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Parents: history of subcultures - underground - culture

Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) - Dick Hebdige [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

The relationship between mainstream, "hegemonic" culture and the subcultures that split off from it mirrors the relationship of a linear, dominant narrative strain to the skein of other paths that could be pursued by the reader of hypertext. In other words, the way power is distributed in society relates to the way meaning is distributed in a hypertext narrative. In Subculture, The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige describes hegemony and the battle for subcultural meaning that resides beneath it. -- (A. G.) for feedmag.com

"Maps of meaning [in society] are charged with a potentially explosive significance because they are traced and retraced along the lines laid down by the dominant discourses about reality, the dominant ideologies. Thus they tend to represent, in however obscure and contradictory a fashion, the interests of the dominant groups in society... -- (A. G.) for feedmag.com

Related: alternative culture - counterculture - Cultural Studies - fringe - lifestyle - minority - outsider - sociology - subversion - youth

Various subcultures: drug subcultures - fandom - religious subcultures - bohemianism - hippies - new Age - youth movements - outsider - body modification - biker

Musical subcultures: mods - punk - disco - hip-hop - rap - goths

Sexual subcultures: queer culture - BDSM subculture - fetish subculture - nudism

'Criminal' subcultures: juvenile delinquents - pickpockets - thieves

Theorists: Dick Hebdige - Albert Cohen

Contrast: mainstream - popular culture

Subculture theory

The term subculture began to figure in anthropological and sociological writing around 1945. The concept has been most generally adopted by students of delinquency. --Pat Rogers via Grub Street: studies in a subculture (1972).

Since the late 1970s, the study of subculture, and indeed the concept of subculture itself, has largely been focused on an awareness of style and differences in style, in clothing, music or other cultural areas.

See also "a history of 20th century subcultures" here. [Oct 2005]


1886, in ref. to bacterial cultures, from sub- + culture. 1936 in ref. to humans. --Online Etymology Dictionary [Feb 2006]


In sociology, a subculture is a culture or set of people with distinct behavior and beliefs within a larger culture. The essence of a subculture, that distinguishes it from other social groupings, is awareness of style and differences in style, in clothing, music or other interests. As early as 1950 David Riesman distinguished between a majority, "which passively accepted commercially provided styles and meanings, and a 'subculture' which actively sought a minority style (hot jazz at the time) and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values. Thus 'the audience...manipulates the product (and hence the producer), no less than the other way round' (Riesman 1950: 361)."

Thus when a member of a subculture "listens to music, even if no-one else is around, he listens in a context of imaginary 'others' - his listening is indeed often an effort to establish connection with them. In general what he perceives in the mass media is framed by his perception of the peer-groups to which he belongs. These groups not only rate the tunes but select for their members in more subtle ways what is to be 'heard' in each tune (ibid: 366)."

A culture often contains numerous subcultures. Subcultures incorporate large parts of their mother cultures, but in specifics they may differ radically. Some subcultures achieve such a status that they acquire a name of their own.

Dick Hebdige (1981) used style as a subculture's fashions, mannerisms, jargon, activities, music, and interests. Subcultural styles are distinguished from mainstream styles by being intentionally "fabricated", their constructedness, as different from conventional.

Hebdige considered punk subculture to share the same "radical aesthetic practices" as dada and surrealism: "Like Duchamp's 'ready mades' - manufactured objects which qualified as art because he chose to call them such, the most unremarkable and inappropriate items - a pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon - could be brought within the province of punk (un)fashion...Objects borrowed from the most sordid of contexts found a place in punks' ensembles; lavatory chains were draped in graceful arcs across chests encased in plastic bin liners. Safety pins were taken out of their domestic 'utility' context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear or lip...fragments of school uniform (white bri-nylon shirts, school ties) were symbolically defiled (the shirts covered in graffiti, or fake blood; the ties left undone) and juxtaposed against leather drains or shocking pink mohair tops." (p.106-12)

Sarah Thornton (1995), after Pierre Bourdieu (1986), described subcultural capital as the cultural knowledge and commodities acquired by members of a subculture, raising their status and helping differentiate themselves from members of other groups. Roe (1990) uses the term symbolic capital. --http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subculture [Apr 2005]

Jargon and slang

Subcultures often have their own slang and jargon, see polari and argot.

Subculture and British Cultural Studies

Since the 1980s, the field of British Marxist Cultural Studies has chosen subculture as its field of research. Quoted below are excerpts of an essay by Geoff Stahl:

Subcultures as noise: a metaphor that possesses a deep, romantic and poetic resonance for many scholars.  The heroic rhetoric of resistance, the valorization of the underdog and outsider, and the reemergence of a potentially political working-class consciousness are all embedded in discourses that have shaped the theorization of subcultures in the past twenty years.

The work of Dick Hebdige, Stuart Hall and others connected with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, through which these conceits evolved, remain a backdrop for many contemporary theories of subcultures.  Studies such as Subcultures: The Meaning of Style and Resistance Through Rituals drew their theory from such diverse sources as Gramsci's theories of hegemony, Levi-Strauss's notion of bricolage and homology, Eco's semiotics and Marx's theories of class, ideology and commodity fetishism.

The sartorial splendor of Teds, Mods, Rockers and Punks became emblematic of a "semiotic guerrilla warfare" that took objects from the dominant culture and transformed their everyday naturalized meaning into something spectacular and alien.

Style became a form of resistance. -- Geoff Stahl, 1999, Still 'Winning Space?': Updating Subcultural Theory via http://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/issue2/stahl.htm [Apr 2005]

The subcultural theory put forward by John Clarke, Phil Cohen, Hebdige and Hall found its theoretical antecedents in a century of sociological work on deviancy and delinquency. A somewhat uneven trajectory can be traced from the work of Emile Durkheim to his influence on the Chicago School, a connection that shaped a tradition uniting urban studies and sociology, one with a profound and prolonged effect on the ensuing studies of marginal(ized) social groups. That history needs little documentation here as it has been thoroughly explicated in a number of texts devoted to a survey of the field.

Briefly, the work of Hall, Clarke, Hebdige, Cohen et al., remains embedded in a tradition that includes functionalist anomie theory and the work of the Chicago School. Phil Cohen's work on neighborhoods, for instance, shares much with Robert Park's social ecology and Clarke and Hall's introductory essay in Resistance Through Rituals echoes Robert Merton's anomie theory. The new theory shares an intellectual affinity with the works its authors were initially trying to dispense with.

Working class adolescent males remain the central focus in both cases and delinquency still remains the collective solution to a structural problem. The new theories, however, offer a much more intricate analysis, as Stanley Cohen has suggested, with the addition of a structural analysis.

Class, race and gender, understood historically, economically and politically are the "problem" to which subcultures are the "solution." -- Geoff Stahl, 1999, Still 'Winning Space?': Updating Subcultural Theory via http://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/issue2/stahl.htm [Apr 2005]

Subculture vs counterculture

Stuart Hall (et al., Resistance Through Rituals [1976]) distinguishes subculture, which he sees as informally and intuitively organized, from "counter-culture," which he sees as more formally arranged and more expressly political and consciously ideological. In this scheme, punks were subcultural and hippies were counter-cultural.-- via Robert Belton, Sept 2003

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