In the social sciences, the term subculture most often refers to a group in conflict with or segmented from its dominant society. For anthropologists, who define culture as a complex system of beliefs and behaviors that characterize a particular group of people, subculture refers to parts of the whole. Most anthropologists have emphasized the continuity of culture: as having a single ethos, as “coherent wholes,” or as patterns of behavior that characterize a people. Subculture, as a concept within the social sciences, is more often used as a term to discuss large modern societies in which there is cultural variation among people. Scholars thus discuss subcultures in the context of looking at groups of people in opposition with or rebellion against a larger societal norm.
Subculture also denotes a social group that is distinct and distinguished from a larger cultural identity. Definitions of a subculture can be along lines of nationality, class, ethnicity, ancestry, generation, background, stereotype, or underclass, to name only a few of the many possibilities. A subculture can also be a group that may be stigmatized or a minority relative to the dominant culture. Additionally, a subculture can be a counterculture, a social identity that exists in response or reaction to a dominant culture. Such a countercultural response operates as rebellion against the cultural norms of mainstream society.
Sociologists such as Max Weber believe that a subculture is an outcome of society’s inequality and a consequence of economic exploitation and social stratification. Seeing social divisions as the outcome of modern life and as part of the structure of society led to discussions of subcultures as the outcome of such societal tensions as youth frustration, minority identity, artistic temperament, and socioeconomic struggle. In the realm of socioeconomic struggles, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis analyzed the impoverished classes as belonging to a “culture of poverty.” He thought that poverty perpetuated itself in subsequent generations (a view rejected by many social scientists) and that people in poor communities had similar characteristics. The characteristics of the culture of poverty were marginality, dependence, helplessness, a sense of not belonging, powerlessness, inferiority, unworthiness, lack of history, and a lack of class consciousness.
While subcultures may grow from such socioeconomic divisions, they may also arise from group cohesion. An example of such a subculture of cohesion can be found in ethnic identity, one based on ancestry or kinship. People in distinct ethnic groups see themselves as having a certain amount of shared history (real or imagined).
Ultimately, whether created through the operations of division or cohesion, self-imposed or defined by others, subcultures are fundamentally defined as subsets of the dominant society.
- Gelder, Ken and Sarah Thornton, eds. 1997. The Subcultures Reader. London: Routledge.
- Gramsci, Antonio. 1955. The Modern Prince and Other Writings. London: Lawrence & Wischart.
- Kroeber, A. L. and C. Kluckhohn. 1952. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. New York: Vintage Books.
- Muggleton, David. 2000. Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. New York: Berg.
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