Swagger, Ratings and Masculinity: Theorising the Circulation of Social and Cultural Value in Teenage Boys' Digital Peer Networks

by Laura Harvey, Jessica Ringrose and Rosalind Gill
Brunel University

Sociological Research Online, 18 (4) 9

Received: 15 Feb 2013     Accepted: 13 Jun 2013    Published: 30 Nov 2013


This paper seeks to disrupt sensationalist racialised and classed media accounts of the youth looting in the 2011 London riots. It draws upon research on young people's uses of mobile digital technology, including social networking sites like Facebook and Blackberry Messenger to understand the performance of contemporary teenage masculinities. Developing the work of Beverly Skeggs, we demonstrate how value circulates in young people's digital peer networks. We analyse how images of designer goods and labels that signify wealth are used on social networking sites to embody cool masculine 'swagger' and attain popularity 'ratings', which we theorise as forms of social and cultural capital that circulate in the peer networks. Interview narratives also illustrate that the construction of online value must be verified in boys' offline lives; and we show how teenage boys are negotiating power relationships and peer hierarchies online, at school and in their neighbourhoods. We argue that an analysis of symbolic value in digital contexts and in embodied everyday life helps in understanding new regulative formations of gender and masculinity in late-modern, globalised contexts of youth identity construction. In this way, our findings and analysis directly challenge the simplistic public discourses of 'feral' and 'mindless' youthful masculinities depicted in the UK media representations of the London riots, providing more complex insights into the construction of contemporary teenage masculinities.


1.1 In the aftermath of the 2011 riots in England, voices in mainstream political and media discourse were quick to dismiss the events as motivated by criminality (see Reicher & Stott 2011 for an analysis of this framing of the riots). References to the 'looting'[1] that took place in some areas were used to reject claims that the riots were related to economic austerity, structural racism and social inequalities. In a Newsnight interview, UK historian and television presenter David Starkey described the riots as 'shopping with violence' (The Telegraph 2011), while Kit Malthouse, the deputy mayor for policing in London, characterised those involved in the riots as 'feral youth' who 'fancy a new pair of trainers' (BBC 2011), and videos of people taking branded trainers and electrical goods from shops circulated online. The widespread reporting of the role of mobile technologies and social networking such as Blackberry Messenger (BBM) and Twitter in the rioting and looting reflected dominant discourses about young people and technologies, which are often framed in gendered terms in relation to risk and crime (see for example Williams 2011). Moreover, notoriously, arrests and indeed convictions, were made on the basis of apparent endorsements of rioting made on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. However, as the articles in this special issue highlight, the riots were much more complex than these representations allow. These papers attend to questions of racial profiling, community policing and rising inequalities as factors that fed into the riots, positioning them as multiple events across different geographical sites, rather than a singular phenomenon that can be simply explained.

1.2 It is in the context of this commitment to complexity that we situate our exploration of the role of technology, social media and consumption practices in the lives of a group of young people living in London at the time of the riots. We focus our analysis on how the boys in our sample negotiated value online and offline in their peer network through a system of 'ratings' and the performance of 'swagger'. While the question of youth engagement with emerging technologies and consumption receives a great deal of public attention, young people's voices are often missing from these debates. This can lead to the dominance of overly simplistic, pathologising accounts of young people such as those that dominated the headlines during the riots. Our research found that young people had rather more complex relationships to social media and consumer labels, which played an important role in the negotiation of their identities and the circulation of social value within their peer networks and local areas. Our data contributes to sociological understandings of youth cultures (for example Willis 1990; Buckingham & Bragg 2004; Nayak & Kehily 2007; Archer et al. 2007; Ringrose 2012) and sheds light on the context in which looting of consumer goods took place in London.

1.3 While the role of looting in the 2011 riots has only begun to be explored, research with those involved and initial analysis of the characteristics of the riots at different sites suggests a complicated range of issues that contributed to the practice of looting. Looting has been explored as a form of protest against inequality and the profits of big businesses, opportunism at a time when police were occupied elsewhere, and an attack on symbols of wealth (Roberts 2011; Reicher & Stott 2011). Young people have also discussed the pressures they face to wear particular kinds of brands despite the context of rising economic inequality (Roberts 2011). This paper, while not explicitly addressing the role of looting in the riots, presents an exploratory analysis that provides important and frequently missing context to this last question, by looking at how boys in our sample made sense of and negotiated norms of masculinity in their online and offline lives. We argue that consumer goods should not just be understood as commodities – they function socially and culturally in the construction, and regulation and performance of identities (see also Casey 2013; Jensen 2013). As such, our analysis seeks to move away from sensationalist and moralising representations of boys' identities, and rather explore their everyday experiences of negotiating global and local norms of masculinities, in which capitalism, technologies and shifting practices of self-formation are entangled.

1.4 Our paper draws on qualitative research conducted with 35 young people aged 12–15 in comprehensive schools in two inner-city boroughs in London between June and August 2011, and thus spans the period during which the riots took place. The sample consisted of 18 boys and 17 girls, of whom 23 were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and 12 were from white backgrounds. 18 participants were aged 12–13 and 17 were aged 14–15. The project set out to explore young people's use of digital technology, looking in particular at questions of risk and safety in relation to their mobile communication.[2] Taking part in interviews and focus groups, we asked young people to 'walk us through' their online and mobile phone practices, combining this with ethnographic observation of young people's online interactions, in which young people were invited to connect with us on Facebook for a three month period during the research project.

1.5 What is significant, in terms of understanding the riots, is the way that images, particularly those of designer consumer labels, had value within our participants' online and offline peer networks and local areas, and related importantly to the construction of particular forms of femininity and masculinity. In this paper we analyse the gendered ways that value circulated through the images posted and tagged, examining hierarchies of power and popularity in which value was attributed to particular norms of behaviour, style and access to cultural goods such as designer commodities that signified wealth. We analyse how this related to the circulation of value in the boys' offline lives, highlighting the interrelationship between their online and offline worlds. Drawing on and developing Beverly Skeggs' (2004a; Skeggs & Woods 2012) work on the circulation of value through visual culture, we explore how the production, tagging and circulation of images through mobile online technologies works to construct and regulate particular classed and racialised norms of popular masculinity. We show how an analysis of the operation of value can contribute to sociological explorations of the context of the riots, challenging the public discourses of 'feral' and 'mindless' masculinities outlined above and providing insight into the construction of contemporary gender identities.

