The resources on this page are for educational purposes for SAE Creative Media Institute students. The audio file is a summary of chapter one from Ross Haenfler’s book Subcultures: The Basic (2013) and parts of Dick Hebdige’s Subcultures: Meaning of Style (2012).
Subcultures and Beyond
Just what exactly is a subculture? Is surfing a subculture? What about Strippers? Wait! Immigrants? How about Collectors of pornography?
Some may describe subcultures as a smaller piece of a larger culture or society, which is different from the mainstream culture. So, following this description, my grandmother’s knitting circle and skinheads might both qualify!
And as you may have wondered, there are many terms that could be used synonymously with subcultures. Are vegans a subculture, social movement, lifestyle, or counterculture? Or maybe all of them?
How can we decide?
First, let’s see when we start using the term subculture and why.
It was the 1920s Chicago, United States. At this time, authorities often labeled subcultures as criminals or moral threats, leading to broader stigmatization. They explained and understood subcultures as social problems in relation to crime and deviance, immigration, and urban life. Life in Chicago and other industrial cities in the US at that time was not that easy; poverty, long labor hours, and lack of welfare resulted in many social problems. The thinkers who used the term subcultures saw those subcultures as social problems. For them, society was like the human body, and subcultures were a disease affecting the organs of this body; therefore, they needed to be fixed. In other words, for them, subcultures were deviant behavior – whether stealing a car or piercing one’s lip.
Then came another use of the term subcultures. In the decades following World War II, youth cultures exploded in numbers for a variety of reasons: the growth of film, television, and music industries increased youths’ exposure to pop culture and alternative ideas; an expanding middle class led to greater disposable income and leisure time; at that time those in marketing and parents came to see “teenagers” as a leisure class.
However, not all youth shared such wealth and income. The relative expansion of the middle class in the postwar years quickly gave way to deindustrialization and urban decline. Eventually, the conservative regimes of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States undermined the social safety net, which meant not considering the lives and conditions of vulnerable families and individuals experiencing poverty. These administrations also accelerated free-market capitalism. It was a time when the poor became poorer, and the rich became richer. It was in this context that working-class youth (mainly boys) joined together on the basis of their marginalization from and resistance against the class structure. Subcultures, therefore, are primarily working-class phenomena, a reworking of the class struggle that had been occurring for generations. In fact, the history of subcultures follows the evolution of working-class styles and identities in the case of the UK, beginning with the teddy boys and leading to the mods and the rockers, skinheads, punks, football hooligans, and more recently “chavs.”
There were common beliefs, such as the notion that one may suffer indignities on earth but find salvation in the afterlife or the belief that people succeed or fail by their own merits and that the wealthy have earned their riches honestly. The poor simply have not tried hard enough. These common beliefs make class inequality seem natural. Most of the subcultures of this time were, in one way or another, formed as opposed to these kinds of common beliefs.
You might have heard the name Dick Hebdidge in your study of subcultures already. He saw subcultural style as a bricolage, or combination and remaking of various cultural objects. Members of subcultures took ordinary items and transformed their meaning. A famous example is the safety pin that, for a punk, becomes lip- or ear-piercing.
Subcultures became associated with “spectacular” styles, intentionally making a spectacle of themselves. Stylistic codes simultaneously served two purposes: to set participants apart from “normal” society (and other subcultures) and to establish a particular subcultural identity. Understanding subcultures then involves decoding their style and shows the standards and values of the subculture. For example, skinheads’ steel-toed boots, shaved heads, masculine posture, and love of beer naturally “fit” with their working-class origins and the context of economic decline. Punk style was essentially meaningless “noise,” reflecting their “no future” attitude (Hebdige 2012).
All in all, during this era of emerging numerous subcultures, identity creation was the main drive for many subcultures. These subcultures were shaped in a way to build subversive identities related to class, race/ ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. We can see the rise of queer subcultures, drag subcultures, and polyamory subcultures, among many other ones rising as a resistance against the forceful oppression of the dominant norms of the time.
What comes next are the elements of subcultures based on seeking identity, making sense of everyday life, and, in some cases, open opposition to dominant norms. Like what to wear, how to behave, and what to believe.
All subcultures have a set of shared values and practices; here are some of them:
- Subcultures often have distinct visual markers, symbols, styles, and aesthetics that serve as a means of identification and expression within the group or demonstrate differentiation from other subcultures and the mainstream culture. Things Like skateboards, steel-toed boots, and anime cosplay costumes.
- Usually, members of a subculture tend to gather in specific places that are associated with their subcultural activities, like underground bars, pubs, nature, decaying buildings in a slum, game nets, etc. These places are directly related to the subcultures’ members’ economic status.
- Subcultures often develop their own forms of cultural capital, which include knowledge, skills, consumption traits, and practices that are valued within the subculture but not necessarily recognized or valued by the dominant culture. Many subcultures have a distinctive, shared vernacular of idioms and symbols that demonstrate belonging and insider knowledge, marking those “in the know” from outsiders. For example, graffiti writers commonly talk about crews, bombing, tags, throw-ups, getting up, burning, and wildstyle.
