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Conceptual Interests and Analytical Shifts in Research on Rave Culture

In: Film and Music

Submitted By EmilyPlur
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Raves have historically referred to grass-roots organized, anti-establishment and unlicensed all night dance parties, featuring electronically-produced dance music (EDM), such as techno, house, trance and drum and bass. Since their late 1980s origins in the U.K., raves have gained widespread popularity and transformed dramatically. Consequently, their many cultural traits and behaviors have garnered much sociological interest, which mostly falls into two competing perspectives: cultural studies and public health. In this paper, we review what raves look like today compared to their high point in the 1990s. We then discuss how the cultural studies and public health perspectives define raves and have studied them over time, focusing on the “pet” sociological concepts each has sought to advance. Our analysis of these literatures reveals important differences in rave research by country and over time. We end by discussing the politics associated with the shift in rave research.
Society has been greatly influenced by many alternative scenes, subcultures, or lifestyles oriented around music, youth and young adults (Epstein 1998). Some of the more notable ones include the English punk scene in the 1970s- 1980s, the U.S. jazz (1930s-1940s) and hippie scenes (1970s), and the 1990s rave scenes in the U.K. and U.S. From them have come musical innovation, social identity, fashion and other aesthetic nuances, and mainstream and alternative cultural production. Increasingly, sociology has used scenes and lifestyles to investigate and clarify many of the discipline’s fundamental concepts and ideas. For example, Becker (1963) used the 1940s U.S. jazz scene to elucidate notions of deviant identity, subculture, and social control. In the U.K., scholars from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) used the English punk scene (Hebdige 1979) and the mods and rockers (Hall and Jefferson 1976) to enlighten us about youth resistance and counter-cultural identity. Much of the sociological interest in raves follows this tradition. In fewer than 20 years since raves’ emergence in the U.K., many studies have appeared covering issues such as youth identity and counter-cultural resistance (Hill 2002), hedonism (Reynolds 1999), and drug-related risk and consequence (Yacoubian et al 2003; Sanders 2005). The purposes of this paper are to review what raves are, how they have changed over time and how scholars have attempted to understand them. Through such a review, we hope to show how research on rave culture has contributed to fundamental sociological ideas and concepts germane to the study of youth culture, deviance, and identity. Our review of the connection between rave definitions and the approaches scholars have used to study raves reveals important insights for sociological concepts and how political interests shape fields of inquiry. We contend that one’s definition of raves plays an important, but not singular, role in what issues are investigated, how raves are studied, and what concepts and ideas are advanced.
Historical Background. Raves have historically referred to grass-roots organized, anti-establishment and unlicensed all night dance parties, featuring electronically-produced dance music (EDM), such as techno, house, trance and drum and bass. Members of Generation X (the birth cohort born between 1965 and 1980- see Ulrich and Harris 2003) originated raves during the conservative eras of Thatcher in the U.K. and Reagan in the U.S. Many young “Gen-Xers” in the late 1980s and early 1990s responded to cultural tensions (e.g., conservatism versus liberalism and fears of economic alienation) by participating in raves (Collin 1997; Redhead 1993; Reynolds 1999). Raves gained cultural significance during the Majors/Blair and Clinton administrations of the 1990s. Rave culture developed with an alternative lifestyle that resisted mainstream conventions. Both the behaviors that took place at raves (e.g., illegal drug use, violation of noise and public gathering ordinances and other “deviant” behaviors) and the widespread popularity of them caused alarm among parents and policy-makers alike. Consequently, governments in the U.S. and U.K. tried to control raves through various social policies, due to concerns that Gen-Xers would fall victim to drugs and lawlessness (Hill 2002; Reynolds 1999). In the past, similar concerns about youth activities– especially those involving music and drugs– (e.g., jazz and marijuana or hippies, LSD, and cocaine) motivated government controls on drugs and the subcultures, scenes, or lifestyles that celebrated them (Cohen 1972; Goode and BenYehuda 1994; Hier 2002). Thus, by the late 1990s- when raves peaked in the U.S., social problems, drugs, and public health scholars were treating them as another troublesome matter to be controlled, rather than a meaningful cultural experience. Since their emergence, aspects of rave culture have spread beyond late-night parties to other types of settings, e.g., art galleries, social benefits, and chatrooms (Anderson 2007). Electronic