Anthropologists as Scholarly Hipsters, Part I: What is a Hipster?

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Alex Posecznick.

I am an anthropologist. Four simple words, but they capture a complex process of becoming that was hardly simple. Despite the very human desire to impose order on chaos, the processes through which people become acquired by such categories are usually quite complex. Like many anthropologists, I’ve done my share of navel-gazing – reflecting both on the role I’ve come to inhabit and the process through which I’ve come to inhabit it.

I am not a hipster – at least, I do not think I am. This is not entirely helpful as most hipsters I have met don’t think of themselves as hipsters either. Nonetheless, the parallels between anthropologists and hipsters have been on my mind. My observations are frankly exacerbated by my appointment in a School for Education, where my anthropological roots make me (at least in my own head) something of a “cool” kid. In contrast, in anthropological circles, my ties to education mark me as “uncool.” My present position in the structure as permanent and non-tenure further marginalizes me in any academic circle, pushing me to a periphery which some consider beneath notice at all. Can looking at the hipster tell us something about the anthropologist and the academy, I wonder? These observations about the social tension (and structural food chain) within academia naturally presuppose other critical questions: what precisely is a “hipster” and does it actually exist as a meaningful category?

Later on in this series, I unpack particular parallels of interest.  I hope that I do so in a way that is valuable for thinking through the discipline and the challenges we face.  Particular emphasis will include:

Savage Minds has been kind enough to allow me a space to publicly untangle these thoughts. I hope that I contribute here to an ongoing dialogue about scholarly subjectivities in anthropology vis-à-vis the cultural trope of the contemporary, urban “hipster.” These posts are therefore a reflection on the process through which we “become” anthropologists and the broader implications for the discipline. On the other hand these posts are also a cheeky, rambling commentary on my own personal anecdotes and observations. As these posts are partly an enactment of scholarly mimesis, I beg the readers’ patience in enduring yet another navel-gazing piece about anthropologists, although my hope is you will find this a productive one. But where to begin?

What is the hipster?

As I am writing this blog series for the Internet, to an audience of anthropologists (or those so inclined), the asking of this question is almost absurd. I can presume that the majority of readers of the Savage Minds blog are themselves either hipsters (in denial) or move in the same circle as hipsters. Certainly I would apply the label to many persons that I associate with, although I do not intend this as an epithet as is often the case. The “hipster” category has seemingly become one that many people put on others but only rarely take upon themselves. In this first post of the series I attempt to think through what I mean by the term “hipster,” or some such meanings, as there does not seem to be consensus on what a hipster is.

Like any good academic, I need to start with definitions, and so I first turned to the reigning usage expert on such cultural fads, tropes and archetypes: If you are unfamiliar with it, this website runs through user-generated definitions of slang, malapropisms and other colloquialisms where users can vote for the “best” definitions; in the tradition of web 2.0, one may think of it as a democratic dictionary of slang. The most “liked” hipster definition on the site is a long treatise on the hipster, which can be found here. A few highlights for me include:

hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.


It is part of the hipster central dogma not to be influenced by mainstream advertising and media, which tends to only promote ethnocentric ideals of beauty

And finally:

Anti-hipster sentiment often comes from people who simply can’t keep up with social change and are envious of those who can.

Ahh, the marvels of the Internet: where even definitions can feel defensive and persecuted. Although this anonymous author (and I) don’t think of the label in undesirable terms, I have found ‘hipster’ most often used as an epithet even among those individuals who on the surface appear to be hipsters to my apparently untrained eye. Nonetheless, the second most popular definition completely subverts the first, which I quote it in its entirety:

Definitions are too mainstream.

This second definition is tongue-in-cheek and dismissive. These two definitions show the full range of the ‘hipster’ in popular discourse. Reams of Internet memes, comics, blog-posts and hashtags abound with hipster images of carefully manicured facial hair (sometimes manicured to appear un-manicured), thick glasses, flannel, and vaguely distant looks that give the appearance of being stoned. Stereotypes and blog posts, however, do not an analysis make.

Definitely (not?) a Sub/Counter Culture

The academy does not have a lot to say about the current iteration of hipsters. On the whole, those who do have something to say fall into one of two camps 1. The first camp seemingly aligns with the first definition above in thinking about the hipster movement as being a sub- or counter-culture. Of course, as identity in capitalist spaces is so dependent on consumptive practices, it is through product consumption that a hipster identity becomes most visible. Accordingly, the hipster population is one which rejects mainstream, capitalist and individualist norms in favor of tactile crafts, free-trade coffee and styles that physically mark that rejection. Wes Shumar 2, for example, sees these as the direct descendants of both the 1940’s hipster, and the hippie movements of the 60’s and 70’s. The focus on non-corporate produced crafts, he argues, is refreshing in that market exchange values are not the primary way that hipsters think about the world and their activity. Rob Horning 3 has suggested that hipsters are the producers of new forms of cultural capital, explorers and diviners of consumable coolness to be delivered as products to the mainstream and abandoned when it is adopted by them. He wonders if the hipster is a unique historical aberration, or a permanent, unwitting middleman between the dominant and the dominated. The unique space may shape a unique way of seeing.

