Hawaii paper

I had fun attending the Oceanic Popular Cultures Association conference in Honolulu earlier this year. This is a copy of the paper I presented there...

Citizens of Surfing

It is touching to hear writers talk about graffiti and the immensely powerful role it has played in their lives. At times, it almost sounds as if they are talking about an old friend, someone who has stepped in and stuck with them through good times and bad (Macdonald, 2001: 179).

Because surfing is commonly described by many non-surfers as simply a playful activity, there appears to be some trepidation in imagining what potential it has beyond people’s personal lives (Fiske, 1989a: 49; Ford & Brown, 2006: 67). However, there’s great potential for social and cultural change in ways that don’t include shouting for it from the rooftops (Fiske, 1989a: 187). Sometimes the development of social and cultural understanding and negotiation is implicit in the enactment of a culture, where actions may be carried out without explicit advertisement or even without motivation. In fact it is the implicitly social nature of surfing culture that makes it relevant in this line of thought. While the advertised surfing ideal is of being alone in uncrowded waves, the reality is often far from this and surfing necessarily requires negotiation of the surfbreak and the different individuals who help compose that location. This thesis will argue that as a consequence of these negotiations, surfing has its own citizenship and there are cultural rules, norms, etiquettes and power relations that define the ways this negotiation is managed, establishing ways of understanding about who belongs and who does not. It is through this surfing citizenship that relationships and connections are then translated and navigated.

The negative consequences of the exclusionary side of surfing’s citizenship are evident. Aggression in the surf is being framed as ‘surf rage’, and this is only increasing as more and more people of all skin colours, genders, sexualities, ages and religions take up surfing (Young, 2000). In contrast, this discussion explores the positive value of the inclusive side of surfing citizenship. I’m hoping that by establishing the existing systems and understandings of citizenship, solutions may become evident to solving the more exclusionary problems.

I will be discussing the potential of surfing in creating intercultural connections. It’s about the connections that people make through their shared experiences as surfers, which means these connections are negotiated in their own recognisable terms, not necessarily on those of difference. In this context, I am not exploring the practice of surfing, but surfing culture as the process that gives meaning to the activity. Surfing is the experience of riding a wave, but surfing culture is the meaning that wave riding brings to the surfing, the lives of surfers and the way these meanings shape the way surfers see their world.

People have begun to seek freedom and identity as members of groups which depend not upon class but some other common interest for their existence…Even though the political system has temporarily frozen up, these groups can continue to generate considerable dynamic for social change (McGregor, 1966: 11).

Finally, I am interested in the ways that surfing, as a cultural practice or a lived experience, helps to develop connections between individuals. By locating the cultural meaning within surfing, surfers create connections that begin from a point of mutual understanding. These interactions don’t change the way cultures relate on a larger scale, but there is substance in face-to-face experiences that should be accepted for their own significance.

These kinds of relations are identified as mingling relations, which are informal, organic connections enacted through surfing’s system of citizenship. These connections may not be actively sought, but instead are a natural consequence of relating through a shared cultural identity. Mingling relations help create connections between surfers that have meaning and significance defined by surfing culture itself. The argument is that such connections are valuable in their own terms and have an ongoing impact as surfers share their experiences with friends and family. Positive personal experiences through surfing culture are valid and valuable in creating lasting cultural understandings in an interconnected world. Mingling helps surfers to negotiate the borders that they encounter as they meet new people in the surf and discover ways of understanding their differences.

In surfing, we have no governing authority, and the times we’ve resorted to criminal law to resolve our disputes have been excruciating embarrassments to the sport as a whole. So we must defer to each other in the water and respect the best traditions of riding waves: the travelling, the welcoming of visitors, and the sharing of waves exemplified by the early long boarders (Hening, 2000: 144).

Surfing is an activity that has been growing in popularity and notoriety in Australia for many years. It has been variously described as a sport, a lifestyle, a culture, a philosophy, and a state of mind, but it is the cultural aspect that I am most interested in. Surfers themselves have been framed in many ways ranging from hippies to social deviants, but my own experience of surfing culture has been one that is more positive than the stereotypes have acknowledged. What this paper explores is the positive benefits that can be found within the citizenship of surfing culture.

[Culture] denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life (Geertz, 1993: 89).

