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In German, the word 'Szene', which translates literally to 'scene' and has an identical meaning in the context of a movie or a play, has a second use in referring to a group of people that form a community around a common interest with a high identification factor, in particular music genres.

In English, I've come across "drug scene", or "clubbing scene", which seems to match the German usage, but more often it seems to be "community", which appears to have a slightly larger scope, though. While a "community" can have many purposes, and particularly may well be of a professional nature (as in "programmer community"), a "Szene" would almost always be related to leisure activities, with a slight bias towards nightlife.

A good example for that is the German word "Schwulenszene", which would probably translate to "gay community", but the two terms don't match exactly. The German one would tend to not include gay rights activists, for instance, and mostly refer to bars, clubs or parties that are directed specifically at the gay community.

The German word is mostly neutral (in 2012 Berlin, anyway), has a slightly positive connotation of something fashionable in nightlife (the expression "Szenekneipe" might be used like the English "hip joint"), but shifts to clearly derogatory when used for political groups, usually of the more extreme sort ('Naziszene', 'Autonomenszene', 'Islamistenszene'). I'm hypothesizing, but it might be that it started out as a derogatory term and got its connotation transformed by some of the hipper crowds thusly described.

Some contexts where it would be natural in German to use "Szene", but where I haven't heard the English expression yet:

  • ballroom dancing (Tango, Salsa etc)
  • music genres with associated looks / lifestyles (Metal, Punk, Gothic etc.)
  • pastimes that form strong communities, like LARPing or various outdoor sports
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The reason you won't find many references to, for example, the ballroom dancing scene is simply that such use of the word scene in English strongly correlates with the idea of (often subversive) "counter-culture". So it works well with drugs, punk, gay, etc., but it's not so good with ballroom dancing, opera, church, etc., since these are closer to the heart of traditional mainstream society. –  FumbleFingers Jun 11 '12 at 14:44
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...here are thousands of written references to "the avant-garde scene", which is a typical "core" English usage. –  FumbleFingers Jun 11 '12 at 14:48

3 Answers 3

I don't think the English usage of "scene" carries the negative connotation. If I were joining a university, for example, I might ask about the "downtown scene", "bar scene", "sports scene", or "student life scene" and I wouldn't be inferring anything negative.

Actually, it's pretty unusual for someone in English to use the term "scene" negatively, and people generally tend to use more inflammatory words such as "agenda." You will find this most often in politics. For example, in the United States you will find that far-right leaning people will often talk about the "gay agenda" or the "liberal agenda", inferring that there is a sort of subversive current.

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Hmm, just speaking anecdotally here, I think the word "scene" is fairly often used to describe the community around musical styles, like "the heavy metal scene", "the rap scene", etc. I don't recall ever hearing someone say "the Baroque music scene", maybe it's limited to more contemporary popular forms of music.

It's common to talk about the "night club scene" and "the bar scene", which are just vague ways of referring to such places and the people who frequent them. This usage is often, but not necessarily, derogatory. Like, "He just wastes his time running around the bar scene."

Outside of that ... ? I've never heard someone say, "the Libertarian scene" or "the Presbyterian scene" or "the coal slurry pipeline maintenance scene". If you said such a thing I think people would understand that you were referring to the community around that idea or activity, but it would likely be taken as derogatory, saying that this group is not a serious intellectual or professional group but is more like a bunch of mindless fans of a music style or a bunch of partiers at a bar.

I'm interested to hear if others can name examples where the word is regularly used to refer to some other community.

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So could we say that "scene" in English is used similarly to what I describe above as the German usage (of "Szene"), but less common and with a more derogatory connotation? –  Hanno Fietz Jun 11 '12 at 16:54
    
@Hanno I think basically "yes", but based on your description of how the word is used in German (the only German I know is a few words I've picked up from World War II movies), I think the use in English is much more limited. If you want to make a point about some group being their own little subculture, to refer to them as the "[whatever] scene" would do that. But if you sprinkled your conversation with references to this scene and that scene, it would sound strange. –  Jay Jun 11 '12 at 18:38

Perhaps uncommon, but such uses can be found...

ngram

Of course, unless you look at them you cannot be sure: maybe they are describing a scene in a movie or something...

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I wondered if this might be an apples-and-oranges comparison, but, after paging through some of the results, most of these "golf scene" hits indeed refer to the golf scene. –  J.R. Jun 11 '12 at 15:48
    
So it wasn't until the late nineties that the punk rock scene got more important than the golf scene? Poor Iggy. –  Hanno Fietz Jun 11 '12 at 16:51
    
@Hanno: that's actually pretty impressive, considering golf had a 500-year head start... :^) –  J.R. Jun 11 '12 at 18:48

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