views updated May 23 2018

subculture Widely and broadly used, the core idea of subcultural theory is of the formation of subcultures as a collective solution to, or resolution of, problems arising from the blocked aspirations of members, or their ambiguous position in the wider society. Thus subcultures are distinct from the larger culture but borrow (and often distort, exaggerate, or invert) its symbols, values, and beliefs. The concept is widely used in the sociology of deviance—particularly in studies of youth culture.

In the American tradition, a major influence has been Robert Merton's reformulation of Émile Durkheim's concept of anomie, whilst the influence of the Chicago School is also important to note. Albert K. Cohen (Delinquent Boys, 1955) argued that delinquent subcultures developed around adolescent status problems. He described the status frustration of young working-class men, taught at school to aspire to middle-class values, yet remaining tied to their limited, working-class opportunity structures. Faced with a lack of legitimate opportunities, status could only be achieved within a subculture of oppositional, expressive, hedonistic, and non-utilitarian values. Walter Miller (‘Lower-Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency’, Journal of Social Issues, 1958)
argued that delinquent subcultures were rooted in aspects of working-class culture; and, rather than being merely a reaction to middle-class society, were more an expressive emphasizing of the ‘focal concerns’ of the parent culture. Richard A. Cloward and and Lloyd B. Ohlin (Delinquency and Opportunity, 1960)
combined elements of the anomie approach with Edwin Sutherland's theory of differential association, identifying ‘strain’ as a result of the perceived blocking of legitimate means to attain internalized, conventional (middle-class) goals. Some youths resolved this strain by turning to the illegitimate opportunity structures of the local working-class community. Apart from legitimate opportunities these also offered ‘criminal’ or ‘conflict’ means of succeeding. ‘Retreatist’ behaviour (such as drug-taking or alcohol use) signalled a double failure to succeed in the spheres either of legitimate or illegitimate enterprise.

British subcultural studies have drawn heavily upon the American tradition, but frequently provided new perspectives: for example, in terms of the ways youth experiences British working-class culture ( D. Downes , The Delinquent Solution, 1966
); the bohemian hedonism of middle-class youth subcultures ( J. Young , The Drugtakers, 1971
); the idea of subcultures as arenas of ‘cultural resistance through ritual’ ( S. Hall and and T. Jefferson ( eds.) , Resistance through Rituals, 1976
); and ‘reading’ the meaning of style in subcultures ( R. Hebdige , Subculture: The Meaning of Style, 1979

Subcultures can arise, according to some authors at least, as forms of symbolic resistance within social institutions which reflect aspects of the social organization of wider society, including schools ( D. Hargreaves , Social Relations in a Secondary School, 1967
) and prisons ( G. Sykes , The Society of Captives, 1958
), or can provide wider networks for those seeking to assert the sense of difference they feel, for example as homosexuals (see K. Plummer , Sexual Stigma, 1975
). Feminist writers have explained the absence of girls from street youth culture by reference to a feminine ‘bedroom subculture’ (see A. McRobbie and and J. Garber , ‘Girls and Subcultures’, in S. Hall and and T. Jefferson ( eds.) , Resistance through Rituals, 1976

Subcultural theory can be criticized on several grounds. It can overdraw differences between (and, relatedly, overemphasize the internal homogeneity of) groups identified by, for example, their social class or their age. A consistent failing in subculture studies has been their neglect of women and non-White groups. The idea of a subculture implies difference from a dominant, superordinate host culture, yet it can be argued that the plurality and fragmentation of modern or post-modern culture erodes the significance of the former concept. Since, latterly, subcultural theory has come to embrace many different (by no means wholly compatible) theoretical standpoints, it is hard to formulate definitive assessments. However, Stanley Cohen has proffered a fairly damning critique of the ‘resistance through rituals’ tradition of British subcultural theory, arguing that the exercises of decoding and deciphering the subcultural styles in question (punk, skinhead, or whatever) are politically partisan, and ultimately unconvincing, since they nowhere address themselves to the explicit intentions of the research subjects themselves (Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 2nd edn., 1980
). See also Coleman, James S.


views updated May 21 2018


COUNTERCULTURE. A stratum of American and western European culture that began in the mid-1960s. Its adherents, mostly white, young, and middle class, adopted a lifestyle that embraced personal freedom while rejecting the ethics of capitalism, conformity, and repressive sexual mores. The mainstream media sometimes referred to members of the counterculture as "hippies," "freaks," or "flower children."

The counterculture was no more a "culture" than the diverse antiwar movement was a "movement." Rather, the term was applied by social critics attempting to characterize the widespread rebellion of many western youths against the values and behaviors espoused by their parents. However, many young people adopted certain counterculture trappings, such as those involving music, fashion, slang, or recreational drugs, without necessarily abandoning their middle-class mores. Various factors nurtured the counterculture, including the postwar growth of the American middle class (whose "materialism" the counterculture disdained), wide availability of "the pill" for reliable contraception (thus reducing one risk of sexual experimentation), the increasing popularity of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD (which encouraged introspection and alienation from "straight" culture), and the Vietnam War (which convinced many young people that America had lost its soul).

The counterculture's deepest roots lay in the "Beat Generation" of the 1950s, a relatively small group of nonconformist intellectuals who chafed under the rigid orthodoxy of the era. Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg espoused unconventional behavior and individual rebellion, often fueled by espresso, marijuana, and mescaline.

Just as New York City's Greenwich Village became identified with the "beatniks," the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco developed into a mecca for the

counterculture. A poor area of the city, its cheap rentals attracted many who valued community over luxury. In time the "Haight's" reputation drew still more youths curious about the emerging lifestyle. Some left the urban areas behind to form rural communes loosely modeled on utopian communities of the past, but few of these proved to be self-sustaining.


Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

Miller, Timothy. The Hippies and American Values. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

J. JustinGustainis

See alsoBeat Generation ; Hippies .


views updated May 18 2018

Counterculture. The mainly middle-class, Western youth culture of the 1960s which opposed the rituals, forms, structures, ideologies, calculating rationality, and leadership of the wider society. It was from among these casualties of the counterculture that a number of new religions of total commitment, such as the Unification Church (see MOON, SUN MYUNG) and Hare Krishna (see INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY …), gained many of their first converts in the West.


views updated Jun 08 2018

sub·cul·ture / ˈsəbˌkəlchər/ • n. a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture.DERIVATIVES: sub·cul·tur·al / ˌsəbˈkəlchərəl/ adj.


views updated May 29 2018

coun·ter·cul·ture / ˈkountərˌkəlchər/ • n. a way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm.