I feel like I haven’t written anything of real substance for ages, so this week I’m going to share something which has been rumbling around my head in various forms for nearly a decade. When I was at school, sociology was looked down upon. As if it was a nothing subject. I had such a strong interest in it, but was persuaded away from it by some of my teachers. I wish I hadn’t been, as I think I’ve spent the last decade trying to trace my way through it without a guide, and I genuinely believe that understanding theories of popular culture and the sociology behind them helps us to create things of value where value didn’t exist before. Be that art, music, literature, or any cultural artefact (including advertising – which is closer to home for me personally). I’ve shared some of my thinking around this, but it’s still very much a work in progress, so please forgive any logic gaps or circular arguments
One of my long held beliefs is that the culture(s) that we are part of help form our sense of identity. We have an innate desire for affiliation with other people, and that affiliation often comes from the cultures which we belong to (or wish to belong to). Broadly referred to as cultural identity, this would traditionally be viewed as our nationality, religion, class, or ethnicity. There are certain attributes of those types of culture that bond us with other people that share the same attributes. Working class culture. Black culture. British culture. We see these terms all the time, and they are broad brush strokes that help us to define ourselves, and how we relate to the rest of the world. For those that are part of those cultures, it provides a sense of identity beyond ourselves as individuals, while also shaping our individual behaviours too.
At a top level, each culture is usually centred around sharing five elements;
- Core values (the personal values that we hold that help us make decisions)
- Belief system (the principles that sit at the core of the culture)
- Social norms (the implicit rules that govern behaviour)
- Specific symbols (physical manifestations or concepts that convey meaning and values)
- Language (the way in which we express ourselves and the customs we use)
These five elements are just as applicable to cultures around fashion, music, sports, and arts in general, as they are to religion, race, and nationality. Whether it’s the Hells Angels, the dutch Gabba scene, or street wear, we can see each of these five elements at play just as much as we see with more traditional cultural identities.
I don’t think that all five of these elements have to be shared, but I think stronger (or more developed) cultures tend to have most of the elements in place, and largely shared by those in the culture. What’s important is that these five elements can (and mostly do) evolve over time. The steps can be small or more radical, but I believe that as new ideas / innovations are introduced, the culture (as a group) respond and the ideas are taken on, or not. This is how we see the blues leading to jazz, how indie became Britpop which became indie again, and how the whole haute couture fashion industry moves forwards too.
Where I think this is interesting is how the speed of the evolution of a culture shapes the cultural identity of people that belong to it. Some cultures are more established and evolve at a much slower velocity, they adopt fewer new ideas or innovations because they’re often more insulated than more emerging cultures that have greater velocity. The example that always springs to mind (as it’s deeply personal) is the difference between the culture within a small mining town in the Midlands, versus the constantly evolving cultures that exist London (and contribute to a broader more singular ‘London’ culture). Growing up, I found a disconnect between the local culture I was surrounded by, and the values and belief systems I held. Neither better or worse, I just held different views. They’d been formed through music and books, and the disconnect grew into a desire to find other people (and a culture) that I shared those values and beliefs with. Through magazines, books, music, forums, new friends, and travel, I began to find more of a sense of where I felt I belonged.
Like most teenagers, I hopped between lots of different cultures and subcultures, in an attempt to find out more about myself. I found my way through being exposed to lots of new ideas and cultures, in a very similar to the way in which I think cultures change through exposure. This idea of new ideas taking hold in individuals as well as within cultures is something I’ve written about here before, and the book Hit Makers introduced me to a new theory of how new ideas become popular within the cultures; they have to have the right balance of familiarity and surprise. Too much familiarity and they’re boring or unnecessary, too much surprise and they’re too radical to incorporate into the culture as it stands.
I think that this is intrinsically connected to exposure. Put simply, the more ideas that you’re exposed to, the more those new ideas will feel familiar. So the difference between those on the edges of culture (and subcultures) and those in the mainstream of cultures is volume of exposure – the clearest examples of this are in fashion and music. So the more exposed someone is, the greater likelihood that something fits the balance of familiar and surprising, because they’ve been exposed to more, so more is familiar (if you follow me).