Neoliberal masculinities

2.1 Our approach to the construction of masculinities draws on work in sociology and social psychology that sees gender not as an essential characteristic but as something which is socially constructed through everyday interactions, discourses and institutions (Butler 1993; Mac an Ghaill 1994; Edley & Wetherell 1995; Kimmel 2004; Connell 2005). As such, we approach masculinities as historically and culturally situated practices that people do rather than something that people have (Butler 1993; Edley & Wetherell 1995; Kimmel 2004). These practices are shaped through social structures of power in relation to 'race', class, sexuality and gender (Edley & Wetherell 1995). Connell influentially argued that a system of 'hegemonic masculinity' regulates power among men and defines intelligible forms of masculine subjectivity (2005: xviii). This framework has been applied in research with boys and young men to explore the construction of masculinities within peer groups, examining this process as one of ongoing negotiation within the context of social constraints (e.g. Epstein 2001; Frosh et al. 2003). As Frosh et al argue:
This is not to say that boys and men create themselves out of nothing, in any way they wish. Rather, there are popular and culturally specific ways of positioning boys and men which, for example, emphasise their toughness and propensity for 'action', whether it be harmless, responsible or disruptive. (Frosh et al. 2003: 3)

2.2 Boys are often framed within policy and mainstream media discourse in relation to questions of toughness, violence and crime, positioned as targets for social and educational intervention (Archer & Yamashita 2003: 115; Frosh et al. 2003). Within this context, boys have been represented as problematic and risky, subject to a 'crisis in masculinity' (Archer & Yamashita 2003). Such representations are often framed in terms of class and 'race'. In the wake of the riots, racist discourses circulated throughout mainstream media sources, which framed the riots in relation to 'a problem with black young men' (Phoenix & Phoenix 2012: 65) positioned as a homogeneous group. Phoenix and Phoenix's (2012: 63) analysis of the media representation of the riots signals how the persistence of 'new racist cultural arguments' relies on a particularly gendered construction of 'race' (see also Bassel 2013). Our paper focuses on the construction of popular young masculinities, however it is important to note that the riots and the 'looting' also involved girls and young women. As Ringrose (2012) has argued elsewhere, girls' participation in the riots was positioned in public discourse as evidence of increasing levels of female violence. Ringrose (2012) argues that 'riot girls' defy the neoliberal construction of successful femininity, thus becoming positioned as failed or abject femininities. The media discourses that surrounded the riots were thus profoundly gendered.

2.3 This study is situated within a wider body of work which has sought to make sense of the operation of neoliberal ideology in everyday life (Miller & Rose 2007; McRobbie 2009;Gill & Scharff 2011;Ringrose 2012). The shifting foundations of the labour market through deindustrialisation and increasing participation of women have contributed to a shift in gender relations in which boys and men are negotiating what is a complicated psychosocial terrain of masculinities (Back 1996; Frosh et al. 2003: 2; Walkerdine 2012). In this context, the languages of market economics and entrepreneurialism permeate throughout political, educational, employment and intimate spheres (Tyler 2004; Miller & Rose 2007), in which individualism and self-work have increasingly become markers of successful neoliberal citizenship, and unemployment and poverty are framed as issues of personal responsibility, rather than inequalities related to labour markets and economic policy (Skeggs 2004b: 78). Such moral positioning of self-work has also extended to questions of intimate life and the body, in which boys and men are increasingly becoming subject to self-disciplining discourses of bodily appearance (Kehler & Atkinson 2010; Drummond 2011). It is in this context of gendered norms of behaviour and appearance that we explore the hierarchies of value in boys' own accounts of their online and offline lives. In the following section we will outline the critical theoretical approach we have taken in exploring the relational production of masculinities and classed and racialised inequalities.

Theorising capital, use and exchange value

3.1 The production and circulation of images within the peer group seemed to play an important role in the performance and regulation of masculinity among the boys in our sample. In order to make sense of this process, we have drawn on Skeggs' work on the cultural construction of class, gender and 'race', working in particular with her conceptualisation of how value is attributed, circulated and exchanged through social relationships (Skeggs 2004a, 2004b; Skeggs & Wood 2012). Skeggs (2004a: 6) theorises the construction of the self as a discursive process, in which particular kinds of selves are made possible or excluded through systems of knowledge, which are mediated by, but also reproduce and transform, social and historical relationships of power and inequality. In doing so, Skeggs draws on Foucauldian (1972, 1979, 2002) perspectives on the relationship between discourse, knowledge, power and subjects; and builds on Bourdieu's (1977, 1984, 1986; Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992) work on economic, cultural and symbolic capital.

3.2 Bourdieu's (1986) theorisation of different forms of capital has been employed and developed by sociologists exploring the construction of class, and the reproduction of class inequalities (e.g. Henderson et al. 2007). Skeggs (2004a: 16) critiques and builds on Bourdieu's classifications of capital, developing a theorisation of different systems of value that operate in particular social contexts. While Bourdieu conceptualises cultural capital as access to forms of high culture, such as opera and theatre, Skeggs argues that the value of culture varies across different social contexts. For example, in analysing interview data about the existence of 'hen parties' in Manchester's 'gay village', Skeggs examines how engaging in beauty practices can be understood as a form of cultural capital for working class women in some contexts, but can also come to signify immorality, tastelessness, and be read as having no value within the broader, dominant cultural discourse (2004a: 169). Skeggs thus explores how particular kinds of representations come to have symbolic value in different social contexts, and how particular bodies become inscribed, or marked as having certain kinds of characteristics. Skeggs provides the example of the inscription of 'black working-classness' as cool, highlighting the unequal access that black and white bodies have to value from such representations, with white bodies inscribed in different ways in relation to the historical equation of cool with criminality (2004a: 2). The value that can be claimed from particular representations of 'black working-classness' is thus highly contextual, with vastly different potentials for exchange value in local compared to national or more dominant cultural economies (see also Mckenzie 2013). Skeggs positions these processes of exchange as a mode of class-formation, in which class, 'race', gender and inequalities are made and remade through struggle and negotiation (2004a: 5).

