An Ethnographic Study of the Skateboarding Culture

Abstract

Skateboarders are often seen as outsiders. However, understanding the culture of skateboarding can be insightful for politicians, adults, or scholars who seek to develop stronger relationships with young people who participate in skateboarding (Freeman & Riordan, 2002). In this ethnographic study, skateboarding culture is described through observations of professional skateboarders in a segment of the DVD, Planes, Trains and Skateboards. The findings suggested themes of acceptance, energy and drive, concern for safety, self-expression of style, and progression. Leaders who understand the culture of skateboarding may be able to communicate more effectively with the younger generation.

Introduction

Ethnography describes a culture and provides an understanding of that culture from an insider’s perspective (Neuman, 2003). Through observation, inferences can be made from how members of a culture act, speak, or think within specific cultural contexts to give meaning to actions and behaviors of the group. This study uses an ethnographic design to identify characteristics of the skateboarding culture by documenting characteristics, action, and behaviors of participants in the video compilation of Planes, Trains and Skateboards.

World Cup Skateboarding captured the essence of competitive skateboarding in the 2004 release of Planes, Trains and Skateboards from video recorded at X Games X in Los Angeles, CA. Through observation of communication styles and cultural artifacts manifested in the video, the culture of competitive skateboarding is described and generalizations to the overall culture that envelopes skateboarding are discussed. From the discussion of the video content, inferences are synthesized to provide a greater understanding of the skateboarding culture.

Population, Sampling, Data Collection Procedures, and Rationale

Planes, Trains and Skateboards is a video compilation of skateboarding events held around the world during 2004. Each of the 15 chapters highlights the social scene enveloping the competition and the athletes who participated. For purposes of this analysis, Chapter 13, X Games X, which includes skateboard street, vert best trick, and big air competitions, was selected because of the variety of genres included in the compilation and the competitive nature of the event.

The population for this study consists of professional skateboarders participating in skateboard competition at X Games X in Los Angeles, CA. While not all skateboarders become professional athletes, the sample for this study included street skaters, vert skaters, and big air skaters. Street skaters are those who predominantly skate on streets and other public domains where concrete and obstacles offer an interesting playground. Vert skaters are those who skate on a half-pipe, usually made of wood or concrete shaped like half of a pipe cut through the diameter. Big air skaters are the newest genre to the culture as these athletes are the most experienced group of skaters and choose a mega-ramp that rises as high as seven stories in the air from which they “drop-in” to gain enough speed to carry them across the bottom, up the opposite side, and above the ramp by as much as 15 or 20 feet above the rim. While each group of skaters is different, by identifying the similarities between them, a greater understanding of the skateboarding culture is gleaned.

Data was collected through an ethnographic analysis, noting unspoken language, behaviors, and cultural artifacts such as dress, hair, and body art. A description of what is observed in the video is detailed. As the competition begins, a standing room only crowd is observed. No whistles, balls, referees, or coaches can be found. Instead, the competition is on the sidewalk behind Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Just before the competition, one athlete is break dancing for the crowd. Another is signing autographs. One athlete hides his face from the camera as his family sports hats that look like wedges of cheese in the background. Another athlete dances to the music as he eyes the young, thin, attractive girls in the front row of the crowd. From these observations, inferences can be made to the general population of skateboarders that might suggest that skateboarders are more concerned about having fun and connecting with the audience than winning competitions.

Validity and Bias

Bias is inherent in qualitative research (Neuman, 2003). In particular, because the researcher is the instrument, personal background, interests, and point of view become part of the analysis. In this study, the researcher has an interest in understanding the culture of skateboarding and has participated in the action sports industry for 13 years. Yet these years have not provided an opportunity to discover how skateboarders think or why these athletes do what they do. While bias cannot be erased, bias is identified as a mediating factor that may influence the results of this study.

The single source of data for this study limits the validity. However, repeated observations of the same participants improved the internal validity, or interpretability of the data (Newman, 2003). Further research may be necessary to confirm the external validity, or generalizability of the findings (Newman).

Data Analysis

Data from this ethnographic study was collected by watching the DVD repeatedly to identify the demographic characteristics of the skateboarding participants, including athletes, judges and announcers who were presented in the footage, then observing behaviors and appearances from which meaningful inferences could be drawn.

