Unhappy Hipsters

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Marketing professor takes on the hipster phenomenon.

Nothing, it seems, is so tragically unhip as to be tagged with the hipster label. Those who think that trendy iPods, ironic trucker caps, and an encyclopedic knowledge of independent film give them an air of urban cool often discover that they’re the butt of vicious jokes. Dozens of websites and blogs now exist with the primary purpose of mocking hipsters.

And yet many young people still engage in hipster behavior — listening to hipster music, talking about hipster movies, and buying hipster products. In the February 2011 issue of The Journal of Consumer Research, marketing professor Craig Thompson and his former student Zeynep Arsel PhD’07 published a study that looks at the “hipster phenomenon” as a marketplace myth — a means by which people use products to create an identity.

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“The standard thesis has been that consumers gravitate toward a social identity … because it conveys desirable meanings and perhaps more importantly, provides a sense of distinction to the less-differentiated mainstream,” Thompson says. “The corollary assumption is that consumers will abandon the social identity once its characteristic consumption becomes popularized and commonplace, or, as in the case of hipsters, it comes to carry a social stigma.

“However,” he notes, “social identities may have more social stickiness than a conventional fashion style.”

Thompson and Arsel took a deep look at a group of individuals whom many might tag as hipsters: twenty-one Madisonians between the ages of nineteen and thirty-five who had a strong interest in independent music. These individuals persisted in doing things that garner a hipster label, even though it engages a negative stereotype.

The reason for this, Thomp-son and Arsel determined, is in part because those so-called hipsters didn’t set out to become hipsters, but rather were labeled as such by others. Instead, their interests and tastes tend to gravitate toward non-mainstream music, film, and art — the kinds of culture that Thompson calls “indie.” This is an area of culture that requires a great deal of investment — if not in money, then in knowledge — to learn the cultural references that will make them fit in with other members of the indie community.

“When individuals embrace a social identity, they are not just brandishing a set of consumer goods,” Thompson says. “They are becoming part of a taste culture, and they have to acquire considerable … knowledge and cultivate particular aesthetic tastes and sensibilities. They also form a network of social relationships and gain status within those networks. … They are making investments in acquiring social and cultural capital.”

Thompson enjoys studying youth culture, which he says is an ongoing passion, as “it involves the majority of college students.” But he has no great desire to delve deeper into hipsterism.

“That work,” he says, “is more or less complete.”

Published in the Spring 2011 issue

Tags: Business, Faculty, Research, Students

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