3.3 In this paper we draw on this theoretical framework to explore how value circulated in the online and offline networks of our participants. The increasing availability of the Internet and reduced cost of access to smartphones such as Blackberries facilitate new processes of representation, interaction and circulation, in which social networking sites offer the possibility for users to create content that can be distributed widely and archived online. We focus specifically on the role of images in the production of popular or hegemonic masculinities, exploring the different forms and sites of value exchange available to the boys in our sample, and examining how an understanding of these might help to illuminate the complex phenomenon of 'rioting'. We ask; what kinds of relationships and sites of exchange enable the boys to acquire value from particular kinds of images? How does this value circulate in the boys' online and offline lives? Can these processes of exchange be understood to produce classed, gendered and racialised selves? In doing so, we provide an empirical account of young masculinities that troubles the pathologising discourses that circulated during and after the riots. A focus on the relationships of exchange and situated production of masculinities also offers a productive analytical approach that can contend with the complexity of the lives of 'riotous' subjects.

3.4 The analysis is divided into four sections that take as their departure point the boys' own terms, 'ratings' and 'swagger', to analyse the ways in which these were mediated digitally, and negotiated in relation to a complex social and economic geographies that could be said to operate both on-line and offline. The teenagers in our study lived in communities that were affected by rioting, and attended schools marked by relatively high levels of deprivation (as indexed, for example, by entitlement to free school meals). Whilst we do not attempt to locate individuals according to their socio-economic status, it should be clear that the vast majority of the teenagers we interviewed fell squarely into the demographics (class, race/ethnicity, and geography) routinely pathologised in media and political discourse about the riots. The analysis below helps to challenge and complicate such a construction.

Ratings: understanding systems of value

4.1 One of the terms we found across the data set was 'ratings'. 'Ratings' was a word used by young people in their explanations of their digital cultures. After hearing its frequent use in relation to practices of image circulation during the focus groups, we further explored the meaning of the term with young people during the interviews. 'Ratings' was used to signify a system of popularity and power within the young people's schools and local areas. Boys could gain ratings by being good at football, fighting, being popular with girls, being 'known', wearing the 'right kinds' of designer clothes, having sexual images or messages from girls and sometimes for being involved in crime. Ratings could be understood as a form of social and cultural capital, in the sense that the term captures social networks and notoriety, cultural goods and forms of cultural knowledge and experience. Ratings had particular value in relation to boys' mobility in their schools and local areas. For example, Adam, 15, explained:
Some boys they're really like, in my area you can't just, if you're nobody you can't just walk past that you wouldn't have any ratings, like people are going to ask you questions where you from, who are you? They aint heard of you, they take your phone they'll take whatever nice stuff you've got innit. So.
The boys referred to the existence of harassment, theft and violence in their local streets. Most of them talked about having developed various strategies to deal with this, such as knowing which areas to travel in, becoming 'known' themselves or being associated with well-known people in the area. These boundaries related to local territories that the boys associated either with school rivalries or the different geographical locations of gangs.

4.2 Ratings could be understood here therefore to be a form of gendered capital that could be exchanged for safety and movement around the local area. As outlined above, we can theorise it both as social and cultural capital, but also as a form of symbolic capital, in the sense that the young person's legitimacy to move through an area is recognised by their access to ratings. Such systems of value are not universally exchangeable, but rely on particular relationships of power (Skeggs 2004a), and this importance of context and local value systems was highlighted in Adam's account as he described the complex flows of value he could acquire and exchange in his school and local area. Adam explained that 'ratings' could be used to describe both popularity and value within his peer group for being involved in crime or violence, but could also be used to describe popularity with teachers at school :

Adam: Compared to my friends yeah, they've got ratings as well but they've got rating the teachers don't like. They're, I've forgotten what it's called, but they're known for bad things as well. I'm known for bad things, but in school as well I'm known for good things, for helping out like stopping people in trouble, sorting out fights whatever.
Adam: ...I keep my out of school life and my school life and my school life separate, so I got ratings for out of school different and in school ratings they're two different things.
The value Adam is able to gain from the ratings he has 'outside school' can be exchanged for safety and mobility in his local area (as illustrated above). These ratings cannot be so easily exchanged within the institutionalised relationships he has with his teachers, indeed, he had just returned from school exclusion. However, he is able to gain some value within the school's institutional framework by employing his cultural and social capital to break up fights in the school playground to maintain the school's system of order.

4.3 Participants' access to online and mobile technologies complicates and intensifies these flows of value within the peer network. Our conversations with young people about the profile pictures and albums on Facebook and default photos on blackberry messenger (BBM) echoed Ringrose's (2011) findings on the significance of profile pictures for young people using social networking site Bebo. Ringrose (2011) explored how her participants used profile pictures and 'skins' on Bebo to construct their digital identities, making complex choices about poses, camera angles and negotiating norms about what kinds of pictures were desireable and acceptable. Similarly, for our participants, Facebook and BBM were sites in which idealised displays of bodies circulated. Whilst not all young people worked to emulate these norms, tropes from advertising and popular media circulated within social networks and can be understood to frame the 'conditions of possibility' (Foucault 1972) for what can be authorised as an 'ideal' bodily display in photographic images. Facebook's origin as a site for comparing girls' faces and bodies (Turner 2011) highlights how the circulation of images in digital culture can often appear in the form of hierarchical ranking through visual comparison.

4.4 Idealised self-produced images of girls often included the poser in the mirror with a camera taken from a high angle to emphasize cleavage and a diminishing size of body. Images of idealised masculinity included topless pictures taken in the mirror of boys' 'six-packs' and back muscles. Such pictures often included strategically placed designer watches or belts, discussed further below. For some boys, photos taken in the mirror, from high angles appeared alongside photos with classmates and pictures of consumer goods such as shoes, computers and in one case a fan of dollars.

