There are many reasons I became a sociologist, I wanted to better understand people, politics, and culture, but mostly, I love people watching! While a college student, I went to many concerts, I loved mostly punk and ska bands and observed how people interacted at these shows. Here is a participant observation paper I wrote in the summer of 2001 as a sociology independent study for one of my favorite professors, James J. Chriss at Cleveland State University. Let me know what you think.
My first concert was around my 11th grade year, I was 17 years old and Korn was an up and coming metal band. They played the Agora Theater on E. 55th and Euclid in ClevelandOhio. The first time I went to a concert I was not sure what to expect: I was excited because they were one of my favorite bands at the time. I was a little bit scared; I did not want a black eye or a broken arm. My mother did not make the issue any better; she worried and wanted to know who I was going with and what time I was going to be home. Upon arriving to the venue it seemed broken down and in a bad part of town, we entered the place and I notice the audience was very much like me, young white teenagers, some of them had on band paraphernalia of not only the band they were about to see but other heavy metal and other assorted rock bands as well as shirts that read “I am a math magician”. The inside of the Agora was set up like an old theater, there was theater style seating and closer to the stage was a floor area know as the “pit.” Back then I really did not pay very much attention to the crowd; my main concern was the band I paid to see. When the music began the place came alive. People in the pit area went ballistic and went into motion with the music, people in the theater style seating “head banged” and danced but kept to them selves. After the show was all over I wanted more, I wanted to go to as many concerts as possible and experience all types of music.
It has been about six years since that first concert, since them I have seen many genre’ of music ranging from mellow jazz to the heaviest of metal each type of music has its different types of people as well as different unique types of people who go to each type of concert. In this paper I will illustrate the types of people at a certain type of concert, we are going to take a look at the punk rock culture and distinguish the types of people who go to these concerts and interpret their rolls “at the show”.
Recently I went to see the band Strung Out, a punk-metal band from Southern California. At this show I paid attention to behavior of the individuals and what roles they played, I watched how the individuals interacted with one another. With in my own group we began to name each of the punk rock social types that each of the actors in this setting played. I also paid attention to the areas of the venue where these people interacted; this also helps determine what social type they fall into. Also I will compare this concert to other concerts and point of what social punk rock types attend what specific show.
Traditional ethnographers believe in immersing themselves in a particular culture and reporting their informants’ stores as if they represent reality, phenomenologist see a need to “make sense” out of the informants’ perceptions of the world (Babbie, 2002, p. 289).
By participating in the ritual activities of the punk rock subculture I will learn to understand the dynamics of their group structure first hand as I participate and engage in the same social interactions as and perceive the world as the see it.
In Erving Goffman’s concept of the dramatic metaphor first seen in The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life used the idea of the stage and theater in relation to social interactions. In dramaturgy, an individual is distinguished as an actor playing a role that puts on a “performance.” In this performance the actors follow a script, act on a stage and used props. This metaphor to human interaction captures some of the example and topics of his approach but obscures the more fundamental process of Goffman’s theorizing (Turner, 1998, p. 393).
In this view of an American subculture I will refer to the initials as “characters,” they are indeed playing a role on a stage like in Goffman’s dramatic approach of human interaction.
In Goffman’s Interaction Ritual, the idea of presentation rituals encompass acts through which the individual makes specific attestations to recipients concerning how he regards them and how he will treat them in on- coming interaction. Demeanor is “the element of the individual’s ceremonial behavior conveyed though deportment, dress and bearing which serves to inform those in his immediate presence that he is a person of certain desirable or undesirable qualities”.
In this paper I will view the demeanor of characters at the punk rock show, through their actions as well as deportment, dress and bearing does inform the presence of the each individual.
Environment / Setting
A region may be defined as any place that is bounded to some degree by barriers to perception. Regions vary, of course in some degree to which they are bounded and according to the media of communication in which the barriers to perception occur (Goffman, 1959, p.106).
This concert took place at the Agora Ballroom, a smaller part of the Cleveland Agora. This part of the venue is split into four dominant parts: 1.) The main floor, the main floor inform of the stage can also be divided into four parts its self, first the area directly in front of the stage, this part is densely populated and smashed up against the stage also most of the crowd surfing takes place. Directly behind this area is the “mosh pit,” it is here where many diverse types interact by dancing, pushing, jumping, running around like psychos what is known as “mosh pitting.” Directly behind the pit is an area where people mostly watch the band and if any movement they “head-bang” or dance slightly. 2.) The bar, here mostly older punk rockers sit back and watch the show with a beer in hand. 3.) Table area, this area is on either side of the main floor, this is a more relaxed area were people can sit and what the show with out disruption from any hooligans from the floor area. 4.) Entrance area, here people mostly hang out between bands and before the show begins, sometimes people who don’t really want to be there hang out there while a band is playing.
Punk Rawk Types
At one extreme, one finds that the performer can be fully taken in by his own act; he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality. When his audience is also convinced in this way about the show he puts on – then for the moment at least, only the sociologist or the socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the “realness” of what is presented (Goffman, 1959, p. 17).
After attending many shows through out the years many names for the types of people in these social situations came to in to play. Many of the names come from how people act in the mosh pit area.
