making a scene: what silicon valley programmers have in common with punk rockers

Our friend and hip hop expert Jenn Lena has an article in the most recent American Sociological Review that is a must read for organizational scholars who give a darn about culture.  The paper, coauthored with Richard Peterson, is about how people create new music genres, a process generalizable to the construction of symbolic classification systems.  Given the recent interest in the linking of organizations to identities, categories, and audiences, the paper has clear implications for a number of research areas.

One area that could benefit from the insights of this paper is the crowd who studies organizational form creation and categorical emergence.  While much of the ecology-based research is focused primarily on the structural dynamics that enable the creation of new identities, etc. (and I heard a really interesting talk about this very topic by Elizabeth Pontikes yesterday), Lena and Peterson are more interested in ground-level behavior resembling collective action.*  They create a typology of different genre forms: Avant-garde, Scene-based, Industry-based, and Traditionalist. Each form is associated with a different kind of collective action taken by people promoting their musical vision and involves the creation and maintenance of boundaries that allow the members to distinguish between genres.

For example, the Avant-garde genre is typified by “members’ shared dislike of some aspect of the music of the day and the quest for music that is different” (701).  Because Avant-garde musicians are so concerned with being different, they often experiment with new approaches, and meld together existing genres.  Avant-garde musicians haven’t yet developed clear standards of what it means to be part of a new genre; they’re much better at pointing out what they don’t like than what they do (e.g. early punk like Iggy Pop).  A genre that matures to the point where a loyal local audience develops may become scene-based. Scenes involve more intense interaction among participants and audience members, and through this interaction quality standards emerge.  What distinguishes scenes from the Avant-garde is, in fact, constant communication that allows information about musicians to diffuse rapidly between members of the community (e.g., the Seattle grunge scene).  This communication assists in the rapid codification of “conventions of performance and presentation” (704). The other two genre forms are the most commonly recognized kinds of music in pop culture.  Industry-based genres are primarily based around the corporation and its ability to disseminate music to a broad market.  Traditionalist genres are forms of music that have been preserved and continually cultivated by fans loyal to a particular musical heritage (e.g., roots music).

One of the nice aspects of this paper is that the authors are getting inside that black box of form emergence that is alluded to but rarely directly analyzed by organizational scholars.  Others have argued that new form emergence probably takes place through organized collective action.  For example, Hannan, Polos, and Carroll (2007) say that the creation of new organizational categories resembles “movement-like” behavior, in which “social movements to create organizational categories take on a character broadly similar to those about other social causes. Typically, they get put in motion by a set of activists who possess evangelical beliefs about the value of the activity and its benefits to society. Their motivation appears to be more intrinsic than pecuniary; clearly proprietary efforts do not seem to resonate well with early potential supporters” (115).  They go on to note that promoters of new categories (i.e., genres) must be activist-like in their ability to frame their new offerings (i.e., products, services) as different and, in some way, more ideal or authentic than what is offered in the mainstream.  While Hannan et al. are concerned with software programmers in Silicon Valley, Lena and Peterson focus on punks and hip hop DJs.  What Lena and Peterson add is a rich description of how the process of genre emergence unfolds based on their analysis of 60 musical genres.

This is a very exciting paper. It’s not only theoretically interesting but it’s also a pleasure to read. After reading the paper in August, I had a fire lit under me to learn a lot more about music scenes.  Thanks to Jenn’s excellent recommendations I ended up reading two really fascinating books about punk rock (hey, I’m into white boy music, what can I say?): Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground.  Both books are great, although the first is simply the best book I’ve ever read about rock and roll.  After you’ve read Jenn’s paper, and if you still haven’t satisfied your desire to learn about genre activism, I heartily recommend both of the books as entertaining Thanksgiving break reading.

*They don’t use the term “collective action” in the paper, but that’s my take on what they’re observing.  Genres don’t emerge from people acting in isolation; in each genre people are coming together in some sort of collective endeavour to promote a particular kind of music.

Written by brayden king

October 16, 2008 at 3:41 pm

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  1. […] making a scene: what silicon valley programmers have in common with punk rockers "… (tags: va:tsuomela social-networks community formation activism emergence social-dynamics localism kawgooshkawnick) […]


  2. […] sociologist at Vanderbilt University.  As readers of the blog know, I’m a big fan of her paper in the most recent issue of ASR.  Jenn is no stranger to blogging; she’s a veteran of the […]


  3. […] chart depicts the outcome of a process that fascinates Pete Peterson and I.  As Brayden kindly mentioned, we recently published the results.  Our basic idea is that the mechanisms that produce […]


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