“Many young people’s cultural experiences did not fit into the tightly defined and somewhat extreme lifestyle presented by subcultural theory and as a result of this their experiences have often been neglected.”
For the latest in my series exploring urban historians at work today, I catch up with the University of Sheffield’s Sarah Kenny. Sarah is working on a PhD exploring the evolution of youth culture in England’s urban north, specifically in Sheffield and Manchester.
What is your background?
I grew up in the Essex countryside before moving to study History at the University of Sheffield for my undergraduate degree. I was drawn to the history of British popular culture early on in my degree, writing about consumerism and pirate radio, before focusing my interests on Mod culture and the concept of ‘swinging London’. I stayed at the University to do an MA in Modern History, where I continued my research on Mod culture, and began my PhD here with Dr Adrian Bingham in 2013.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
Initially my research was focused on sixties Britain and Mod culture. My interest in this area was sparked after watching the 2009 film The Boat That Rocked. Having previously worked on the history of British media, the history of pirate radio was fascinating to me. I attempted (rather unsuccessfully!) to write an essay on pirate radio. After this I continued researching the ‘swinging sixties’ and began working on youth subcultures during the third year of my undergraduate. My MA dissertation was an in depth study of Mod culture in Sheffield and the ideas and approach of my MA dissertation formed the basis for my thesis.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
The work of historians such as Penny Summerfield, Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter were, and remain, particularly influential to my work. Oral and personal history has become an important part of my research, and their work encouraged me to question dominant historical narratives, and to appreciate the complexities of personal narratives. Although not linked to my research, the writing of Arthur Marwick has been hugely influential. His writing style was accessible without losing the complexity of argument or historical analysis and this is something I try to achieve in my own work.
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
That the history of ‘ordinary’ lives and experiences can be, and should be (where possible), central to the way we write and research cultural and social history. Although less visible in the archives, it is the experiences of the everyday- where you work, where you socialise, what you do at a weekend, how you spend your evenings, how you chose to spend your income, etc.- that has made up much of the fabric of human experience in the modern period.
“…the history of ‘ordinary’ lives and experiences can be, and should be… central to the way we write and research cultural and social history.”
How has your work evolved over the course of your project?
“…I became interested in the ‘everyday’ experience of subculture…”
When I began researching youth cultures and subcultures I was drawn to the spectacle of groups such as Mods and Punks. As the majority of the writing about these groups was based in London, I was interested to see if, and how, these cultures manifested themselves in other cities. As the portrayal of these groups seemed so different to my own experiences as a teenager, I wanted to ask the question: ‘How were they different from everybody else?’ After doing a case study of Mod culture in Sheffield during my MA I found that youth cultural experiences were fluid, and many people engaged with elements of subculture, without necessarily identifying as Mods or Punks, etc. This encouraged me to question the notion of cultural authenticity and the very central role it plays in defining what is, and is not, subcultural and, by extension, who it is that decides what is ‘authentic’. As a result of this I became interested in the ‘everyday’ experience of subculture, and from there the role of space in the development of patterns of behaviour and lifestyle choices.
“…youth cultural experiences were fluid, and many people engaged with elements of subculture, without necessarily identifying as Mods or Punks…”
Does your research lead you to think that there are specific local and regional dimensions to youth subcultures in post-war Britain?
To a very limited extent. My research focuses only on licensed and legal venues and while there were underground networks of young people hosting events in towns and cities across the country, the vast majority of young people did not encounter them. The types of venues and spaces available to young people impacted how they spent their leisure time and this varied from city to city. Similarly, large cities will have provided access to a larger and more varied range of spaces for young people compared to those found in a smaller town. Other factors such as politics and the local economy will also impact how people experienced youth culture in different areas. While access to different forms of youth culture may have varied I would be hesitant to argue that there were significant differences in the types of youth culture found across Britain. My research has not led me to believe that youth culture in Sheffield was particularly different or distinctive from other cities of a similar size.
“…while there were underground networks of young people hosting events in towns and cities across the country, the vast majority of young people did not encounter them.”
Are there any substantial changes in the way that youth subcultures form and express themselves across the time period that you study?
I think there’s a change in the way that people engaged with subcultures across the time period I study. Between the 1960s and the 1980s there was a significant change in the lifestyles of young people- staying out until 2:00 was commonplace by 1989 but this was not the case in Sheffield in 1960. This move towards evening entertainment coincided with the rise of bars and clubs aimed at young people in the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1980s these spaces were diversifying, therefore enabling more young people to engage with a variety of different types of youth culture.
Do you have any sense of how representative the “official” (police, local authority, media etc.) reaction to youth sub-cultures was of the wider “adult” response to experimentation amongst young people?
“…my research interviews… suggest that parents were less outraged by teenage experimentation than other sources would suggest.”
In Sheffield much of the official reaction to more extreme forms of youth culture mirrored the national reaction. In the 1970s the Sheffield Star newspaper ran a series of front pages examining the rise of punk and the fight to get the Sex Pistols banned from performing at the City Hall. At the same time, the licensing magistrates had clamped down on the conditions of the licence of the Limit nightclub- one of Sheffield’s first alternative venues- citing obscene graffiti and unsanitary conditions. There were similar panics about the rise of skinheads in the late 1960s in the local media. Unfortunately my sources do not allow me to confidently say whether this was representative of the wider adult response, but my research interviews would suggest that parents were less outraged by teenage experimentation than other sources would suggest.
As a historian, how far have established sociological models that explain subculture formation helped or hindered you in your work?
“Many young people engaged with elements of a subculture without fully identifying as part of it.”
The work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s has formed the basis of much of existing scholarship on subcultures. I would argue, as have other historians such as Sarah Thornton and Andy Bennett, that the model established by the CCCS is flawed in many aspects. It argues that subculture is a resistance against mainstream forms of youth culture, therefore making subculture and popular culture diametrically opposed. This is reflected in much of the writing about young people where the focus is either on subcultures or popular culture. In reality, the interaction between popular culture and alternative forms of culture is much more fluid. Many young people engaged with elements of a subculture without fully identifying as part of it. Subculture as a lifestyle was not possible for the vast majority of young people, yet a significant portion of the historical writing about youth culture in post-war Britain is focused on subcultural participants. Many young people’s cultural experiences did not fit into the tightly defined and somewhat extreme lifestyle presented by subcultural theory and as a result of this their experiences have often been neglected. My work hopes to bring the experiences of these young people to the fore.
If you would like to find out more about Sarah and her research please check out her profile on the University of Sheffield website and on academia.edu. You can also follow her on Twitter. For more urban historian profiles please click here.