At its most basic, surfing is the act of riding a wave. In its enactment, it is glide, power, drive, flow and connection with the wave and the energy of that wave. It is a deeply personal experience which thousands of Australians take part in every day, at many levels and in many different ways. Yet the experience of riding the energy of a wave that has travelled across the ocean is one that is difficult to explain. Surfing remains an enigmatic and mysterious activity and many surfers remain deeply affected by surfing throughout their lives. It is this deep personal connection that allows the development of a citizenship and the resultant individual connections.

Surfing citizenship is something less tangible than the kind of day to day relationships and instant identification that are often recognised as citizenship in a location-based community. My research was based in Byron Bay, where there is most definitely a group of people who identify as surfers and who are united by this - just watch them rally around such issues as paid parking at popular surf spots - but I had been trying to fit the way that this sense of belonging is understood and articulated into already established boxes. The citizenship I was looking for in surfing is to be found in the shared understanding of the surfing experience; both in participation in doing surfing and in conduct both in and out of the water. In this way, surfing is an “expressive identity”, articulated by the way citizens understand the cultural locations and performances, which are surfing’s defining elements (Baulch, 2002; 158-159).

The act of riding a wave – whether it is glide, power or pure fun – seems to be best understood without explanation, but is instead something shared between those who have experienced it (Ford & Brown, 2006: 149). It can be seen in the faces of people listening to stories of experiences in the water - a great wave or of getting wiped out – there is not just sympathy, there is empathy. This is where the citizenship in surfing can be located; in the shared understanding of an experience. In the stoke.

Mingling is a term that I am using specific to surfing culture and the intercultural connections enacted through that culture. It is used in a specific context which is composed of two important elements of surfing; location and citizenship. Mingling takes place in a unique location, which is controlled both by natural elements and by the way these elements are culturally interpreted through surfing culture’s understanding and experience of them. It is this shared conception of the surfbreak which is a locus for mingling. Of course, if you are not recognised as belonging in the surfbreak, then you won’t be included in any interaction which is meaningful in relation to surfing. You must establish yourself as a citizen within the understanding of surfing culture. One of the ways of organising this is through the lineup. In today’s discussion, the word lineup describes not only the existing group of surfers in the water, but also their organisation of ways of recognising who belongs and who does not. Through a system of rights and obligations (who gets the next wave, who is the dominant surfer etc), surfers can recognise their place in that location and how they must operate in order to participate. The acquisition of citizenship to surfing culture generally and in a particular lineup, allows successful engagement as a surfer not only with the location, but also with other recognised surfing citizens. Mingling relations are facilitated by the existence of the location, the lineup and citizenship in play with each other.

The Surfers’ Gaze: Reading the Ocean as a Text

The beach is a place where we go on holidays (Holy Days), a place and time that is neither home nor work, outside the profane normality… (Fiskeb, 1989: 43-44)

The environment around us speaks to us in socially and culturally organised and systematised ways. We don’t merely see buildings, tress, mountains or the beach. We see things that represent meaning, anticipation, emotions and experiences (Urry, 1990: 1). This of course has consequences not only for the person who is gazing, but also for the space itself and the ways with which it can be interacted (Urry, 1990: 1). What is gazed upon is a text and what we do with that text is impose our cultural meanings upon it.

Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is similarly relevant in this discussion of cultural space and location;

The habitus accommodates group ‘customs’ and habituated actions comprising gestures, inclinations, dispositions which are so routine, so ‘unthought’, that they perform social positionality in their fields almost as an instinct. The habitus comprises skills, information, and these are the basis for action, they both permit it and curtail it (McRobbie, 2005: 134).

Habitus is the specific cultural identification through which the subcultural practices become the dominant ones and are the most relevant (McRobbie, 2005: 133-136). It’s within the habitus that full cultural expression is allowed, and through which citizenship is negotiated and enacted; providing the boundaries of what is possible and what must be contained, while remaining fluid because it was conceived by the very culture it defines (McRobbie: 2005 134).

For surfers, this is evident in one of their most important cultural locations, the ocean, or more specifically, the surfbreak. Limitless uses can’t be imposed on the surfbreak because it’s not a passive landscape and in many ways it defines its own use through its natural realities such as swell size and direction, weather, currents and so on(Ford & Brown, 2006: 8). Surfers can’t control the ocean’s variables, but instead must “interact” with them, developing parts of their culture to fit in with the moods and rhythms of the waves and currents (Fiske et al, 1987: 68). At the most practical level, cultural norms surrounding etiquette and knowledge are in place to make this location as safe as possible for all participants (Young et al, 2000).

