I seem to recall having written a book about this…

This paper by Jonathan Toubol (“The Hipster Effect: When Anticonformists all Look the Same”) has been getting a lot of play yesterday and today. Setting aside all the cutesy math, the basic dynamic driving his model is, as far as I can tell, exactly the one that Andrew Potter and I described in The Rebel Sell. What I find particularly interesting is the role that delay plays in his model, since Andrew and I also argued that delayed propagation of style was a major force sustaining counterculture, again for exactly the reason that Toubol represents. This was the basis of our contention that, because cable television, and subsequently internet, significantly reduced delay in propagation, counterculture was becoming more difficult to sustain.

On his website, Toubol points out that he was not trying to make a contribution to sociological theory. So I am not faulting him in observing that there is one crucial component of the phenomenon (“anticonformists all look the same”) that he fails to explain: Why are there only two states for the population types to switch back and forth between? Why don’t the nonconformists choose randomly from a continuum of possible states? If they did, then they would not all look the same, and the entire phenomenon of mainstream “co-optation” of nonconformist style would disappear. (In fact, the question posed by the title of the paper is answered almost entirely by the assumption of just two states.) The need to explain why there are a limited set of alternatives to the mainstream, Andrew and I argued, is why you go to Pierre Bourdieu — in order to understand the status dynamics of nonconformity, as well as the signalling function of “rebel” style.


I seem to recall having written a book about this… — 1 Comment

  1. Another way to signal non-conformity is through accent and dialect. Here, there are a variety of possibilities, but again they are constrained by the need to be understood, and the fact that phonology is a system. You can’t push one element too far without running into other elements. For example, the northern cities vowel shift involves a whole group of sounds where the /ɛ/ of ‘bet’ is becoming more like the /ʌ/ of ‘but’, which in turn is encroaching on the /ɔ/ of ‘bought’, which is moving to the /æ/ of ‘bat’.