For people that want to create things, this means the key is all about exposure. This ties into the biological theory of the adjacent possible too (which I’ve written about here before). The same principles apply to creating too – if you want your idea to be adopted, it has to be the right balance of familiar and surprising to the people or culture you’re trying to introduce it too. Raymond Loewy called this “MAYA“ (most advanced, yet acceptable).
Pre-1950, the main critical view of culture was that for something to be a work of art, it had to be scarce. Exposure was limited by scarcity and physical location. A sculpture. A play. A painting. A dress. Cultural artefacts weren’t supposed to be seen by the masses or mass reproduced, as the belief was that that removed their artistry and commercialised them. (I think this was the first instance of ‘I saw that band when they were tiny’.) This kept creativity away from the masses, and created a type of caste system to who was creative.
Post-1950 mass production changed this almost entirely, and flipped that theory on its head. All of a sudden cultural artefacts could be produced at scale, whether it was film, music, or fashion. People had greater access, and the roots of the counter cultural revolution of the 1960s came from this. A sudden increase in choice lead to an explosion of cultures, and subcultures, as more people could take mass produced cultural artefacts and use them to demonstrate an affiliation to emerging cultures. Incidentally, this development was the driving force behind consumerism – meaning that culture and commerce have been intrinsically connected ever since.
Fast forward to the turn of the millennium, and technology and digital media accelerated the democratisation of culture beyond all expectations. All of a sudden the physical and location-related boundaries of cultures were removed. We didn’t need to visit Berlin to understand the multitude of techno subcultures, we could speak to people within those cultures online. Forums and websites radically changed our levels of exposure to new ideas and different cultures, and the enormous growth in the volume of ideas we could be exposed to in turn drove more ideas to be created. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram only served to accelerate this even further, and the very network effects that made those platforms enormous, also facilitated huge growth in emergent cultures and subcultures.
Interestingly, I think this also uncovered another insight into how cultures grow; there is a threshold that exists within a culture whereby once it becomes too big, it begins to splinter into multiple subcultures. As the number of people in a culture grow, the core of the five elements that unite a culture become open to broader interpretation. This threshold has always existed in cultures (the different schools of religions such as Buddhism are a good example of this), but I think technology rapidly accelerated this.
Where the threshold exists will most likely differ (although you could suggest that Dunbar’s Number might be a good starting point), but the splintering of a singular and cohesive culture into multiple subcultures is a persistent behaviour. The effect of this is also often seen in splintered subcultures becoming more extreme too – the rise of the far right in the UK is a good example. I’d also suggest that over time these subcultures have an impact on the broader culture that they exist within too – as those within the subculture present new ideas (that are MAYA), the five elements enable greater adoption across the culture as a whole (for example, the far right are an extreme version of conservatism, but many of the values, beliefs, norms, symbols and language are consistent – creating an environment where new, more extreme, ideas are more easily adopted).
The ebb and flow, and division and reunification of these cultures changes over time, based on the members of the culture – they decide (explicitly or implicitly) the direction of evolution. As mentioned above, the velocity of the culture is largely dependent on exposure to new ideas, and technology has increased the volume of exposure by a significant factor. This makes many of the cultures and subcultures with high velocity unstable, and prone to huge shifts in a short amount of time.
I think this is important to understand because each of these splintered fragmented cultures have an impact on overall popular culture. They all ladder back to an amorphous mainstream culture, which is shaped by numerous cultures and subcultures that exist, which in turn are driven by new ideas being created at the edges, by those that are most exposed and understand how to frame ideas in a way that makes them feel most advanced, yet acceptable.
So if we want to understand how popular culture works, it’s no longer as simple as looking to our own cultures and a few other established cultures as a way of explaining popular culture. Fragmentation means we have thousands of cultures and they’re constantly in flux, changing the dynamics of popular culture in ways in which we can’t always see or identify. We need to understand the edges, the creators of new ideas, and the way in which they frame them to make them most advanced, yet acceptable. Only then can we trace where the changes in popular culture have come from, and only then can we predict where it might be heading.
Ultimately, the better that we can understand different cultures and subcultures, the better we can understand each other. In turn, that empathy drives greater cohesion and inclusivity, which in turn leads to more exposure to new ideas, and that leads to the creation of better art and ideas. If you want to live a more creative life, and create things that matter, then get exposed. After all, isn’t life about creating things that mean something, where meaning didn’t exist before?