The surfbreak is the space in the ocean that surfers must enter in order to surf and there’s different signals, different rules, different realities applicable, which are necessarily altered from those only a short paddle away on the shore. It’s the critical place where the waves begin to develop into what are considered rideable shapes and forms. They’re usually visible from the shore and surfing can be watched by people on the beach but not engaged with because the surfbreak represents a different cultural reality. It is a space that is removed from the land, a marginal space that exists on the border between land and sea, between the habitable and inhabitable (Shields, 1991: 4).

The rituals carried before arriving in the surfbreak – checking different beaches, waxing the surfboard, putting on a wetsuit, paddling out – create a transition from one cultural world into another. Surfers leave behind their land-based cultural understandings and enter into new ones that are applicable to the surfbreak, where there are rules and norms defining both citizenship of the subculture and appropriate behaviour within that location. These processes redefine the meanings of the breaking waves into understandings that are relevant to surfing and that are enacted in the way that surfers organise themselves in the lineup (Fiske et al, 1987: 67-69). It is through the citizenship of cultural understanding in the lineup that surfers can identity who belongs in that space and who doesn’t. These meanings, and a correct interpretation of them, culturally transform the surfer’s view of the world, and through this process culture is imposed upon nature, even without effort. So while nature may nurture culture, culture creates the way surfers ‘see’ nature. In terms of surfing, the natural realities of the surfbreak may help create the cultural rules of the space, but those rules create the lineup.

In this way locations are composed of more than merely physical geography. They are full of culturally developed realities such as history, experience and meaning, as well as sensual experiences of touch, taste and sound (Bonnemaison, 2005; Hubbard, 2005: 41-42; Rodaway, 1994). The surfbreak is more than a breaking wave. It is a multi-layered geography that needs to be understood and interpreted in order to obtain surfing citizenship.

…this gaze is not merely aesthetic, but also informs an informal, social ranking with respect to performance capital, which in turn, may have functional implications in terms of respect, or even deference, in competing for peaks…Again this relates to this implicit tension between the social constructedness and oceanic communion of surfing (Ford & Brown, 2006: 78).

When surfers arrive at a new break, they spend time observing and interpreting the space before they paddle out into the waves (Ford & Brown: 2006: 17). Surfers take time to watch through their surfers’ gaze and to learn about the physical aspects of the location, such as the way the wave is breaking, dangers such as reef and rocks and the way the wind and other elements interact with the form of the wave. They also observe the existing lineup and the system by which it is operating. This will make it easier to make choices about how they will integrate themselves into that cultural space and (hopefully) to participate successfully in surfing there. It is a physical world and a cultural world and one must know how to read both levels to operate within it successfully (Ford & Brown, 2006; 78-82).

This is in part enhanced and in part enacted by the aggressive territorialism that may be encountered at surfbreaks;

Many surfers who’ve spent years of their lives learning the curves and moods of a powerful and alluring surf spot feel a sense of ownership that makes land-based property rights seems feeble in comparison (Carroll, 2000: 60).

Aggressive territorialism is present in lineups around the world – Australia, Indonesia, America, Fiji and so on (Young, 2000). It creates power structures in the water that have to be negotiated to be able to effectively participate in surfing at that spot and of course the power structures change as you travel to new locations. This creates a situation whereby the visitor must prove their citizenship through both their surfing performance and their behaviour within the parameters of what is expected and accepted.

Each surfbreak has slightly different rules defined by the place, the wave, the people, the locals, the tourists and the mood that day. There are so many variables and surfers can’t assume that they’ll be accepted there. Interviews I have conducted were consistent in describing this. I asked most of the informants what they did before paddling out to surf at a new break and the most important action described was gaining an understanding of that location to make sure that they knew the best places to paddle out and where the dangers were;

Although most respondents’ initial answers were focused on the physical challenges, they also recognised how they observe and understand the existing lineup of locals and visitors. This is because it can be the lineup that defines whether they can surf successfully in that location or not;

Gabe: Depends on who you’re with and where you are. Some places we embrace each other in the water, another we wanna fight… It all depends on where you are and how you choose to be in the lineup.

