Researching youth culture and popular music: a methodological critique', in British Journal of Sociology, Vol 53, 3: 451 - 66.
The relationship between youth culture and popular music has been much researched. Recent work has tried to develop sociological themes in particular, including relations to postmodernism, social geography and identity. Early studies lacked much empirical study, being rooted in cultural marxism. Later work is unreflexive about research itself, especially the technique of using insider knowledge.
In the early work, as Stan Cohen says, the perceptions of the actors themselves were much neglected. CCCS theoretical frameworks tried to map youth cultures 'against a backdrop of socio-economic forces only weakly comprehended by the social actors involved' (453). Structuralist approaches made any kind of fieldwork redundant, and the reactions of working-class youth could be read off from a theoretical understanding of hegemony and resistance. Hall is cited as arguing that only abstract theoretical thought can reveal the mechanisms at work (in the 'two paradigms' article in Bennett et al 1981).
Willis did investigate empirical case studies using ethnography, for example in Profane Culture, but employed the concept of homology to organise the discussion of the symbolic meanings of the various commodities central to bikers and hippies. This effectively re-reads and limits the ability to understand the subcultures involved [and I am cited as a major critic!!]. In this way, the ethnographic possibilities are reduced.
Hebdige's 1979 analysis of punk faces similar problems with his '"quasi ethnographic research style allied with a sophisticated theoretical intent and interpretation"' (quoting Chaney, page 454)'. The key concept here is polysemy. Hebdige suggests that there are some links between the style of punk and the crisis in Britain of the late 1970s, but insists that punks themselves would not understand this. Once more, the empirical work is 'being made to fit the bigger picture which has already been fashioned at the level of theoretical abstraction' (455). [And Stan Cohen's detailed critique is summarised on 455]. Theoreticism dominated, and this led to more of an interest in ethnographic studies of the relation between youth culture and popular music from the mid-1980s.
Two early studies here are cited -- Finnegan 1989 and Sara Cohen 1991 (455). Both writers also consider the difficulties of research and the possible disturbing role of the researcher. In Cohen's case, her gender may have made her an outsider, while Finnegan faced problems of selectivity and objectivity, especially as she studied musicians in her own home town (Milton Keynes). These studies are unusual, though, and in many more recent studies 'a subjectively informed enthusiasm stands in for any consideration of such methodological issues' (456). One example is Redhead's collection on rave (Rave Off) -- 'a series of quite poorly conceptualized semi ethnographic studies... privileging... front line knowledge' (457). Melechi is particularly singled out as a variety of 'intelligent "fanspeak"' (457). [Redhead has replied that this may be the only kind of research that is available as classic ethnographers continue to age]. Other studies of rave are also cited as examples of what McGuigan saw as 'an uncritical celebration of mass culture which... claims knowledge through an ability to identify with "street level" sensibilities' (457).
Thornton attempts more of a critical engagement, and is more 'reflexive fully aware' of the problems of researchers as outsiders (457). However, this perception is not sustained further into the study. In Thornton's actual account 'the research subjects themselves play only a relatively minor role in the text', and there is little raw data (458). Instead, Thornton's is still 'the authoritative voice in Club Cultures' (458). An account from the clubbers' point of view is relatively isolated, and the personal experiences of taking Ecstasy are relatively unexplored.
Many other apparently ethnographic studies used questionnaires or unstructured interviews [and the example here is Arnett 1995], which offers a series of profiles of heavy-metal fans, corresponding quite closely to media representations. The studies in particular need to remember that researchers need to be open about methodological problems, as in classic work on ethnographic methods [which includes Hammersley and Atkinson and Burgess].
Popular music does present particular methodological problems. We are now aware that ethnographic writing is not a neutral discourse but is 'as trope-governed as any other discursive formation' (459). [Pratt 1986 is the source for this, via Clifford, but I still prefer Clough]. Young insiders increasingly provide our knowledge of contemporary popular music, against the traditional view that outsiders could be more objective and rigorous [Whyte is cited here, 460]. More recently, insider knowledge has become seen as more valuable, especially in gaining access and in orienting to the field [two studies are cited, including Armstrong on Sheffield United supporters -- Armstrong has also been criticised for being too partisan]. This development has benefited from the more general critique on objective or value free knowledge. However, few researchers in popular music specifically, attempt to acknowledge any distorting effects. Malbon is criticised as an example -- his study lacks any extended discussion of the advantages and problems of insider knowledge.
The lack of critical engagement may be the result of the great interest in music and youth culture for 'young and relatively inexperienced researchers' (461). There is also a serious shortage of funds, and a lack of reflective self analytic work in the field. Researchers in this area still do need to be critical, especially of 'popular fanspeak contrast-pairings such as "underground" and "commercial"; "authentic" and "packaged"' (462). However, this should not reproduce the old claims of superior researcher knowledge: fan insight can be valuable but must be more reflexive.
Early work assumed that there was some connection between youth style and the experience of particular classes. This was seen as too simple, leading to the eventual abandonment of terms such as 'subculture'. New terms, such as 'taste culture' acknowledged the heterogeneity of musical taste, and tried to connect it with other aesthetic values. Frith has pointed to sociology's difficulties in grasping the aesthetic significance of popular music, and what it might mean (462 - 3). He proposes to use the knowledge of fans to understand these 'collective aesthetic values'. But how can this be made more methodologically rigorous? Insider knowledge must be seen as a method, and thus open to critical evaluation. Its problems include confusion of roles, as demonstrated by Armstrong (463). Barriers between researcher and researched must be acknowledged.
Overall, then needs to be more critical debates about methods, rather than simply allowing the claim that experience is superior to theory because it seems to be 'somehow "more in touch" with the object of study' (464).
Selected references (see the original for a full list)
Chaney,, D. (1994) The Cultural Turn: Scene Setting Essays on Contemporary Cultural History, London: Routledge
Cohen, Sara (1991) Rock Culture in Liverpool: Popular Music in the Making, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Cohen, Stanley (1987) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, 3rd edn., Oxford: Basil Blackwell..
Finnegan, R (1989) The Hidden Musicians: Music Making in an English Town, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frith, S. ( 1987) in Leppert, R. and McClary, S. (eds.) Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception, Cambridge: Cambridge University press.
Pratt., M. (1986) in Clifford, J. and Marcus, G. (eds.) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press.
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