Tuesday, October 16, 2007

“Subcultural Conflict and Working-class Community”

Abstract of “Subcultural Conflict and Working-class Community” by Phil Cohen

Abstract by Diane Neu

I. Description of Article

Cohen discusses the issue of urban blight and re-population in urban London. He briefly contrasts this issue with the process and impact of gentrification in sought-after urban neighborhoods (think Boise’s North End). Cohen argues that the loss of desirable working-class housing was intimately tied to a loss of skilled working-class jobs. This loss of jobs and housing led to a loss of community and collective power in the East End. This loss of a unifying culture eventually led to a distancing of the youth culture from their parent culture. Cohen details some of these youth subcultures and ends by arguing that youth subcultures are a way for youth to retrieve “the solidarities of the traditional neighborhood, destroyed by redevelopment” (103).

II. Comments and Questions (note: I made up my own subtitles)


Cohen begins by describing the impact that rapid development in the fifties had on urban neighborhoods. Cohen describes the scene as follows: the poorest families were relocated to these fringe neighborhoods, and the areas they left behind were taken up by immigrants who transformed the neighborhoods to suit their own culture. What is interesting is that Cohen sees the migration to the suburbs including two opposite ends of the spectrum – both the “families from the worst slums” and the “long-resident working-class families” fled the city for the suburbs (95). Two key urban neighborhoods were left in this wake: 1) the mostly run-down rental neighborhood with little community investment and 2) the posh, gentrified neighborhood typically composed of historical homes that housed hipsters/young professionals.

After seeing the migration of working-class families, the “planning authorities decided to reverse their policy,” and they began to focus on transforming the former “slum sites” (96). This transformation took the form of high-rise developments meant to house working-class families. This redevelopment led to “the impoverishment of working-class culture” (96). The high-rises were built without any consideration for quality of life or community interaction. As such, the buildings were purely built as spaces for storage, eating, sleeping, private time with family, etc. There was no outward social discourse. The second largest impact of the redevelopment was the destruction of the “matrilocal residence” (96). (Side note: I’m not so sure I would call that a bad thing – there is no way I would want to live with my mother now). Nuclear families no longer lived with or near their extended family, and the lack of a neighborhood community meant that nuclear families were isolated units. Cohen uses housebound mothers to demonstrate the impact of severed community ties. With little social interaction and no one to turn to, the mother becomes a bit like a caged animal, lashing out “on those nearest and dearest” (97). I would have personally liked some more specific statistics and/or personal anecdotes to round out this section. Cohen talks a lot about impact, but he never really gives specifics.

Redevelopment’s Economic Impact

The late fifties saw Britain recovering from WWII. During this time, they began to apply technologies developed during wartime to private sectors of the economy. Emphasis was placed on helping those industries that had suffered or stalled in previous years. This change in the blue-collar economy meant that “the small-scale family business was no longer a viable unit” (97). Jobs in the craft industry and other skilled working-class jobs were rapidly diminishing. The family business could not contend with the larger factories and large-scale box stores. Cohen points out that even if a small store was lucky enough to be able to compete with the larger businesses in terms of customer base, they could normally not afford the higher rents that came with bigger businesses moving into the neighborhood. The youth (I find that when Cohen says “youth,” he typically means male youth) just coming onto the job market had the hardest time adjusting – they could no longer find a job and work at it for their whole lives like their fathers had. As such, many of these youth were forced to move out of the community in order to find work. The only area of the East End economy that remained relatively untouched was dockland.

Cohen explains that the attempt to modernize life in the East End was “such a disaster” because of the larger “political, ideological, and economic framework” that was in place (98). The best pieces of land had to be sold to commercial interests in order to fund the housing developments. This, in turn, led to the small family businesses being forced out, which led to a loss of jobs and community industry. The necessity of selling land to commercial interests also cut out any “non-essential services” (98). Open green space, playgrounds, community centers, etc. were sacrificed in order to bring in more money. When this same situation presented itself in the nineteenth century, a large opposition voiced their concerns over these “tower” developments. However, this community voice was lacking when the same situation presented itself in the fifties and sixties because the “labour aristocracy, the traditional source of leadership” was now gone (99). When the skilled working-class jobs left, the people’s power left as well.

Class Structures and Other Social Matters

The loss of jobs and of a community voice had far-reaching social ramifications as well. Workers lost their power in a market controlled by the “new automated techniques” (99). Skilled laborers could no longer take satisfaction from their work since there was little work to be had, and their low economic status prevented them from participating in the new commercial enterprises that were springing up around their old neighborhoods. The group that felt this shift the most strongly was again the youth just entering adulthood. Young adults began to marry at an earlier age since this was the only way to escape the confines of nuclear family isolation. At this time, there was also an “emergence of specific youth subcultures in opposition to the parent culture” (100). These young adults found themselves struggling against the culture their parents had always lived and worked in. Although, it seems to me that it wasn’t so much a rebellion as an inevitable outcome. Their parent’s culture was essentially gone, so rebelling against it wouldn’t really make that big of a statement. I don’t really see it as an oppositional subculture but as a natural progression and evolution of the social structure. The main point that Cohen seems to want to make is that these subcultures of “mods, parkers, skinheads, crombies” developed because the youth were seeking to “retrieve some of the socially cohesive elements destroyed in their parent culture” (100).

Cohen specifies that “subcultures are symbolic structures, and must not be confused with the actual kids who are their bearers and symbols” (100). I’m not actually sure what he means by that. Is the subculture not something tangible and real? He seems to be saying that the subculture itself is more of an idea or symbol for larger issues at work and that the kids who participate in the subculture are merely actors. He further articulates that “a given lifestyle is actually made up of a number of symbolic subsystems, and it is the way these are articulated in the total lifestyle which constitutes its distinctiveness” (100). I’m pretty sure that there is something to do with Barthes and the whole signification/signified/signifier/sign process here. Cohen later says that “no real analysis of subculture is complete” without “a structural or semiotic analysis of the subsystems and the way they are articulated” (101). Somebody please figure out that equation for me. I understand the concept, but I have difficult putting the labels in the right places. Cohen specifies four distinct subsystems:

1. Dress
2. Music
3. Argot (slang/jargon)
4. Ritual

Cohen gives specific examples of how these subsystems worked in specific youth subcultures. He begins with the mods and moves through the parkers and scooter boys, skindheads, hippies, and crombies in chronological order. The process of developing subcultures is described as “circular,” and Cohen reasons that this is because the subculture can never entirely break away from the parent culture (101). The youth culture merely uses the subculture as a replacement form of their parent culture. The conflict between different subcultures “serves as a displacement of generational conflict, both at a cultural level, and at an interpersonal level within the family” (102). By participating in a subculture, the youth delay “real” adulthood for as long as possible while also trying to capture the solidarity that they have found missing in their parent culture.

III. Key Terms and Links

Planning blight
Matrilocal residence
Social class/social structure/social mobility
Parent culture








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