dance music—raves’ primary cultural product-- has also emancipated from the rave scene and can now be found in leisure establishments, popular culture, and everyday life. For example, today you can regularly hear dance music in upscale city restaurants, at spin and aerobic classes, or as background music on video games. The events or parties themselves have also dramatically changed in form and style, departing significantly from their authentic form. Malbon (1999) and Thornton (1996) have detailed their modern commercial character, while Anderson (2007) has mapped raves’ variable forms between more authentic parties and highly commercial branded parties of today (see more below). Despite the expansion of rave culture in mainstream society, people like scene insiders, music industry professionals, or fans of electronic dance music seldom use the word “rave” today largely because the scene has declined or changed so dramatically. Those most likely to use the word “rave” do so for very different reasons: as a catchphrase to demarcate problematic behaviors they wish to eliminate. This latter contingency is made up of policy-makers, government professionals, and certain scholars who define raves differently than those who have been more closely connected to them. It is our contention that this distinction in definitions of what raves are (or were) has shaped what we know about this important youth-based music scene and how we can gauge its significance in society today. The sociological interest in raves and rave culture began in the U.K.– England specifically- with numerous book-length manuscripts documenting the origins and ascent of raves (see work by Redhead 1993; 1995; Collin 1997). Over time, rave research flourished in sociology and its related sub-fields of social problems, drugs and alcohol studies, criminology, adolescence and youth studies, and public health and wellness. We group sociological studies of raves into two broad substantive or conceptual traditions- cultural studies and public health - and describe below some of their conceptual contributions. We begin addressing our research objectives by reviewing how each tradition has defined raves and studied rave culture. This is because the sociological literature on raves and rave culture has not employed a uniform definition of raves, nor has it consistently addressed or acknowledged raves’ transformation over time. It is our contention that this variation has shaped how and what scholars have studied regarding raves and rave culture, resulting in disparate conceptual contributions to the discipline.
Cultural Studies and the Rave Scene The cultural studies literature views raves as a site of significant youth cultural identity and, at times, something tantamount to a social movement or alternative lifestyle (Hill 2002; Hitzler and Pfadenhauer 2002; Kosmicki 2001). Many cultural studies scholars (Malbon 1999; Bennett 2001; Thornton 1996; Anderson 2007) maintain that raves are more or less over in the U.S. and the U.K. or have merged with contemporary club culture. They have explored many conceptual issues in their rave research, including identity, alternative lifestyles, group membership, hedonism, subcultures, gender relations, and drug use. Anderson’s (2007) recent study of raves in the past and present advances these cultural studies’ definitions by identifying several components commonly used by participants to define raves or establish their “authenticity.” These components include ethos, social organization, identity markers, and norms and behaviors. Cultural studies’ focus on cultural elements helps account for claims that raves are over or have transformed into new varieties of EDM parties. The first component of a rave is its ethos or the beliefs and attitudes which give the rave scene its unique culture and identity (Anderson 2007). Raves had a distinctive ethos called “PLUR,” an acronym for peace, love, unity and respect (Reynolds 1998; Hutson 2000; Takahashi and Olaveson 2003). PLUR helped define ravers’ identity and derived from the 1960s-1970s era of liberalism, freedom of expression, tolerance, acceptance, and unity. Generation X ravers viewed this ethos as a closer approximation of a society in which they desired to live. Research has found the PLUR ethos was especially prominent in U.S. raves (see Kavanaugh and Anderson 2007), while those in England boasted something similar (Hutson 2000; Anderson 2007). A second distinguishing component of raves pertains to how they are organized. Raves are often described as being organized by insiders in a do-it-yourself (DIY), grass-roots fashion. Website postings, mobile phone messaging, and secret flyers inform people about parties and protect raves from police interference. Typically, raves are held at unlicensed venues, like warehouses, fields, or abandoned buildings in rural or isolated settings (Collin 1997; Hill 2002). These organizational features helped contribute to raves’ reputation as being deviant, because they were held in violation of laws for public gathering (e.g., licenses, insurance, noise, crowds). Such locations could also accommodate the massive crowds – another defining characteristic of raves. In fact, most of the early efforts to prevent or control raves were