Solidarity and Close Encounters in 1970s Birmingham? Observing the Relationship Between the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and Their Subjects

This short paper is an account of how a wrong turn, breed a niggling insight and blossomed into the seed of a research project.  

Historically academics, historians included, have been pretty bad at being open about what led them to study what they study. Scholars in all disciplines act like conjurers, seemingly of the belief that revealing a personal interest or involvement with a topic will break break their spell and compromise what they do. The mythic legacy of enlightenment rationalism and modernity’s professionalising imperatives linger.

Fifteen years after it was shut the legacy of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies is seemingly secured by its reputation for moving beyond the normal narrow confines of academia. Its members are renowned for embracing a more engaged form of scholarship, an activist brand of academia that was highly attuned to shifts in popular culture and engaged in political struggles far beyond this campus in leafy, sleepy; Edgbaston.

Having become familiar with the CCCS through this mythology, and sensing some possible contradictions, I was inspired by my reading of Koven and Walkowitz to attempt to try and exploring class dynamics and the limits of empathy in the CCCS’ work. My aim was to produce a study that situated well educated, keen, politicised young people in post-1960s Britain within the growing body of research of that has been produced exploring the assumptions and agendas brought to social research by the tribes of experts that seek to conduct it.   

So I was surprised when I went back to some classic CCCS texts and found little or no trace of their author’s active involvement with scenes and situations that they explore and pass comment upon.

In his paper, “The Worldliness of Cultural Studies” published last year, Dick Hebdige explains how DJ’ing at a central Birmingham nightclub provided a gateway into the world of subcultures:           

“From 1972 throughout most of the decade, when I wasn’t writing about subculture or teaching part-time in UK art schools, I spent much of my time helping run a sound system called the Shoop, then a fixture on Birmingham’s underground circuit – with a weekly gig every Thursday night over a long ago demolished pub on Hill Street in the city centre.”


Yet none of this deep active involvement with the music scene seeps into his work.

It’s hard to find even passing mentions of Birmingham and the West Midlands in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, let alone any reference to Hebdige’s close involvement with a succession of musical subcultural scenes.

After Hebdige I turned to Policing the Crisis. We know thanks to Kieron Connell’s oral histories of the CCCS, that much of the impetus for Policing the Crisis came from the black community in Handsworth’s experiences of police harassment. Experiences that Centre members like Chas Critcher and John Clarke became highly aware of, and involved in, through running social action projects in the area.

Aware of this context I was very surprised to find that the authors’ personal involvement with the issues and the area gets one single solitary mention in the entire 400 page book. In 400 pages only the Introduction mentions-offhandedly-that: “we became involved in a practical way” when some young men known at a community centre run by Critcher in Handsworth made the national news after receiving 20 year sentences for “mugging”.

After this single brief mention of possible close engagement the authors’ veer away, distancing themselves, implying that it was the “unnecessary-viciousness” of the sentences and popular focus upon “dealing with causes, not effects” that drew them to take an interest.

Through recourse to popular opinion in Birmingham and the language of sociology, the authors of Policing the Crisis hide their personal involvement and any feelings they might have about the workings of the criminal justice system and the effects of structural oppression upon society and individuals.

Hebdige had close encounters with punks, rastas and glam rockers, Clarke and Critcher worked in solidarity with the the Afro-Caribbean community in Handsworth. Does any of this make its way into their published work? Put simply: no.  

My initial research has shown that any attempt to the explore the working of the relationships that CCCS researchers built up with their subjects will have to be incredibly focused.

Thanks to the work of Kieron Connell and Matthew Hilton in this field we now have a strong overview, a big picture, of the work that the CCCS did. What I hope to do is hone it further and start to develop a higher resolution image of one aspect of the CCCS’ output.  

During the long 1970s the CCCS produced a strong body of ethnographic work.

In amongst the volumes of encoding/decoding studies that the Centre produced during this period, of which Hebdige’s Subcultures and Policing the Crisis are the most polished examples, there are also some brilliant works of social study and ethnography.

I believe the study of these has the potential to enhance our understanding of what young politically committed academics brought to their work during this period. I want to explore how this shaped their approach to their subjects, the questions they asked of them and the texts that they crafted from their responses.   

There’s also, of course, the Stakhanovite level of output in Althusserian social history and literary criticism that the Centre managed to achieve during the ‘70s… But that might have to wait a bit longer for its historian.

My research into the “ethnographic” CCCS is still at a very early stage, however, I have identified some promising lines of enquiry.

A lot of attention has recently been given to the photographic work Janet Mendelsohn conducted in Balsall Heath. It is not my intention to explore in depth the work that Mendelsohn and Dick Rogers did with communities in that part of the city. However, for me, their blended projects, juxtaposing photos of their subjects with snatches of interview, represent a critical moment in the development of the CCCS.

