Dek Inter and the "Other": Thai Youth Subcultures in Urban Chiang Mai

By Cohen, Anjalee | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Dek Inter and the "Other": Thai Youth Subcultures in Urban Chiang Mai


Cohen, Anjalee, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Introduction

Apart from sensational journalistic reports depicting the excessive lifestyles of Thai teenagers, there is a dearth of literature on contemporary Thai youth culture. Most studies on youth culture have typically been the domain of sociology and cultural studies and tend to focus on western youth culture (or subcultures) in the context of deviance or resistance (Becker 1963; Hall and Jefferson 1976; Hebdidge 1979). (1) The most influential studies on youth subcultures originate from the British Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) of Birmingham University. In their seminal book Resistance through Rituals (Hall and Jefferson 1976), CCCS scholars suggest that working-class youth subcultures (e.g., Teds and Skinheads) are "counter-hegemonic" as they resist domination (on behalf of the parent culture) through "spectacular" displays of style. Despite the CCCS's pervasive influence on youth cultural studies, their analysis of youth subcultures is confined to a particular class of British youth at a particular point in time (i.e., the 1970s). A growing number of scholars have criticized the CCCS for largely concentrating on the experiences of young, white working-class males, with many developing the Birmingham School's theories of resistance to encompass issues of gender, sexuality, and race (Kelley 1994; McRobbie 2000; Thornton 1995).

Historically there has been little anthropological research on the cultural practices of young people. Studies in anthropology and other social sciences seeking to understand the social category of youth, and what it means to posit such a category in the first place, were influenced by a paradigm of socialization and focused on adolescence as a life-cycle stage (Barry and Schlegel 1986; Fuchs 1976; Mead 1961; Whiting, Whiting, and Longabaugh 1975). Such theories have been shaped by psychological models of childhood development which assume that young people need to pass through a series of tenuous stages, including physical, emotional, moral, and intellectual development, before they can become complete and rational adults (Bessant, Sercombe, and Watts 1998; James and Prout 1997).

Similarly, most studies on Thai youth have traditionally focused on issues such as rites of passage (e.g., ordination as a monk), gender socialization, youth sexuality, and courtship practices (Lyttleton 2002; Warunee 2002; Whittaker 2002), all of which underline youth as a transitional phase. Few studies have explored the social and cultural practices of young Thai people and Thai youth subjectivity in the context of Thailand's rapid economic and social transformation.

An important contribution anthropology has recently made to the study of young people is its interest in youth as cultural producers and consumers rather than as passive receptors of adult culture (Amit 2002; Baulch 2002; Caputo 1995; Wulff 1995). Nascent anthropological studies on youth are not only characterized by a concentration on youth cultural agency, but also include an interest "in how identities emerge in new cultural formations that creatively combine elements of global capitalism, transnationalism, and local culture" (Bucholtz 2002, p. 525).

Based on ethnographic fieldwork research in northern Thailand between 2002-04, this study shows that whilst young Thais increasingly appropriate and adopt styles from a global (2) youth culture (including British subcultures), they carry new meanings which are culturally and historically specific. I argue that Chiang Mai youth employ style primarily as a way of "fitting in and sticking out" (Miles, Cliff, and Burr 1998, p. 81) in less familiar and anonymous urban spaces rather than as acts of deviance or class-based resistance. Consistent with recent anthropological approaches to youth, I am interested in the way identities are shaped at the intersection of global capitalism and local culture (Maira and Soep 2005). More specifically, I am concerned with how young northern Thais develop a sense of belonging and a distinctive youth identity in the context of intense urbanization and modernization. …

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