about violations of venue licensing and noise and crowd ordinances (Hill 2002; Measham et al. 2001; Redhead 1993). Raves’ organization included multiple rooms or tents hosting specific genres of music (e.g., break beat, hard house, techno, etc.) with DJs trading off every hour or so (Reynolds 1999). Thus, many types of EDM were available to participants at a single event. This musical organization followed raves’ ethos of diversity (in musical genres) acceptance and equity (between DJs who played at raves—see Anderson 2007). Contrary to raves from the past, these newer events typically host one genre and showcase a “main act”- a famous DJ (Anderson 2007; Herman 2006). Identity markers are symbols, including such things as language, style, props, gestures/mannerisms, even body shape and size, which demarcate what a collective stands for. Rave’s included baggy track or parachute pants, t-shirts with rave or anti-establishment messages, and comfortable shoes or trainers (sneakers). Bright and neon colors dominated. Rave props (e.g., neon bracelets, pacifiers, lollipops, and stuffed animals) not only completed the outfit, but earmarked an image consistent with the PLUR ethos, i.e., the celebration of a childlike existence that embraced a utopian society (Reynolds 1999; Takahashi and Olaveson 2003). Finally, raves had an alternative—if not deviant-- set of norms and behaviors. Dancing to electronically produced music– all night and into the early morning hours-- was the primary activity at a rave and identity markers (clothes and props) catered to it (Sylvan 2005; Takahashi and Olaveson 2003). Ravers danced individually, but in unison with others around them. Their dancing simultaneously embodied the values of independence and connection, running consistent with PLUR and raves’ collective identity (Anderson 2007). Related behaviors included hanging out and chatting with friends, often on the ground in small, intimate groups called “cuddle puddles,” as opposed to courtship activities common to other types of music events. That raves did not value sexual courting and conquest is logical with the PLUR ethos, but is yet another factor that rendered them somewhat strange to mainstream “socializing” venues of both the past and present (Reynolds 1999; Malbon 1999; McRobbie 1994; Redhead 1993). Both the extensive dancing and absence of “hooking” up activities were facilitated, by what many believe to be rave’s defining element: the use of illegal drugs such as ecstasy, acid, ketamine and GHB (the so-called club drugs). Ecstasy, the flagship rave drug, is a synthetically produced psychedelic and stimulant (ONDCP 2004). Its psychedelic properties produce positive affective states which many believe responsible for influencing solidarity at raves (see Kavanaugh and Anderson 2007 for a discussion of this literature). On the other hand, ecstasy’s stimulant qualities provided energy for the all-night dancing and socializing. The cultural studies claim that raves have died off typically refers to how the content and form of these cultural elements and raves’ social organization has been altered over time. Also discussed is the decline in more “authentic” raves and modern EDM events (especially in the U.S.), and the loss of rave culture’s influence on popular culture. For example, Anderson (2007) found, in Philadelphia, that raves have evolved into a variable electronic dance music (EDM) scene with six basic types of parties located somewhere between the original or authentic raves of the 1980-90s and today’s commercial club events. Malbon (1999) and Thornton (1996) have noted a commercial alteration of raves in form and organization in the UK as well. To sum up, EDM events today have varying degrees of allegiance to rave culture and showcase unique styles in mostly genre-specific sub-scenes. Massive events with multiple genres and many DJs are now commercial brands, leaving very little space for the DIY, grassroots raves from the past. Thus, the present state of the EDM scene features a merger of rave culture with routine club culture or what Anderson (2007) calls a “rave-club culture continuum.” Conceptual Advances from Cultural Studies of Raves. The cultural studies approach is a wide-ranging, eclectic mix of scholarship that, broadly speaking, has used raves as a site to examine numerous aspects of youth culture in contemporary modern society. Much of this work portrays raves and rave culture as rooted in an intense sense of community and empathy for others, and has functioned, in part, as means for renegotiating and exploring gender roles (McRobbie 1994; Pini 1997) and establishing cultural capital (Thornton 1996) or personal and social identity (Hollands 2002; Pourtau 2002; Siokou 2002). It is also portrayed as a site where deep personal realizations and transformations occur (Gaillot 2001). Other cultural studies work has portrayed raves as a kind of quasi-social movement (Hill 2002; Hitzler and Pfadenhauer 2002) with a new form of countercultural ideology (Hill 2002; Kosmicki 2001). Collectively, cultural studies work on raves has advanced several sociological concepts, including youth identity, resistance, deviant subcultures, tribes, and scenes. Below we review these conceptual contributions from rave research.
