Growing Up Punk: Research from the Insider Out

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As 30-something self-identified punks, my friends and I got babysitters for our kids and went to see the new documentary The Other F Word. We enjoyed the concert footage and the interviews but had quite a discussion afterward about how it was pretty good, but not great, and something was really missing. That something was a thorough portrayal of punk ideas and options, as the movie primarily focused on a pretty narrow slice of what is considered punk. *(Photo above is Lars from the band Rancid with with son, Photo courtesy of The Other F Word)

Now with the NPR story I have a greater understanding that the filmmaker was coming from an outside perspective, and based on some of her comments in this piece, I think her biases hindered the quality of the work. It is a fun film, and the messages conveyed most likely do represent those featured participants in the film. However the way the ideas as presented, they seem to be trying to be universal to that subculture, rather than just to the very narrow slice of that subculture that was selected for inclusion. It is always tough to find a representative sample of participants to give ideas of a greater whole, and this is a struggle researchers face. While of course this film is not specifically about apparel (the focus of Worn Through), it did remind me of both my doctoral dissertation on Punk Dress in the Workplace as well as general ideas about research in any field, including ours.

Yes it’s true, we cannot always be an “insider” to everything we study, but I think we owe it to our subjects to dive in as deeply as possible or to find advocates within to act as our liaisons. I have written about this before. I’m a strong believer not just in attempting be an insider to what you study, but also getting the insider’s perspective instead of a third party perspective as the dominant voice of a piece. This is clearly easier said than done. For example, I’ve studied young men in the workplace and I’m not a man but I do understand the workplace and fashion trends. I’ve studied black leather jackets although I do not wear one, but I am a participant in subculture and scholar of fashion. Does that make me qualified enough to have done a good job on those studies. I hope so, up to the reader I guess.

The director of this film in the NPR interview said that her own challenges with work life balance led her to study this other groups experiences with the same. So at what point is one inside or not, because what are the key elements you have to be connected to or not for that be be valid? That is all vague, however in thinking about it recently I came up with this: that this film and other research is not actually a study of fatherhood, but instead of study of an ideology (punk) and its relationship to other facets of life when tested (similar to my dissertation). Thus, it’s not as relevant that the subjects were parents as was the researcher, as that seemed to be the secondary issue, since choices within parenthood were not frequently discussed (they touched on discipline a little, but otherwise most household choices were left undiscussed). More so, choices of punk-ness (if that’s a word) were the core issued to be wrestled with. Hence, the director remained an outsider, and represented the results as such. So, instead of studying families like her own (admittedly knowing nothing about her I don’t know how that may be defined) but she chose to study families and lifestyles unlike her own (as stated in the NPR interview), but use it as a basis of a frame of reference of as what she feels is a polar example, even though I would argue there are many other challenges facing my daily parenting decisions far beyond my interest in punk.

Many would argue the opposing points, that objectivity rules, etc. and I can see why. There are lots of virtues that can be extolled regrading standing back and looking at something with some distance. However if the goal in the end is always to have the most “accurate” research, then I would say I’m really leaning toward either insiders, or my interpretation of ethnography, narrative methodologies, or similar which use the voice of the participant as the primary voice, as stated above. Now I know I won’t always follow this, but I’m stating a preference and what I think is the gold standard in my view. I did a huge critical literature review leading up to my dissertation, where I chronicled literally every joint subculture & dress journal article I could find in any journal post 1979 (chosen to be after Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (New Accents) and previous CCCS writings made breakthroughs). In those journal articles it was quite clear which were written by insiders or outsiders, or at least it felt that ways as I’d read misinterpreted slang, condescending word usages like “youngsters” used to refer to individual participants, and other issues that were troubling. The pieces done from an insider or at least partially insider perspective were passionate, deep, and got to material I’ve never read elsewhere, most likely because of the extra entrance allowed that researcher. Again, it’s not a 100% argument that goes for every piece, but it was a running theme I’ve encountered repeatedly in my own research and others.

Now as said, I don’t plan to always follow this rule, as there are projects I will embark on studying cultures that are not my own, or perhaps not entirely. It is so limiting to set hard and fast rules with no flexibility. I plan to studying periods of time that I was not alive during, which is the most obvious example. So, there lies the first of one of the biggest complications of this I feel for our field. That so much of what we study is the past, and thus most people were not participants. How does this factor into quality research truly understanding the subject matter?

Second, and a more complicated topic probably necessitating a second post but…..cultural appropriation. Since so much of apparel studies covers how there is cross use of material goods and bodily presentations in different groups, is there any way to claim true ownership over the understanding of an apparel style, when one rarely could accurately say they were “there for all of it”? I know for punk (which I often study) that is a huge issue, but it also comes up time and time again.

I’d love to know more about your thoughts on how to thoroughly and accurately study apparel and culture. I’m curious your opinions on this area, so please do take time to comment.

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Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.