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Author: Daniel Sarabia
Editors: Craig J. Forsyth and Heith Copes
Date: 2014
Encyclopedia of Social Deviance
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 645


Despite lay perceptions of a uniform and homogeneous group, skinheads are a fractured subculture. Mainstream media coverage focuses primarily on white supremacists who are a conspicuous skinhead faction. According to conservative estimates, there are more than 100 racist skinhead groups operating in the United States. Not only are these groups part of a violent street culture, but they are also active promoters of a racist ideology used to rationalize violence against racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups, such as homosexuals. Beyond the conspicuous markers of skinhead identity such as shaved heads, lace-up boots, and suspenders, the subculture is also defined by competing ideologies that intersect class, race, and politics. Mindful of the material and ideational aspects of skinhead culture, and their departure from the mainstream, analysts identify the group as both deviant and a subculture. The following will address the history of the skinheads, the factional divides, and the coverage of the subculture in the literature.

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The origins of the subculture call into question popular perceptions and further make clear the contentious ground that is skinhead identity. Skinhead groups trace their lineage to working-class youth in post–World War II England. In the early 1960s, West Indian immigrant enclaves surfaced in Britain’s working-class neighborhoods. Their presence soon influenced youth culture and contributed to a precursor subculture, the mods. Skinhead lineage can be traced to the mods, and before them the teddy boys, whose roots are also tied to England’s working-class neighborhoods. Like the teddy boys, the mods emphasized style. Mod groups created and projected their vision of affluence through elegance and a sophisticated image. They attempted through appearance to overcome the economic circumstances of their neighborhoods.

Although mods were influenced by the Edwardian, aristocratic style of teddy boys, their working-class backgrounds were not completely subsumed. Additionally, observant of their surroundings, they also drew on their West Indian neighbors who introduced them to the musical genres of ska, rocksteady, and reggae. By the late 1960s, the mod subculture had fractured into “hard mods” and “fashion mods.” Hard mods remained loyal to the groups’ original musical genres and began to reconnect with their working-class backgrounds. In contrast, fashion mods were drawn into London’s acid rock and fashion conscious cultures. While working-class elements were diffused in the hard mod subculture, they did not fully accept the working-class background and image.

The “original” skinheads first emerged in 1967 and borrowed elements from the mod style that included a shared connection with Jamaican ska along with parts of dress such as the button-down polo shirts and boots. During this period, skinheads helped propel the musical genre and were further influenced by the rude boy subculture imported by an influx of Jamaican immigrants in the 1960s. Of significance, and a point of distinction with their mod predecessors, skinheads fully embraced their working-class backgrounds. Unlike the mods, skinheads were far from flamboyant and developed a style that expressed their vision of the everyday working-class man. Many of the cultural objects adopted by the group are utilitarian and, coupled with the clean-cut look of the rude boy and mod subcultures, make for skinhead style: work boots, suspenders, jeans, and plain or striped button-down shirts were to be used for work and recreation. The adoption of specific cultural elements, such as clothing, music, and language, is important within the subculture. Although a layperson may at first note the similarities in appearance between skinheads, there are cultural markers that serve to delineate factions.


By the late 1970s, the moniker “traditional” surfaced within the subculture. Traditional skinheads can be considered purists for their adherence to original skinhead culture that includes style and music. Original skinhead clothing can still be found, and musical bands such as Mobtown and the Scofflaws, part of a third wave of ska music, revived traditional elements. Cultural markers such as music, language, and fashion are used by traditional skinheads to emphasize their connections with the roots of the subculture as well as to distance themselves from racist elements. Traditional skinheads believe racism to be inconsistent with the history of a skinhead movement influenced by West Indian blacks. To date, as there was in the past, there are skinheads of non-European ancestry who are active members of the subculture. Although some traditional skinheads may consider themselves apolitical and simply followers of the style and music, there is an ideology that surfaces within this faction that emphasizes working-class pride and racial unity.

While noting the fissures that exist within the subculture, it is clear that group identity within skinhead groups is shaped by ideological differences. Political debates among skinheads include considerations on the importance of both class and race. To the latter, some traditional skinheads have joined organizations such as Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, Anti-Racist Action, and United Front. These organizations seek, as part of their mission, to educate both the mainstream public and racist skinheads on the nonracist history of the subculture. According to antiracist and traditional skinheads, “boneheads,” the derogatory term used for racist skinheads, have hijacked the movement. Antiracists engage in a variety of activities to promote racial unity while attempting to weed out or to create distance between themselves and a racist element. In some instances, claiming skinhead subcultural territory has meant violent clashes between racist and nonracist skinheads that have resulted in deaths.