Youth Identity and Resistance. In general, cultural studies scholarship asserts that the feelings of connectedness and meaning promoted by rave culture functions as a sort of release and therapy for contemporary youth who are alienated from modern society (Tomlinson 1998). Rave culture is viewed from a structural perspective, with members of the working class participating in symbolic resistance of mainstream capitalist societies by adopting behavior that challenges status quo (see Brake 1985 and Hall and Jefferson 1976). However, rave culture’s potential as a politically-oriented and class-based kind of social movement has been questioned (Hutson 2000). Its status as a bona-fide countercultural youth movement has been questioned as well, with scholars arguing that rave culture has significantly more in common with mainstream society than is often claimed (see Goulding and Shankar 2004; Hutson 2000; Thornton 1996). That is, rave participants were often from the middle or upper-middle classes and were avid consumers of modern capitalism’s cultural products (clothing and fashion, music, television and film, etc.). Furthermore, the content of raves’ political message was one of apathy. The culture was not geared toward social change. Primary goals were, instead, focused on resistance through indifference and creating an alternative social world that opposed mainstream or parent cultures. Similar organizing principles have been found among other contemporary youth groups (see Gottschalk 1993).
Drug use was also an important part of this resistance, and recent cultural studies research has considered the presence and meaning of drug-taking in rave culture. Scholars have found that drug use in the rave and EDM scenes often has a positive, stabilizing function for participants (Hitzler 2002; Moore and Miles 2004) and that drug use is often an important part of both personal and social identity formation (Salasuo and Seppala 2004; Ter Bogt et al. 2002; Ter Bogt and Engels 2005; Kavanaugh and Anderson 2008). Additional research has examined how drug use and abstinence among rave participants is linked to psychological factors such as personality type (Ter Bogt, Engels, and Dubas 2006). Participants manage their drug use or use their agency to form smaller, autonomous EDM scenes organized around principles that de-emphasize drug-taking (Kavanaugh and Anderson 2008).
Furthermore, participation in rave-related drug use is often a means of achieving ethic identity and cultural interaction among certain demographic groups (Hunt et al. 2005). Other scholars have been critical of federal policy, addressing how rave’s association with drug use has inhibited the development of a mostly benign youth subculture (Critcher 2000; Glover 2003; Hier 2002; Luckman 1998; Sachdev 2004). While addressing the connection between raves and drugs, therefore, the cultural studies perspective has attempted to “normalize” drug-taking in this culture and illustrate that such use often has social and personal benefits.
Deviant Subcultures, Tribes, and Scenes. Scholars such as Knutagard (1996), Melechi (1993), Redhead (1993, 1995), Reynolds (1999) and Rietveld (1993) have used raves’ association with drugs as a platform to critique modern youth cultures, portraying them as a hedonistic and deviant subculture without broader substantive meaning. The rave subculture celebrates and encourages excessive drug use, they contend, even while providing a venue to escape the trappings of contemporary capitalist society (e.g., Thornton 1996; Tomlinson 1998; etc.). These scholars essentially use an evolved “deviant subculture” approach, fusing earlier elements of subcultural theory with more postmodern notions of raves as places of leisure, and hedonism. Instead of political or social resistance, the main purpose of rave culture was simply drug consumption and individual abandonment (Melechi 1993; Reitveld 1993; Redhead 1993, 1995). Rave subcultures were portrayed merely as novel forms of depoliticized play in a growing postmodern pleasuredome. In short, it became apparent that in modern society youth subcultures were not always comprised of homogeneous, geographically isolated groups hailing from the lower classes. In a sense then, rave scholarship marked the beginning of the end of using income-based measures of social class as a hallmark of subcultural involvement.
Other contemporary cultural studies work (Bennett 1999, 2001; Muggleton 2002; Malbon 1999) also fits comfortably within the “raves as postmodern subcultures” perspective. However, this work is also different in three important respects: 1) this scholarship has made a concerted attempt to move toward a fieldwork, data-driven approach, while maintaining rich theoretical insights (Bennett 1999, 2002; Malbon 1999), 2) it places less emphasis on the structurally-based narratives of prior work (such as Brake 1985; Hall and Jefferson 1976), and 3) it eschewed discussions of raves as a site for decadent drug use in favor of addressing the intersecting issues of locality, change, music trends and newly emerging music genres, peer networks, and style.
