In order to understand the origin of ‘cool’, one should likely start with French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work titled Distinction (1979), which analyzes the relationship between ‘taste’ and social background. Bourdieu’s analysis concludes that artificially-constructed/arbitrary distinctions are used to exclude the less privileged from influential positions in society, which is useful for keeping the elite at the top of the social caste system.
In reaching that conclusion, Bourdieu emphasized the importance of cultural capital — a term that refers to all the various immaterial forms of influence that determine how society is structured (including social, symbolic, and educational accolades). In Bourdieu’s French society, cultural capital took the form of proficiency in classical music, fine art and literature, contemporary cuisine, and rejection of ‘the vulgar or ostentatious.’ Cultural capital is as much about what it excludes as what it includes.
In 1979, Dick Hebdige’s study of British subcultures (most notably rockers and punks) was the first to suggest that tribes leverage the adoption of a particular style or look as a form of resistance to the dominant culture. However, Sarah Thornton’s study of club culture in 1990s Britain synthesized the conclusions reached by Bourdieu and Hebdige. Thornton points out that in contemporary youth culture, ‘cool’ is a form of subcultural capital that relies on,” having underground knowledge, privileging the obscure and despising mass culture — thus making it very difficult for outsiders to take part.”
The construction of ‘cool’ is ultimately ironic because it claims to be counter-cultural, rebellious, and rejects the exclusivity of the dominant culture, however, it resists the dominant culture only to create its own alternative exclusive subculture which still retains the same rules and arbitrariness that was originally critiqued in the dominant culture. Due to this fundamental irony and self-contradiction, ‘cool’ can be easily captured and constructed by brands who have the resources to create symbols, an arbitrary network of knowledge, and exclusivity to create a movement that claims to be counter-cultural and anti-establishment but is, in essence, just an alternative tribe that is built with the same rules as the dominant tribe. Modern ‘sneaker-head’ culture is a great example.
Although Bourdieu described cultural capital as immaterial, it has been commodified and co-opted by the world of advertising and marketing. In a society where media makes the circulation and copying of commodities so free, brands don’t even have to create their own subculture and can thrive simply by faking deeper authenticity under the umbrella of a different tribe.