4.5 The valuation of these images happens digitally through 'likes', comments and tags made on a post. For instance, 13 year old Kamal talked proudly about having 42 people 'like' an image he had posted of his back muscles. While boys talked of a risk that people might not like the 'six pack' photo or possibly that a boy could be seen to be gay by sharing a semi-naked picture of himself with friends, we found multiple instances of boys posting and commenting on their own and others 'six packs'. Interestingly, boys could derive value within the peer network from their own images, but could also derive ratings from girls' images. However, it is significant that the reverse was not equally possible. Girls did not seem to be able to gain value from images of boys' bodies in the same way. One way that boys could gain ratings was by collecting images of girls' bodies. A practice that had emerged relatively recently in the participants' networks was the requesting, taking and sending of pictures of girls' cleavage, sometimes with the boy's name written across (e.g. 'Kaja owns'). Elsewhere we have explored the gendered dynamics of this process, in which a girl only seemed able to claim temporary value from sending an image, before being marked as a 'slag' or 'sket', while boys were able to claim value from collecting or circulating pictures of girls (Ringrose et al. 2013). We have analysed this circulation of value in relation to norms of heterosexual desireability and power, in which the ability to persuade girls to send such images served as proof of a particular kind of heteronormative masculinity.

4.6 These are examples of the way technologies that enable the capture, sending, tagging and circulation of images, and the creation of online spaces in which young people are required to construct particular versions of themselves, create new sites and modes through which value can be acquired, exchanged and regulated. In addition to the claiming of value from images of their own and girls' bodies, boys could also claim value from images of computer game scores, quizzes in which others 'rated' different aspects of their personalities and 'munch screens' (screen grabs on BBM) of funny, sexual or humiliating conversations they had with other people. However one of the most discussed ways in which boys were able to claim value both online and offline was through the highly gendered performance of 'swagger', which we now explore.

Swagger: designer labels as cultural capital

5.1 As we noted above, public and policy discourse was quick to frame the riots simplistically as 'shopping with violence' carried out by 'feckless' youths under the influence of social media. However, our data show a much more complex picture of the construction of masculinities, in particular the role of consumer brands and mobile technologies in the circulation of local value. In our focus groups and interviews the boys talked about the role of 'swagger' in their peer networks and local areas. Swagger refers to the performance of a particular kind of style, involving certain designer labels and knowledge about how to put outfits together, as these year ten boys explained:
I: So explain what swagger is?
Kaja: Swagger is when you have got clothes, they look nice.
Danvir: Like popular brands and your clothes are matching.
Malik: All has to be like coordinated.
Danvir: In the same colour.

5.2 The term swagger is used widely in hip-hop culture to capture what Gabriel (2011) identifies as a 'combination of material signifiers of wealth, particularly designer-brand clothing or jewellery, with bodily gestures or attitudes of defiance, as in the strut or the sneer'. It relates to access to norms of taste and style that are both locally specific but also drawn from wider norms of global culture and consumption. In the focus group, the topic of swagger came up in the context of a discussion about fights and thefts between boys at their school and boys at another, bigger school in the local area. The participants talked about the importance of being able to negotiate their area, with being popular, well known and having 'swagger' providing potential protection against violence from other boys:

I: So is it like a bit scary wandering around that area then. If you think that someone is going to have a knife.
Tarek: No, it is not scary.
Malik: It's not scary it depends
Santo: It is not scary, especially if you know the place.
Tarek: If you don't know the place then it will be scary, but if you know the place.
Malik: It depends how you- not it depends how you are walking but also your facial expression.
Santo: If you're streetwise then you know what to do
Danvir: If you are unpopular and you are wearing bad clothes.
Tarek: Yeah wearing like
Malik: Gola shoes (laughter)
I: Like what
Santo: Gola shoes
I: What's that
Malik: It's a brand but like
Santo: Cheap
Malik: The brands that you are supposed to be rocking now is like Ralph Lauren and Airforces and stuff like that.
Danvir: Addidas
I: But those are expensive. That is expensive stuff you have got to buy. What so if you can't do that you're gonna get beaten up
All: [talking over each other]
Kaja: No but
Danvir: You wont get beaten up you'll get bullied
Santo: Yeah if you don't have money if you are poor stuff like that.

5.3 Swagger can be theorised as a form of cultural capital. It can be acquired through the ownership and display of particular cultural goods, such as designer branded clothing, and requires access to particular forms of cultural knowledge, such as the right brands to wear, how to put them together and how to walk in them. Swagger was conceptualised as part of the wider system of value of ratings, and could similarly be exchanged for mobility in the local area, popularity and desirability. The 'popular brands' that indicated that a boy had swagger were expensive designer labels such as Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Paul's Boutique, in contrast to 'cheap' brands that mark the wearer as someone who has no money.

5.4 As Skeggs (2004a) has argued, practices of class formation often require the construction of 'other' subjects who represent the constitutive limits of a particular class position. In the case of swagger, this was particularly signified through those who appeared poor by shopping in places like Primark, a chain store which sells clothing at very low prices, or wearing undesirable brands like Gola, as described in the extract above. While there were sometimes moments of resistance to swagger being purely about expensive labels, with one year ten boy arguing that it could be possible to have swagger in clothes from Primark if they were put together well, swagger was overwhelmingly linked in the boys' talk to style that involved particular designer brands, highlighting the significance of these to young men's sense of belonging and safety. The circulation of value through swagger can be understood as an affective economy: there are emotionally-laden responses to certain bodies occurring through multiple interactions, which can become fixed in space/time (Ahmed 2004; Ringrose 2012), for example where a young person wearing brands which were seen as cheap, such as 'Gola shoes' is marked as poor, unpopular, someone who invokes laughter and risks being bullied. This echoes findings in Archer et al's (2007) analysis of urban working class young people's practices of style, in which wearing cheap clothes or brands indicated a 'poor' identity. Archer et al. (2007) argue that such hierarchies of style were used by young people to guard against being labelled as 'poor' and gain local value in the context of their experiences of wider social and economic inequalities. Thus having swagger provided boys with one tool in the performance of a particular kind of 'popular' masculinity. However, acquiring swagger required a careful performance of a mixture of knowledge and nonchalance: to appear to try too hard to display branded clothing was to disrupt the performance of wealth:

Daniel: I don't have a pair of True Religion Jeans, I just wear Levi jeans as normal. But I would never take a picture of my Levi jeans, I wouldn't do that. Truly, I don't know it's just the sign oh he's got True Religion Jeans that means he's rich, he's got good clothes, he's got a good sense of clothing. They think that having Ralph Lauren and Gucci and True Religion all in one outfit makes them higher, when it doesn't really go together. It doesn't really, and that might be their only pair of jeans, that could be your only pair of jeans but you'll still be up there. You've got True Religion jeans.