Agar (2006) suggests that ethnography is about the study of human differences through the identification of similarities. By studying the similarities among the participants in the video, the researcher identified differences between these participants to draw meaning that connects these participants to outsiders such as the researcher.

To understand what was happening in the video, the researcher looked to identify “rich points” or patterns across certain kinds of people in certain situations (Agar, 2006, p. 5). After preliminary notes were taken and reviewed, the DVD was again reviewed repeatedly to confirm the original notes and to make additional observations. Special attention was given to communication and action that took through participant interaction and crowd responses. Through a careful analysis of participant characteristics, participant interaction, and crowd responses, explanations for the overall increase in participation in skateboarding and the rationale for increased acceptance of skateboarding by mainstream sports enthusiasts can be garnered.

Findings

The data from this study were recorded and analyzed for patterns within observed responses and actions. Demographic observations were made. Actions and behaviors were then analyzed. The analysis revealed several themes: acceptance, energy and drive, concern for safety, self-expression of style, and progression.

The demographic characteristics revealed limited diversity among the professional skateboarders who participated in the study competition. Of the 30 participants, 10% were female and 90% were male. 73% were observed to be of Caucasian ethnicity, while 16% were observed to be of Hispanic origins and 1% of African American ethnicity. Age ranged from early teens to late thirties and appeared to have some correlation to the discipline as younger skaters tended to be involved in street skating, while the older, more experienced skaters dominated the vert and big air disciplines. The demographic characteristics are presented in Table 1.

Table 1
Demographic Characteristics of Skateboarding Participants

Skater #

Discipline

Gender

Observed Ethnicity

Observed Age

1

Street

Female

Caucasian

Teens

2

Street

Female

Caucasian

Teens

3

Street

Female

Hispanic

Teens

4

Street

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

5

Street

Male

Caucasian

Early Teens

6

Street

Male

Hispanic

Twenties

7

Street

Male

Caucasian

Late 20s

8

Street

Male

Hispanic

Late 20s

9

Street

Male

Caucasian

Late teens

10

Street

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

11

Street

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

12

Street

Male

African American

Twenties

13

Street

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

14

Vert

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

15

Vert

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

16

Vert

Male

Hispanic

Twenties

17

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

18

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Thirties

19

Big Air

Male

African American

Thirties

20

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Thirties

21

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Thirties

22

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Thirties

23

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Thirties

24

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Late Thirties

25

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Thirties

26

Big Air

Male

Hispanic

Late Twenties

27

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Late Twenties

28

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

29

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Late Twenties

30

Big Air

Male

Caucasian

Twenties

Regardless of gender, discipline, ethnicity, or age, the participants in this study routinely embraced each other, supported each other by showing encouragement and appreciation, and showed no signs of negative emotion toward other participants, despite the fact that prize money was on the line. This lack of negative emotions infers an inclusionary construct within the skateboarding culture.

Another central theme of this study was the energy and drive of the participants. While each participant was competing, facial expressions suggested the presence of passion and determination, fun, excitement, and desire to do their best at that moment. Participants did not appear tired or winded, even at the conclusion of their turn in the competition rotation. Although the exact time of each run was not apparent from the video, many athletes continued to show energy by dancing, jumping, or engaging in other celebratory acts. Observed behaviors included applauding each other, dancing, smiling, and other congratulatory behaviors. The unique behaviors of participants and spectators, which were captured in the video, are included in Table 2.

Table 2

Unique Behaviors of Participants

Skater #

Unique Behaviors

4

Break dancing before competition

5

Smiling

6

Fans enjoying the run

9

Family supported participant by wearing shirts spelling out last name

10

Moved around the course, spectators applauded, many spectators filming the run

14

High-five with fellow competitor

15

Smiled, happy

16

Received congratulatory slap and hugged competitors on deck, started dancing to the music, showed medal to group of reporters following competition, hugged female reporter

17

Described Big Air Mega Ramp, suggests he’s lost money by betting on these competitions, but laughs as if he’s joking,

18

Gave advice to “hang on, you’ve got 4 tries, that’s it,” joked with camera

19

Moving things forward

21

Describes this as “history in the making” “gladiator skateboarders”

22

Making of “super heroes” today

23

Indicated he was “gearing up for getting slammed”

24

“Awesome,” “sick” suggests athletes must have guts to try this

25

Held small child on the medal stand and waived to crowd after winning gold medal, appeared very happy

26

Nervous, anxious look on face prior to taking jump

29

Skate competitors shown watching, enjoying competition

30

Smiled, happy, camera pan of crowd revealed jammed parking lot full of people cheering and applauding

While danger is inherent in most sports, the potential for falls in skateboarding appears quite high. Helmets, kneepads, elbow pads, wrist guards and gloves were observed in both the vert and big air disciplines. The use of safety equipment appeared to be routine for all competitors, suggesting a concern for safety.

