March 04, 2016

Our Subcultures: Making the Familiar Strange

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Are you part of a subculture, or a group that is a subset of the larger culture that has distinct values, norms, and practices? Chances are good you are and might not even be aware of it, because we become adept at switching between different groups and behaving accordingly, similar to what linguists call "code switching."

Sometimes the norms, values, and practices of a subculture become very apparent when we are new to a group; some people have a difficult time adjusting to a new group, sometimes experiencing culture shock when moving to a new region, attending college far from home, or even beginning a new job in an unfamiliar field.

Author Wednesday Martin describes the process of acclimating to a new subculture in her memoir, The Primates of Park Avenue, about her move from Manhattan's West Village to the Upper East Side, a journey of just a few miles but what she describes as inhabited by a significantly different subculture.

In this subculture, having lots of money isn't all you need to get into an apartment in a desirable building; you must be accepted by a highly intrusive co-op board. The quest for a spot in nursery school is cut-throat, as being in the "right" school sets the stage for a child's acceptance at the most prestigious prep schools and colleges, and is yet another status symbol for the parents, who can have the chance to hobnob with the highest status parents.

That is, if you are accepted by the status-conscious adults, which in Martin's experience was not easy. She describes her struggle to be accepted into these elite social circles, finding that the approval of one high-status person in the group led to play dates for her children, who previously had not been granted play dates due to her outsider status. Wearing high-end, designer clothing, expensive handbags—which she describes as a process of acquiring that goes beyond simply having the money to buy one— are all required just for consideration into this subculture.

In her book, she estimated that in order for a woman to maintain her appearance according to the standards of the subculture, she might need to spend upwards of $95,000 a year (on wardrobe, regular hair appointments, facials, manicures, pedicures, personal trainer, cosmetic surgery, and so on), so someone without this level of disposable income would be at a distinct disadvantage. And of course families would need to pay tens of thousands of dollars per year for private school tuition, donate thousands of dollars to attend exclusive charity events, and pay for summer home rentals in the fashionable Hamptons to maintain their status within elite social groups.

Being part of this subculture is only available to the truly wealthy, but she does observe that there are other costs that go beyond money. Martin notes that some women might remain in unhappy marriages in order to keep their place within the subculture and might ironically have a bit less freedom than those who earn less money but are not members of this subculture.

While Martin's book has been criticized for containing some factual errors, books like this can encourage us to think about subcultures we live amongst but might not know much about, and even those that we do. Studying sociology means that we strive to "make the familiar strange," to stop and ask questions about aspects of daily life we might take for granted.

Dalton Conley on making the familiar strange:  

When we "make the familiar strange," we think about how one becomes the member of this group in the first place. Are you born into it? Does this subculture welcome newcomers, even recruit them, or is it reluctant to let others participate? Is membership related to race, class, gender, sexual identity, or nationality? Do members of this subculture smoothly transition in and out of the broader culture in their daily lives, or is membership more all-encompassing?

For instance, we might be a part of a fan group that encompasses much of our leisure time, but is something separate from work and family life. Other subcultures, such as the Amish or other deeply religious sects might frown on any interaction with others outside of the subculture.

Sometimes when we "make the familiar strange" and write about it, we expose elements of our subcultures that might be exclusionary or misunderstood to outsiders. After all, by definition subcultures are groups that are set apart from others, and might not want outsiders to have insider information. Perhaps some of the animus directed towards Martin is because her memoir paints a less than flattering view of the people in this subculture, a group that is powerful, wealthy, and what many people might consider to be symbols of success.

Wealthy Upper East Siders are not the only subculture to resent sharing insider information with the world. Some religious groups do not allow non-members to attend their rituals for this reason. Other groups might not be as secretive, but might be weary of how the information might be interpreted by non-members.

How would you describe a subculture you are part of or have observed? How does one become and remain a member? How does someone gain status in this group? What are the group's norms, values, and practices?

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