Has the pace of subcultural change become so rapid that traditional social science research can't keep up?

Posted by Gordon Douglas, community karma 549

Journalists have always had an edge on academic research and publications in terms of speed, especially when the latter is ethnographic or qualitative in nature. And cutting edge culture (popular, sub-, counter-) has long been a step ahead of even the hippest lifestyle columnest. But a constellation of new social and technological dynamics appear to be making the timely contribution of academics on flash-in-the-pan contemporary moments a practical impossibility: New cultural trends are widely seen to be breaking and recycling at breakneck speeds, to the extent that not only is what's hip "always already over" (Lloyd 2006), but that what is over is always already back. At the same time, social networks, twitter, and all manner of frenetically crowd-sourced and constantly updated opinion and reportage make even digital editions of our major newspapers seem hopelessly behind the times, let alone researched and peer-reviewed scholarship. With average times to completion or to publication in social science being what they are, is "cultural studies" more appropriately housed in a history department than an anthro, sociology, or media and communication one?

For the record, I don't mean to suggest that I think the answer has to be 'yes', but I think that engaging this intriguing line of questioning opens up tons of issues for the contemporary social scientist, from connecting technology to academic publishing (here here) to the role of contemporary 'cultural' research in general, while the "postmodern-hyper-reflexivity" of popular culture argument is always a fun one to start.


Food for thought, a quote from N+1's Mark Greif, writing in the preface to an only slightly tongue-in-cheek attempt to parse the “hipster” subculture after declaring it dead: “The study of the hipster, as opposed to the punk, hippie, raver, goth, cyber-utopian, or b-boy, has not yet drawn its scholars – or else they’re in the long and thankless stage of dissertation fieldwork, rather than on faculties where they can easily be located.”


Bijan Warner, community karma 153

Hi Gordon!

You raise some really interesting questions, and I think the pace of subcultural change has serious implications for the practice of scholarship. Like you, I don't have a simple answer, but I do have a two comments that might help in thinking about the issue:

1) Anthropologists have a long tradition of fretting about/ignoring/theorizing cultural change: Robert Redfield was critical of the lack of attention to cultural change in Franz Boas' work, and there have multiple criticisms of the "ethnographic present" that comes across in writings that do not pay attention to ongoing change. So the problem you raise can be thought of as an even faster process of change, which exacerbates the general problem of capturing change and ephermal processes in disciplines that tend to emphasize things that are durable, robust, and long lasting.

2) Another interesting point is that even though the pace of change may have accelerated from the outsider's perspective, for people within the subcultures, the sense of what is cool/contemporary/ahead of the curve is (I imagine) very clear and probably not influenced by how fast things change. What might be the limits to the pace of cultural change? 

If the pace of subcultural change has truly accelerated, how might social science research practices keep up? What kinds of tools for communicating with other social scientists meet the needs for rapid turn-around and scholarly rigor?


over 12 years ago
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Naomi Bartz, community karma 211

I think one part of the problem lies in the difficulty in describing the significance of questions pertaining to new phenomenon or forms of practice (e.g. youth subcultures, forms of social connection, etc.) Often there's a disconnect between graduate student and committee/the larger academia (I know I have avoided the word "hipster" like the plague after seeing so many tenured professors roll their eyes at the mere mention of the word). Having a research question that's harder to sell seems to lead to longer rewrites and edits...

That said, there's without a doubt at least one thing that cranky professors are right about when it comes to study of such "new" and "sexy" topics. Often there's not the level of uniqueness about the phenomenon/mechanism/process as people might make it out to be. So, on the one hand we have to be careful to not undersell the project, but also not oversell it -- a balancing act to be sure. In fact, perhaps framing new social phenomenon/etc. in the context of their historical predecessors will make these projects more approachable and accepted in academia (some of Burawoy's suggested methodology for case studies comes to mind - particularly his work on "revisits")

Also --- publishing outside academia can certainly get your thoughts and theories out faster. If you aren't hung up on catering only to an academic audience there are other avenues for publishing. While this might not lend you anymore credibility on your C.V. -- it does put your name out there as attached to this new topic of inquiry and when other graduate students and professors are desperately googling for existing research on the topic -- your name will come up.

Ultimately I don't think there is an easy answer and I’m not sure if I’ve even gotten to the heart of the problem --- but those are some off-the-cuff thoughts!

over 12 years ago
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