At ASA this weekend, I shocked the normally unflappable duo of Doug Hartmann and Letta Page by my vehemence when I pronounced that “I disdain the term ‘hipster’ as an analytic concept.” Though I have long disliked the term, I was feeling a special sense of grievance after seeing three different papers centered on the study of hipsters. I’d like to explain here a little bit of my opposition to “hipster.”*
First, let me clarify: I particularly take issue with the noun form of “hipster” (indicating a person or group of people). I’m less troubled by the newer usage of “hipster” as an adjective (“That’s so hipster” is a common accusation among my students), indicating a particular aesthetic mode. Skinny jeans, Buddy Holly glasses, irony, liking things before they were cool, PBR, whatever — these are a part of an aesthetic style that is widely labeled as “hipster” in the U.S. Like grunge or preppy, I have no problem with labeling a style.
As for the noun form, here’s the bottom line: “hipster” is a broad category that encompasses so many different groups as to be utterly worthless. It seems to me that the most common group of so-called “hipsters” are the stylish, artsy residents of urban places like Williamsburg and Silver Lake. However, these kind of bohemians are more or less a permanent part of the urban ecosystem. Aesthetic styles of bohemians shift (e.g., from grunge to alternative to hipster since the 1990s), but the demographic remains constant.
At the same, “hipster” is sometimes used to refer to people who adopt the hipster aesthetic style even if they have no real bohemian philosophical commitments. Is wearing skinny jeans alone sufficient to be a hipster? Many of my students wear “hipster” clothing and like indie rock, but also eat at McDonalds, want to work for major corporations, and watch “How I Met Your Mother.” Surely, they’re not hipsters, right?
Finally, “hipster” is sometimes used to simply refer to rich, young people engaging in conspicuous consumption. The Times Style section recently reported that bars in Montauk have banned fedoras as a sign of their hostility to “hipsters.” While the article makes it clear that the unwelcome individuals are young, wealthy, hard-partyers engaged in grotesque conspicuous consumption, it’s not clear what makes them hipsters. Anyone with the money to party in the Montauk isn’t a bohemian starving artist. Nor are fedoras a sign of a particularly avant garde fashion sense — they’re on the shelves at The Gap this summer, as mainstream a shop as there is. Hipster, in this context, simply means a young, rich, urban conspicuous consumer.
With “hipster” being applied to so many hetereogenous groups (bohemians, rich young people, anyone who has ever worn clothing associated the hipster aesthetic), it is a term so vague as to be useless. We can continue to use the adjectival “hipster” to refer to the aesthetic style, but social scientists would be better off being more specific about the group of people they’re describing (e.g., young, rich, educated, fashion forward, liberals, bohemians, music fans, etc.).
*For the record, given the fact that most of my wardrobe comes from the clearance rack at Eddie Bauer, I’m pretty clearly not any sort of hipster.