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Youth Subcultures (soc essay)

Posted on March 24, 2013 at 9:00 AM

According to Nilan, Julian, and Germov (2007), a subculture is a group of people who represent lifestyles and “modes of meaning” alternate or subordinate to the dominant culture. Members of a subculture will express themselves in opposition, or as outsiders, to the established societal structure. Indeed, they may define themselves in defiance to positions of authority, and work actively to undermine the state. More often, however, a subculture defines itself as a group of peers, which abide by a distinctly alternative system of values and beliefs. Those values may be expressed in such modes as music, clothing, dance, language, lifestyle, and graffiti. Sometimes, a subculture that was initially passive in its resistance to established social norms, can develop into something openly hostile and organisationally defiant of authority. One example of this, is the British skinhead movement of the 1980s. Skinhead culture initially originated among working class youths, and was influenced by the West Indies music scene. While rebellious, its position on politics and race were largely neutral. Gradually, however, it was co-opted by radical right-wing organisations, such as the National Front, and transformed into a subculture hostile towards foreigners and Black Britons (Kayleen 1998).


Sociologist David Riesman was able to distinguish between the social majority and the social minorities, as early as 1950. It is important to note that this does not refer to ethnic minorities, as while their cultural beliefs may be at odds with those of their adopted country, they are still part of the dominant culture from where they originated. That said, ethnicity can certainly influence subcultures. As mentioned above, the early skinhead culture was moulded by Jamaican immigration, particularly “rude boy” fashion and music (Kayleen 1998). Riesman wrote that the social majority “passively accepted commercially provided styles and meanings”, while a subculture “actively sought a minority style… and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values”. This poses an interesting dilemma. Can subcultures exist without an establishment to rebel against, or is their association formed purely from a compulsion of opposition? Subcultures are generally strongest when they have something to galvanise against. But what if the state becomes more diverse in its views? What if it had legalised marijuana and advocated “free love”? Would the hippy movement have suddenly disintegrated?


In Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) Dick Hebdige wrote that, subcultures “bring together like-minded people” who feel neglected or ostracised by the state. Hebdige observed the rise in youth subcultures correlated with a frustration over the dominant ideology and hegemony of post-war Britain. He also observed that the styles (which he defines as a combination of music, dance, clothing, and inebriants) of various subcultures (mods, rockers, punks, skinheads) evolved into symbolic forms of resistance. For example, the shaved heads and working class attire of the skinhead subculture is symbolic of their exclusion from the socio-economic power structure. Similarly, their taste in reggae music represents a kinship with West Indies youth, who they regard as brothers in opposition to the British authority. In later decades, however, the meaning of these symbols has changed. While the shaved head became a badge of skinhead pride, antagonism shifted from the government to racial minorities. Socio-economic kinship transformed into hatred, and now Black Briton’s no longer regard skinheads as brothers, but enemies (Kayleen 1998).


Hebdige observes that all subcultures are formed through two factors: common resistance and common values. They define themselves in opposition to the established norms, and practice a style that is distinctly alternative. The dominant social group often regards the style and attitudes of these subcultures as something deviant, radical, or to be feared. However, the more a power structure attempts to quash or suppress a subculture, the more resilient that subculture becomes. In fact, the ire of authority figures has the unwanted effect of legitimising the subculture, and galvanising its members into action. Ironically, the way a subculture disintegrates is by being accepted, or more specifically mainstreamed, by the dominant culture. Hebdige argues that the moment a subculture is recognised, and its style commoditised for mass consumption (that is, music and fashion tastes), then that subculture dies, or is severally neutered. Businesses are continually seeking to capitalise on the “cool” aesthetic, and will often appropriate elements of subculture style into their brands (Khan 2003). However, since capitalism is a pillar of the establishment, this has the effect of corrupting the subculture, and making it part of the dominant culture. This forces members to continually adopt new, alien styles, in order to escape the consumerist absorption. It is slightly humorous process of the social majority and the social minority, each chasing a particular aesthetic, and then immediately abandoning it once it has been appropriated. The relatively recent hipster subculture is a prime example of this process, in which bands or fashions that have entered mainstream consciousness are deemed “uncool”, and style is valued almost entirely for its obscurity. The hipster mantra is often implied to be “…you’ve probably never heard of it”.


Following the 1960s, there was a countercultural rejection of established gender and sexual norms. The succeeding decades fostered a more permissive environment when it came to sex, especially with regards to “gay culture” (Jaime 2007). Besides the obviously subversive displays of same-sex affection, homosexuals during this period adopted certain styles of fashion and gestures that were intended to distinguish them from the mainstream. Gay culture is considered “the largest sexual subculture of the 20th century”, and met considerable resistance from the dominant culture. But gay men and women stood their ground, establishing their presence in society as a distinct and cohesive subculture with chants such as “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” and “Out of the closets and into the streets!” However, as societal antagonism of homosexuals faded during the 1980s and 90s, gay culture became more passive and integrated into mainstream society. There is now a movement towards the normalisation of homosexuality through gay marriage (an established conservative value). Gay culture represents a transition from subculture to mainstream dominance, so much so, that new subcultures have begun to spring up in opposition to mainstream homosexuality, including “leathermen”, “bears”, and “drag kings”.


The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted a study into how culture and leisure are modelled into Australian society (2001). They agreed with Hebdige’s argument that cultural expressions, such as art, music and dance, work as symbols of various subcultures. Their contention was that the artistic contributions of subcultures “help define and interpret out broader culture” (2001). That is, subcultures offer a reflection, and a more diverse understanding of our society, than the opinions of the dominant culture. The risk, as always, is that by accepting subcultures as part of society, rather than outside them, we run the danger of dissolving them. The Bureau pointed to graffiti as a symbol of the kind of “urban tribalism” some subcultures adopt, in which their environment acts as territory that they possess, but also a canvas upon which they can express themselves. Graffiti can also act as an olive branch between subcultures and the dominant culture. If aesthetically pleasing, and not removed by law enforcement, it represents a sort of mutual respect between parties, as well as an acknowledgement of difference. For example, dark city laneways might be regarded by average citizens as the domain of youth gangs, and therefore dangerous. But if those concrete laneways are painted with colourful art, it gives the citizen permission to walk down them, and admire the cultural expressions of a subculture that they will never be a part of. In fact, when graffiti is removed by law enforcement, there is often an outcry from the mainstream and subcultures (2001).


Patrick Williams examines subcultures as a relatively new field of sociology (2009). He observes that the majority of sociological research has focused on the “exertion of power”, while research into subcultures has revealed as “resistance to power”. Scholars from the 1960s argued that this resistance was a force of “good”, and a hopeful check against authoritarianism. Recent scholars, however, now view this resistance as “a trite concept that legitimizes the consumptive practices of would-be rebels” (2009). Williams points out that while the “spirit” or subcultures is resistant to mainstream culture, most of its acts of resistance are relatively passive. For example, the lyrics of punk music rally against the authority and hypocrisies of the establishment, but the mere buying and listening to of said music is not in itself resistance. However, those lyrics may inspire the listener to actively resist the establishment, not just in attitude and fashion, but through acts of protest, such as rallies, marches or publishing.


Categories: ESSAYS, Sociology

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