What these surfers are most likely to do is to establish their presence more slowly and to take time to assert their citizenship. They act with caution and show respect. This allows them to be recognised as understanding the appropriate behaviours for this new surfbreak and to have a better surfing experience.

In this context, the lineup is interesting to examine as a location for cultural relations. If the rules and norms are dictated in part by the place itself, in part by surfing culture, and in part by the ingrained localism of surfing, then participants begin all relations from a common understanding – ‘I belong, now prove to me that you do’. Despite this, there’s room for change in the power relations as these structures are, by the nature of their composition, fluid. The barriers and borders that existed on land have shifted, and relationships begin in a space that is one of relevance and interest in the lives of participants. The relations that take place in this location are carried out along new cultural borders that may be different from national definitions of identity. Redefining the space in which cultural relations take place redefines inherent power relations. Certainly, new ones are established in the surfbreak through the cultural systems of the lineup, but the norms and messages of the cultural location are seen and understood through one shared set of subcultural understandings and this shared conception of meaning creates recognition of cultural citizenship, enabling an entry into mingling relations. It is the particular cultural meaning of the surfbreak which makes it specific to surfing and to surfing culture.

The solo yet socialising performer

There is nothing that is inherently social in surfing’s purest moments, because riding a wave is 100 percent personal. It is all about your preparation, experience, timing, strength and agility. There is nothing “team” about it (Hening, 2000: 137).

So, today I’m arguing that surfing takes place in an offshore location (the surfbreak), allowing the creation of new power relations and relationships, which are based on norms different to those on land, where the local culture is dominant. However, surfing is an inherently personal and selfish performance, which at first glance doesn’t appear to encourage these kinds of interactions.

Surfing a wave is an individual performance that takes place in cooperation with nature. It’s an individual interpretation of what a particular wave offers to a surfer (Ford and Brown, 2006: 151-153). You can’t guess ahead what the wave will do or how it will break. The major limitation on ‘doing’ surfing is the presence (or otherwise) of waves, which also to a large degree controls what can be done in the water - which board is most appropriate, how long the rides are, and the possible interpretations that can be performed on the wave (barrels, airs, turns). Other people can interfere or input in small ways such as being in the surfer’s way, dropping in, hollering support and so on, but these impacts are small in relation to the effect that the individual has on their own performance and interpretation when engaged with the wave. As one of my interview respondents articulated, surfing is selfish - surfers catch a wave and they don’t want to share it; they want that immediate experience for themself alone, unimpeded by anyone else. If there’s someone else on your wave, it takes away the freedom to interpret that wave as you’d like. It means that there are boundaries placed upon it by another person who is surfing their own interpretation.

Yet there is no surfing culture without other people.

I found it a challenge to locate the social aspects of surfing in any meaningful way. They exist explicitly in the competitive side of surfing, as they do in any organised sport. However, this thesis is discussing the everyday experience of surfing, which is not formally organised. It took me some time to realise that it’s right there in the way surfers organise the surfbreak – the lineup. It is this culturally organised system of rights in the water that gives surfing its social aspect, whether they like it or not. The location, and the organisation of that location, helps create the citizenship that is integral to mingling.

Gaining Respect: The currency of surfing

Mike: It’s great. You get to find out what’s going on in their worlds…You meet other surfers in the water and then you all go in and you see them later at the little restaurants and have a chat, play cards. You get to know them out of the water.

The shared understanding of the challenge of surfing creates respect between citizens. When surfers can paddle out and surf a wave, it shows the commitment and dedication that they have to the activity itself. Surfing is not recognised as being easy – there are so many independent elements that are in play and which cannot be controlled – so when other surfers can see dedication through the challenges faced, it creates respect. Respect is the currency of surfing; surfers have to get it and they have to give it. It is gained it through performance and behaviour and it is the most significant way to create interactions with other surfers.

By showing a respect for that surfbreak and for the lineup, surfers create an atmosphere in which they share their citizenship and their cultural meanings. Shared meanings and experiences of surfing can naturally create connections by establishing an atmosphere in which surfers can mingle. Mingling relations are the enactment of the inclusive side of the citizenship of surfing. They create positive experiences of place and people, which resonate throughout surfing culture, through the media, through film and through the recollection of stories shared with friends, family and community. The concept of mingling is one of the benefits of subcultural identification and of approaching people of other cultures (whatever they may be) from a shared individual identity.