Bennett (1999, 2001, 2002) and Malbon (1999), for example, moved beyond the notion of the “deviant subculture” in describing rave culture, as the concept of subculture has come to imply a static social group with social class connotations. They reasoned that rave-related “subcultral groups” existed across class lines. Both Bennett and Malbon used Maffesoli’s (1996) concept of the tribe, or neo-tribe, to describe these youth groupings. They believe this term more appropriately describes youth-based rave culture, as well as other youth-based cultural groups, where membership is often temporal and fleeting, and – even for the most intensely committed participants – more fluid and dynamic. Their work has examined tribal associations within rave culture, arguing that the nature of these groups is constantly changing, emerging in certain geographic locations while receding in others, and generally, is in need of being re-defined. Similar organizing principles have been found in other peripheral youth groups (Gottschalk 1993). Such groups are postmodern in the sense that they are fragmented, heterogeneous, and more ephemeral, but still modern in their commitment to freedom and self expression (Bennett 1999, 2001; Muggleton 2002). This has subsequently prompted scholarly discussion of rave culture as a “scene,” (Bennett 2001; Bennett and Peterson 2004) with more recent studies of localized rave and EDM scenes detailing the cultural forces leading to its transformation (Anderson 2007) and alterations in things such as identity and solidarity (Kavanaugh and Anderson 2008).
Public Health Perspectives and Rave-Related Risks A second and significantly different approach to raves focuses on matters of public health, such as drug-related risks and consequences. It employs a very simple definition of raves, one that downplays raves’ cultural content or significance. Given this focus on negative behaviors, the public health definition of raves and rave culture is much more parsimonious than the cultural studies’ definition and can be stated succinctly. Simply put, a rave is any all-night dance party where techno, trance or other electronic dance music is played and drugs like ecstasy, GHB, and Ketamine are consumed (see ONDCP 2004). This definition focuses on public health scholars’ concerns with “risky” behaviors that take place at raves, defining raves by their problematic behaviors. Given this definition, the public health approach sees little difference between modern day EDM events and more “authentic” raves from the past. It doesn’t rely on rave’s ethos, identity, or lifestyle to explain the phenomenon. Instead, scholars adopting a public health type of approach view raves as a drug subculture, a dangerous social context for the young, and an urgent drug problem requiring extensive investigation and local and national policy. It may be that this behavioral definition of raves and the pursuit of federal funding for club drugs research, leads public health scholars to indirectly endorse the political ensnarement of raves in the U.S. War on Drugs. This is a point we return to below. Conceptual Advances from Public Health Rave Research. Since public health approaches to raves revolve around understanding negative outcomes or behaviors, or what social scientists call dependent variables, scholars have used raves to elucidate concepts about drug-related risks and consequences. This includes documenting patterns of risky behaviors across various demographic groups; gender, race/ethnicity, social class.
Rave - related Risk. Public health scholars most often adopt a “culture of risk” approach when studying raves. This perspective is dominant in the US, and has been increasing in the UK (Riley et al. 2001; Sherlock and Conner 1999), Europe (Van de Wijnaart et al. 1999), Australia (Topp et al. 1999), and Asia (Laidler 2005). The culture of risk approach is minimally theoretical and heavily quantitative. It adopts a strict epidemiological framework and provides concrete policy suggestions. Research using this approach has portrayed raves as a dangerous drug subculture or “hot-spot” for drug use and other criminal and deviant behavior. Drug use is portrayed as the defining characteristic of the rave scene. Subsequently, researchers focus on documenting patterns of use and various risky behaviors associated with it.
The epidemiological focus of this drug-centered rave research has documented the demographic profiles of club drug users and their use patterns (Bellis et al. 2003; Boys, Lenton, and Norcross 1997; Kelly, Hammersley et al. 1999; Kelley, Parsons, and Wells 2006; Lua et al. 2003; McCaughan et al. 2005; Riley et al. 2001; Yacoubian, Deutsch and Schumacher 2004), the extent of drug use at EDM events (Irvine et al. 2006; Miller et al. 2005; Soellner 2005; Sterk, Theall, and Elifson 2006; Yacoubian et al. 2003; Yacoubian et al. 2004), and the validity of self-reported drug use (Yacoubian and Wish 2006; Zhao et al. 2001). Drug supply and availability at rave events (Forsyth 1996; Schensul et al. 2005) has also been addressed. Researchers have also examined specific risk issues such as driving while intoxicated (Degenhardt et al. 2006; Duff and Rowland 2006; Furr-Holden et al. 2006), poly-substance abuse (Barrett et al. 2005; Miller et al. 2005), sexual promiscuity and the risk of acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (Fidler 1996; McElrath 2005; Novoa et al. 2005; Theall, Elifson, and Sterk 2006), life management and interpersonal problems (Krebs and Steffey 2005; Levy et al. 2005; Topp et al. 1999), and dependence and addiction (Yacoubian, Deutsch, and Schumacher 2004). Some work has specified recommendations for clinical and medical personnel in managing complications among club drugs-using ravers (Ricaurte and McCann 2005; Rome 2001), or has offered case studies of individuals who became seriously ill from using drugs at rave events (Cherney, Davids, and Halperin 2002).
