© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1997
[Perhaps a little schoolboyish and out of date now, but the underlying ideas are still sound].
In what ways can young people’s informal culture be realized in media education?
Before discussing a methodology it is usually helpful to start with a definition. In this instance, it would be helpful to define what is entailed by the following terms: ‘young people’, ‘informal culture’ and ‘media education’.
1) ‘young people’. What particular age groups are under consideration? Also, what (if any) distinctions should be made to allow for differences in gender, ethnicity and social class?
Given the educational context of the question, this essay will concentrate on teenagers in the Secondary Education system (i.e. aged 13 to 15). While acknowledging that the question has ramifications for Further and Higher Education, the underlying friction between formal and informal cultures seems most apparent in the didactic ethos of compulsory schooling. Further and Higher Education, being voluntary and usually less disciplinarian than Secondary Education, do not present as many problems for discussion.
Also, while acknowledging that it would be unreasonably simplistic to discuss young people as though they were a homogenous group, we must also concede that the discussion of diversity between age, gender, ethnicity and social class is worthy of a treatise in its own right.
There would seem to be two alternative avenues for discussion:
i) The discussion of a particular youth subculture in the context of media education.
ii) The discussion of youth subculture in general in the context of media education.
Given the ‘common sense’ perception that contemporary youth subcultures have an accelerated (and perhaps commercially deliberate) ephemerality any discussion of a particular youth subculture will rapidly become obsolete and (ironically) academic. How then to propose methods for incorporating future youth subcultures in media education?
A more persuasive logic would be to ascertain what (if any) theories have been successful in explaining a variety of youth subcultures in the past. Any apparent commonalities between different youth subcultures could then be used to construct an initial thesis for a general theoretical model to predict and test the various curricular suggestions bidding for media education funding.
A theoretical model is, of course, no substitute for actual classroom experiences where distinctions between gender, ethnicity and social class acquire a very practical relevance. However, as Paul Willis concedes in the opening chapter to Common Culture:
‘There are . . . many commonalities in youth experience and it is these we try to highlight. It is clear, however, that symbolic work and creativity can also differ in form, style and content according to age and ‘life style’. (Willis, 1990, p.8)
2) ‘informal culture’. What is culture? What is the difference between formal and informal culture? What is the difference between adults’ informal culture and young peoples’ informal culture?
Culture is a very broad term. Rather than treating it as a singular object, it would be more useful to view culture as a spectrum of subtle shifts between two extreme alternatives:
i) Culture as ‘high art’
ii) Culture as ‘every day life’
Culture as ‘high art’ might be crudely summarized as a traditionalist perspective, being an inherited set of values which are still held to be of value. This then begs questions of whom decides what is of value and what do they mean by value? Value for what? Money? Power? Dominant ideology? Elitist aesthetics?
Formal or ‘high’ culture might be more definitively described as compulsory culture, being those sets of values that are still espoused by formal institutions (e.g. schools, colleges and universities) for the purpose of maintaining cultural standards in the face of commercial fashion and disposable populism.
The perceived elitism of ‘high art’ is perhaps unavoidable given the process by which students become teachers. As matters stand, in order to succeed in the education process when studying ‘the arts’, a student must become proficient at studying ‘high art’. Vygotsky’s emphasis on the social context and Bourdieu’s emphasis on the middle-class domination of cultural competence and capital may receive a grudging sociological recognition. However, despite the endless pendular swings of educational theories between ‘traditionalism’ and ‘progressivism’ (usually a target indicator of the state of the economy) those who scale the ladders of power tend (by then) to be middle-aged and from the middle-classes. By nature (and probably by necessity) the educational establishment tends to be dominated more by the forces of conservatism than liberalism. The natural instinct of power and self-preservation is, once ensconced, to try and keep art and politics separate until safely distanced by history. Brecht, of course, would sneer at this: ‘For art to be “unpolitical” means only to ally itself with the “ruling” group’ (cited in Willett 1974:196). Art and politics is the happy hunting ground of the young, the hungry and the dissatisfied who hope to climb, not the comfortable who fear to fall.
