Fox—Real Punks and Pretenders

Real Punks and Pretenders: The Social Organization of a Counterculture

by Kathryn Joan Fox

[Fox, Kathryn Joan. “Real Punks and Pretenders The Social Organization of a Counterculture.” Journal of contemporary ethnography 16, no. 3 (1987): 344-370.]


  • Based on participant observation in a Southwestern American punk scene in 1983
  • broke the punk counterculture in a ‘social organization’ of four typologies
    1. hardcore punks
      • core of the group, small in number
      • exclusively wore punk clothing and hairstyles (mohawks, etc.), often had tattoos (swastikas—not because of anti-semitism, but embracing a symbol that the mainstream found offensive)
      • fully committed (through conversion) to the punk lifestyle and ideology (belief that the punk movement stood for something politically important, anarchic and anti capitalist)
      • usually into hard drugs (glue huffing) and living in poverty by choice
    2. softcore punks
      • linked socially with the hardcore, but larger in number
      • exclusively wore punk clothing and hairstyles, rarely had tattoos
      • committed to the punk lifestyle temporarily, and often ambivalent about the ‘meaning’ of the punk movement
      • softer drugs (marijuana, binge drinking) and living in semi-poverty by choice temporarily
    3. preppie punks
      • peripheral to the hard and softcore members, even larger in number, often the butt of core members’ jokes
      • wore punk clothing only when attending punk events, wore hair in punk styles that could be restyled into a mainstream look during the week for school or work
      • not interested in the punk lifestyle beyond the fashion and spectacle
      • usually younger, middle class, lived with parents or went to school
    4. spectators
      • on the scene regularly, but not identified as punks
      • sometimes became punks over time
      • punks liked having them around, “every type of punk thrived on an audience. The punks needed people to shock” (364).
  • As a group, central members (hard & softcore) provided ideology and mentorship to the peripheral members—in turn, peripheral members served to insulate central members from larger society.
    • peripheral members often helped the central members financially through money, food, drugs, and rides
    • says Fox: “The peripheral groups thus filled ironically polarized roles: buffering the central mem­bers from contact, yet, at the same time, maintaining contact for them with the conventional society” (366).
    • and “It is, I believe, characteristic of antiestablishment counter­ cultures in general for members to subsist parasitically on the societies that they oppose” (366).
  • Fox believes that, for a counterculture to be successful, it needs to have this dual strata (core and marginal—the core to provide a ‘counter’ ideology and opposition to the status quo, and the marginal to facilitate dialogue between the counterculture and the dominant culture that it opposes.


Very little has been written from a sociological perspective about the punk counterculture in the United States. Further, few studies of antiestablishment style cultures deal with their implicit social organization. In this essay I describe and analyze the informal stratification of a local punk community. I based members’ positions within the hierarchy on their perceived level of commitment to the scene. Within the group, three categories of punks emerged: hardcore punks, softcore punks, and preppie punks. Another type appeared that was peripheral to the scene, referred to as “spectators.” In discussing each type, I describe their appearance, lifestyle, and attitude and how these factors affected members’ positions in the larger scene. I conclude by analyzing the function of each group for the social organization of the scene, and for antiestablishment cultures more generally.