5.5 Swagger can be understood as a practice that constructs not only classed but racialised masculinities. Frosh et al.'s (2003) research with 11–14 year-old boys in London has pointed to the role that style played as a classed and racialised 'marker of masculinity'. They found that African Caribbean boys were seen by their participants as high status in relation to style, which contributed to the construction of African Caribbean boys as 'the group most likely to embody the characteristics of popular masculinity' (2003: 77). At the same time this popularity was often disparaged or resented by their white counterparts. Similarly, Gunter (2010: 99) found that designer sportswear such as Nike, Addidas and Reebok, alongside designer labels such as Versace, Stone Island and Armani featured as part of the 'road cultural style and fashion' of the participants in his ethnography of 'road' culture among a group of African-Caribbean boys in an east London borough.

5.6 Majors (1990) has argued that the use of expressive styles among black boys and men in the USA can be understood in part as a response to racism, with the adoption of 'cool pose' positioned as a way to cope with inequality, alienation and frustration. Archer et al. (2007) argue that resistances afforded by the adoption of particular forms of style within the school context were limited for their participants, in the sense that certain styles often placed them in conflict with school policies and reproduced hierarchical social relations in relation to displays of wealth. Gabriel (2011) suggests that the stylistic connotations of swagger recall 'white' '70's rockers, '20s gangsters, pirates and Shakespearean vagabonds', incorporating a performance of white disenfranchisement into 'a black cultural form'. Exploring hip-hop artist Kayne West's performance of swagger, Gabriel (2011) argues that its successful performance requires both a courting and denial of whiteness.

5.7 The boys in our sample who talked about and performed swagger were from a range of different ethnic and national backgrounds. However, the possibilities to be able to appropriate and claim value from particular classed and racialised styles are differentiated in relation to structural axes of inequality (Skeggs 2004a, 2004b). Gunter (2010) points to the way that 'road' styles are often viewed through racialised stereotypes and consequently associated with criminality. His participants talked of the their experiences of being positioned in this way, particularly by white people, as though 'they're talking about mugging someone' when they're just hanging out and talking with friends. Such experiences of stereotyping arguably also frame African Caribbean boys and young men's experiences of being stopped and searched by police from a young age (Second Wave 2010).

5.8 In both boroughs in which our research took place, during June and August 2011, when our data were collected, a much higher percentage of the population of self-identified black people were stopped and searched than self-identified white people (Metropolitan Police Authority 2011). This is a widespread trend in policing statistics, which authors in this volume have explored in relation to the 2011 riots. Participants in a recent documentary project about the riots (Fully Focused Productions 2011) talked about feeling like they were being stopped on the basis of how they look – their 'race', what they wore, and the local area they hung out in. The possibility to exchange swagger for safety and mobility in the local area could therefore be understood as limited, in the sense that displays of swagger could result in racialised targeting by the police, in the context of structural and institutionalised racism. Our research therefore supports Skeggs' (2004) claim that cultural capital (in this case, in the form of 'swagger') is valued and has different possibilities for exchange depending on existing social relationships and the site in which it is being used. Thus swagger's potential as symbolic capital is highly situated. This was also true of the acquiring and exchange of swagger through the production, tagging and circulation of images, as we now explain.

Ratings online: the digital performance of swagger

6.1 We argued above that the interactive possibilities of online and mobile technologies provide new and intensified ways for value to circulate within young people's peer networks. This creates new sites for the making and remaking (Skeggs 2004a) of class, 'race' and gender. So far we have shown how swagger operated as a form of cultural capital, related to local and global norms of masculinity, but with complicated and situated possibilities for exchange. Our online ethnography, combined with focus groups and interviews, enabled us to observe the relational process by which swagger was constructed and value circulated in the boys' online networks.

6.2 Our participants posted both self-produced and acquired images as part of their Facebook profiles. Thus images of boys hanging out with their friends appeared alongside self-produced pictures of idealised bodies, marketing pictures of designer goods and pictures of women's bodies. Swagger could therefore be performed through the production of photos in which boys wore designer labels:

I: So the more likes you get for stuff you write and pictures you put up like the more ratings you got?
Rashid: Yeah probably. But like it's also got to do with clothes as well. Like clothes and like the better designer you have the more ratings you'll probably get.
I: So do you have to have money to get ratings? Do you have to be rich?
Rashid: Yeah basically, you have to have money to buy clothes, to get ratings. That's really how it works. Some people don't even put pictures of themselves up on Facebook but some, like if they see them they'll say 'oh nice clothes, nice' whatever they've got on. And they'll think of them having ratings or something like that.
I: So how do you decide what clothes to put, what pictures to put up of yourself and like whether they're gonna like it?
Rashid: Well if you think you look like, if you think you look nice in the photo you would put it up. If you think, if you know you're wearing something nice and you want everyone to see you'd put it up.
(Year 8)

6.3 This extract highlights how social networking produces new ways for value to be acquired and circulated. The ability to 'like' or comment on pictures of each other creates a space in which value is negotiated within the peer network. Rashid presents one of the purposes of putting photos on Facebook as creating a very public performance of himself – 'everyone' is able to see the 'nice clothes', and importantly comments and likes from others are recorded and can also be viewed by everyone. As argued above, the kinds of clothes that carried value within the peer network tended to be those that signified wealth and guarded against the potential to be seen as poor:

