Towards a Sociological Appreciation of Hair
Hair matters. It matters individually and it matters socially. And it’s time we took it more seriously. Humans are fundamentally symbol-users; that is what differentiates us from other species. We communicate in symbolic ways through language, gesture, facial expression, and how we present ourselves. Our presentation of self – whether online or in real life – is primarily through our faces and our hair. Hair is symbolic because it conveys values and meanings to the self and to others.1 When making choices about how to style our hair, we are curating a core part of our identity. This is a process into which we are socialised from childhood.
A child’s first haircut is a significant ritual, marking the passage into the social world where the prevailing norms dictate the appropriate hairstyle for age or gender. As the child grows into adolescence, a key way of achieving separation (from parents) is to strike out on the hairstyle front. Choosing a style of one’s own is a way of expressing one’s individuality. Across the life course, taking proper care of one’s hair is fundamental to maintaining a robust sense of self-worth and wellbeing. Getting a signature ‘look’ right is an essential part of our personal style, as well as our armoury, as we navigate the slings and arrows of daily life. Everyone knows exactly what people mean when they say they are “having a bad hair day.”
In the past, hair care was the preserve of the elite. Hairdressers were appreciated, well-remunerated, and travelled widely to pursue their craft. Amanda Graham’s playful and witty images of The Coiffured reveal the ‘backstage’ creativity and labour that went into creating iconic hairstyles for the well-to-do. Today, hairdressing has been democratised; the services of a barber’s shop or hair salon are both widely available and affordable. During the pandemic, hair salons and barbers in Ireland were deemed a non-essential service (much to the incredulity of the public-at-large) though in Germany, a different approach was taken. There, 80,000 hair salons were allowed to re-open in March 2021, despite stalled figures for infections and a slow vaccination rollout. Some politicians couched the decision to open in terms of ‘human dignity’, while others focused on ‘personal hygiene’. The Central Association of the German Hairdressing Trade successfully lobbied for a re-opening on the basis that “the profession has social relevance.”
The economic significance and social relevance of the hairdressing industry in Ireland have traditionally been overlooked, despite the fact that this is an expanding sector that provides a range of ancillary services, and increasingly targets men as well as women. A 2020 report commissioned by Ireland’s Hair And Beauty Industry Confederation (HABIC) notes that there are almost 10,000 hair and beauty salons in the country with a strong regional profile.3 Salons are often the anchor tenants on high streets and in shopping centres, and are crucial drivers of footfall. The workforce is overwhelmingly female in a dynamic business with an estimated turnover of €2.6 billion in 2019.
However, hair salons and barber shops constitute much more than an industry. In Americanah, a 2013 novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, hair is a central theme in the narrative. Many of the key scenes exploring issues of identity and belonging take place in a hair salon. They are indeed socially relevant places that we seek out for company, conviviality, and conversation. They fit into what American urban sociologist, Ray Oldenburg, has described as ‘third places’ – neutral places that are neither home (first place) nor workplace (second place), but convivial havens in which attendees can feel relaxed and at ease.4 They can, in effect, let their hair down. Oldenburg argues that such places are essential to community and public life, constituting an important counterpoint to a world that many experience as increasingly privatised and alienating.
Research in the United States notes that traditionally, barbershops have been places where men spend time with other men, forming close relationships with one another in the absence of women.5 Indeed, patrons are known to stop by daily to simply chat with their barbers, discuss the news or play chess. A real sense of the communal can be generated in such places, and that crucially contributes to our sense of health and wellbeing. Much like public bars and rural post offices, hair salons are ‘anchor’ services that provide us with opportunities to informally engage with others. Relationships in these setting are primarily based on trust. Customers are comfortable speaking freely in the presence of a listening ear. Like the bartender, the hairdresser is called upon to play multiple roles: part-confidante, part-confessor, and part-psychologist, as well as skilled creative and craftsperson. The Coiffured is a very timely and overdue celebration of the long and honourable history of hairdressing.
Oldenberg was concerned that the ‘third places’ he wrote about – such as cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts – were threatened by the advance of ‘non-places’, where individuals relate to one another in purely utilitarian terms, as shoppers, clients, patients, and so on. The pandemic has taught us a salutary lesson in this regard. Let’s face it: there are few experiences that can compare with the sheer sensory pleasure of sitting in a salon, having one’s hair expertly tended by a professional, while sipping a coffee, discussing the issues of the day, and spilling the beans on friends and foes alike.
Prof. Mary P. Corcoran
Professor Mary P. Corcoran is Professor of Sociology at Maynooth University, with research interests in urban sociology, public culture, and the sociology of migration. Mary received her doctorate in Sociology from Columbia University for research on the experiences of undocumented Irish immigrants in New York in the 1980s. She worked as an adjunct lecturer in Sociology at New York University and at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. Mary has authored and co-edited numerous publications, scholarly articles, and reports, and has previously served on the Senate of the NUI and on the Social Science Committee of the RIA.