October 20, 2014

Commentary | March 17, 2014
Too hip to be square
How campus style embodies upper class values
Written by | Visual by Tamim Sujat | The McGill Daily

McGill students are hip. Not all of us, of course, but certainly a higher proportion are than at other Canadian universities. Though now a clichéd label, ‘hipsters’ can be found in every McGill faculty, in every organization, at every samosa sale. Hell, even some of our professors are more hip than our hometown friends. And while this unique demographic phenomenon could be chalked up to the fact that we are a concentrated group of academics living in a North American cultural hub, I wonder if there might be an additional reason for this ‘hipness,’ which has less to do with the courses we take, and more to do with the social classes to which we belong.

Our student body as a whole is undeniably privileged. In 2009, McGill conducted a demographic survey which revealed the general background of the student population as largely low-debt, and in high socioeconomic standing: “[McGill students’] relatively low level of debt and their parents’ relatively high educational attainment suggest that, as a group, they are from relatively privileged backgrounds. It further suggests that McGill undergraduates are not as socioeconomically diverse as undergraduates at other Canadian universities,” the survey read.

This relative affluence is bound to have an effect on the student body, and on the university’s vibe as a whole. But to link a privileged demographic with our hipster culture might seem irrelevant, or even counterintuitive. Where is the connection between a bourgeois upbringing and the often alternatively-dressed students who attend McGill?

Though now a clichéd label, ‘hipsters’ can be found in every McGill faculty, in every organization, at every samosa sale. Hell, even some of our professors are more hip than our hometown friends.

Pierre Bourdieu is a sociologist and cultural theorist who can help connect this gap. He is known for examining the relationship between taste and economic class, and for rejecting the one-dimensional notion that each class-grouping defines their taste and consumption patterns by displaying their corresponding wealth-status. Instead, Bourdieu claims, taste doesn’t directly signify our class, but rather helps us distinguish ourselves from other classes. We define ourselves through our relations toward (and against) others, through what we wear, who we listen to, where we live, and so on. Stick with me on this.

Each class, according to Bourdieu, generally defines its taste in order to echo the class above them, in an unconscious effort to ‘transcend’ into a higher class: the working class dress to emulate the middle class, the middle class dress to emulate the upper class; however, Bourdieu also presents a twist in this linear chain – the upper class (being at the top of the chain) will often cycle back to the working class for inspiration. This cyclical model could explain the dichotomy between economically privileged McGill students and their modest, scruffy, hipster aesthetic choices. In a broader sense, it also explains why dive-bar-inhabiting hipsters are also big consumers, a claim made undeniable with the presence of pricey, hip mega-stores like Urban Outfitters. Upper class youth are reappropriating working class style, and are willing to pay whatever’s necessary to do so.

Bourdieu’s notion, that taste is a method of distinction from the lower class, can also explain the ironic distancing from mainstream culture that is so common amongst hipsters.

Bourdieu’s notion, that taste is a method of distinction from the lower class, can also explain the ironic distancing from mainstream culture that is so common amongst hipsters. In dissociating themselves from mainstream (or middle class) culture though their disdain for Miley Cyrus, hipsters assert their place in the upper class. Furthermore, their contradictory ‘working class’ aesthetic choices (cheap beer, beat up t-shirts, and cigarettes) act as a novelty and an opportunity to show their ability to pull these things off. Perhaps this ability is the meaning of ‘cool.’

Yet beyond their reappropriation of working-class style, many hipsters maintain links to their upper class roots: with their appetite for trendy restaurants, Herschel backpacks, and access to quality higher education. In the case of McGill students, the latter is the most obvious example (though Herschel backpacks make a close second). Referencing Bourdieu’s idea, while the working class like ‘what tastes good,’ the upper class like ‘what’s in good taste.’ McGill hipsters, it seems, straddle both categories: indulging in the novelty of working-class style, while subtly maintaining their elite social status.

Privileged students are able to convert their economic capital into cultural capital, setting the cultural parameters for the rest of the community.

But does any of this matter? The problem, I believe, lies on an ideological level, in which money ultimately triumphs. Privileged students are able to convert their economic capital into cultural capital, setting the cultural parameters for the rest of the community. Despite hipster culture’s celebration of some aspects of the working class, it still condemns and alienates the middle class, and ultimately, although not intentionally, maintains elite upper class values and advantages. And while not every hipster at McGill is privileged, the privileged students – as the dominant class – set the cultural norms.

Bourdieu’s theories provide a coherent way to understand much of McGill’s complex cultural structure, which privileges the upper class through taste and style. But while our education may make us aware of the implications of this on an academic level, it doesn’t enable us to escape participation in the class system in our everyday lives. I still love hipster culture, perhaps because I am part of the privileged student body, with my American Apparel jeans and brand new Doc Martens. Social analysis provides a curious view, however, into the prevailing class dynamics at McGill, revealing a quiet elite, concealed beneath consignment jean jackets and dusty copies of The Communist Manifesto.


Sarah MacArthur is a U2 Cultural Studies student. She can be reached at sarah.macarthur@mail.mcgill.ca.

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