I: And does it matter if you are wearing like designer clothes and that in the pictures?
Kaja: No. Well do you mean for boys or for girls?
I: Both.
Kaja: For boys yeah. If you're wearing like these Umbro Reebok, like people think you are like broke, if you don't have money you don't have no swagger.
(Year 10)

6.4 A number of the boys had posted images of themselves wearing designer clothes, some of which were combined with idealised, topless images of their 'six-packs', for example a 'six pack' image taken from above with a designer belt clearly in view. Some boys also tagged themselves in images of designer goods, which circulate on Facebook both in the form of pictures copied from Internet sites and images uploaded by the companies themselves for marketing purposes. For example, a photo album created by Kamal, a year 8 boy, included pictures of expensive designer goods and trainers alongside cleavage shots and pictures of his own muscles. Interestingly, while Kamal, who positions himself as hypermasculine through muscular shots, was also tagged in a shot of a pair of bright pink expensive designer-branded high-heeled stiletto shoes. The hyperfeminine was juxtaposed with his own profile shots in which he was often posing with his arms around girls. We would argue that swagger operates in part through gendered commodities, and that the potential for this value to be exchanged depended on interaction with friends through comments, shares of the picture or 'likes'. Social networking sites thus offer boys new ways to claim and exchange value, such as the tagging of designer goods and circulation of pictures of girls' bodies (Ringrose et al. 2013). It would seem at first glance that this could create the potential for access to the cultural and social capital of swagger and ratings without as high a requirement for the economic capital required to obtain the cultural objects (such as designer trainers). However, in our interviews, the possibility for images to have exchange value appeared to be strongly related to the boys' access to such cultural goods or experiences in the offline world as an authenticating site, as we discuss below.

Negotiating swagger: authenticity, value and economic capital

7.1 A key feature of 'swagger' is that it had to be proved to be authentic in order to be valued:
Tarek: Say there are New Beats headphones innit by Dr James, very expensive, about 300 – 400, do you know about these miss? I was wearing it in Facebook because my cousin has them and everyone was like, 'Ah they ain't yours, you can't rock them, you can't rock them outside and stuff', and I have already rocked them outside and yeah. Everyone is like 'ah you are rocking someone elses headphones and taking a picture of it'

7.2 For Tarek, posting a picture of himself in a pair of very expensive headphones on Facebook was not enough for him to be able to effectively perform swagger and be able to exchange this in his peer group. Crucially, the picture of him wearing his cousin's headphones can only carry value for him in his peer group if he can wear them outside, offline – out in his local area and if he can prove that they belong to him. Thus the interactional value of swagger could be understood to be partly shaped through questions of authenticity and access to the economic capital – or at least the goods – required to perform a wealthy yet tasteful masculinity. This also appeared in discussions about the possibility to acquire 'fake' designer items:

I: And does that translate into like BBM and Facebook, do people put pictures up and like write stuff about people?
Daniel: Yeah. And if their clothes are fake that's even worse, if people have fake clothes and they try to stamp with it, people try to oh look at my Gucci belt but it's fake. Look at my Ralph Lauren top but it's fake. If you're going to buy designer clothes you might as well just buy the real thing like if you're not then don't buy, if you can…if you buy the real thing then don't say I got this cause I'm rich, just be normal with it. Just wear it because it's nice. You can't buy designer clothes and say look look at me I've got this. Just let people see it.

7.3 As with the comments above about the tasteful display of designer clothes, this extract from Daniel's interview highlights the relationship between swagger and the construction of social class. In order for swagger to be authentic and recognised for its symbolic value, it needs to confer something about the wearer's access to economic capital. As Archer et al. argue, participation in a local 'style economy' (2007: 228) can carry great risk for young people for whom acquiring expensive goods can be extremely difficult. Participants explained that it is no good if the wearer adopts fake designer clothes in an attempt to acquire social or cultural capital within the peer group, as this does not signify wealth. Indeed it perhaps signifies a lack of access to wealth. This authenticity also applies in this statement in relation to the performance of wealth. Daniel argues that those who are rich enough to buy designer clothes wouldn't flaunt this in pictures on Facebook, but rather they would 'just let people see it'. Such a position could be seen as a marking out of a middle-class consumer identity which has access to the economic capital to buy commodities but does not engage in 'conspicuous consumption' (Skeggs 2004a: 106; see also Jensen 2013).

7.4 The young participants in our study were therefore negotiating complex requirements to acquire value through interaction both online and offline. This was bound up with globalised practices of consumption and the technologies that make fast circulation and discussion of images possible. Boundaries were not only drawn around the kinds of cultural objects that were valued in the peer group, but also around the way that items were acquired. Mercedes, a 13 year old girl, posted a status at the time of the 2011 riots that captures the complexity of negotiating 'swagger':

So you're nicking stuff from ((shop)),
If you hang out with your crew and look all great in your new trainers, they're not gonna think 'he's so rich to buy that stuff, you just nicked it from ((shop)), stop it.[3]

7.5 The flows of value within the peer culture were therefore complicated and shifting. On the one hand, ratings could be gained from being involved in certain kinds of crime. However such ratings were only exchangeable in some circumstances, such as for mobility and safety in the local area. On the other hand theft of items would, as this extract shows, not necessarily enable the wearer to claim value in the peer network, as this would signal that the wearer was not really wealthy, but rather needed to steal the items instead. What is crucial is that this was always contextual, situated and relational – and could easily be contested, as in the exhortation to 'stop it' (nicking stuff).


8.1 In this paper, we have sought to explore the systems of value in operation in the online and offline lives of boys in two London boroughs. We drew on Skeggs' (2004a, 2004b) theorisations of how value operates in the social construction of class, gender and 'race' in order to make sense of the situated and relational ways that value was acquired and exchanged in our participants' peer networks. Our paper examined two systems of value which the boys talked about: 'ratings' and 'swagger'. Drawing on Bourdieu's (1986) typology of forms of capital in the construction of class, we conceptualised ratings as a form of social and cultural capital, and swagger as a form of cultural capital. Boys were able to gain ratings through engaging in particular activities such as football and fighting, and access to certain cultural objects such as images of girls' bodies or designer clothes. Swagger was explored as a performance of style which drew on both local interactions and global norms of classed and racialised norms of masculinity.

