Friday, January 04, 2013

Hipsters and Social Class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

Every group has signs of group identity, cultural identification, and values certain types of capital.  These all reflect what is perceived as part of unique group identity and part of prestige and are used to set themselves apart from others.  Hipsters are no different and their cultural and iconic sigils can be seen through the social class lens of cultural capital.

How many hipsters does it take to change a light bulb?  
A really obscure number that you’ve probably never heard of.  

Cultural capital was brought into the discussion of social class by Bourdieu in Forms of Capital (1986) who proposed embodied, objectified, and institutionalized forms.  Seen from a sociological perspective these forms of cultural capital are part of normative culture for each group.  Countercultures and alternative cultures emerge with different forms of capital often chosen in direct opposition or contrast to perceived mainstream culture.  Marlon Brando’s character Johnny Strabler or Lee Marvin’s character Chino in The Wild One (Kramer & Benedek, 1953) were models of a specific type of motorcycle riding, leather wearing, law breaking citizens.  These bikers shared dress, norms, and values as well as normative behaviors.  Similar media counter- and alternative-culture characters have been iconic; Bob Denver’s portrayal of the beatnik Maynard G. Krebbs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis or any nerd in movies from Revenge of the Nerds (1984) to Accepted (2006) portray a set of norms.  Cultural capital provides those characters with identifiable values.

Hipsters, according to media reports and jokes, value obscure cultural capital, obscure numbers that you probably never heard of, and obscure technology like vinyl records and mechanical typewriters.  Nerds are portrayed as valuing technology and intelligence, beatniks as valuing casual dress, jazz, and poetry, bikers as valuing the rejection of mainstream ideas of behavior.  Their counterparts, people in the mainstream culture, are portrayed as valuing mainstream culture, mainstream social capital, and economic capital, all of which seem to be rejected by hipsters.  Hipster social capital only counts in the hipster community, and relies on obscure knowledge valued by the tribe.  Economic capital, the quest of working mainstream normal people, is eschewed, much to the benefit of humorists who note the cost of the cultural capital artifacts required for the hipster life. 

A defining characteristic of hipster culture is cultural capital which is defined by members of that group as a way to set them apart from others.  Social capital and economic capital are of secondary, tertiary, or even quaternary interest.  


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241-258). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 

Field, T., Samuelson, P. (Producers), Macgregor-Scott, P. (Co-Producer) & Kanew, J. (Director). (1984). Revenge of the Nerds. US: 20th Century Fox.

Kramer, S. (Producer) & Benedek, L. (Director) (1953). The Wild One. [Motion Picture]. US: Columbia Pictures.

Shadyac, T. (Producer) & Pink, S. (Director). (2006). Accepted. [Motion Picture]. US: Universal Pictures.