Culture Worlds

Subcultures

A subculture is a culture shared and actively participated in by a minority of people within a broader culture.

Learning Objectives

Give examples for subcultures by using Gelder’s proposed criteria

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Subcultures incorporate large parts of the broader cultures of which they are part; in specifics they may differ radically.
  • The study of subcultures often consists of the study of symbolism attached to clothing, music, and other visible affectations by members of subcultures. Sociologists also study the ways in which these same symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture.
  • Cultural appropriation is the process by which businesses often seek to capitalize on the subversive allure of subcultures in search of “cool,” which remains valuable in the selling of any product.

Key Terms

  • subculture: A portion of a culture distinguished from the larger society around it by its customs or other features.
  • symbolism: Representation of a concept through symbols or underlying meanings of objects or qualities.
  • cultural appropriation: Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.

In sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies, a subculture is a group of people with a culture that differentiates themselves from the larger culture to which they belong. A culture often contains numerous subcultures, which incorporate large parts of the broader cultures of which they are part; in specifics they may differ radically. Subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity.

Subcultures and Symbolism

The study of subcultures often consists of the study of symbolism attached to clothing, music, and other visible affectations by members of subcultures. Additionally, sociologists study the ways in which these symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture. Some subcultures achieve such a status that they acquire a name. Members of a subculture often signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, which includes fashions, mannerisms, and argot. Examples of subcultures could include bikers, military personnel, and Star Trek fans.

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Trekkies: The hand gesture meaning ‘live long and prosper’ has spread beyond the subculture of Star Trek fans and is often recognized in mainstream culture.

Identifying Subcultures

It may be difficult to identify certain subcultures because their style—particularly clothing and music—may be adopted by mass culture for commercial purposes. Businesses often seek to capitalize on the subversive allure of subcultures in search of “cool,” which remains valuable in selling of any product. This process of cultural appropriation may often result in the death or evolution of the subculture, as its members adopt new styles that appear alien to mainstream society.

In 2007, Ken Gelder proposed six key ways in which subcultures can be identified:

  1. Through their often negative relations to work (as ‘idle’, ‘parasitic’, at play or at leisure, etc.)
  2. Through their negative or ambivalent relation to class (since subcultures are not ‘class-conscious’ and don’t conform to traditional class definitions)
  3. Through their association with territory (the ‘street’, the ‘hood’, the club, etc.), rather than property
  4. Through their movement out of the home and into non-domestic forms of belonging (i.e. social groups other than the family)
  5. Through their stylistic ties to excess and exaggeration (with some exceptions)
  6. Through their refusal of the banalities of ordinary life

Countercultures

Counterculture is a term describing the values and norms of a cultural group that run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day.

Learning Objectives

Apply the concept of counterculture to the rise and collapse of the US Hippie movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Examples of countercultures in the U.S. could include the hippie movement of the 1960s, the green movement, polygamists, and feminist groups.
  • A counterculture is a subculture with the specific characteristic that some of its beliefs, values, or norms challenge or even contradict those of the main culture with which it shares a geographic region and/or origin.
  • Countercultures run counter to dominant cultures and the social mainstream of the day.

Key Terms

  • mainstream: Purchased, used, or accepted broadly rather than by a tiny fraction of a population or market; common, usual, or conventional.
  • culture: The beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life.
  • counterculture: Any culture whose values and lifestyles are opposed to those of the established mainstream culture, especially to western culture.

“Counterculture” is a sociological term that refers to a cultural group or subculture whose values and norms of behavior run counter to those of the region’s social mainstream; it can be considered the cultural equivalent of political opposition.

In the United States, the counterculture of the 1960s became identified with the rejection of conventional social norms of the 1950s. Counterculture youth rejected the cultural standards of their parents, especially with respect to racial segregation and initial widespread support for the Vietnam War.

As the 1960s progressed, widespread tensions developed in American society that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women’s rights, traditional modes of authority, and a materialistic interpretation of the American Dream. Hippies became the largest countercultural group in the United States. The counterculture also had access to a media eager to present their concerns to a wider public. Demonstrations for social justice created far-reaching changes affecting many aspects of society.

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Hippies at an Anti-Vietnam Demonstration, 1967: A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration.

The counterculture in the United States lasted from roughly 1964 to 1973 — coinciding with America’s involvement in Vietnam — and reached its peak in 1967, the “Summer of Love. ” The movement divided the country: to some Americans, these attributes reflected American ideals of free speech, equality, world peace, and the pursuit of happiness; to others, the same attributes reflected a self-indulgent, pointlessly rebellious, unpatriotic, and destructive assault on America’s traditional moral order.

The counterculture collapsed circa 1973, and many have attributed its collapse to two major reasons: First, the most popular of its political goals — civil rights, civil liberties, gender equality, environmentalism, and the end of the Vietnam War — were accomplished. Second, a decline of idealism and hedonism occurred as many notable counterculture figures died, the rest settled into mainstream society and started their own families, and the “magic economy” of the 1960s gave way to the stagflation of the 1970s.