- Subcultures often come to be as a response or reaction to certain sociopolitical, economic, and environmental conditions. This is why some subcultures lose their radicalness over time, as the cause of their rebellion has gone. Remember the punk subculture? If someone appears on the street with visual aesthetics once associated with punk, they are not seen as criminals or delinquents anymore, as the main cause of such images is gone now.
- Subcultures are also associated with certain objects and materials. For instance, the use of safety pins and the punk subculture, specific psychedelic substances and rave subculture, or the late 1970s British skinheads and Doc Martens boots, etc. The use of these objects tells us a lot about the economic and social backgrounds of the members of such subcultures.
Going back to the beginning of this recording, subcultures have much in common with other social groups, including gangs, social movements, lifestyles, and fan cultures.
I like to briefly go through the similarities and differences between subcultures and other social/cultural groups:
- A lifestyle is “any distinctive … mode of living” (Haenfler, 2013, p. 19), including people’s tastes, the way they dress and talk, what they buy, their dietary choices, their hobbies or other interests, and so on. Clearly, subcultures practice various lifestyles, but conceptually, subcultural norms, values, and practices are more oppositional or deviant than the average lifestyle.
- Subcultures also overlap with social movements, but social movements are organized, collective, manifestly political, and public challenges against “authority structures,” typically government bodies. When someone talks about social movements we might picture activists parading through the streets for issues such as anti-war, environmental, human rights, global democracy, and so on. Still, social movements and subcultures share common ground. Like subcultures, “new” social movements such as animal rights, feminist and queer movements reject and oppose dominant cultural norms in addition to fighting for political rights. But in the end, social movements are focused more on” politics,” collective protest efforts to change public policy. But relative to subcultures, social movements have greater organization, a more consistent focus on social change, more frequent (often contentious) public interactions with the state, and often (although not always) a more coherent political worldview.
- Subcultures also have many commonalities with gangs: Gangs are, in many ways, subcultural. The Yakuza in Japan have elaborate subcultural rituals and tattoos, but they have a strict and formal hierarchy that makes them more of an organized criminal group than a subculture. Also, gangs have a huge focus on their territory compared to many contemporary subcultures. Even more importantly, criminality is a central feature of contemporary gangs; although subcultures may occasionally break the law, crime is not the center of their existence.
- Finally, subcultures certainly have a lot with fan cultures or fandoms. Both fandoms and subcultures are non-normative or deviant activities; there is an emphasis on authenticity among participants (e.g., “true” fans and “true” punks); and an amateur, often underground network for sharing creativity (e.g., fan fiction sites and ‘zines). Some fan cultures are quite subcultural. Football (soccer) clubs’ supporters (fans) around the world share an almost tribal identity, not just attending matches together but fighting other clubs’ fans (firms) and creating general chaos in the platforms. These football fans are often called “football hooligans” by the press; in many ways, being part of a football firm is a deviant way of life.
What about now – the 2020s?
From the early 1990s, many of the classic “underground” subcultures – skinhead, punk, metal – were replaced by “grunge” scenes and an emergence of dance cultures. Raves, all-night underground electronic dance music parties fuelled by drugs, brought together diverse crowds focused more on hedonistic escape than class resistance. In fact, social class, gender, and race seemed less important and less central to the formation of such scenes. In this context, subcultures could not be understood as before; they were no longer the culture warriors. The contemporary crowds blend all sorts of music and fashion as individuals, and they consume and create their own styles as if they are shopping for fashions and identities in a supermarket of style. They are less interested in adopting a collective identity; instead, they are more passionate about pursuing their own creativity and pleasure, drawing from a variety of sources to patch together their own lifestyles. In fact, what we call mainstream society is simply a collection of lifestyle clusters, eliminating the difference between what we know as subcultures and the rest of society.
Now, we might enjoy hip-hop music while dressed like a goth and follow a healthy eating habit with lots of avocados, all at the same time! It seems that now, in the 21st century, we are like nomadic tribes, going around choosing bits and pieces of diverse cultural/subcultural practices, creating a cultural collage unique to ourselves. In other words, we no longer adhere ourselves to a subculture to define the self; rather, identity formation has become a fluid, constantly changing process. It is true that in many cases, the central focus of subcultures is no longer the resistance of the working class youth or responses to political and social corruption; instead, the center has shifted towards personalized styles, hedonism, and consumerism practice; it does not eliminate their potential for resistance.
For example, the Burning Man is a yearly event held in Nevada, US, with eclectic art, music, and styles. In this event, fifty thousand-something attendees plan, build, and then dismantle a giant wooden effigy (the burning man). They cooperate in building large art projects and structures, making music, and trading goods – organizers allow no monetary exchange. So here, participants share principles of creativity, inclusivity, self-reliance, and decommodification; they do not make a unified front against a dominant ideology or mainstream culture as a shared subcultural identity.
Haenfler, R. (2013). Subcultures: the basics. Routledge.
Hebdige, D. (2012). Subculture: The meaning of style. Routledge.