Annotation Summary for: Fox – Real Punks and Pretenders

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “very little has been written from a sociological perspective about punks in the United States. This study is an attempt to fill that void.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “While the punk scene in England responded to youth unemployment and working-class problems, the phenomenon in the United States was more closely con­ nected to style than to politics.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The consciousness of the youth in the United States did not parallel the identification with the plight of youth found in Europe. Nonetheless, the “style” code for punks in the United States contained an insistent element of conflict with the dominant value system.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In this respect, punk in America fit the definition of a “counterculture” offered by Vinger (1982: 22-23). According to this definition, the salient feature of acounterculture is its contrariness. Further, as opposed to individual deviant behavior, punks constituted a counter­culture in that they shared a specific normative system. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Certain behaviors were considered punk, while others were not.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Within the groups of punks I studied, the degree of commitment to the counterculture lifestyle was the variable that determined placement within the hierarchy of the local scene.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In this essay I will describe and analyze the various categories of membership in the punk scene and show how members of these strata differ with regard to their ideology, appearance, taste, lifestyle, and commitment.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I begin by discussing how I became interested in the topic and the methods I employed to gain access to the group and to gather data. I then offer a description of the setting and the people who frequented this scene. Next I offer a structural portrayal of the social organization of this punk scene, showing how the layers of membership form. I then examine each of the three membership categories (hardcore punks, softcore punks, and preppie punks), as well as the spectator category, focusing on the differences in their attitudes, behavior, and involvement with this antiestablishment style culture. I conclude by outlining the contributions each of these types of members makes to the continuing existence of the punk movement and, more broadly, by describing the relation between the punk counterculture and conventional society. METHODS”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “METHODS”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I conducted the bulk of my interviews in the fall of 1983 over a period of about two months. observed approximately 30 membersof this movement with some degree of regularity. I used mainly observational techniques, along with some partici­pation. ”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “While some people knew I was researching this setting, I could not reveal this to others because they might have denied me further access to the group.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” I formally interviewed ninepeople at locations outside the bar. These tape-recorded interviews were unstructured and open-ended. Additionally, I conducted 15 informal interviews at the bar.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “SETTING”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The research took place in a small cowboy bar, “The Glass Gun,” which was transformed into a punk bar one night a week. The bar was situated in a southwestern city with a population of about 500,000. The city itself is located in the “Bible Belt,” characterized by conservative religious and political views.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Basically, punk style ran counter to what thedominant culture would deem aesthetically pleasing. One major reason punks dressed as they did was to set them­selves apart and to make themselves recognizable.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATION OF THE PUNK SCENE”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Starting from the center, the number of members oc­ cupying each stratum progressively increased as the com­ mitment level of the participants diminished. The hardcore punks were the most involved in the scene, and derived the greatest amount of prestige from their association with it. They set the trends and standards for the rest of the members.”

Page 7, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “hardcore punks”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “softcore punks were less dedicated to the antiestablishment lifestyle and to a perma­ nent association with this counterculture, yet their degree of involvement was still high.”

Page 7, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “softcore punks”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “preppie punks were only minimally committed, constituting the largest portion of the actual membership.”

Page 7, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “preppie punks”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Finally, the spectators made up the largest part of the crowd at any public setting where a punk event”

Page 7, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “spectators”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “transpired. They were merely outsiders with an interest in the punk scene.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “PUNKS AND COMMITMENT”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “HARDCORE PUNKS”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Hardcore punks made up the smallest portion of the scene’s membership. In the eyes of the other punks,”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “though, they were the essence of the local movement.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” hardcore punks had gone beyond commitment; they had undergone the process ofconversion (Snow et al., 1986). In other words, not only did they have membership status, but they believed in and espoused the virtues and ideology of the counterculture. ”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Unlike other punks, they did not view their punk identity as a temporary role or a transitory fashion, but as a permanent way of life.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “in addition to the hairstyles discussed earlier, they often had tattoos, such as swastikas, on their arms or faces. Brake (1985: 78) has referred to the use of the swastika as a symbol for punks that was actually devoid of any political significance. Rather, the swastika was a “symbol of contempt” employed as a means of offending the traditional culture. ”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “many of the hardcores were desperately poor. They said that they knew all they would have to do to obtain a job would be to grow their hair into a conventional style; yet they refused. This kind of action based on commitment was what Becker (1960) has called “side bets,” where committed people act in such ways that affect their other interests separate and apart from their commitment inter­ ests.”

