A History of Motorcycle Communities

The stereotype of the motorcycle rider in the U.S. has been dominated by the figure of the outlaw biker since the late 1940s. Journalists and Hollywood are largely to blame for that, say the authors cited in the two articles below. The recent gun battle in Waco, Texas, which resulted in nine dead bikers, has only reinforced the “hell’s angels” image, but that’s only the tiniest subset of motorcycle ridership.

Peter Tamony gives a capsule history of the motorcycle in this country. He pays particular attention to the origin of the name of the most famous/infamous biker gang, the Hell’s Angels, in Fontana, California, in 1950. (Hint: think biplanes – yes, biplanes – and Jean Harlow.)

Andrew H. Maxwell is more interested in the non-outlaws, the 99% of other bikers. His is a sociological and anthropological perspective on what motivates people to pursue an activity that is considered deviant as well as very dangerous. Motorcyclists “constitute a sociocultural formation which involves the materially and symbolically mediated cultivation of a lifestyle which is both similar to and different in important respects from that of most Americans.”

His argument shouldn’t come as a surprise. Motorcycle riders make a community, or rather communities, cutting across a wide spectrum of class, race, gender, and age. For Maxwell, these are self-identifying groups “counteracting and resisting to some extent the fragmentation of contemporary social life.” They are equivalent to clubs and fraternal organizations; people who don’t want to “bowl alone.”

Riders are struggling against enormous socioeconomic upheavals: deindustrialization and the obliteration of blue-collar jobs; residential transformations, including gentrification; the end of life-time white-collar sinecures. America’s course since the 1970s has been profoundly anti-community. Humans being humans, we have responded in many ways; some have joined this particular subculture.

Maxwell wrote his article 17 years ago. The numbers he cites about motorcycle ownership and registration have grown since then. There are now nearly 9.5 million registered motorcycles in the U.S. The trend he notes of riders growing older has continued. A slow increase in the number of women bikers has also continued; it’s just under 10% now. Sociopaths on “hogs” obviously still exist, but that biker in your rear view mirror might more likely be a grandmother.


JSTOR Citations

The Hell's Angels: Their Naming

By: Peter Tamony

Western Folklore Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jul., 1970) , pp. 199-203

Published by: Western States Folklore Society

Motorcyclists And Community In Post-Industrial Urban America

By: Andrew H. Maxwell

Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development Vol. 27, No. 3/4 (FALL-WINTER, 1998), pp. 263-299

Published by: The Institute, Inc.

Matthew Wills

Matthew Wills has advanced degrees in library science and film studies and is lapsed in both fields. He has published in Poetry, Huffington Post, and Nature Conservancy Magazine, among other places, and blogs regularly about urban natural history at matthewwills.com.

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