“Back of the Pit Guy,” is the character who is most likely the biggest guy in the place, this participant inhabits the back of the pit and violently pushes the other mosh pitters when their not paying attention. When given the chance and a clean shot, back of the pit guy will run through the pit and takes out an unexpecting punk rocker.
“Middle of the pit guy” this character is not usually the biggest, but he is defiantly the toughest guy, he stands in the middle of the pit and is impervious to any of the people running and dancing around him. Middle of the pit guy is generally the keeper of the peace, if a fight breaks out or some one falls over he is the first person to give them a hand. Middle of the pit guy also keeps back of the pit guy in line if he is flying off the handle.
Running around the “middle of the pit guy” are the “crazy go nuts guys,” these characters usually running around and kamikaze into the sides of the pit and the people with in, crazy go nuts guy never gets tired and reacts to the ferocity of the music.
Perhaps one of the most entertaining person in the pit would be the “dance like a goober guy,” this guy always finds a way to dance even when the music is at its heaviest, when the music slows down, dance like a goober guy performs a seductive intimidation dance to lure other mosh pitters to be made a fool of when the music increases speed.
“Side and back wall dwellers,” these characters stay in the outer walls of the pit and get angry when people fly into them. These characters seek protection from “back of the pit guy.” However fall pray to most of the middle pitters.
Directly in front of the stage, the crowd is more densely populated because most of the characters are trying to get to the stage to either get on stage to jump back into the crowd, or to get to the performers. Another typical behavior in this zone is the act of “crowd surfing,” this is when some one is thrown on top of the crowd and pushed around above every body. If a female is crowd surfing she is subjected to a barrage of cheap fondling and molestation. The most prominent character in this zone is the “oh my God I’m at a concert person,” he/she more then likely has never been to a show in their lives and is not socialized into the norms of the punk rock show.
The rest of the floor area is the habitat of spectators and mild dancers as well as older men who solely go the show is to get a young girl drunk or high and take her home for sexual intercourse. These men are usually marked by the “mullet,” hair that is short in the front and long in the back. Most of the other zones are mostly inhabited by the same types of characters as the main floor spectators.
The last character is the “why am I here guy,” this character is there because either his friends talked he/she into going to the show or was not sure that there was going to be loud music at a live concert. “Why am I here guy” sits in the back of the venue on a bench, steps or any other out of the way hidden place. This person experiences high levels of depression but for some odd reason dose not leave and claims that they are perfectly fine.
Obviously people do not fall perfectly into each category; any given character can hold any combination of any attribute of any character.
Goffman says a rule of conduct may be defined as a guide for action, recommended not because it is pleasant, cheap or effective, but because it is suitable or just. Infractions characteristically lead to feelings or uneasiness and to negative social sanctions. Rules of conduct infuse all areas of activity (Goffman, 1967, p. 48).
To the inexperienced, the punk rock show may seem like chaos, with loud music and people running around pushing and shoving. After attending many of these shows one learns that there are “rules,” to the concert. If some one falls in the pit, it is the primary concern for the nearest person to pick that person up and dust them off.
When a mosh pitter is tying his shoe it is the duty of the surrounding mosh pitters to surround he/she and make sure that no body flies into them. If some one loses something (hat, glasses, tooth) every one stops and searches the pit floor for the lost merchandise. When somebody finds something like a shoe or a hat, they hold it up in the air so everybody can see. If no body claims it after about a minute, the finder throws the shoe or hat into the air.
Type of Show
Another important attribute of a show is the type of concert. One may think that there is only one type of punk rock concert with one kind of character that attends these shows. There can also be an abundance of different concert types in each of the different shows.
In a more popular punk rock concert like Blink 182 would consist of more “oh my God I’m at a concert people,” these characters have seen the band on MTV and want to see them live. Most of the crowd is very dense in population and there is very little movement.
In contrast to a heavy metal hard core based punk rock band like Strung Out would have more of the elements of the mosh pit. At this type of show the music is faster and more violent and the crowd behaves accordingly.
A ska – punk rock show will consist more “dance like a goober guy,” ska – punk bands like Mustard Plug have a horn section in the band and play an upstroke guitar stroke that makes the music more happy sounding, making the pit area more a dance floor with a style of dance called the “skank.”
The emo – punk rock concert will have more spectators because the type of music is relaxed and mellow. This most likely is a more mature audience who has grown out of the general punk rock mosh pit faze in their life.
And finally the Celtic style punk rock show has the elements of the hard core punk rock show but with bag pipes and Celtic flutes. Here the crowd engages in Celtic style dancing (Jigging), and heavy drinking.
In this ethnographic view of the punk rock subculture in its natural environment lends us a better understanding of a misunderstood group. The actions and demeanor of the characters as they interact in a social network interprets not only how they act in this environment but how the act in every day life.
Babbie, E. (2002), The Basics of Social Research. Second edition. Wadsworth/Thomas Learning
Turner, T. H. (1998). The Structure of Sociological Theory. Wadsworth Publishing Company
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books
Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Ritual. Anchor Books
Punk rock social types invented by:
Thomas Stockman – Created the name “back of the pit guy,” after a Sevendust concert.
Frank Romeo Zeleznikar – Created “crazy go nuts guy,” when I told him I was writing this paper.