Subcultures & Countercultures Research Paper Starter

Subcultures & Countercultures

(Research Starters)

This paper primarily examines the meaning of subculture and counterculture as sociologists have used the terms since the mid-twentieth century. This exploration of the terms leads to some of the problems the field of sociology has experienced in clearly defining the meaning of subculture, in clearly setting the parameters between the terms subculture and counterculture, and in avoiding hidden assumptions about these two classifications. The paper uses a study of sociology textbooks to establish a clearer meaning for the two terms, and also shows the contradictions, conflicts, and quandaries that various examples of subcultures and countercultures create. The paper attempts to resolve some of those conflicts by adding an additional criterion for evaluating subcultures and countercultures. Finally, the concept of subculture is further broken down into subcategories so that "youth subcultures" can be examined from two basic viewpoints, that of the traditional and the postmodern views.

Keywords Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS); Counterculture; Ethnic Groups; Neotribe; Postmodernism; Post-Subcultures; Psytrance; Subculture



Defining Subculture

For more than half a century in sociology, sociologists have been using the terms subculture and counterculture, but during that time some sociologists have pointed out various problems arising from the use of these two terms. First of all, the concept of a subculture must be framed quite broadly so as to include the various ways sociologists have intended the term in their writings. As Honea (2004) observes, "subculture is a term used loosely in social science. At the broadest level, the prefix 'sub' simply implies that these groups are smaller and distinct from the larger culture in some way" (p. 3). This loose usage of the term subculture has subsequently caused critics to suggest that the concept has become greatly diminished in its power as an analytical tool (Honea, 2004, p. 3). A related problem is whether the field of sociology clearly demarcates the differences between what constitutes a subculture and what constitutes a counterculture—and also, whether there are any assumptions or attitudes hidden behind the ways sociologists use these terms.

Dowd and Dowd (2003) have noted that, although both these terms are quite commonly used among sociologists, and are nearly always found in basic sociology textbooks, there nevertheless seems to be disagreement over the sociological method for categorizing a group as a subculture. Additionally, there seems to be disagreement in distinguishing what constitutes a subculture and what constitutes a counterculture. The authors state that, when many sociologists describe the concept of subculture, they tend to make an "implicit characterization of subcultures as either deviant, marginalized groups or heroic resisters against the hegemonic culture of global capitalism" (Dowd & Dowd, 2003, p. 20). If Dowd and Dowd are correct, then this points out that there may indeed be hidden assumptions or attitudes behind some sociologists' usage of the term subculture, and this also calls into question how such characterizations of a subculture differ from a counterculture. As we shall see, once we establish the difference between subcultures and countercultures, "heroic resisters against the hegemonic culture of global capitalism" seems more to describe members of a counterculture than a subculture—that is, if we initially accept the premise that subcultures and countercultures are indeed valid classifications.

The Postmodern Perspective

Shankar (2006) observes that some sociologists have rejected the general concepts of subculture and counterculture altogether. These sociologists view the concept of subculture from a postmodern perspective, and have therefore questioned the validity of how other sociologists apply the concept of subculture. According to Shankar, sociologists who take a postmodern perspective argue that "subcultures have fragmented to the point where there is no longer an identifiable subgroup sharing a common interest" (2006, p. 3). Shankar argues that this perspective "shifts the focus to localized subject positions that have developed around fashion, lifestyle, and identity," and cites Maffesoli who prefers to use the term neotribe or emotional community as a replacement for the traditional concept of subculture. Shankar notes that a postmodern sociological view "implies that the term 'subculture,' and the parent culture against which it is defined, are not coherent and homogenous formations that can be clearly demarcated" (Shankar, 2006, p. 81). Essentially, this makes the argument that we cannot separate our complex postmodern society into an overall parent culture (which is most likely perceived as a monoculture) and various subcultures. Though we should more thoroughly understand what it means to take a postmodernist perspective in sociology, and will return to this viewpoint, we should first have a clear understanding of what sociologists have traditionally meant when using the terms subculture and counterculture. A good way to arrive at clearer definitions is to survey the most popular sociology textbooks, correlate their explanations of the terms, and analyze their examples for each.

