Mark Greif in the NYT:
A year ago, my colleagues and I started to investigate the contemporary hipster. What was the “hipster,” and what did it mean to be one? It was a puzzle. No one, it seemed, thought of himself as a hipster, and when someone called you a hipster, the term was an insult. Paradoxically, those who used the insult were themselves often said to resemble hipsters — they wore the skinny jeans and big eyeglasses, gathered in tiny enclaves in big cities, and looked down on mainstream fashions and “tourists.” Most puzzling was how rattled sensible, down-to-earth people became when we posed hipster-themed questions. When we announced a public debate on hipsterism, I received e-mail messages both furious and plaintive. Normally inquisitive people protested that there could be no answer and no definition. Maybe hipsters didn’t exist! The responses were more impassioned than those we’d had in our discussions on health care, young conservatives and feminism. And perfectly blameless individuals began flagellating themselves: “Am I a hipster?”
I wondered if I could guess the root of their pain. It’s a superficial topic, yet it seemed that so much was at stake. Why? Because struggles over taste (and “taste” is the hipster’s primary currency) are never only about taste. I began to wish that everyone I talked to had read just one book to give these fraught debates a frame: “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste,” by Pierre Bourdieu.
A French sociologist who died in 2002 at age 71, Bourdieu is sometimes wrongly associated with postmodern philosophers. But he did share with other post-1968 French thinkers a wish to show that lofty philosophical ideals couldn’t be separated from the conflicts of everyday life. Subculture had not been his area, precisely, but neither would hipsters have been beneath his notice.