Page 13, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “”side bets,””

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “An important characteristic of Becker’s notion of side bets is that people are fully aware of the potential ramifications of their actions.”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “SOFTCORE PUNKS”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “There was one fundamental difference between the hardcore and softcore punks. For the hard­ cores, it was not sufficient just to be antiestablishment or to wear one’s hair in a certain way. Rather, one had to embody the punk lifestyle and ideology in all possible ways.”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The softcore punks lived similar lifestyles to the hard­ cores. However, the element of “seriousness” about the scene, so pervasive among the hardcores, was absent among the softcores.”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The softcores identified with the punk image only tem­ porarily.”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This distinguished their level of commitment from the conversion of the hardcores.”

Page 15, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “conversion”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The hardcores considered only themselves and the softcores to be real. The “realness” of a punk was based on the level of commitment. The level was judged on the basis of willingness to sacrifice other identities forthe punk identity.”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “PREPPIE PUNKS”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The prep pie punks made up an even larger portion of the crowd at punk events. The preppies frequented the scene,”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “but approached it similarly to a costume party.”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The preppie punks tended to be from middle­ class families, whereas the core punks were generally from lower- or working-class backgrounds.3”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The distin­ guishing feature of preppie punks was the manufactured quality of their punk look.”

Page 19, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Another said of preppies: It’s a little hard to take when you have nothing and they try to have everything. Having all that goes against punk. They gotta choose to not have it. Otherwise, they’re just playing a game.”

Page 19, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “portion of core members’ conversations. Some truly disliked the preppies and others were flattered by their feeble attempts at imitation of core behavior. Criticizing and joking about the preppies made up a largeportion of core members’ conversations. Some truly disliked ”

Page 19, Note (Orange): Like fluff

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “SPECTATORS”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The category of spectators referred to everyone who observed the scene fairly regularly, but were not punks themselves.”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The only common denominator this group shared was the desire to stand back and watch, rather than”

Page 21, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “to participate actively in punk activities.”

Page 21, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The spectators liked to observe the fashion, to listen to the music, and to be “in the know” about the scene. They were, in other words, punk appreciators.”

Page 21, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “There were, some loyal spectators. The punksgenerally liked this sort of spectator because they provided the punks with an audience. Every type of punk thrived onan audience. The punks needed people to shock. ”

Page 22, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “CONCLUSION”

Page 22, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “these youths have congregated into interrelations characterized by Best and Luckenbill (1982) as “deviant peers,””

Page 22, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “”deviant peers,””

Page 22, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” As deviantpeers, they set their own standards for evaluating each other and used these as criteria for determining theirmembership status (”

Page 22, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Central members provided ideology, leadership, and entertainment for peripheral participants.”

Page 23, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The role of the peripheral members was more subtle. On the one hand, they served to insulate central members from society”

Page 23, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” They were the only noncentral members whom the hardcores and softcores accepted socially, albeit as followers more than as friends. On the other hand, the peripheral members also served as a conduit between central members and conven­tional society. They helped sustain the core members’existence financially. ”

Page 23, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “They provided such assistance both directly, in the form of handouts of food or cigarettes, and indirectly by patronizing their club (thus helping it continue to exist) and driving them to pick up their welfare checks.”

Page 23, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is, I believe, characteristic of antiestablishment counter­ cultures in general for members to subsist parasitically on the societies that they oppose.”

Page 23, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” It is characteristic of countercultures to have theirshare of hangers-on, or unauthentic members (Vinger, 1982). However, these members serve definite functions forthe maintenance of the whole. The peripheral groups thusfilled ironically polarized roles: buffering the central mem­bers from contact, yet, at the same time, maintaining contact for them with the conventional society. ”

Page 24, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The intent of the counter­ culture is to be recognized and responded to by the society. Thus for a counterculture to be effective and useful, for both itself and the dominant culture, the different levels of commitment are necessary. The core stratum provides the “counter” ideology and the opposition to the status quo. The marginal stratum facilitates the dialogue between the counterculture and the dominant culture that it opposes.”

Page 25, Underline (Red): Content: “COHEN, A. (1955) Delinquent Boys. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. ”

Page 25, Underline (Red): Content: “COHEN, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. New York: St. Martin’s.”

Page 26, Underline (Red): Content: “HEBDIGE, D. (1981) Subcultures: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen.”


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