The upshot of all this ‘common sense’ power politics is that a student who wishes to progress in the system must study a syllabus of traditional ‘high art’. If that student then decides to become a teacher then they can only teach that at which they are proficient and which the syllabus permits. Regardless of personal preferences they will therefore end up teaching ‘high art’ (with the occasional tickbox nod to some half-hearted social engineering initiatives which might pull in a little funding). While it may be possible to renegotiate the content of an academic curriculum to include aspects of popular culture such a negotiation will inevitably be time-consuming and encounter resistance from those members of the establishment wishing to preserve the tried, tested and trusted standards which put them there in the first place. Changing an educational artistic canon is therefore an excruciatingly slow evolutionary process which must always lag behind the social and political sea-changes. Art in education is never the wind or the tide, only the life raft.
Culture as ‘every day life’ might be crudely summarized as a sociological perspective, being a set of values based on common usage rather than standards of traditional excellence. While the teaching of ‘high art’ generally attempts to fix meanings, a sociological perspective tends to view meanings as negotiable and changing.
Elitism is, by definition, exclusive. If a culture of ‘high art’ promotes standards of excellence then that culture must, by definition, be elitist and exclusive.
Also by definition, commonality is inclusive. If a culture of ‘every day life’ promotes usage then it must, by definition, be common and inclusive. As Willis notes (from a sociological perspective):
‘The institutions and practices, genres and terms of high art are currently categories of exclusion more than inclusion. They have no real connection with most young people or their lives.’ (Willis, 1990, p.1)
We have already described formal or ‘high art’ as being compulsory (in the sense that it is imposed on people through the prescribed education process). However, it does not necessarily follow that informal or common culture is therefore entirely voluntary. We must concede that an individual’s freedom of choice will be restricted by circumstantial factors. These range from the alleged abilities of some mass media to manipulate choices (e.g. through advertising) to the limits imposed by available disposable income (or lack of it) and, particularly in the case of young people, the directions and boundaries of style adopted by their peer group(s).
Having considered the differences between formal and informal adult mainstream culture we should now consider the additional complexity of youth subculture.
Youth subculture is a many-faceted (some might say fractured) looking-glass. It reflects aspects of the mainstream adult culture while deliberately subverting it in order to create its own identity. Youth subculture naturally rebels against the domineering authority of the parent culture but (like many a freeloading teenager) borrows freely from it as well. It attempts to create a separate identity from the parent culture by reshaping every day artifacts so that they have new (and exclusive) meanings and significance. Above all, youth subcultures are based on the meaning of style. As Dick Hebdige notes in Subculture: The Meaning of Style :
‘The meaning of subculture is . . . always in dispute, and style is the area in which the opposing definitions clash with most dramatic force.’ (Hebdige, 1979, p.3)
Hebdige examines the social and ethnic origins, stylistic interactions and semiotic meanings of a variety of British youth subcultures, ranging from teddy boys, mods, glam rockers, Rastafarians and punks. Although some of these subcultures either persist (sometimes into embarrassing middle age) or are revived with postmodern ironicism, their origins are now matters of historical curiosity rather than contemporary relevance. However, the common themes running through his analysis of each separate youth subculture are:
i) the expression of a distinct identity through styles in music and clothing
ii) the appropriation of artifacts from the parent culture given new significance in the subculture
iii) the links between different subcultures and their separate identities from each other
In much the same way that Marx explained different historical epochs and societies as resolutions of inherent contradictions in the previous social orders so Hebdige views different youth subcultures as resolutions of the inherent contradictions facing young people in a specific time and place.
‘Each subcultural ‘instance’ represents a ‘solution’ to a specific set of circumstances, to particular problems and contradictions. For example, the mod and teddy boy ‘solutions’ were produced in response to different conjunctures which positioned them differently in relation to existing cultural formations (immigrant cultures, the parent culture, other subcultures, the dominant culture).’ (Hebdige, 1979, p.81)
3) ‘media education’. Media is a broad collective term for those agencies that communicate or diffuse information (e.g. television, films, radio, books, newspapers, magazines, computers, the internet). The crucial (and often overlooked) point about the media is that it is not the same thing as ‘reality’ (whatever that may be).
