Studying the peripheries: iconography and embodiment in far-right youth subcultures

Focusing on fixed categories of far-right membership both obscures an important source of information about the far right and mistakenly identifies youth as having static identifications with political and ideological scenes.

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This essay is excerpted from a longer chapter, which is forthcoming in the new Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right volume: Researching the far right: theory, method and practice. Key arguments from the essay were presented at this webinar series co-organized by C-REX and PERIL (American University). 

Beyond fixed and definable categories

Most approaches to studying the far right tend to speak of the ‘far right’ or the 'right-wing’ as a fixed and definable category, regardless of whether the data sources in question rely on quantitative survey research, qualitative interviewing, or ethnographic fieldwork. In a forthcoming chapter in Researching the far right: theory, method and practice (Routledge, 2020), we make two methodological arguments, which we presented at this webinar series, drawing on a long-term research project on the commercialization of far-right youth culture in Germany which combined the creation and analysis of a digital archive of thousands of images of symbols and commercial far right products with 62 interviews conducted in two vocational schools for construction trades in Berlin in 2013–14. We argue, first, that focusing on fixed categories of far-right membership both obscures an important source of information about the far right and mistakenly identifies youth as having static identifications with political and ideological scenes. Second, we suggest that direct reports from youth about their relationship with the far right can be significantly aided by integrating elements of material culture into focused interviews.

Studying youth who are “in and around” far right scenes and subcultures

We suggest there is much to be learned about the varied pathways in and out of extremism from studying youth who are not only in the “core” of extremist and radical right-wing movements but also those who are on the “periphery” or in interstitial spaces. Our findings showed that flexible engagements with far-right subcultures and ideologies are not only a question of age and development. Rather, our interviewees showed that engagement in the far right can also be malleable over the course of a single evening or weekend. Individuals might attend a far-right festival or concert at one point during their week but spend the rest of the time with classmates, colleagues, friends or family members who are not far right. Young people move across peer groups and subcultures and into and out of the mainstream on a regular basis.

Studying youth who are in and around the far right scene created challenges in how we classified their closeness to the scene. We spent hours experimenting with various ways of categorizing and classifying the 51 youth interviewees in terms of their relationship to the far right scene. In the end, we devised a classification system with 13 categories of “degrees of belonging and familiarity with the far right,” some of which had multiple sub-categories. We then re-read and re-coded each interview transcript to assign one or more of the categories to each individual, which are described in depth in the longer chapter. What is perhaps most important about this classification system methodologically is that in traditional studies of far right youth, only young people who fell into the first category—youth who self-identify as a current or past member of the right wing—would typically be studied. We found, instead, that there was a wide range of ‘closeness’ and ‘belonging’ to the scene as well as knowledge and understandings of the scene across our informants.

Combining material and visual data with interviews

The second part of the chapter looks at the use of material and visual data in interviews with youth in and around far right scenes. We learned that using elements of material culture or visual data can be a significant resource in helping uncover degrees of closeness to or knowledge of far-right scenes among interview participants, adding a layer of depth to understandings of the embodiment of extremist and nationalist beliefs. The discussion of images by youth revealed information that they may not otherwise have produced by taking the focus off the individual interview and providing a concrete focal point for mutual discussion and conversation. Often youth would discuss their connections to or knowledge of the right-wing during this phase of the interview using the images as reference, noting that they owned a t-shirt pictured in an image, or that a classmate was wearing it. They also related their experiences with varied dress codes and bans at their current and previous schools, clubs, and stadiums. Across the interviews, in other words, the images provided both a concrete context for conversations as well as an entry point into discussions about broader aspects of the far right subcultural scene. 

The added value of studying youth on the periphery of the far right

Studying youth who are in and around far right scenes helps to avoid one of the key methodological problems in research on the far right – namely, that researchers tend to sample on the dependent variable, studying youth who are already at the hard core of far-right extremism. On the contrary, we argue that youth on the periphery of the far right proved to be just as – and in some ways, more – informative compared to youth who were or are actively engaged in the far right.

While there may be some far right youth who have strong ideological commitments that are consistent across the varied spaces in their lives, we argue that for many other youth, far right engagements are characterized by contradictions, uncertainty, and spontaneity rather than firm or fixed ideological positions and commitments. We need research agendas that can capture youth engagements in far-right activities as part of the broader spectrum of ideological or subcultural participation in their lives. More importantly, we argue that it is reckless to dismiss flexible or fleeting engagements with the far right as unimportant because youth may “age out” of their engagements. Such approaches overlook the damage even fleeting engagements with far right or racist movements can cause, such as through violence directed toward ethnic minorities and the dehumanization of victims.

Finally, we also found that asking youth to examine images, iconography, symbols, or objects and offer interpretations of their meanings during the course of conversations about the far right was not only useful for the iconographic interpretations we sought, but also helped us tease out multiple layers of youth affiliation and understandings of the far right across the interview sample. This shifted our understandings of what it means to be associated with or exposed to far-right scenes and subcultures in ways that may be informative to future researchers of the far right.


This essay is excerpted from a longer chapter, “Studying the Peripheries: Iconography and Embodiment in Far Right Youth Subculture,” which is forthcoming in the new Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right volume, edited by Stephen Ashe, Joel Busher, Graham Macklin and Aaron Winter: Researching the far right: theory, method and practice.

Key arguments from the essay were presented at this webinar series co-organized by C-REX and PERIL (American University). 

By ​​​​​​​Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Annett Graefe-Geusch 
Published Oct. 7, 2020 10:39 AM - Last modified Oct. 7, 2020 10:39 AM
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