The research subjects were unlikely for a university thesis: Drummer, Filf, Misery, Nail and Ripper, among others.
But Dave Snell did not study typical. The New Zealander graduated Thursday with a doctoral degree that examined the social habits of headbangers – heavy-metal music fans that are known as “bogans” in this part of the world.
Along the way, Snell got an education in media and politics, after some people publicly derided a grant he received as an example of academic and taxpayer waste.
Snell, who wears black rocker T-shirts and identifies himself as among the subculture he was studying, said his research has been worthwhile to reveal the way in which a marginalized group can share an identity and community.
His infatuation with the lifestyle began 20 years ago, and is perhaps best expressed in the dedication section of his 235-page thesis: “To my dad, Rex, for putting that first AC/DC tape into the car stereo when I was 12 years old.”
When walking up to accept his psychology degree at Waikato University in Hamilton on Thursday, Snell got that ultimate sign of respect among metal-heads: A dean held up his fist with his pinkie and index finger extended in a devil-horn salute. Snell, in his own nod to the subculture, was wearing a tie from the show “Beavis and Butt-head.”
“Heavy metal has been traditionally viewed as causing problems, by making people violent or drug abusers,” Snell said. “In reality, it can be quite a positive thing, in the way it brings people together.”
His thesis, he said, tries to upend the traditional notion that identity is internally driven by showing that identity can be physical and external. Even when that’s expressed by wearing the same black T-shirt every day, getting a mullet haircut or driving a muscle car.
Bogans are typically portrayed as “dim-witted, uncultured, and unworthy of serious academic study,” writes Snell in his thesis.
But he found more to them in his studies. He said closet metal-heads worked as bankers or government officials. They just had to be more careful in where they got their tattoos, he said.
Snell’s thesis got attention before he even started. In 2007, he received a publicly funded grant of nearly 100,000 New Zealand dollars ($81,000) which was criticized by center-right lawmaker Paul Hutchison, sparking a wider public debate.
On Thursday, Hutchison still questioned the work’s value but struck a more conciliatory tone.
“I haven’t read his thesis, but I must admit I’m very keen to look at his work. Then I can come to a conclusion as to whether or not it’s worthwhile,” Hutchison said. “I’m sure it’s bright and vivid and adds joie de vivre to the world. My only question is, is it money well spent?”
Snell certainly thinks so. He said that, if anything, the scrutiny made him more determined to produce useful work. He now holds a full-time job at a research office helping other academics, and hopes to do more study himself.
Before that, though, he plans to celebrate his degree as only a bogan could: big party, lots of cheap beer, a splash of bourbon, and with the music turned up to 11.