More recent scholarship on risk in the rave scene has attempted to show that rave attendees and “club kids” are not merely hedonistic thrill-seekers who exhibit a complete disregard for their physical and mental health. Conversely, rave attendees are often aware of the dangers posed by the use of ecstasy and other club drugs. They are responsible, knowledgeable users, who manage drug-related risks through a variety of techniques, including personal experience and the development of expansive social networks (Perrone 2006). This also involves acquiring extensive knowledge of the substances being consumed (ecstasy, ketamine, etc.), through both “professional” (internet, medical reports, etc.) and informal (peers, knowledge of others’ negative experiences) sources (Kelly 2005; Perrone 2006). Knowledge of drug effects subsequently allows users to develop tactics or take measures to reduce negative effects of rave-related drug use, and focus on the positive outcomes (Perrone 2006, 2007).
Drug Abuse Concepts. Scholars using public health approaches to study raves have also contributed knowledge to definitions of drug use and abuse. For example, clinical research in the psychiatric and medical sciences focuses on the possible impacts to psychopathology and other mental and physical and health problems from drug use at raves. These studies are not all sociological analyses but are nonetheless an important part of the academic conversation on raves. This research claims that using ecstasy at raves can result in mental and emotional problems such as anxiety, memory loss, depression, paranoia, nausea, and dehydration (Bolla, McCann, and Ricuarte 1998; Carlson et al. 2004; Green et al. 2003; Parks and Kennedy 2004; Parrott 2004; Parrott et al. 2006; Verheyden, Maidment, and Curran 2003). While the dangers are present for ecstasy users in general, the particular context of use at raves is believed to exacerbate these problems, due to the focus on frenzied, all-night dancing, and presumed lack of proper hydration and nutrition. More serious drug abuse complications have also been investigated, including drug-related deaths at raves (Brown, Jarvie, and Simpson 1995; Garcia-Repetto et al. 2003; Gill et al. 2002; Karlovsek, Alibegović, and Balažic 2005), the toxicity and design of drugs used at, or seized from, raves (Camilleri and Caldicott 2005; Irvine et al. 2006; Mejias et al. 2005), and the “hedonistic potential” of rave drugs such as ecstasy (Nencini 2002).
As previously noted, these studies downplay most substantive elements of rave culture, focusing instead on the effects and consequences of drugs. One result of this may be an overemphasis on the effects of club-drug use among ravers, as other studies show ecstasy and other club drugs use at raves is on the decline, or at least, not as common as it was during the “peak” of rave culture in the mid to late 1990s (Anderson et al. 2007; Murphy et al. 2005). The current scene features, instead, a greater mix of drug use, with alcohol and cocaine use becoming more common (Murphy et al. 2005). Furthermore, when public health research has considered the possibility of positive effects resulting from drug use, its social significance is generally believed to result from the pharmacological properties of ecstasy (Mosler 2001). In our view, it is likely that the public health emphasis on negative consequences and drug effects disallows serious consideration of any positive experiences occurring from drug use in the rave scene (Cole, Sumnall, and Grob 2002).
Raves as “Hot Spots” for Crime. Public health scholars have conceptualized raves as a “hot spot” for crime and victimization. Attention is given to ways to curb, eliminate, or punish illegal behavior in rave settings. Clinical research detailing the dangers of ecstasy and other club drug use is often cited in the crime prevention literature, in an attempt to inform police how to identify persons under the influence of drugs (Streit 2001) and actions that can be taken to diffuse potential problems (Marshall 2000). The focus on raves as “hot spots” has detailed macro-level club drug use and trafficking trends, aimed at equipping police practitioners with the information necessary to target problem areas such as raves (Johnson 2001; Mosler 2001; Lee and Paterline 2006). Research has studied the effectiveness of drug use prevention programs at raves and among rave participants, such as DanceSafe (Dundes 2003), and more localized school-based efforts (Weimer 2003). Although the methods of prevention covered may be substantially different (law enforcement-based vs. school-based), in general, the overall thrust of the scholarship is the same: raves are “hot spots” for dangerous behavior that must be effectively controlled or stamped out.
