The trouble with bogans

Last updated 05:00 28/07/2013
Chris Hillock/Fairfax NZ
STUDYING THE SPECIES: ‘Doctor of Boganology’ Dave Snell says New Zealand is a perfect breeding ground for bogans. 

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In Britain, it's "chavs". In France, "beaufs". In Germany, it's "prolet", and in America, "white trash". In Australia and New Zealand, we prefer to call a spade a spade, so our bogans are called bogans.

Though its derivation is disputed, the term entered common usage in Melbourne during the 1980s to denote working-class heavy-metal fans who favoured mullets, tattoos and getting on the piss. It took another 30 years to be embraced by the Oxford English Dictionary: The word "bogan" showed up for the first time just last year, and it's described as "a depreciative term for an unfashionable, uncouth or unsophisticated person, especially of low social status".

It's a definition that riled self-proclaimed "Doctor of Boganology" Dave Snell. "It's pretty insulting, isn't it?" he says from his home in Hamilton, a city where you couldn't throw an empty Lion Red bottle without hitting a passing bogan.

"Really, bogans consider themselves very cultured; they might have a really good idea of what some painter is trying to do in The Louvre, but they simply prefer Beavis and Butthead. Saying we're unfashionable, well, that's a compliment to us, but I don't accept that bogans are uncouth.

"It's a matter of context, isn't it? One of my mates loves T-shirts with skulls and devils on them, but he'd never wear one to his grandma's funeral."

You may recall there was a bit of a hoo-ha in 2007 when Snell was awarded a $96,000 scholarship to study the plumage, habitat, flocking behaviour and mating calls of the indigenous Boganis pacificus. He completed his doctoral thesis last year, investigating the use of music, clothing, and rituals in the formation of the bogan identity.

Snell has travelled to Portugal, Switzerland and the United States to lecture on bogan culture, been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, and is about to release a new book called Bogan: An Insider's Guide to Metal, Mullets and Mayhem (Penguin, RRP $35).

"I wrote it because I'm interested in the cultural context of New Zealand, and how this place is in many ways a perfect breeding ground for bogans. When you think about it, bogan culture's like a concentrated form of New Zealand culture, because a lot of the things we value here - the idea that we're easy-going, unpretentious, egalitarian, can fix anything, love a beer and a barbie - are absolutely central to being a bogan.

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"But because bogans are associated with working-class culture, they can also be an uncomfortable reminder that this country has a class system."

Soft-spoken, thoughtful and articulate, Snell seems a lovely bloke, but some might wonder if he's viewing his subject through rose-tinted Ray-Bans. To play devil's advocate, let's entertain the notion that some bogans can be a monumental pain in the arse.

They're the noisy neighbours you can do without, blasting Cannibal Corpse records when they wake up and scull their first lunchtime beer, revving up rooted V8s in the driveway, endlessly yelling at little Troy and Dakota to tidy up their' room.

Undereducated, clannish, suspicious of new ideas, they sometimes have an entire chip shop of chips on their shoulders. Frequently beset by inter-generational anger and substance abuse issues, they drive too fast, drink too much, keep the P trade in ready cash, and are prone to violence and crime.

"Actually, it was largely because of those sorts of ideas that I wrote this book, because most of them are untrue. Yes, some of the bogan community commit crimes, and there's a chapter where lots of bogans discuss doing some pretty dumb s..., mostly drunken vandalism. But . . . I don't think bogans are any more violent or anti-social than the wider population.

"If you're a bogan and you turn up to someone's place trying to pick a fight, you're still considered an idiot, just like you would be in any other social group.

"I became a bogan as a teenager in the Far North and, to me, boganism is an extremely positive culture where like-minded people bond through their appreciation of similar music, clothes and values. Really, being a bogan is about being loyal to your mates and having fun. Your life is one big AC/DC song, and that's why I'm still proud to be a bogan now at 33."

And then, with a squeal of tyres, a smashing of empties and a blaze of death metal power chords, he's gone. Dr Bogan has left the car park, burning rubber all the way.

- Sunday Star Times


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