A subculture in general terms is a group with certain cultural features that enable it to be distinguished from other groups and the wider society from which it has emerged. But before it is possible to attempt a more precise clarification of the concept of subculture, it is necessary to examine the wider and related term ‘‘culture.’’ The definition of culture that under pins the analysis of subculture is that which derives from the discipline of anthropology, and is concerned with the study of ‘‘a whole way of life’’ of a group or society. This widely encompassing and democratic definition does, however, raise the issue of what aspects of groups or societies are, or are not, ‘‘cultural.’’ Sociologists have always regarded both religious and secular systems of values and beliefs to be cultural, along with those ‘‘styles of life’’ that arise from patterned modes of consumption. More recently, the discipline of cultural studies has reserved the term culture for those ‘‘signifying practices’’ – including cinema, fashion and design, cuisine, popular recreations, advertising, music, and so forth – through which people communicate their tastes and give expressive form to their emergent identities.
This does raise the issue of the level of generality or specificity at which culture is shared. In an age of global communications, certain cultural forms clearly cross national boundaries; yet it is also possible to identify distinctive national cultures. Within nations, cultural pat terns are also cross cut by region, religious affiliation, and other social characteristics such as class, gender, age, ethnicity, and sexuality. It might therefore be appreciated why early definitions of subculture proposed the term to refer to a unified subset or division of the wider, national culture, one that had an integrative function for the individual member. Other initial attempts at conceptualization preferred to employ the designations subworld, population segment, or scene. But while precise agreement has never been reached over what constitutes subcultures, they can fundamentally be regarded as social groups whose specific, shared culture, lifestyle, or identity is distinctive enough to mark them off as different in some significant way from their ‘‘parent culture’’ (the immediate cultural milieu from which they arise). They can be organized around many kinds of shared interests and activities, including drug taking, fashion and music, or sport. Any particular social class, age span, gender, or ethnicity could conceivably dominate membership, although sociological studies of subcultures have often focused on those composed of white, male, working class youths.
In a pluralistic and highly differentiated society, cultural identifications do not all wield the same influence or share equal status; rather, they are unevenly ranked in terms of power, so it is broadly possible to identify cultural clusters that stand in mutual relationships of domination and subordination. While subcultures can emerge from relatively powerful parent cultures, such that they can be considered enclaves within the dominant culture, ultra radical groups of this kind whose values and activities are too sharply opposed to those of the dominant culture, and/or that are perceived to have developed a potentially revolutionary political self awareness, tend to be conceptualized as ‘‘contra cultures’’ or more often ‘‘countercultures.’’ On the other hand, the term subculture is rarely used to denote sets of practices that are too conservative, reactionary, or reflective of the dominant culture. The assumption is that subcultures are inherently oppositional in that they are necessarily predicated on some form of disorder, delinquency, or deviance. Furthermore, they are also held to be ‘‘subterranean,’’ their underground status and lack of formal barriers to membership contrasting sharply with the bureaucratic entry requirements of ‘‘official’’ organizations and legitimately sanctioned groups. The concept of subculture has therefore more typically been applied to those groups, arising from a subordinated parent class culture, whose position vis a vis the dominant culture is less clearly articulated or overtly politicized than those of the countercultures.
Various forms of social inquiry into a range of subcultural groups had taken place long before the concept itself had begun to gain currency in academic circles from the late 1940s onwards; but the pioneering, institutional research in this respect was that conducted by members of the sociology department at the University of Chicago in the period between the two world wars. The Chicago School, as they were collectively known, were concerned with the ecology of the urban environment and specifically the high incidence of crime and delinquency occur ring in ‘‘zones of transition’’ – areas of rapidly shifting population and social disorganization in which normative controls had been weakened. By treating the city as a ‘‘social laboratory,’’ the resulting case studies of juvenile gangs, hobos, and taxi dance hall habitues were characterized by the symbolic interactionist principle of examining the world from the point of view of those being studied.
The Chicago School’s legacy of commitment to qualitative interviews and ethnographic practice can be discerned in American studies of deviant and delinquent subcultures undertaken throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It also surfaced during this time in a slightly different strain of American sociological research into subcultures, one influenced by anomie theory, which suggests that certain groups, having internalized dominant success goals, find it impossible to realize their aspirations due to their structural position in society. A situation of anomie or ‘‘normlessness’’ results in which legitimate means are abandoned and alternative, ‘‘illegitimate’’ ones proposed. Lower working class youth, for example, having suffered educational failure, blocked opportunities, and ‘‘status frustration,’’ invert respectable middle class values, placing emphasis instead upon delinquent activities that are prized from the perspective of their own peer group. In this sense, the delinquent subculture can be said to arise as one collective ‘‘problem solving’’ device. This paradigm was to dominate US subcultural theory throughout this period, albeit with various attempts at modification (including an analysis of the differential opportunities for illegitimate as well as legitimate means for success). It was also to become influential in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, but took on slightly different emphases, being allied first with interactionism, then Marxism.