As this paper concludes, it’s clear that there’s a significant theme flowing throughout; the negotiation of borders. Borders are an important concept in the contemporary world – how they’re defined, where they are, who controls them and who can cross them. Essentially, these are questions of belonging, meaning both inclusion and exclusion.

Borders are negotiated throughout this paper; the borders of where surfing culture meets the non-surfing community, the borders between what I understand as surfing and the way the young men I interviewed understand surfing, the borders between academia and surfing culture, borders that exist within surfing itself, the borders between surfers from different cultural backgrounds, the borders between individual identities, and so the list continues. In fact, this discussion has been all about negotiating borders and empowering individuals to do so on their own terms. At some stages, I feel isolated in my study of surfing culture from an academic standpoint. There is a lot of support within the surfing community for musical, artistic, film and photographic representations and explorations of what surfing is and means, but my basis in an academic frame is not so easily understood or accessible. I find it difficult at times to find people who were willing to discuss their own lived surfing experiences, or who perhaps felt overwhelmed by an approach that they could not immediately understand. I began to feel like a translator between two worlds, always trying to re-word my academic work to make it accessible. It was the words of Umberto Eco that showed me the folly of this pursuit, and the eventual realisation that I was not being true to my own argument,

Every sensible and rigorous theory of language shows that a perfect translation in an impossible dream…Faithfulness in translation may mean not translating literally. It may mean reassigning words, texts or ideas in some way (Eco, 2001; pp ix-8)

My proposition is that a shared understanding of surfing culture helps people to understand their other differences; it is not about translation, but about cultural negotiation and so I stopped translating at once. The people I spoke to could and would make their own interpretations of my work, and all I could do was try and make it as clear as possible, without trying to force my meanings upon them. Once I relaxed into this approach, the ideas, experiences and information were much more easily offered during conversations and I began to feel more comfortable with the thesis itself. It was through sharing my interest and passion for surfing culture that allowed me to make connections in the end.

Mingling relations are an example of the inclusive side of surfing’s citizenship. The exclusionary side is manifested through such outlets as aggressive behaviour, localism and by belittling people who do not fit within the boundaries of the citizenship. Exclusion has created issues for women, children, people who are learning to surf, and even derision amongst surfers for various styles other than their own. Unfortunately, these parts of surfing culture are ugly, prolific and well-documented. However, this thesis argues that on the other side of exclusion, there is inclusion, and this is where the positive cultural experiences in surfing are found; sharing waves, sharing meanings, sharing an identity, sharing experiences. Through connections, however fleeting they may be, surfers are able to explore their differences and, hopefully, to renegotiate them in a way that creates new levels of understanding and tolerance between individuals.


Baulch, Emma, 2002, ‘Creating a Scene: Balinese Punk’s Beginnings’ in International Journal of Cultural Studies, v5, n2, June, pp153-177

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Carroll, Nick, 2000, ‘Defending The Faith’ in Young, Nat (ed), Surf Rage: A surfer’s guide to turning negatives into positives, Angourie, NSW: Nymboida Press, pp54-73

Eco, Umberto, 2001, Expereinces in Translation, translated by Alistair McEwan, Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of London Press

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Ford, Nick and Brown, David, 2006, Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, Embodiment and Narrative of the Dream Glide, Abingdon, UK: Routledge

Geertz, C., 1993, (1st edition 1973), ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, in The Interpretation of Cultures: selected essays, London: Fontana Press

Hening, Glen, 2000, ‘Stain on the Soul’, in Young, Nat (ed), Surf Rage: A surfer’s guide to turning negatives into positives, Angourie, NSW: Nymboida Press, pp. 131-145

Hubbard, Phil, 2005, ‘Space/Place’ in Atkinson, D., Jackson, P., Sibley, D. and Wahbourne, N. (eds), Cultural Geography: A Critical Dictionary of Key Concepts, London; New York: I.B. Taurius

Macdonald, Nancy, 2001, The Graffitti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York, Houndmills; New York: Palgrave

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McRobbie, A., 2005, The Uses Of Cultural Studies, London: Sage

Rodaway, Paul, 1994, Sensuous Geographies, London: Routledge

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Young, Nat (ed), 2000, Surf Rage, Angourie: Nymboida Press


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