The other day I was talking to someone about a concert I went to in the mid-nineties. As I was telling the story, I realized that I sounded … old. At the time, the band in question (Pavement) was relatively new and hip; now it’s a band that certain members of my generation still revere and younger people probably haven’t heard of. Back then I cared quite a bit about new music. Now, not so much.
David Beer knows the feeling. He has also passed the three-decade threshold and has more or less lost touch with popular culture. But for him it’s a more pressing problem. He’s a lecturer in sociology at the University of York in the U.K. and he often writes about popular culture. How can he do that when he’s ceased to be, you know, cool?
Beer has written an article on that topic titled “Can you dig it? Some reflections on the sociological problems associated with being uncool,” which is in the current edition of “Sociology,” a journal of the British Sociological Association (sadly, not available online). I pestered him via e-mail about his uncoolness. Here’s an edited transcript:
When did you first realize you had become uncool?
I should start by saying that I’m not at all sure that I was cool in the first place. Maybe, as I describe in the article, it’s not my place to say how cool I am. What I can be sure of is that whatever level of cool I achieved in the past, I am undoubtedly less cool now. The article came about from a moment when I was sat in my office trying to think of something to write about … I started to think broadly about some important changes in my life that had led to this point (turning 30, having a child, moving into a permanent academic post and so on). So, to answer your question, I realized I was uncool when I was trying to conduct social research and was forced to reflect upon my own social position. I’m not sure when the moment was that I became uncool, that is one of the things that is so elusive about it: You don’t know it has happened unless you are forced to reflect.
You write in the essay that “getting older and staying cool may not be compatible.” You also write that this is a particular problem for a sociologist. Why?
It’s not impossible to be old and cool, I can think of a few who are both, but it is more difficult. There are two reasons I can think of as to why this is a problem for sociologists (or social researchers more generally). The first is that being uncool makes it difficult to encounter and identify a substantial part of the social landscape. The uncool sociologist is on the outside of what is happening and also finds it hard to know about what is going on. The second issue is that where we attempt to research things our perceived uncoolness may mean that we are treated in particular ways by those we are researching (or we might well not fully understand their perspectives because of our lack of knowledge). It is not just a question of access, it is one of being able to notice things in the first place.
Is there any advantage in being uncool? Perhaps shedding the burden of coolness make you more objective?
It might provide us with some objective distance that, as is often suggested, lends itself to a richer analysis. Also focusing upon the uncool might help us to analyze the mainstream and the popular, which are often not at all cool. My worry, though, is that embracing being uncool means that we are resigning ourselves to leaving large parts of the social spectrum untouched and invisible to social analysis.
So what do you do? Can you get cooler?
That really is the problem. The first and most obvious response to realizing you are uncool is to try to find ways of making yourself cool. There is nothing more uncool than someone trying. In addition to this the complexity of cool makes it very hard to work out what is actually cool to different groups of people. Also, what I had found was that the sources I had used in the past for informing myself had gone, been decomissioned or just were simply no longer a part of my changing lifestyle.
The conclusion I arrived at was that trying to get cooler was not the most productive direction. Instead I think we need to think creatively about how we might encounter cool things in different ways. If we don’t then social researchers are going to be missing large parts of the social in their accounts.
So even if you can’t be cool, you can still attempt to understand what is currently cool?
That is one of the challenges I set out in the article. Hence the title, can you dig it? Is it possible for uncool academics to see, encounter, or identify these aspects of culture when they are situated so firmly on the outside of things? I’m sure these questions don’t just apply to the study of popular culture, I think it is also likely to impact more broadly on social research (including those interested in media, crime, youth and the like) and possibly the long term sustainability of social science disciplines. Disciplines perceived to have some cool are likely to do better at recruiting students. My aim with this work was to show that there are a set of related problems that we need to be aware of in the first place. We need to be aware of the problems associated with being uncool before we can properly address them. That is the modest aim of the article, it is hoped that it will encourage the reader to ask the question you have asked.
I dig it. Thanks for chatting. It’s been … awesome? Radical? What are the kids saying these days?
As you can probably imagine, I’m not really informed about what the kidz are saying. Sorry. They might say something like that was a “sick” interview.