Tattoos, Structuration and the Role of Sociology

Is it enough for social research to be interesting to merit its conduct? Undoubtedly the social world produces weird and wonderful phenomena with which sociologists can engage. However, we live in a world in which there are multifarious crevasses of inequality, both material and symbolic, in which the global economy operates in a perpetually risky manner, to the extent that chaos is the new norm, and in which human rights violations are all too common, and all too often perpetrated by nation-states. As such sociology should refrain from seriously researching the facets of social life that are interesting, but unimportant.

Two of my biggest interests are sociology and tattoos. They rarely elide, and now that I am doing a PhD in criminal justice, I see little chance for them to do so in my near future. Moreover, applying the theory of structuration to tattooing – as I will in this article – is not, to my mind, of great importance. As such, I am glad not to be researching tattoos for my PhD. Still, I have been thinking about it, not too deeply, for a while and it does seem interesting.

I am interested in American ‘traditional’ tattooing, which can be traced back to the work of Sailor Jerry Collins and Ed Hardy, amongst others. In terms of style, think nautical; think daggers, roses and skulls; think ‘mum’ written in a banner across a heart. These images are somewhat clichéd, and this is to a degree my point. They have appeared, generation after generation, upon the skin of the youth of respective eras bygone and present. Albeit superficially, this constitutes an account of intergenerational cultural transmission: the notion that ‘we do things because that is how they are done’ or the inheritance of consciousness through social being, to paraphrase Marx. This is then, a slightly journalistic (that is to say, non-rigorous) structuralist account of tattooing.

However, whilst these images appear across time, they also mutate in both form and content. That is to say for instance, not every American eagle tattoo looks the same. Artists can innovate in terms of colour palate and line-work, resulting in something different, but not entirely new. Moreover, in American traditional tattooing, one is not totally restricted to the stereotypical designs mentioned above. In the early ‘flash’ designs of Sailor Jerry, one will not find crow, wolf or hourglass timer tattoo designs, yet today they are not uncommon in traditional tattooing.

Logically then, it seems sensible to assert that in the field of traditional tattooing there is a need to recognise agency. Without it, these changes could not occur. This agency, given that tattooing is however clearly subject to structure, is limited. To illustrate, imagine a world in which each and every tattoo, in terms of design, was completely and utterly unique; it is impossible. Even if a design was something never put on skin before, the very way it is tattooed onto the body is a skill ‘given and inherited’. The way in which the design is transferred onto the skin follows a set of (most often) unsaid rules – bold black lines, rich colours and certain types of shading will all almost undoubtedly feature in any ‘traditional’ tattoo.

So, we have reached a point where we must accept in some capacity structure and agency as constitutive of traditional tattooing as a cultural enterprise. Marxist thought posits that structure impacts negatively on the ability of individual to act freely. Should we consider this to be the case here?

No. As elicited above, structure here is enabling. Without structure in place I would not have been able to collect the tattoos I have, nor would anybody else faithful to the church of traditional tattooing. Equally, without agency, the particular designs, colours and so on would not have manifested in the way that they have on my body. These actions by myself, but far more importantly, by everybody meaningfully engaged in the world of traditional tattooing, modify the structures of tattooing as a cultural industry, which in turn will be enabling for those getting tattooed in the future. In this way, structure and agency directly relate to one another and are not in opposition, as Marx would have it. This is fundamentally structuration in action.

What conclusions can be drawn from this? Not many of much value I suspect. Most have been articulated either implicitly or explicitly above. Perhaps one thing to take from this article is that whilst some areas of social life can be explored, and are interesting, they are not of much academic worth. That is, if we are to hold, as I do, that sociology should be engaged in producing meaningful social change: is it enough for research to be merely interesting to merit its conduct? Certainly not.

By Edward Wright.
You can find out more about Ed on our contributors page.

One thought on “Tattoos, Structuration and the Role of Sociology

  1. Thought provoking article.
    Structure doesn’t act negatively on our ability to think freely. Rather, it masks our ability to perceive whether or not we have thought freely. The big question is – “Can we exist at all without structure?”

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