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backstromThere Is More to Skateboarding Than Just Skateboarding!

Asa Backstrom
School of Education
Uppsala University
June 2002


I study skateboard culture. Basically the research is about what you learn as a skateboarder, apart from the riding itself. I study skateboarding as a cultural and social phenomenon and I look at the relationship between culture, learning and identity. The study focuses on the present Swedish skateboard scene. But there are analytical links both in time, back to the end of the 70's when skateboarding became very popular in Sweden, and in place to other parts of the globe, not least California, USA, where skateboarding has its roots.

Skateboarding was a widespread activity for a few years in the late 70's, and at the same time much debated. Many adults considered skateboarding dangerous and it was also banned in many areas. The "radical" skateboarder was born as an image for both skaters and non-skaters to orient towards. Since then the popularity of skateboarding has gone up and down, but the activity has never totally disappeared. However the image of the skateboarder as radical has remained unquestioned. Radical can be seen as one of the key words in constructing the culture surrounding the activity. Another key word is for instance young. Skateboarding has been described as young since it hit Scandinavia some 25 years ago, and it still is. The activity is undeniably connected to young people. But there are skaters turning 40 soon which means that they can very well be described as middle-aged. The way I see it, it has more to do with a concept like youthful. The activities have to do with the characteristics of the young. To skate is to tell other people and convince yourself that you are lively, vigorous and vital, and that you have power, strength, speed and action. Besides, it can be argued that those characteristics are desirable in the western world.

One of the purposes of the study is to describe and analyze construction of identity: what identity is, how it is constructed and the continuity or disruption of it. The research project is important for the understanding of the construction of identity and the way people make meaning of life. I look at skateboarding, but there is also more comprehensive knowledge emanating from this study not least touching on how different media are important inspiration in the process of making sense of ourselves.

Theoretically the study is cross-disciplinary in contact with youth studies, communication, media studies, sport science, education and cultural studies. The three theoretical concepts that I deal with are culture, identity and learning. Each one of them can be much debated. To put it simple I look at culture as communication of symbolic meaning. It could be things with symbolic meaning like a wooden board for instance, or clothes. But it is also the process of making meaning, for instance the way people talk to each other and do things together. In the activity itself people can for instance determine that particular ways of skating are nicely done. This is a social activity and it involves a large portion of learning as cultural values, sub cultural or mainstream, are constructed. Culture may also run through different media. Skateboarding as a phenomenon is presented and re-presented in glossy magazines, videos and daily newspapers. Not surprisingly the story told by skaters themselves differ from the story told by non-skaters. My third theoretical concept: identity is tightly connected to both learning and culture since I look at identity as created in a social and cultural context. For instance identity as a skateboarder is constructed in a social and geographical environment such as the local skateboard shop when skaters are watching a video, commenting style or looking at the latest gear.

My data comes from several sources. I do ethnographic field work, which includes doing interviews, observations and taking pictures. I also look at Internet pages and analyze Swedish skateboard magazines from 1978 to the present day, and last but not least I study skateboard videos. Focus in my work lies in detecting important themes for skateboarders' in the construction of skateboard identity and skateboard culture. Or as I would like to put it, what skateboarding should be about. For instance freedom, friendship, action and having a cocky attitude is highly valued in many videos and magazines. The detected themes are then analyzed as symbolic communication of generation and masculinity, where resistance and creativity are important. There is definitely more to skateboarding than just skateboarding!