Let me ask you an intriguing sociological question – what happens when you take a diverse mix of people, place them in an open field and add the universal language of music? You get Glastonbury, a festival where, for a few days, the regular rules of life seem to pause, and an alternate reality takes over. My senses are still overwhelmed by the vibrant outfits (or lack of, based on my experience seeing two fully nude men), and my feet are still sore from dancing on tables with randomers. As I sit on my sofa, feeling the post-Glastonbury blues, I review the videos and pictures I took. This has led me to contemplate the sociology of the best place on Earth.
As attendees lose themselves to the rhythmic beats and melodic flows, they step into what renowned anthropologist Victor Turner termed “liminality” – a transformative stage that sits outside of everyday norms. This may sound familiar, as I have previously explored Victor’s work when exploring the pub. For Victor Turner, the pub is a social setting that’s between work life and home life. But Glastonbury is broader than that – let’s explore.
Glastonbury: More than a Music Festival
At first glance, Glastonbury might seem like just another music festival. Oh, how wrong you are. George McKay, a professor, writer, and musician, insightfully reveals in his book, “Glastonbury: A Very English Fair” it’s far more than a platform for artists to showcase their talent. As McKay writes, “It’s intriguing that a place associated with pilgrimage, spirituality, legend, should also be so insistently engaged with the real world that its festivals, of all its offerings, can have sound political resonance.” From crowds screaming “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” to cheering the activism of Greta Thunberg, it is clear that Glastonbury also has an ethic of social change from a left perspective.
Glastonbury’s rich history and countercultural ethos create a distinctive sense of community. The festival is not only a celebration of music and contemporary arts but also of shared values and collective experiences, making it a unique socio-cultural event. Something which sociologists love to not only hear but explore.
The Ebb and Flow of Social Norms
In our regular daily routines, we are governed by a myriad of social norms – unspoken rules and expectations that dictate how we behave in different situations. Think of your behaviour when you’re shopping or at home. Cristina Bicchieri, in her book “The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms“, explains these norms as the ordinary, often unconscious understanding we share about how to behave.
At Glastonbury, the standard norms of behaviour shift in fascinating ways. As mentioned, everyday attire is replaced with elaborate costumes or mud-splattered festival gear. Strangers often throw the “privacy” norm of daily life out the window as they shower next to their tents. Sleep schedules, typically dictated by societal rhythms, are completely subverted as we would dance into the early morning hours and sometimes watch the sunrise. But what happens when we enter a space where these norms are not merely relaxed but are actively challenged?
A World Within a World: Glastonbury as a Temporary Autonomous Zone
Drawing upon Hakim Bey’s concept of a “Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ), Glastonbury can be seen as a space where societal norms are not just bent but flipped on their heads. In a world that values individualism, you suddenly find yourself in a situation at Glastonbury where everyone is your best friend. In this world within a world, typical social boundaries dissolve, making room for spontaneous interactions. It is not unusual for festival-goers to share food and stories and dance with strangers. I can personally attest that I danced with several strangers who felt like my closest friends at that moment. This links to our exploration of alcohol and fun. Glastonbury offers an opportunity to experience a different way of social interaction, one that is guided by openness and shared experiences rather than pre-existing societal norms.
The Resonating Beats of Unity: Music’s Role at Glastonbury
Music is more than just background noise at Glastonbury that can keep you up way past your bedtime – it’s the lifeblood of the festival. The beats that ripple through the air do more than just inspire attendees to throw their limbs around. Wait, is that not how you’re supposed to dance? In my eyes, the wilder the dance, the better. And from what I witnessed, windmilling around perfectly captured the spirit of liberation and expression that Glastonbury encourages.
In his book “Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music“, Simon Frith outlined music as a social glue. As the melodies and rhythms echo across the festival, they create a shared rhythm that transcends personal backgrounds and connects people on a fundamental level. For instance, when Sir Elton John rocked out to Rocket Man, you felt a palpable change in the atmosphere. People start singing along, their voices blending into one resonant chorus. At that moment, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you do, or who you are outside of the festival. You’re part of a larger collective, bound by the power of music. This shared experience and sense of belonging is the manifestation of a connection that music fosters at Glastonbury. Too deep? Deal with it – I need to release my Glasto high.
A Shift in Consciousness: The Emergence of Collective Identity
The shared experiences and sense of unity that pervade Glastonbury lead to what Alberto Melucci describes as a shift from individual to collective identity. According to Melucci, people come together when they realise they share similar beliefs and decide to take action based on that shared understanding. As the festival unfolds, the typical focus on “I” gives way to “we”. The experiences of singing the same lyrics, dancing to the same rhythm, and navigating the same mud-bathed fields, culminating in a sense of collective identity that is both potent and transient.
The Echoes of Glastonbury: How the Festival Influences Post-Event Behaviour
When the final chord fades, and the once teeming fields are emptied, does everything simply return to normal? It seemed that it had when I opened my work laptop for the first time in a week. However, Andy Bennett argues that the impact of music festivals like Glastonbury extends beyond their temporal boundaries. Mentally, I am still on that field drinking cider in the sun. Attendees carry the memories, experiences, and influences from the festival into their everyday lives. My keys now have a new wristband hanging from them. And I will undoubtedly be looking for my blue bucket hat in the crowd when I rewatch the sets.
These “echoes of Glastonbury” can lead to shifts in attitudes and behaviours, with festival-goers often reporting a greater sense of community and interconnectedness post-event.
Glastonbury offers us a glimpse into a unique sociological phenomenon. In the span of a few days, this festival provides a playground for the transformation of social norms. It is a testament to the dynamic nature of society that Turner identified in his formative work. It allows us to experience a sense of unity and collective identity that is both intense and ephemeral. And, perhaps most importantly, it illustrates the profound ways in which music can bring us together, regardless of our differences. Whether you’re a regular attendee or a curious observer, Glastonbury offers valuable insights into the fabric of our social world and its potential for change.
As we each hold the “echoes” of Glastonbury in our hearts, I challenge you to consider how this festival experience has transformed you or how it could. And remember, the spirit of Glastonbury doesn’t need to be confined within the festival boundaries. What lessons or experiences from Glastonbury will you incorporate into your daily life? Let’s keep the Glastonbury spirit alive by dancing freely and being open to new adventures. Remember, we are all part of the colourful and unique fabric of humanity. God, I miss it – see you next year!