Surveying the Textbooks

Dowd and Dowd (2003) have carried out such a survey on 14 of the most commonly used sociology course textbooks for the university level, and their survey is quite helpful in better understanding the terms subculture and counterculture. After considering the use of the term subculture in the chosen textbooks, Dowd and Dowd create a definition, though it seems quite similar to the broad definition that Honea offers above. They state, "a subculture is usually thought of as a group that is part of the dominant culture but which differs from it in some important respects" (2003, p. 22). Although this definition is quite general—particularly in its assertion that a subculture differs from a dominant culture "in some important respects"—the definition proposes that a subculture is part of the dominant culture. This prompts consideration of whether or not a counterculture is also considered part of the dominant culture. If sociologists do not consider countercultures part of the dominant culture, then this is a basic distinction between the two concepts. However, for various reasons, such basic distinctions often become complicated.

Dowd and Dowd (2003) observe that many sociology textbooks, when presenting the concept of subculture, use Chinese immigrants and their descendants living in San Francisco's Chinatown as a prototypical example. The authors note that Chinese immigrants are a good example of a subculture because of their continuing fluency in Mandarin Chinese or a similar dialect, so fluency in a language other than the language of the mainstream culture is apparently one of the common features of a subculture. However, the authors also observe that the Amish, "whose reclusiveness, clothing, and cultural practices set them apart from the dominant culture" is included in nearly all sociology textbook discussions of subcultures. This indicates that fluency in a second language (and therefore fluency in a second national or ethnic culture) is not necessary in order for a person to be categorized as belonging to a subculture. The authors note that, in all of the textbooks, the most primary element of a subculture is the use of racial or ethnic groups as prototypical examples of subcultures. The authors state that this use of racial or ethnic groups as examples of subcultures is in fact, "the only example that is common to all of the texts," though the chosen racial or ethnic examples among the textbooks vary widely. In the 14 textbooks that Dowd and Dowd analyzed, the specific examples given for racial or ethnic groups include African Americans, Anglo Americans, Chicanos, Chinese Americans, Italian Americans, Native Americans, Norwegian Americans, Orthodox Jews, and Polish Americans (Dowd & Dowd, 2003, p. 22).

Many of the textbooks also assert that some occupations could be considered subcultures, and several even use sociologists as one example of an occupational subculture. In the textbooks Dowd and Dowd surveyed, other examples of subcultures were based on geographic regions of the country, religion, social class, and interest groups (Dowd & Dowd, p. 25). Thus, the various divergent examples of subcultures from these textbooks create a problem in clearly defining the concept of a subculture—though it may help to break down the concept of subculture into further subcategories. Dowd and Dowd use the term occupational subculture when discussing occupation as criteria for a subculture, which inherently creates a subcategory, so we can assume that there may be more subcategories of subcultures based on region, religion, interest groups, etc. This also implies that an individual could belong to several subcultures. The authors note that it is common to read in sociology textbooks "descriptions of the subculture concept emphasizing the multiplicity of subcultures to which an individual group member might belong 'at any one time or at different times in his or her life'" (Dowd & Dowd, 2003, p. 21). Thus, a Chinese American computer programmer who has converted to Islam and lives in the Appalachian Mountains could belong to several subcultures. That example is probably what Honea (2004) means by saying that broad application of the term subculture has "greatly diminished the concept's power as an analytical tool."

The Dowd and Dowd textbook survey resulted in the authors proposing three basic criteria that indicate a subculture. They define the ideal subculture as a group whose members:

• Interact frequently with one another;

• Share a common world-view, or weltanschauung, that has at its center the attribute that defines the group most thoroughly;

• Remain unwilling or unable to assimilate into the larger, dominant culture; that is, to have one's identification with the subculture become normalized and unproblematic (Dowd & Dowd, 2003, p. 28).

Further Insights

Types of Subcultures

Dowd and Dowd also note that some subculture members are distinguishable from members of a dominant cultural group because of "physical appearance, style of clothing and adornment, and other cultural signifiers such as language or dialect" (2006, p.11). From this definition, they develop an interesting method of categorization based on the likelihood that the subculture member will eventually assimilate into the dominant culture. Using this criterion, the authors propose three basic types of subcultures, ranging from quite likely to assimilate to quite unlikely to assimilate.

Youth Subcultures

The first type, made up of members who are most likely to...

(The entire section is 4827 words.)