Scholars in the second camp interested in the hipster are somewhat skeptical about or dismissive of the hipster movement as being a sub- or counter-culture at all. Reid Pillifant 4 wonders how unique hipsters are at all, or if they are just people who happen to be young and funny looking, and living in particular neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Mark Greif 5  argues that the hipster is not a counter-culture, sensitive, rebellious intellectual, but rather a disaffected, suburban White transplant into a gentrifying urban center; even the main agent of gentrification. He argues that hipsters are voracious consumers of a style that is constantly shifting desirability in order to promote endless consumption. A hidden shop selling vintage clothing is popular for a short time before it is made irrelevant the next day. They have turned consumption itself into an art, where the fine distinction of this hat over that invests cultural capital, and where although it is used and battered, it can be sold for four times the value of a new hat. As the “illegitimate children of Andy Warhol,” Dana Tortorici 6 claims they want to embody nostalgia, irony, sexy authenticity, tactile souvenirs, and such. However, they are not the artist that Warhol was; they are in the ultra-cool entourage that builds careers around and profits from the artist.

Christian Lorentzen 7 has called them the 21st century “yuppie” and “fraud” – suggesting that they are a generation of suburban white kids “slumming” it with working class and ethnic communities in their youth before returning to traditional patterns of white middle class life. They hide behind “irony” to alleviate their racist and sexist commentary, and seek authenticity in their childhoods. Along similar lines, Patrice Evans 8 sees the hipster lifestyle as an indulgence . . . as a White, middle-class luxury to sleep through the early years of young adulthood when many real working class and minority individuals are struggling to find some shell of security. She suggests that the term is meaningless within Black communities, where a hipster is indistinguishable from any other affluent, privileged, White person.

Anti-commercial rebel or consumer par-excellence? Post-racial individualist or White, affluent apologist? Like any construct, trope or archetype there are many layers of complexity here. There is no breathing, quintessential hipster as there is no perfect distillation of Blackness or the Republican Party or anthropology – there are only living, complex people living nuanced lives in and around a social landscape that is ever changing. In fact, the hipster may subsume all of these things, contradictions, paradoxes and tensions included. The hipster is an emerging and shifting cultural trope, and I would hardly lay claim to it as my main area of expertise. In fact, the focus of this blog series is not the hipster, but the anthropologist. I imagine that, given the above, many of you have already begun to think through the parallels I have in mind. At this point, however, I would invite others to point to other resources (popular or academic) in the comments section below for those interested in the hipster as an object of academic inquiry.

Regardless, this first post lays out my understanding of and interest in the nuanced and paradoxical subjectivities which we all inhabit. In the next post, I begin to lay out some of the hipsterish parallels.

UPDATE: Edited to include overview.

  1. As you will see below, a great, little red book called “What was the hipster?” has a lot of interesting reflections on the subject – although I disagree with the authors that the hipster is dying out. A nice introduction to the work was published as an editorial in the NYTimes, available here
  2. Personal Communication 
  3. Horning, R. (2010) “The death of the hipster” in Greif, Ross and Tortorici (Eds) What was the hipster? A sociological investigation. New York: n+1 foundation. 
  4. Pillifant, R. (2010) “Hipsters die another death at n+1 panel” in Greif, Ross and Tortorici (Eds) What was the hipster? A sociological investigation. New York: n+1 foundation. 
  5. Greif, M. (2010) “Positions” in Greif, Ross and Tortorici (Eds) What was the hipster? A sociological investigation. New York: n+1 foundation. 
  6. Tortorici, D. (2010) “You know it when you see it” in Greif, Ross and Tortorici (Eds) What was the hipster? A sociological investigation. New York: n+1 foundation. 
  7. Lorentzen, C. (2010) “I was wrong” in Greif, Ross and Tortorici (Eds) What was the hipster? A sociological investigation. New York: n+1 foundation. 
  8. Evans, P. (2010) “Hip-hop and hipsterism” in Greif, Ross and Tortorici (Eds) What was the hipster? A sociological investigation. New York: n+1 foundation. 
Alex Posecznick

Alex Posecznick serves as manager of the Division of Education, Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education while also holding an academic appointment therein, where he teaches courses in Anthropology and Education, Qualitative Modes of Inquiry and Merit and America. His scholarly work focuses on the ethnographic examination of neoliberalism, public policy, and the culture of meritocracy vis-à-vis institutions of higher education. Follow @AlexPosecznick. More on Alex Posecznick.

4 thoughts on “Anthropologists as Scholarly Hipsters, Part I: What is a Hipster?

  1. I’ve always conceptualized the “hipster” through their material culture, which is usually marked by either obsolescence or impracticality, sometimes for the sake of irony, sometimes as a resistance to “new” technologies, and sometimes both. I think of my hipster friends who obsessively collect vinyl records (obsolete), ride fixed-gear bicycles (impractical), and wear scarves and/or ugly Christmas sweaters in the summer (ironic). Most of them would chalk it up to thrift if I asked them – and they’d probably do so over FaceTime.

    Probably one of the most troubling things that matches this constellation of outdated, impractical, and ironic – and something that you touched on – is hipster racism. It is this assumption that because we’re “post-racial,” one can make racist comments or do racist things (qualifying as “outdated” because of “post-racism”) for no other purpose than a laugh (because it’s ironic).

    (And by the way, I (unobsessively) collect vinyl records, and I would totally ride a fixie if it didn’t murder my legs. I have nothing against the things that hipsters do, I just don’t have the patience to make an entire lifestyle out of it.)

    Anyway, to get back to the thrust of the title: I wonder if there are ways in which anthropologists willingly seek out obsolete modes or methods in spite of more pragmatic options. If not for the sake of irony (that might be difficult to prove), I’m sure we all know some anthros who are resistant to change.

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