8.2 This paper has developed Skeggs' (2004a, 2004b) argument that cultural capital is situated and relational. Both ratings and swagger had local use and exchange-value in particular moments, for example, acquiring ratings could facilitate movement within particular local areas, and having swagger was positioned as a potential guard against bullying. However, we argued that the potential for certain forms of value to be exchanged was limited by differences in how particular characteristics are valued in different contexts. For example, ratings that had been acquired through involvement in crime could potentially be exchanged for social capital within the peer network, but could not so easily be exchanged within the institutional context of school. Our analysis echoes findings by (Archer & Yamashita 2003), who found that while their participants could gain discursive power from the performance of particular forms of 'bad boy' popular masculinities, this was 'circumscribed by structural inequalities, ensuring that the boys did not benefit unreservedly from patriarchal privileges' (2003: 128). This analytical approach and argument illuminates the raced and classed devaluing of particular forms of masculinities and femininities in the public discourses circulating around the riots. While YouTube videos and subsequent interviews with participants in the riots highlighted that there were certainly forms of value in taking part in the riots (Roberts 2011; Reicher & Stott 2011), mainstream media representations positioned rioters as abject, pathological subjects – literally 'scum' to be 'swept off the streets' (Reynolds et al. 2011; Tyler 2013).

8.3 Combining analysis of data from interviews, focus groups and online ethnography has shed fresh light on the relational flow of value within boys' peer networks, and as such, provides insight into the complex relationship between branded consumer goods, technologies and identities. Such insights complicate the dominant narratives that circulated after the riots, that the looting of expensive designer goods was merely 'shopping with violence', providing a more complex sociological analysis via accounts from young people about the regulative pressures to display 'swagger' to get 'ratings' as part of performing contemporary popular and desirable teenage masculinities. Value can be acquired and exchanged through the production, tagging and circulation of images, and is negotiated through comments, 'likes' and offline discussion among the peer group. While images presented the potential for the commodification of value, such as the recording of 42 likes on a boys' photograph of his back muscles, such value also related to what the images signified, whether this was sexual desirability, material wealth or cultural knowledge. We think it important to stress that our findings cannot be generalised, although emerging international research suggests that many of the practices we explored have been observed elsewhere (Mitchell et al. 2012).

8.4 We would argue that it is important not to draw simplistic conclusions about youth looting in the riots. Our data challenges the media discourses of 'feral youth' that circulated during and after the riots. The boys we spoke to were negotiating competing systems of value within their peer cultures, which can be related to the circulation of global tropes of consumption and idealised neoliberal subjectivities. The central role of the authentic and material in the performance of swagger, combined with the intensification of flows of value afforded by new online and mobile technologies, arguably create new modes of regulation for boys to navigate. While those who 'looted' during the riots likely did so for many different reasons, our data show that consumer goods such as designer trainers and electrical items exist as more than just commodities – they can be seen to represent particular constructions of wealth and identity. The increasing distribution and development of mobile and online technologies are producing new sites and forms for the circulation of cultural and social value and the construction and regulation of young people's identities. Understanding the complex new ways in which value travels, circulates and attaches to some bodies and not others through gender specific processes, represents an important step in making sense of teenage masculinity in the London riots.


1As Reicher and Stott (2011) note, the use of terms such as 'riot' and 'looting' can suggest a particular political position on the events. In particular, the term 'looting' risk of depoliticising a range of activities with their roots in a complex social and historical context. Like them, we choose to use these terms as they were widespread in the representation of the events at the time.

2The project was funded by the NSPCC and explored gender and digital communication practices in relation to 'sexting' see Ringrose et al. (2012) for a fuller account of the project and methodology.

3The words from this status update have been edited and changed slightly to convey the meaning of the statement but protect the anonymity of the participant.


AHMED, S. (2004) 'Affective economies', Social Text, 22(2), 117–139.

ARCHER, L. , Hollingworth, S. & Halsall, A. (2007) '"University's not for me- I'm a Nike person": Urban, working class young people's negotiations of "style", identity and educational engagement', Sociology, 41(2) p. 219–237.

ARCHER, L. & Yamashita, H. (2003) 'Theorising inner-city masculinities: "race", class, gender and education', Gender and Education, 15(2 79) 115–132.

BACK. L. (1996) New Ethnicities and Urban Culture: Racisms and Multiculture in Young Lives. London: UCL Press Limited.

BACK, L., Bennett, A., Desfor Edles, L., Gibson, M., Inglis, D., Jacobs, R. & Woodward, I. (2012) Cultural Sociology: An Introduction (Kindle edition). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

BASSEL, L. (2013). 'Speaking and listening: the 2011 English riots', Sociological Research Online, 18(4) <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/18/4/12.html>

BBC (2011) 'London riots: Looting and violence continues', BBC Online, 8 August. Available at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-14439970> [Accessed 23 December 2012].

BOURDIEU, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BOURDIEU, P. (1984.) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

BOURDIEU, P., (1986). 'The forms of capital', in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (p. 241–258). New York: Greenwood. Available at <http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/bourdieu-forms-capital.htm> [Accessed 3 October 2012].

BOURDIEU, P. & Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BUCKINGHAM, D. & Bragg, S. (2004) Young People, Sex, and the Media: The Facts of Life? Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

BUTLER, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. New York: Routledge.

CASEY, E. (2013) '"Urban safaris": looting, consumption and exclusion in London 2011'. Sociological Research Online, 18(4) <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/18/4/8.html>

CONNELL, R. (2005) Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

DRUMMOND, M., (2011). 'Reflections on the archetypal heterosexual male body', Australian Feminist Studies, 26(67), p.103–117.

EDLEY, N. & Wetherell, M. (1995) Men in Perspective: Practice, Power and Identity. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf.

EPSTEIN, D. (2001) '"Boyz" own stories: masculinities and sexualities in schools', In Martino, W. & Meyenn, B. (Eds.), What about the Boys? Issues of Masculinity in Schools. Buckingham: Open University Press.