Of the various approaches apparent in British subcultural research during the first two post war decades, two are particularly worthy of note. The first involved ecological explorations of delinquent, deviant, or impoverished urban communities and of the groups that formed within these neighborhoods. Unlike American studies that emphasized social disorganization or anomie theory as explanations for the formation of subcultures, the British context more usually stressed differential socialization – an adherence to alternative, subterranean working class values and disassociation from middle class notions of respectability. The second approach focused more specifically on schools and how streaming and banding (the allocation of pupils to school classes on the basis of perceived academic ability) aided the creation of pro and anti school pupil subcultures that respectively revered or rejected the educational ethos of academic achievement. The role of the teacher in ascribing either a positive or negative label to the pupil (such as ‘‘hardworking’’ or ‘‘troublemaker’’) and the response of the pupil in rejecting or, alternatively, accepting and internalizing the label, could also be seen as a factor in the formation of these school based subcultures; as, indeed, could be the home back ground of students and their socialization into the parental social class culture, as well as their involvement in commercialized youth leisure activities.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, youth subcultures based around highly visible styles of dress became an explicit focus of academic attention in Britain. Initial explorations were concerned with how social reactions to deviance could escalate the problem through the generation of ‘‘moral panics’’ – a form of collective righteous indignation involving calls for greater law enforcement measures and tougher penal ties for offenders. This involved an analysis of how the media, along with the agencies of social control such as the police and judiciary, labeled, stereotyped, exaggerated and, in so doing, amplified the very forms of delinquent behavior they sought to contain. Even so, the problem solving approach was still relied on for structural explanations of the origins of the initial deviance and thus of the subcultures themselves. Throughout the 1970s the interactionist dimension of this body of work was displaced by a neo Marxist mode of theorizing that saw these and other style based subcultures, such as teddy boys, skinheads, and punks, as attempts by working class youth to resist ‘‘hegemony’’ – the process by which middle class (or bourgeois) culture attempts to define and circumscribe on its own terms the experience of subordinate classes. But again, in a manner echoing the American delinquency theory of the 1950s, each successive subculture was seen as an attempt at a solution to a historically specific ‘‘problem’’ faced by its working class parent culture.
It is important to recognize two very different methodological strands within this general theoretical approach, associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham, UK. The first harked back to the classic ethnographic tradition of Chicago School sociology with its use of qualitative interviews and participant observation. The second more innovatively borrowed from French theory the principles of structuralism and semiotic analysis, which enabled all cultural practices to be read like a language. In this way, the styles of the subcultures were ‘‘decoded,’’ like texts, for their hidden meanings, without recourse to the subjective motives of the subcultural members themselves. Some of the CCCS work was also notable for its consideration of how British ‘‘race relations’’ and black style subcultures, such as rude boys and Rastafarians, impacted upon the formation of white, indigenous British youth subcultures. But much of the output by its male academics was silent on issues of gender divisions: the too close identification with male dominated groups and the masculine elements of style had rendered ‘‘invisible’’ the presence of girls in subcultures. To date, the few extensive, systematic explorations that have been conducted on females in male dominated subcultures have confirmed the tentative assumptions made by early feminist critiques of the CCCS – that females use subcultures as a means of negotiating and resisting aspects of conventional femininity.
Although the work of the CCCS has proved highly influential in many other English speaking countries, its position as the dominant paradigm in subcultural studies has been slowly undermined since the early 1990s by intense criticism from a new generation of academics who, eschewing textual analysis and once more embracing ethnography, have attempted to engage with the rapidly changing cultural conditions of contemporary youth. These developments have been further stimulated by the emergence of the ‘‘Acid house,’’ rave, or techno party event from the late 1980s onwards. Because this new youth movement could not be easily accounted for by existing youth subcultural theory, academic attempts to come to terms with its prominence have helped advance the field of study. It is perhaps now accurate to say that we are in a situation where no one theoretical perspective dominates, although two of the major contenders for supremacy are those influenced by the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Michael Maffesoli, respectively.
The concept of ‘‘subcultural capital’’ has been developed on the basis of Bourdieu’s ‘‘cultural capital’’ to explain the hierarchies of taste operating within both clubbing crowds and subcultures. It refers to that form of ‘‘hip’’ status accrued by having esoteric knowledge regarding what is currently ‘‘in or out’’ on that scene, and is a means by which members of such groups display their ‘‘authenticity’’ – the legitimacy of their underground tastes in comparison to what is perceived to be the mass tastelessness of commercialized, ‘‘mainstream’’ culture. Maffesoli’s concept of the ‘‘tribus’’ has, in the guise of ‘‘neo tribe,’’ also been applied to sub cultures and dance crowds because of its connotations of transitory membership, eclectic tastes, and multiple allegiances – all markers of the ‘‘postmodern,’’ and which are said to characterize contemporary youth movements.
Indeed, the widespread use of such concepts as ‘‘club culture, ‘‘neo tribe’’ or, in some cases, ‘‘lifestyle’’ has led to a questioning not only of the relevance of existing theory but the very term subculture itself. It would seem, however, that despite the polemical pronouncement that we are now ‘‘post ’’ or ‘‘after ’’ subculture, future work will not necessarily dispense with the concept of subculture, but is likely to emphasize the characteristics of flux, fluidity, and hybridization that these groups do, and perhaps to some extent always have, displayed.
- Bennett, A. & Kahn-Harris, K. (Eds.) (2004) After Subculture: Critical Studies in Contemporary Youth Culture. Palgrave, London.
- Cohen, S. (2003) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, 3rd edn. Routledge, London.
- Downes, D. (1966) The Delinquent Solution: A Study in Subcultural Theory. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
- Gelder, K. & Thornton, S. (Eds.) (1997) The Sub cultures Reader. Routledge, London.
- Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Methuen, London.
- Leblanc, L. (2002) Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Muggleton, D. (2000) Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. Berg, Oxford.
- Muggleton, D. & Weinzierl, R. (Eds.) (2003) The Post Subcultures Reader. Berg, Oxford.
- Thornton, S. (1995) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- White, R (Ed.) (1993) Youth Subcultures: History, Theory and the Australian Experience. National Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, Hobart, Tasmania.
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