Scholars focused on crime-reduction claim that the sale of drugs at raves is connected to gang activity, producing high risk for violence (Valdez 2002). For example, the D.E.A. claims the ecstasy market is controlled mainly by Russian and Israeli syndicates in both Europe and the U.S. (DEA 2000). While the violence associated with drug sales at rave events has been a concern to practitioners and policy-makers, other research has found that drug sales and use revolves mainly around informal peer and friendship networks, and in general, is somewhat smaller in scale (Anderson et al. 2007; Murphy et al. 2005; Sanders 2005). Thus, there is contradictory evidence regarding the dangers of drug sales at rave and EDM events, with more recent research suggesting that the problem large-scale drug markets and violence may have been overstated.
To sum up, the public health emphasis on the negative consequences associated with rave culture focuses a disproportionate amount of attention on the demographics of drug use and other risky behaviors, at the expense of broader sociological issues articulated by cultural studies work. One reason for this has to do with how raves are defined by those operating within the public health discourse. Raves are dangerous social contexts where a series of problematic behaviors and risk-taking - common to other youth-based social groups in past decades - provide impetus for investigation and coordinated social and political action. Currently, the public health approach enjoys widespread dominance both in the U.S. and abroad, whereas work in the cultural studies tradition is confined mostly to a small group of scholars in the U.K. and Europe. Aside from a small number of studies articulating the benefits or possible positive consequences of drug use for rave participants, it is likely that this intellectual gap will remain. In concluding section of our paper, we discuss the reasons for this.
Research on raves was launched in the early 1990s via a strong U.K. tradition in conceptual and qualitative research on youth culture, identity, resistance and alternative lifestyles. The geographic location of early rave research makes sense, since the scene originated in England with Acid House parties in the late 1980s. It is surprising, therefore, that U.K. scholarship on raves would give way to a more public health approach focused on drug use and related social consequences over time. The trend indicates that scholarly interest in raves is becoming increasingly problematized around drugs, deviance and related social consequences even in those nations with more cultural traditions or which adopt very different approaches to illegal drug use, i.e., the U.K. employs a harm reduction approach to substance abuse while the U.S. wages a punitive one via its war on drugs. By the early 21st century, the rave literature had expanded dramatically, just after raves had peaked in the U.S. and U.K. and were in massive transformation and decline (Anderson 2007). Several compelling patterns in rave research materialized in the early 21st century. To begin, studies conducted in the U.S. are almost exclusively public health and drugs oriented. They have focused on the improved understanding of such public health concepts as risk, substance abuse and consequences, crime hot spots, and related social problems. Even though U.S. studies of raves lagged behind those in the U.K. and Europe during the 1990s, they have blossomed dramatically in the 21st century, following rave’s peak and, perhaps, raves and club drug’s inclusion in federal war on drugs legislation. The focus on raves as a public health issue follows from a long tradition in the U.S. of problematizing youth and adolescence. In the U.S., many social problems, especially those related to substance abuse, have considerable public and private institutional apparatus and resources vested in addressing them. Thus, alternative social worlds that feature young people and drug use are widely perceived as a potential drug epidemic and targeted as a new battle in a persistent war on drugs.
