Punk – a subculture that creates its own conditions

26 November 2013

Punk as a subculture does not emerge as a revolt against injustices but is rather created and defined from the inside, regardless of what the world looks like. This is established in a new dissertation from Uppsala University that investigates Swedish and Indonesian punks’ view of themselves and society.

In his dissertation, Performing Punk, the sociologist Erik Hannerz has studied how punks in Sweden and Indonesia define their subcultural identity, in relation to both the surrounding society and other punks.

Unlike earlier research, which has assumed that subcultures are founded on shared rules and values, he shows that punk is based on a number of different definitions of the concepts of both the subcultural and the mainstream. For some, punk is about individual liberation, while for others it stands for an internal struggle with the purpose of creating a collective space for others. While some define punk as the opposite of politics, others see politics as a central part of the subcultural.

“The definition of what punk is differs within the subcultural. This is interesting, because it primarily indicates the diversity in the community. It is often assumed that subcultures are characterised by shared values, when in fact they are held together by differences to the same extent”, says Erik Hannerz.

Through extensive fieldwork in Sweden and Indonesia, Erik Hannerz shows that punk as a subculture does not need an objective basis to arise, such as injustices in society or societal problems. Instead, punkers create a picture of what they are by themselves defining what they are against, regardless of what society looks like.

“If subcultures like punk emerged because of injustices in society, we should see great differences across countries, but we don’t. My study shows that the same structures and differences recur in punk both in Sweden and in Indonesia. This means that punks create and recreate both themselves and what they are against within the subculture”, says Erik Hannerz.

Definitions of what punks are against also differ. For some punks the definition is based on an outward-looking logic that rejects the society of the normal, of acquiescence and of commercialism. Others evince a more inward-looking logic where the mainstream is equated with punks that are too superficial, hedonistic and dependent to be able to understand what punk is against. On the basis of this inward-looking logic, what exists outside of punk is uninteresting and rather meaningless; instead, the essential borderline is drawn within punk.

Erik Hannerz hopes this research will help to enhance our understanding of how subcultures emerge and how they create meaning in their differentness.

“The findings of the study can be used, for example, in encounters with young people within subcultures and can provide insight into how to help them to channel feelings of anger and frustration into doing something concrete and creative”, says Erik Hannerz.

The dissertation will be publicly defended on 29 November.