FOUCAULT, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock

FOUCAULT, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Harmondsworth Middlesex: Penguin Books.

FOUCAULT, M. (2000) Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984: Power (James Faubion (Ed.), Vol. 3). London: Penguin.

FROSH, S. et al. (2003) The Trouble with Boys. The Psychologist, 16 (2), 84–87.

FULLY FOCUSED PRODUCTIONS (2011) Riot from Wrong. < http://www.fullyfocusedproductions.com/content/29396/riot_from_wrong/riot_from_wrong>

GABRIEL, B. (2011) 'Toward a reading of post-Kanye Hip-Hop', The New Inquiry. Available at: <http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/toward-a-reading-of-post-kanye-hip-hop/>

GILL, R. & Scharff, C. (2011) New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

GUNTER, A. (2010) Growing up Bad: Black Youth, Road Culture & Badness in an East London Neighbourhood. London: The Tuffnell Press.

HENDERSON, S., Holland, J., McGrellis, S., Sharpe, S. & Thomson, R. (2007) Inventing adulthoods: a biographical approach to youth transitions. London: Sage.

JENSEN, T. (2013). 'Riots, restraint and the new cultural politics of wanting', Sociological Research Online, 18(4) <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/18/4/7.html>

KEHLER, M. & Atkinson, M. (Eds.) (2010) Boy's Bodies: Speaking the Unspoken. New York: Peter Lang.

KIMMEL, M. (2004) The Gendered Society (2nd edition). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

MAC AN GHAILL, M. (1994) The Making of Men. Buckingham: Open University Press.

MAJORS, R. (1990) 'Cool pose: Black masculinity and sports', In Messner, M. & Sabo, D. (Eds.), Sport, Men and the Gender Order. Illinois: Human Kinetics Books.

MCROBBIE, A. (2009) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. Los Angeles, London: Sage.

MCKENZIE, L. (2013). 'Fox-trotting the riot: slow rioting in Britain's inner city', Sociological Research Online, 18(4) <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/18/4/10.html>

METROPOLITAN POLICE AUTHORITY (2011) Stops and Searches Monitoring Mechanism (reports by borough). Available at <http://www.met.police.uk/> [Accessed 19 December 2012]

MILLER, P. & Rose, N. (2007) Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal life. Cambridge: Polity.

MITCHELL, K., Finkelhor, D., Jones, L. M., & Wolak, J. (2012). 'Prevalence and characteristics of youth sexting: a national study', Pediatrics, 129(1) p. 1–8.

NAYAK, D.A. & Kehily, D.M.J. (2007) Gender, Youth and Culture: Young Masculinities and Femininities. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

PHOENIX, A. & Phoenix, A. (2012). 'Racialisation, relationality and riots: intersections and interpellations', Feminist Review, 100 p. 52–71.

REICHER, S. & Stott, C. (2011) Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots. London: Constable & Robinson.

REYNOLDS, M., Twomey, J. & Flanagan, P. (2011) Sweep Scum Off Our Streets, Express.co.uk, 10 August. Available at <http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/264069/Sweep-scum-off-our-streets> [Accessed 4 February 2013]

RINGROSE, J. (2011) 'Are you sexy, flirty or a slut? Exploring "sexualisation" and how teen girls perform/negotiate digital sexual identity on social networking sites', in Gill, R. & Scharff, C. (Eds.), New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Identity (p. 99–116). London: Palgrave.

RINGROSE, J. (2012) Post-Feminist Education? Girls and the Sexual Politics of Schooling. London: Routledge.

RINGROSE, J., Gill, R., Livingstone, S. & Harvey, L. (2012) A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and 'Sexting'. London: NSPCC [Available at <http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/sexualabuse/sexting-research-report_wdf89269.pdf>]

RINGROSE, J., Harvey, L, Gill, R. & Livingstone, S. (2013) 'Teen girls, sexual double standards and "sexting": Gendered value in digital image exchange', Feminist Theory, Special Issue: Feminisms, 'sexualisation' and contemporary girlhoods, 14(3).

ROBERTS, D. (2011) Reading the Riots. London: Guardian Books.

SECOND WAVE (2010) 'Young people's experiences of stop and search', in Sveinsson, K.P. (Ed.), Ethnic Profiling: The Use of 'Race' in UK Law Enforcement (p. 15–22). London: Runnymede. [Available at <http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/publications/pdfs/EthnicProfiling-2010.pdf>]

SKEGGS, B. (2004a) Class, Self, Culture. London: Routledge.

SKEGGS, B. (2004b) 'Exchange, value and affect: Bourdieu and "the self"', in Adkins, L. & Skeggs, B. (Eds.), Feminism after Bourdieu (pp. 75–96). Oxford, Malden: Blackwell.

SKEGGS, B. & Wood, H. (2012) Reacting to Reality Television: Performance, Audience and Value. London: Routledge.

THE TELEGRAPH (2011) 'David Starkey provokes storm with "whites have become black" comment', 13 August. Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/8699754/David-Starkey-provokes-storm-with-whites-have-become-black-comment.html> [Accessed 25th September 2012]

TURNER, F. (2011) 'The social network', Journal of American History, 98(1), p. 294–296.

TYLER, M. (2004) 'Managing between the sheets: lifestyle magazines and the management 298 of sexuality in everyday life', Sexualities, 7(1) p. 81–106.

TYLER, I. (2013) 'The riots of the underclass?: stigmatisation, mediation and the government of poverty and disadvantage in neoliberal Britain', Sociological Research Online, 18(4) <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/18/4/6.html>

WALKERDINE, V. (2012) Gender, Work and Community After De-Industrialisation: A Psychosocial Approach to Affect (Kindle edition). Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

WILLIAMS, C. (2011) 'London riots: how BlackBerry Messenger has been used to plan two nights of looting', The Telegraph, 8 August. Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/blackberry/8688651/London-riots-how-BlackBerry-Messenger-has-been-used-to-plan-two-nights-of-looting.html> [Accessed 3 February 2013]

WILLIS, P. (1990) Common Culture: Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Cultures of the Young. Buckingham: Open University Press.