What is the Mainstream?

The concepts of mainstream and subcultures are understood in connection with each other.

As a critical term in cultural studies in general, and media studies, particularly, the mainstream refers to a current of thought, activity, or influence prevalent, common, and widespread in a period or a field of study. In cultural studies, the mainstream idea is better understood compared to some other categories such as subculture, counter-culture, indie, or avant-garde. The mainstream represents the common and the agreed-upon, and the latter categories represent the possible alternatives. As an academic discipline, cultural studies intended to focus on the subcultures that resisted the universalistic normalcy of the mainstream:

Stuart Hall on the founding of cultural studies:

The connotation of the mainstream differs as the discourse differs. In some contexts, the mainstream implies popularity and abundance, if not inferiority or banality. 

In other contexts, however, the idea of the mainstream regulates the hegemonic discourses as normal. Institutions dictate the hegemonic discourses with formidable power- think of mainstream education and mainstream medicine, among other things. The same cultural hegemony is regulated in the mainstream cinema or mainstream music industry. In this way, mainstream serves as a crucial category of value used in various contexts, from politics and social sciences to cultural identity and from popular music to visual arts of different kinds and genres. 

Read the first six pages of the following classical piece on the hegemony of the American politics implemented by Hollywood since the 1970s, at the very least:

The film, Politics, and Ideology: Reflections on Hollywood Film in the Age of Reagan. (Read more on this https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/filmpoliticsideology.pdf )


As it is evident via the word formation, the idea of subcultures in social sciences and cultural studies undertake the study of marginal entities that define themselves against the mainstream culture’s significant thoughts and actions. Similarly, the study of subcultures as an academic field of inquiry begins in the early 20th century by examining the causes and characteristics of systematic crimes among the youth in the US. It is through these initial inquiries that resistance becomes the heart of subcultures studies. From its early phases, subcultures and the narratives around them have dealt with non-conformism and non-normativity created by the sense of disadvantage and dissatisfaction:

As the raison d’etre of the emergence of subcultures studies, reflected in the case of the ‘criminal’ youth gangs in the US and Britain, subcultures are to describe what the dominant culture, the mainstream if you prefer, consider ‘different,’ ‘dissenting’ or ‘deviant’ about some marginalized groups and professions and their practices.  

In this way, classical narratives about subcultures highlight two seminal themes: ‘deviation from the normative and a subsequent resistance against the sovereign cultures and ‘normal’ populations.

Movies such as Ill Manors (2012) depict the emergence of new subcultures and subcultural movements within the capitalist systems under neo-liberal policies in the global North. This has led to increasing desperation among the young working class and lower middle class in urban societies. The emergence of subcultural movements and gangs is a response to the latest developments in capitalist society, and Ill Manors is a spectacular representation of subcultures in cinema (Keely Hughes, 2018, 237-253)

Key terms such as underground groups, gangs, and tribes denote the concepts of community and marginalization concurrently. Alternativity and marginalization both have something to do with another critical concept in the study of subcultures, namely the concept of transgression. 

Transgression is expressed through marginalized but collective, shared fashions, interests, tastes, and memories within a particular group (like Sharpies, Bra Boys, or Bikie Gangs, all flourished in Australia) or profession (like drag kings and drag queens). 

Bodgies & Widgies 1950’s Youth Subculture In Australia

Subcultures refer to groups of human beings within a larger society who differentiate themselves/deviate from the mainstream/ parent culture by adopting alternative principles, values, lifestyles, and norms regarding culture, politics, sexuality, and so forth. In this way, as we can see, the subcultures concurrently connect to and break with the mainstream, and the boundaries between the mainstream and subcultures are hard to distinguish. Still, in general, the departure triumphs/ overshadows the connectivity when the two are compared to each other. 

Like any other critical term in cultural perspectives, it is better not to expect an agreed-upon definition of subculture. The more we expand the boundary of investigation about deviance and difference in the ruling norms and values of social groups in society, specifically among the youth, the more we find it laborious if not futile to achieve a universally accepted definition of subcultures. However, a workable and loose list of characteristics for the concept of subculture looks both possible and desirable.   

What we talk about when we talk about subcultures?

  • Regarding membership, leadership, and the organizational structure of a subculture, informality is the key.  Membership is not exclusive, leadership is not explicit, and structure is not firm (Williams: 2011).  

  • Regarding identity, a collective form of self-identification is arguably the most crucial characteristic of a subculture. The members of a subculture, AKA the subculturists, share an identity based upon shared values, practices, and objects. Examples are abundant. For instance, look at the Juggalos subculture. Insane Clown Posse can serve as a core for their collective sense of self-identification. A set of shared values and practices is formed around this cornerstone (Williams: 2011).

Folk metal

Teren, Mara 

The notion of subcultures comes on the scene in social sciences, specifically by the emergence of the Chicago school in the US and the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in post-WWII Britain to study groups such as skinheads, Teddy boys, and so on:

The Study of subcultures: Chicago school vs. Birmingham School

Generally speaking, there are three major approaches to the study of subcultures in cultural studies. The first approach is presented by the Chicago School (1950). The scholars of the Chicago School concentrated on contextualizing subcultures as examples of deviance and undesirable elements of society (Castillo-Villar and Cavazos-Arroyo, 2020, 353; Shane Blackman, 2014, 496-7). On the contrary, CCCS at Birmingham takes subcultures as style-based working-class youth cultures into consideration, focusing on subcultures like punk in the UK as a “legitimate counter-force of political resistance” (de Burgh-Woodman and Brace-Govan, 2007, p. 196). In the 1970s, the youth working class was motivated by some driving forces such as class, race, gender, and sexuality to defy the dominant narratives of the mainstream societies. 

The third and most recent approach to subcultures is known as the post-subcultural theory. Unlike the other two approaches, this approach understands subcultures within the boundaries of consumption choices and individual lifestyles. However, this approach is criticized predominantly for the oversimplification and depoliticization of subcultures and evacuating them of their political and resistance content (Bennett, 2015) and the neglect of the role of class and social justice in contemporary youth subcultures (Hollingworth, 2015)