The participants did not wear uniforms or jerseys that identified their team or sponsors. Rather, each participant had an individual sense of style that provided for self-expression. However, similarities in style suggest certain appearance constructs of the skateboarding culture. Comfortable attire such as baggy jeans and loose-fitting t-shirts that allow for movement were common among participants. Style appears to be important to members of the skateboarding culture, but style is not what everyone else is doing or wearing. Rather, style appears to be an expression of individuality. The presence of tattoos, body piercing, or other expressions of individuality could not be gleaned from the video in this study.

Finally, with the variety of disciplines within skateboarding, the theme of progression appears to play a prominent role. While street skating was the original discipline of early skateboarders back in the 1950s, the vert competition was introduced in the mid-1970s as skaters found empty swimming pools provided an interesting playground for skateboarding activities (Hayes, 2005). Not until X Games X was the big air discipline introduced as a competitive event. The progression of the sport through these disciplines suggests skateboarding is an evolving culture that pushes members to try new things, take bigger risks, and progress the sport to new levels.

Conclusions

Critics argue that the skateboarding culture represents a youth activity that embraces anti-establishment values in opposition to middle class norms and values inherent in traditional team sports (Kusz, 2003). However, popular culture can be a means of projecting social resistance, and skateboarding is no exception, despite originating under the Boy Scouts of America umbrella (Beal, 1995).

To outsiders, skaters are thought of as rebels, social deviants, or simply different. Participants are banned from public areas and signs are routinely posted prohibiting the activity (Nolan, 2003; Woolley & Johns, 2001). However, understanding the culture of skateboarding can be insightful for politicians, adults, or scholars who seek to develop stronger relationships with young people (Freeman & Riordan, 2002).

In a study of female skaters, participants described skateboarding as fun, adventurous, confidence building, and nonconformist with a casual, comfortable style (Kelly, Pomerantz & Currie, 2005). These same themes can be inferred from the current study. Even with the status of professional athlete, the subjects in this study were observed as happy, comfortable, and inclusive.

Skateboarding allows for individuality as rules are minimal and self-expression is encouraged. This freedom to be creative and express oneself through skateboarding activity can be a means of empowerment. Through the cultural values of inclusion, having fun, self-expression, and progression, participants can build confidence to become leaders. By understanding the culture of skateboarding, today’s leaders are in a better position to understand tomorrow’s leaders and develop communication styles to improve interaction between generations.

References

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Beal, B. (1995). Disqualifying the official: An exploration of social resistance through the subculture of skateboarding. Sociology of Sport Journal, 12. Retrieved September 22, 2006, from EBSCOhost database.

Bostick, D. & Bostick, D. (Executive Producers) & Kanights, B. (Producer). (2004). Planes, trains and skateboards (DVD). United States: Come Together Productions.

Freeman, C. & Riordan, T. (2002). Locating skateparks: The planner’s dilemma. Planning, Practice & Research, 17(3).  

Hayes, A. (2005). Dogtown and Z-Boys: Teaching the documentary. Screen Education, 40. Retrieved September 22, 2006, from EBSCOhost database.

Kelly, D. M., Pomerantz, S., & Currie, D. (2005, August). Skater girlhood and emphasized femininity: ‘you can’t land an ollie properly in heels’. Gender and Education,17 (3).  

Kusz, K. (2003). BMX, extreme sports, and the White male backlash. In Brayton, S. (2005). “Black-Lash”: Revisiting the “White Negro” through skateboarding. Sociology of Sport Journal, 22. Retrieved September 22, 2006, from EBSCOhost database.

Neuman, W. L. (2003). Social research methods (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Nolan, N. (2003, November). The ins and outs of skateboarding and transgression in public space in Newcastle, Australia. Australian Geographer, 34(3).  

Woolley, H. & Johns, R. (2001). Skateboarding: The city as a playground. Journal ofUrban Design, 6(2).


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