The Null Device

The Sociology of the Hipster

The New York Times (registration required) has a convincing essay by one Mark Greif on what the word "hipster" actually means in a social/cultural context. It's a largely pejorative word nobody will admit to applying to them, though many of those using it derogatorily to refer to others look suspiciously like the stereotypical description of a hipster. The key, it seems, is in the writings of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose thesis was that taste (in everything from diet to dress to the various arts) is neither arbitrary nor objective, but correlates rigidly to one's social stratum, and serves a competitive role in jockeying for position in the social hierarchy. And this is where hipsters come in.

According to Greif, what people might classify as "hipsters" are three different groups: upper-middle-class, university-educated "culture workers" (i.e., Richard Florida's "Creative Class"), upper-class "trust fund hipsters", the scions of the aristocracy seeking to convert financial capital into cultural capital, and the old-guard, lower-middle-class hipsters, wearing thrift-shop clothes they acquired before they became expensively trendy, serving the aforementioned two categories in dive bars and boutiques and then repairing to crappy bedsits or borrowed couches. These may be the most authentic, but are looked down upon by the others for their lower standing, with only their unpurchased cultural authenticity giving them a form of superiority which doesn't afford them economic mobility. These three categories use the H-word as a weapon in an ongoing cultural jousting match, to knock each other down, belittling each other's cultural standing by denying its authenticity:

All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.

There are 3 comments on "The Sociology of the Hipster":

Posted by: datakid Tue Nov 16 22:48:47 2010

1. 2. Is that the same article as the one in the guardian?

Posted by: datakid Tue Nov 16 22:52:07 2010

ok, now that I've read the G's article, no it's not.

Posted by: Peta Wed Nov 17 03:44:06 2010

Greif likes his trucker hats! (A little passé?) I wonder where he locates irony in all of this? I would think that some anxiety about naming and/or identification with hipster cultures is the degree to which contemporary identities are invested in an ironic performance. If irony works (like deconstruction) to resist / appropriate / make transparent the status hierarchies in which you are supposedly implicated - then hipster-type identities function primarily in terms of denial. In which case (status) anxiety is a central node of hipster.