This paper investigated a fundamental claim about how competing definitions of raves have shaped inquiry into rave culture, set conceptual agendas, and produced subsequent sociological contributions. Our review of cultural studies and public health definitions of raves signified the conceptual contributions each approach has made, to date, from the study of raves and rave culture. Briefly, by defining raves as an alternative cultural entity and meaningful youth phenomenon, the cultural studies perspective has advanced the sociological literature on youth identity, resistance, and drug abuse as well as deviant subcultures, scenes, and tribes. The more parsimonious public health definition of raves as long, dangerous, drug parties where participants are at high risk for health consequences has, on the contrary, advanced our understanding of risk, drug use, abuse and consequence, and hot spots of crime and victimization. Furthermore, we have shown here that the public health approach has gained considerable momentum over time and across country. What explains these variable definitions and the shift in approaches to raves? One explanation for the trend toward public health approaches to raves could be that many cultural studies scholars have concluded that the rave era is over, for the most part, leaving little for further investigation. Again, this conclusion gets back to the definition of raves used by the public health and cultural studies paradigms. As indicated above, when raves are defined simply as long-hour parties with drug use, then many contemporary nightclub parties meet that definition, justifying continued public health inquiry. However, if something is defined by a wide range of cultural components and those components have been significantly altered or diminished (Anderson 2007; Bennett 2001; Malbon 1999), there may be little remaining of that entity – raves—to study. The main reason for changes in rave research over time, we believe, has something to do with politics about youth, deviance and drugs. More specifically, global and nation-specific politics about illegal drug use have increasingly defined raves as a public health matter requiring social control. For example, the anti-rave movement in the UK, but especially in the U.S., started at the community level, both in the U.S. and England with non-drug related policies. Cities, towns and villages passed ordinances designed to regulate rave activity (Collin 1997; Hill 2000; Anderson 2007). Early law enforcement efforts in U.S. enforced juvenile curfews, fire codes, safety ordinances, liquor licenses, for large public gatherings. As raves’ popularity and drug use grew, officials adopted more punitive policies, especially in the U.S. New laws were passed to control drug use and consequences at raves. For example, U.S. legislators have acted swiftly and harshly (implementing new and tougher laws, broadening law enforcement powers, and stiffer penalties for violators) to the rave scene, working to situate it within the War on Drugs. Initially, official data supported their position. The 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman 2003a) revealed more than half a million people (676,000) reported using ecstasy in the past month. This is about four and a half times the number of current heroin users. The survey showed ecstasy is more prevalent than heroin among the general U.S. population, with the largest group of users falling between 18 and 25 years of age. High school data are even more troublesome (Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman 2003b). Still, these numbers are dramatically smaller than comparable figures for alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. While it is impossible to ascertain how much of ecstasy and other club drugs (e.g., GHB, Ketamine, Rohypnol) is taken at dance events or by those involved in some aspect of the scene, raves and EDM have clearly taken the heat for it in the U.S. The early 21st century experienced an anti-rave movement, led by social control policies of state and federal governments. Congress and the White house passing several laws to break up the scene and control club drug use. The Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000 would increase penalties for the sale and use of club drugs. In 2003 and after numerous legal challenges, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, or the “Rave Act,” would make it a felony to provide a space for the purpose of illegal drug use. It was intended to cover the promoters of raves and other dance events. This controversial piece of legislation adjusts the wording of so-called crack house law to cover temporary locations instead of fixed locations, thus equating the ecstasy culture with that of the crack culture. The U.S. is not alone in passing drug-related anti-rave legislation. For example, the U.K. passed the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1987 and the Criminal Justice Act in 1994. Both laws targeted raves and drug use. Laws like these accomplish many things, including re-focusing academic inquiry to matters covered by the new legislation. Subsequently, money is provided to researchers to investigate and help eliminate “problems;” things like risk, substance abuse, and crime. Thus, scholars seeking government funding for research projects focus on the problems (i.e., drugs and drug-related behaviors) of particular scenes rather than on their culture. Consequently, the new research projects are often oriented around certain questions, many of which are about the “who, what, how much, and when” of illegal drug use and other negative activities. What is lost or gained by the global shift toward public health research in the area of raves and raves culture? Are there any implications for broader sociological ideas and the issues related to them? One consequence may be unequal future attention to the numerous concepts discussed here. For instance, U.S. scholar’s definition of raves as a public health matter and the recent U.K., European, and Asian shift from cultural studies inquiry to public health research suggests that the concepts of risk, substance abuse, and hot spots (or other situational concepts of deviance) will be advanced in future rave or other related music scene or youth culture research. Given the current trends, it is less certain that future research on raves or the electronic dance music scene will contribute much more to youth culture and identity, resistance, subculture, scenes or tribes. A second consequence could be that if societies, institutions, and scholars continue to reduce cultural phenomena to problematic behaviors, trivialize youth identity and resistance as wanton opposition, they might just forfeit cultural innovation, identity creation, social and scientific progress, and human fulfillment. This has been the trajectory in research on raves, rave culture and, unfortunately, far too many youth cultural collectives or alternative social worlds in the U.S. and elsewhere. The future will likely bring other advances and omissions from the increasingly public health focus on raves. Such contributions and omissions will also impact the broader field of sociology, especially in matters regarding youth culture, identity, resistance, deviance, hedonism and risk etc. These are matters we hope readers will consider with a wide-range of scholarly inquiry. In closing, we believe that research on rave and EDM culture – and sociological inquiry more generally would benefit best from a well-rounded conceptual and analytical focus on all of the cultural, social, political and economic aspects of any social world, scene, or lifestyle.


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