Schooling and the production of popular culture: Negotiating subjectivities at the high school prom

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Judith Long


Negotiating, Prom, Subjectivities, Popular culture, High school

Subject Categories

Educational Sociology | Women's Studies


Examining high school proms, this qualitative study explores how the ideologies and practices ordering school, commodity and youth cultures sustain relations of economic and social inequality. This study also analyzes the different ways students negotiate and resist social forms of domination and authority as they prepare for and attend their proms. The rituals, relations, practices and spaces through which proms are defined and experienced are a critical terrain in schools were kids negotiate their cultural identities.

This study traces how proms were planned and experienced at four different schools. Utilizing a range of qualitative research methods, including narrative analysis, in-depth and informal interviewing, and observation, I examined four public schools differentiated by their racial, ethnic, and class composition, location and curriculum over a two year research period. I view "the prom" as signifying a series of events, of which the actual prom dance is one, (e.g. shopping for and buying a prom dress, planning the post-prom weekend activities, organizing picture taking).

High school proms develop largely through the local activities of students, teachers, parents, communities and schools, but high school proms are not simply local events. High school proms are mediated by a set of external relation, largely invisible within their immediate settings. Located at the interface between youth culture, commodity culture and adult structures of control, proms emerge as highly contested spaces where power is both exercised and refuted. Proms reflect a growing effort by schools to manage and regulate the social spaces kids occupy outside the classroom by securing their investments in practices organized by class, race, sexual and gender. High school proms also operate as sites where students resist and evade school's control over their lives and struggle to exert influence over what forms of schooling are authorized. Dress styles and hairstyles, music, dating and dancing emerged as practices through which kids negotiated a series of relations and meanings formed around class and consumption, masculinity and femininity, race and race relations. An important part of coming of age for many young women and young men, proms are locally negotiated events that are central to kids' understanding of politics and struggle, culture and context, school and identity.


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