Researching Subcultures, Inc.

Gregory Snyder is a PhD alumnus of the Department of Sociology and received his MA in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. He is currently a Professor at Baruch College, where he dedicates his research to the scholarly study of subcultures. His book Skateboarding LA: Inside Professional Street Skateboarding will be published this December by New York University Press.

And he was also a clue on Jeopardy!

Snyder was born on a U.S. military base in Germany and grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Drawn by the interdisciplinary nature of NSSR’s Liberal Studies program, as well as the chance to live in New York City, Snyder enrolled at the New School for Social Research in 1992. Following the completion of his MA thesis, he was accepted to the PhD Program in Sociology at the NSSR.

Snyder remembers with fondness the New York City of the 90’s, a time when graffiti art was at its apogee and the Wu Tang Clan was ascendant. Despite having conducted research in the sociology of religion, Snyder had a “conversion” moment that altered his scholarly trajectory. While riding his bicycle across the Williamsburg Bridge to meet his dissertation advisor, Snyder was struck by a beautiful bit of graffiti. Dwelling on the art and reflecting on the dearth of scholarly engagement with graffiti, Snyder made a decision.

“By the time I arrived at the meeting,” he said, “I told my advisor: I’ve got to write about graffiti.”

Snyder had little idea of how to go about formally studying graffiti culture. “I started researching graffiti before I knew about subculture theory,” he said. He immersed himself in a growing milieu by interviewing artists, winning access to the painting process, and eventually producing some of his own work. Combining an amateur’s fascination with scholarly ethnographic practice, Snyder began to hang out regularly with some of the most prominent graffiti artists in the city. Given the importance of passion and motivation to his dissertation, Snyder’s advisor lent his support to the project of developing a sophisticated scholarly understanding of what was—in the mind of many—a crude form of vandalism.

At the time he was first studying it, graffiti had a reputation as more of an urban nuisance than a valuable object of study. “Combating simple binaries is really important,” Snyder suggested. For him, scholarship attains its value precisely acts that complicate—thereby weakening—binary ways of thinking, while at the same time exposing nuance and compelling gray areas. “When things are contradictory, there tends to be beauty involved,” he said. Such was the case with the underground culture of graffiti artists. “To me,” he continued, “graffiti was high art vandalism […] I liked my art vandalistic and my vandalism artistic.”

But what counts as a subculture, and how do sociologists and other social scientists go about studying them? Snyder explained that, in the more than twenty years since he first began studying graffiti, a new subfield has emerged to address precisely these issues, while codifying methods for researching and understanding subcultures. He said that subcultural groups, “are sophisticated enough to self-identify.” So despite the scholarly debate about what really counts as a subculture, he relies on self-identification. When a group describes itself as a subculture, Snyder suggests that we should take them at their word.

The subfield of subculture studies was originally developed at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England. More informally known as “the Birmingham School,” the Center pioneered cultural studies methodologies for understanding subcultures. The young scholars that made up the Birmingham school argued that working class subcultures, like Mods and Punks, were evidence of symbolic resistance to the mainstream consumption imperative of capitalism. They argued however that this resistance was fleeting, it was merely symbolic and did not alter the lives of working class kids, because there were in fact no subculture careers. It is on this final point that Snyder takes issue, and having spent years studying subcultures that have become self-sustaining, he argued that graffiti writers and skateboarders do indeed create subculture careers. While this brings up issues of co-optation, he shows that despite this economic incentive, skaters, writers and a host of other subcultures, profit from their activity while still self-identifying as members of a subcultures.

Snyder’s claim is precisely that, pressing back against this thought, subcultures can take on lives of their own that replicate the mainstream, and can even become a part of it while retaining their distinctive “subcultural” quality. Graffiti and skateboarding thus become ways of showing that subcultures can indeed become careers; indeed, they are industries, and nonetheless retain their subcultural status. In this way, Snyder seeks to contest some of the most influential theoretical approaches to understanding subcultures. In order to understand why the Birmingham framework may have missed the mark, Snyder argues that it is necessary to go to the subcultures themselves, and spend time with the people who participate and make them grow.

Reflecting on the theory and practice of studying subcultures, Snyder said: “When I committed to ethnography, I committed to graffiti.” However, graffiti was not his endpoint. Following his initial research on graffiti, which resulted in the book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, Snyder set his eyes on another emergent subculture: skateboarding.

He was inadvertently immersed in the skateboarding crowd through his brother, professional skateboarder Aaron Snyder. Relating skateboarding to his previous studies in graffiti, Snyder said, “Both practices are misunderstood, and conventional wisdom is that they’re dumb or deviant, which makes them sociologically interesting.” Snyder has long been interested in the way that graffiti artists and skateboarders professionalized and monetized their alleged deviance (skateboarding was, for a time, illegal in many places in the United States) in order to form legitimate industries and find ways to make a living.

“Skateboarders are very deft at recording and distributing their work along industry lines,” he explained. He added that, just like the graffiti artists of the previous generation, skateboarders demonstrate a great amount of “creativity, athleticism, and competition” among themselves. The work of both subcultures is marked by “artistry and dexterity” that has challenged the negative associations and characterizations of their early days. This has allowed them to scale, and, in a way, gain acceptance within the mainstream, even while retaining their spirit of rebellion and irreverence.

In this sense, Snyder tells me, “subcultures produce their own contexts.” More importantly, Snyder argues that the maturation graffiti artists and skateboarders, as well as their ability to promote their work commercially, “indicates a blind spot in how people have thought about subcultures.” We continue to miss the value of subcultures as they emerge, and are belated to accepting the value that they create. This is as true today, despite the increase in books and articles on the subject, as it was when Snyder first had his epiphany about graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge.

In his research, Snyder develops the theoretical and ethnographic tools to help guard against a tendency to miss the full breadth of creativity, know-how, and gradual development of a variety of subcultures. Armed with his insights, we are better equipped to appreciate the richness of these tendencies, which stand apart from our culture, but which can also teach us so much about it.