Sarah Thornton describes club culture as the expression given to youth cultures for whom dance clubs are the symbolic axis and working social hub. She explains that club cultures are constantly associated with a specific space which continually transforms its sounds and styles and regularly bears witness to the excesses of youth cultures. Thornton states that subcultural ideologies are a means by which youth imagine their own and other social groups, assert their distinctive character and affirm that they are not anonymous members of an undifferentiated mass.
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In her 1995 book, Club Culture, Thornton refers to the work of Bourdieu and coins the phrase subcultural capital as a comparison to Bourdieu’s cultural capital, which is described as a system of distinction in which cultural hierarchies correspond to social ones and people’s tastes are predominantly a marker of class. In other words, it is not about what you know but who you know. Thornton argues that clubs are refuges for young people where their rules hold sway. Within these cultural spaces and to some extent outside the spaces, subcultural distinctions have significant consequences.
It is Thornton’s belief that this subcultural capital is a status symbol that affects the standing of young people in the eyes of their peers. It can be objectified in the form of fashion and the latest trends in clothes, hair style and record collections. Thornton believes that the cultural form closest to the lives of the majority of British youth is music. This belief ties in with the rise in pop music witnessed in Britain in the 60s as documented by Hall and Whannel in The Young Audience.
Thornton (1997) believes that subculture is, for the youth, a solution to status problems and that people will gravitate towards others with similar problems and create new ‘norms’ of behaviour. Creating new criteria to define status which encompasses traits and characteristics that they do possess, thus providing a sense of belonging to a group where everybody is similar. This provides people with an accepted social status. It also creates a feeling of solidarity within the group and increases interaction among the participants of the subculture.
In a study titled: The Case for ‘Everyday Politics’: Evaluating Neo-tribal Theory as a Way to Understand Alternative Forms of Political Participation, Using Electronic Dance Music Culture as an Example, Sarah C.E. Riley, Christine Griffin and Yvette Morey state that:
A variety of cultural practices have been interpreted by analysts as having no meaningful social agenda. Electronic dance music culture, also known as raving or clubbing is such an example, being dismissed as merely a form of entertainment or escapism.
However the authors of this study make the argument that Maffesoli’s (1996) neo-tribal theory offers an alternative way to theorise this type of political participation as a kind of ‘everyday politics’ that can be conceptualised as a form of hedonism and sovereignty over one’s own existence.
According to the authors, Maffesoli proposes that contemporary western social organization has developed into a ‘neo-tribal’ structure in which people move between small and potentially temporary groups distinguished by shared lifestyles and values. These neo-tribes are often elective and are based on consumption practices. Like all tribes, these groups have a collective bond that involves shared values.
Riley et al. quote Maffesoli’s statement that neo-tribalism is based on a family-clan-sect structure of mainly elective groups and that these clans provide a sense of solidarity and belonging. The aim for people involved in these tribes is not to change the world, but rather to survive in it. Therefore creating a means of survival through the creation of sites in which to experience communal hedonism and pleasure and clubbing is an excellent example of such activity.
Carnival and Liminality:
David Mario Matsinhe’s 2009 paper is based on his study of dance floor culture in Canada. He states that the life processes on the floor are interpreted as manifestations of Canada’s emotional history in the form of multiculturalism.
Matsinhe uses the theoretical concepts of carnival and grotesque by Bakhtin and liminality by Turner. As he points out, the experience is all about the emotional refreshment, which could also be classed as a form of escapism.
Matsinhe explains that: Nightclubs are spatial enclaves of decontrolled emotional controls.
Some people attend these clubs to observe rather than participate in the behaviour. He maintains however that the festive mood in these spaces eventually infects everybody with emotional refreshment at some level. Every person’s threshold of emotional refreshment is an individualized elaboration of the experience of the night’s liminal moment.
Matsinhe quotes Turner as saying spaces outside normalized social structure and morality are liminal. He uses Bakhtin’s theories such as the carnival as a way to capture the images and moods of liminal spaces. The relatively free atmosphere expressed in unrestrained speech, mocking of authorities, and grotesque presentation of bodies. He maintains that this grotesque logic is encountered in the discussion of the dance floor figuration because, like other liminal figurations, the dance floor figuration has structural characteristics of carnival.
Matsinhe also draws on a study by Stanley and Niaah (2004) that explored dancehalls in Kingston, Jamaica as an expression of ‘collective memory’. This study views the dancehalls features of collective memory as the dancehall’s coordinates of spatiality, temporality, and embodiment.
The study describes the dancehall’s dancing bodies as the underworld citizens. The dancehall’s sociocultural space as the ghetto, which includes its real life experiences of overcrowding, unemployment, violence and desperation. The dancehall’s temporality consists of nomadic life, that is, the establishment, since the days of slavery. This study maintains that these dynamics of spatiality, temporality, and embodiment of the dancehall are all rooted in Jamaica’s history of slavery.
This view ties in with the previously discussed neo-tribalism theory that dancing and clubbing are more than mere escapism and that such activity can encompass a political expression. The need to survive in a world where the establishment has, to some extent, failed particular groups of people is one explanation for the popularity of clubbing.
Clubbing, being a subculture is a form of expression that provides participants with a feeling of belonging and provides them with an identity. It is a means to an end for the youth who use it as a measure of social status.
Matsinhe, D.M. [ref to be finished]
Riley, S., Griffin, C., Morey, Y. 2010. The Case for ‘Everyday Politics’: Evaluating Neo-tribal Theory as a Way to Understand Alternative Forms of Political Participation, Using Electronic Dance Music Culture as an Example. Sage publications on behalf of the British Sociological Association. Vol 44(2): 345-363. Available from:
Accessed: 5th April 2013
Gelder K., Thornton, S. 1997. The subcultures reader. Routledge. London. P51 – 52
Thornton, S. 1995. Club Cultures. Music, media and subcultural capital. Polity Press. Great Britain. Pgs. 1 – 19
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