Their work, conducted between 1967 and 1969, came at a critical juncture, when some CCCS members began to move beyond the Centre’s origins and early orientation in literary studies towards a more ethnographic approach, trying to ascertain the effects of ideology upon concrete individuals and communities.

This turn also manifests itself in the evolution of other CCCS projects. Paul Willis, one of the originators of the CCCS’ subcultural studies group, moved in the early to mid 1970s from the classic encoding/decoding analysis of hippie and biker youth ritual seen in Profane Culture to the fully fledged ethnography of Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs.

In Learning to Labour Willis follows a group of male working class youths, who are part of what he terms an “anti-school” subculture, through their last years of secondary school and into their first months in the workplace. As Graeme Turner has noted, Willis’ work implicitly expresses a great affinity with the antinomian working class “lads” that feature in his study.

I intend in the course of my research to delve into Willis’ work with his “lads”, tracing through the CCCS’ working papers how his approach to them changed, how the way he sought to connect with them shaped his study and reach an assessment-insofar as such a thing is possible-of how well he was able to build up an accurate picture of their lives and concerns. Developing an approach to his work which asks the question, were they acting up for him?

I am keen to explore the work of Centre members like Willis and Mendelsohn because of the very explicit relationship their work has to Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.

From the mid-1970s the CCCS Women’s Group produced a series of groundbreaking ethnographic work exploring how ideological tropes of womanhood impacted upon the lives of young women in the city. Reacting against the fact that “birds” only intrude into Willis’ work when his “lads talk about sex and dating, Angela McRobbie initiated a study in 1975-76, into what teenaged girls living on a Birmingham council estate perceived to be their place in the world.

McRobbie got to know the girls who frequented a youth club in south Birmingham, a club that appears to have been based in Quinton, and spoke with them at length about their lives and hopes and dreams for the future.

A highly filleted and editorialised version of her discussions with them appeared in 1978’s Women Take Issue. As with Willis’ work I will be tracing the evolution of the  ways in which McRobbie used the material she gathered and trying to develop a sense of how the relationship with her subjects worked.

Another Women Take Issue paper which stands out for me, amongst, you guessed it, all the Althusserian literary criticism, is a write up of Dorothy Hobson’s interviews with young working class housewives exploring how the experience of getting married changed their lives. The implication, and arguably the reality, being that it generally made their lives a lot narrower if not demonstrably worse.

I was struck by Hobson’s work, which like her later studies of the Crossroad audience, I find groundbreaking and consider unfairly overlooked. It has a degree of apparent self-awareness and a sense of reflection that the work of other CCCS scholars generally lacks. Whilst politically engaged and committed to her subjects, Hobson is also highly interested in the methodology of her work and interrogates the nature of her relationship with her subjects at some length.

As with the others, I am interested in the limitations and blind spots inherent within Hobson’s approach. In many ways her openness about her reasons why she became interested in topic and relatively untheoretical approach makes her a strong candidate for this kind of analysis.

Hobson is keen to stress to her readers that she has been able to build up a strong relationship with her subjects. She explains that she got to know them first through local GP surgeries, building a rapport with them before going to their homes to conduct interviews. She is keen to stress how like the women she interviews she is, giving biographical details like the fact she had a primary school aged son, just like many of her subjects. Hobson even goes so far as to ask her subjects whether they think she is like them, as if she is seeking their affirmation. When they readily indicate that they don’t really consider her any different to them she reports this at some length, as if signalling to her readers just how close to her subjects she is.

In approaching Hobson, more than any of the others, I am struck by the potential similarities with what Jon Lawrence has explored in his study of the Cambridge-Luton embourgeoisement surveys of the early 1960s. The researchers who worked on these projects were very keen to highlight how “classless” and shorn of snobbery and pre-conception they were, whilst at the same time, make presuppositions about their subjects which illustrate how far they were away from being either.

With Hobson’s work I will be especially looking at ways in which her close engagement with her subjects might have influenced her respondents responses in particular ways.

Over the coming year I shall be focusing on the work of the scholars I’ve just outlined. I will get getting to grips with their projects and the wider culture of the CCCS and British left at this time. I hope to be able to make good use of the recently assembled CCCS archive, and where possible and appropriate, go out and speak to the subjects of my study directly.

My research is still at a very early stage, but I hope that I’ve been able to give you a flavour of where my interest in this topic stems from and where I hope to take my research in future.
By way of a final note, it is not my intention to abandon Dick Hebdige’s work and Policing the Crisis. I remain as interested in their relationship to what they wrote about as ever. Maybe, through trying to tackle the easier to read ethnographic strand of the CCCS’ work, it will be possible for me to extrapolate and gain insights into how it might be possible to read the influences that served to create these other canonical texts upon which the reputation of the Centre rests.  

Paper delivered on 18th March 2016 as part of Panel Three at the Modern British Studies, Contemporary and Global History MA Research Day in the University of Birmingham’s Chemical Engineering 112