The media is a constructed product that mediates between the consumer and the world. Its producers always have an agenda and their own editorial/political outlook, not only in the choice and method of what is presented but also in what is not presented. Reality is represented through somebody else’s outlook, not presented directly. All media should therefore be questioned rather than naively accepted at face value. To buy into any mediated messages and values without considering their underlying structure and agenda would be as unwise as buying a house without arranging your own survey. Since we clearly live in a media-saturated world with workplaces suffering from ‘information overload’, a sense of discerning discrimination would seem to be a vital life skill and a potential economic goldmine in the 21st century. Those who dismiss media education as a ‘soft’ subject would do well to take this basic point on board when considering the next wave of curricular reforms.
The concept of media education seems to lend itself to two different interpretations:
i) Educating students through the media (e.g. using the media to teach students specific texts or skills).
ii) Educating students about the media (e.g. questioning the language, conventions and roles of the media).
There is no paradox in advocating both interpretations. A simplistic analogy would be the use of language. It seems perfectly reasonable to teach other subjects using language while making the language itself a subject for study in its own right.
The media seems to be the most interesting and accessible forum for discussing youth subculture in an educational context since, apart from school, the media provides young people with their main source of information. While school tends to provide young people with information about formal culture (e.g. ‘high art’) the media provides young people with information that is more relevant to their common culture (e.g. ‘every day life’). Media education is therefore a useful subject area for linking both formal and informal cultures, adult mainstream and youth subcultures. It also provides vocational and philosophical opportunities to discuss the alleged abilities of some mass media to manipulate choices (from consumerism to politics). As David Buckingham and Julian Sefton-Green note in Cultural Studies Goes To School :
‘ . . . research on youth culture has focused on the ways in which young people appropriate popular forms of cultural expression, as well as the activities that surround them, in order to construct their own social identities. From this perspective, the media are seen not as all-powerful forces of socialisation but as symbolic resources which young people use in making sense of their experiences, in relating to others and in organising their daily lives.’ (Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1994, p.10)
In Cultural Studies Goes To School Buckingham and Sefton-Green base their findings on research conducted at a comprehensive secondary school in North London. In particular their research was based on self-evaluative media projects undertaken by the students. These media projects (usually group collaborations) ranged from creating photostories and photographic ‘identities’ to producing mock magazines. As part of their introductory unit in GCSE Media Studies the students also conducted their own research projects. Examples of these research projects are:
i) a detailed study of television-viewing habits
ii) a study of the pattern of music sales in local shops
iii) a study of music tastes in the school with particular emphasis on differences of gender and race
iv) small group interviews on media usage
v) filmed interviews on media usage
vi) a study of the reading of magazines and comics
vii) a comparison between staff and students of newspaper reading habits
(Cultural Studies Goes To School, Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1994,
Buckingham & Sefton-Green explicitly reject the notion that young people are passively manipulated by the media and this approach informs their entire critique of Media Education:
‘In effect, we are looking at students not merely as consumers, but also as producers of popular culture, and we need to pay attention to the differences between these two roles, rather than simply collapsing them.’ (Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1994, p.10)
The central problem raised by the issue of realizing young people’s informal culture in media education is not so much the methodology as the underlying rationale. Surely the whole point of young people’s informal culture is that it exists outside of school? From the perspective of a youth subculture, school is the physical and spiritual embodiment of adult, formal and imposed culture. Even with the best of intentions, if we try to incorporate young people’s informal culture within the classroom, might we not deprive it of its very essence, the fact that subculture gains its street credibility from existing outside the classroom? Also, just as ‘high art’ culture is elitist and exclusive, might it not also be argued that youth subculture is merely high art’s inverted mirror image, setting its own standards of style and just as exclusive of those who do not conform (i.e. other styles in general and adult formal culture in particular)? The very thought of adults trying to ingratiate themselves into youth subculture (affecting the clothing, mannerisms and argot of teenagers) is often seen by young people as a) embarrassing or b) slightly creepy. Adults had their time in the sun. Now they must get on with the grey world of work while young people explore themselves in the sunlit playing fields of fun. Well-meaning attempts by adults to enter the teenage world for the purpose of removing barriers to communication can sometimes go disastrously awry. A drunk dad dancing at a wedding disco is probably a good example to bear in mind.
This problem of underlying rationale seems to suggest two possible motives:
i) To question the sanctity of ‘high art’ culture by giving academic credence to popular culture (possibly politically motivated by up-and-coming ‘young turks’ seeking to overtake or outflank the entrenched roadblockers ahead of them).
ii) To question the quality of popular culture by exposing its inadequacies to rigorous academic scrutiny (in effect, a reactionary ‘counter-revolution’ by the traditionalists ).
In the first instance, giving academic credence to popular culture may prove to be self-defeating. If we take popular culture out of the teenage bedroom and into the classroom we may simply diminish its subversive potency. To move the dilemma into a more adult frame of reference, the problem is akin to the old adage about poetry: the difference between deconstructing a poem and appreciating it is the difference between the autopsy table and having your best friend round for dinner. Analysis of popular culture may be more popular amongst adults than young people for reasons of nostalgia. Young people do not enjoy nostalgia for the simple reason that the ‘old days’ are still new days for them. Adults, by virtue of their dominance, are the ultimate party-poopers. Buckingham and Sefton-Green acknowledge the problem:
‘Indeed, much of the social function and power of these discourses lies in their remaining implicit, and as such only perceptible to ‘insiders’. In uncovering them for the critical gaze, and in privileging academic discourse, we may ultimately undermine their meaning and pleasure, and hence much of their power.’ (Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1994, p.75)
In the second instance, teaching young people to question the quality of their own popular culture in the classroom runs similar risks. If young people are using their popular culture to construct a distinct social identity then they are unlikely to respond favourably to having that identity questioned by an adult, formal, cultural institution. No matter how tactful the questioning, if their popular culture is criticized unfavourably then this is likely to be seen as an attack on their newly-formed personal identity. Conversely, if their popular culture is criticized favourably, this is likely to be perceived as a somewhat unwelcome endorsement, the equivalent of having a prude mother approve of a supposedly outrageous outfit. As Buckingham, Grahame and Sefton-Green acknowledge in Making Media: Practical Production in Media Education :
‘ . . . radical teachers cannot simply affirm young people’s perspectives simply by announcing that they are ‘on the same side’. Particularly within the context of school (although I would add not only there), young people may often reject the attempt to make their own resistance the obvious subject of educational intervention.’ (Buckingham, Grahame & Sefton-Green, 1995, pp 81-82)
These problems and paradoxes are inevitable when two competing definitions of culture overlap, such as in media education. Ironically, they are only resolved by the process of ‘growing up’ when the personal identity is more fully-formed and less dependent (although never quite free) from defining itself in terms of style. As a person becomes less defined in terms of belonging to a style, and more self-assured in inhabiting their own unique persona, so they can become more of a detached observer of the socializing processes involved. This is clearly more difficult for young people because they are still inside the process. To the adult, analysis of youth subculture is a reflection on their past. To the young person, they are being asked to reflect on tonight’s party politics and tomorrow’s mood swings. It is far more difficult to analyze the present than it is to analyze the past, as many a weather forecaster and current affairs pundit will tell you.
The lowering of the boundaries between formal culture and popular culture, particularly in the case of populist-analysis subjects such as Media Studies, Film Studies, Cultural Studies and Sociology, becomes less problematic in Further and Higher Education where students are being asked to formulate their own considered opinions as part of their process of maturation. In essence, hormonal mood swings start to stabilize into swings of intellectual judgment and a young adult’s rebellion against some of their teenage experiments. It is worth noting here that the problems of discussing young people’s informal culture only really diminish with age.
However, in the case of our selected age range of 13 to 16 year-olds, the paradox remains: do young people appreciate or resent their subculture being made the subject of adult attention? In conclusion, I would echo the unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) question posed by Buckingham and Sefton-Green:
‘ . . . can we bring popular culture into the classroom without merely incorporating it into the framework of yet another academic discipline?’ (Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1994, p.85)
© Chris Port
Central School of Speech and Drama, 1997
Buckingham, D. & Sefton-Green, J. Cultural Studies Goes To School Taylor & Francis Ltd, London 1994.
Buckingham, D. , Grahame, J. & Sefton-Green, J. Making Media: Practical Production in Media Education The English & Media Centre, London 1995.
Hebdige, D. Subculture: The Meaning of Style Methuen & Co. Ltd, London 1979.
Willett, J. (Ed.) (1974) Brecht on Theatre, London, Methuen.
Willis, P. Common Culture Open University Press, Buckingham 1990.