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During a time characterized by job scarcity in the 1970s Britain, a racist skinhead faction emerged. For young men faced with economic uncertainty, the explanations provided by England’s newly formed National Front Political party resonated. The party’s message focused attention on Britain’s nonwhite immigrant population who served as a convenient scapegoat for political leaders who attempted to free themselves of responsibility from Britain’s economic woes and those interested in courting angry, frustrated youth. In a historical period where competing political explanations abound and where youth attempt to make sense of declining economic circumstances, anarchist and socialist skinheads also emerged. In this period, skinhead politics not only played out in the political arena, but diverse messages also surfaced in music. Racism in Britain was diffused by “white power” rock bands such as Skrewdriver, whose lead singer was an organizer for the National Front. Unlike traditional skinheads who follow Jamaican ska, racist skinheads gravitated toward rock and Oi music; the latter is a subgenre of punk rock music. Although not all Oi music carries racist themes and, in fact, many traditional skinheads follow bands that focus on nonracist or class issues, it is a popular subgenre within the subculture.

A historical overview of the subculture reveals that there are multiple factions with conflicting positions on race. Traditional skinheads lay claim to the subculture by noting the inconsistencies between the progenitors of the movement and those who adopt white power beliefs. Consistent with subcultural history, and the emphasis on linkages between past and present groups, they continue to support the musical genres of ska, rocksteady, and reggae. In contrast, racist skinheads distanced themselves from the multiracial bands associated with “skinhead reggae,” the label given to ska for its skinhead following, and adopted the music of “white power” rock bands. Racist and nationalist factions, some nonwhite, actively propagate racial conflict and hatred. Despite their drastic ideological differences, it can again be difficult to distinguish between various skinhead factions because of the shared appearance and dress that characterize the subculture—more specifically, the shaved heads, buttoned-down shirts and suspenders.

Beyond considering differences in musical tastes, there are other important aspects of culture that serve to delineate between skinhead factions. Tangible boundaries surface in the style and dress of subcultural factions. For example, skinhead factions will adopt different color laces in their boots to identify and express to others their political orientation. Although the color coding of laces can vary from one region or group, several understood meanings surface among groups: white laces symbolize white power, red laces are symbolic of anarchy and communism, and a combination of yellow, black, and blue laces are often used to identify antiracist Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. Political orientation can also be advertised through the donning of pins and patches worn on jackets. Tattoos are also used to express affiliation to a particular faction or express a particular subcultural message. For example, some traditional skinheads will tattoo the number 69, or the phrase “Spirit of 69.” The tattooed number or phrase is in part meant to reassert ownership claims made by traditional skinheads. The year 1969 is considered to be the peak of the original skinhead movement.

Historically, women have been, and continue to be, important contributors to the subculture. The label “chelsea” has been used broadly to refer to female skinheads. The term is also used to describe a hairstyle embraced by skinhead women. The top of the head is either shaved or cut very short with long fringes of hair falling along the sides. Skinhead women don dress similar to men that can include boots, polo or buttoned-down shirts, suspenders, and flight jackets. Like their male counterparts, women populate the ranks of both racist and nonracist factions.


Research on skinheads is primarily grounded in the subculture literature, with the majority of investigations focusing on racist elements. Traditionally, research on subcultures has placed considerable emphasis on deviance. For example, Albert Cohen’s (1955) seminal work on youth subculture emphasizes deviance as a central feature among members. This early literature in the area argued that factors such as political disenfranchisement, economic inequality, and dissatisfaction with mainstream society motivate individuals to join subcultures. Analysts later began to argue that youth subcultures are, in many respects, aligned more closely with mainstream society. Far from the periphery of the larger society’s value system, they embrace ideational aspects of culture present in the parent culture.

Against a backdrop of mainstream perceptions and competing definitions between factions, studies on skinheads have also focused on the discursive practices and narratives used by subcultural members. To the former, physical and virtual environments facilitate the diffusion of group identity and reinforce shared in-group perceptions. Definitions adopted are also diffused by the symbolic meanings attached to the material culture of the social world inhabited by skinheads. Clearly, there is a heterogeneity that aptly describes the subculture. Skinhead factions do not all adopt one conceptualization of identity. Contradictions surface between groups as they lay claim to the subculture. To a layperson, a group populated by anti- or nonracists, along with gay racialists, may make no sense. However, within the social worlds of the subculture are members who draw on both material and ideational culture to rationalize their membership.

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Daniel Sarabia

See also Subculture

Further Readings

Brake, M. (1985). Comparative youth culture: The sociology of youth culture and youth subcultures in America, Britain and Canada. New York, NY: Routledge.

Brown, T. S. (2004). Subcultures, pop music and politics: Skinheads and “Nazi rock” in England and Germany. Journal of Social History, 38, 157–178.

Cohen, A. K. (1955). Delinquent boys: The culture of the gang. New York, NY: Free Press.

Cooter, A. B. (2006). Neo-Nazi normalization: The skinhead movement and integration into normative structures. Sociological Inquiry, 76, 145–165.

Marshall, G. (1991). The Spirit of ‘69: A skinhead Bible. Dunoon, Scotland: S. T. Publishing.

Suall, I., & Halpern, T. (1993). Young Nazi killers and the rising skinhead danger. New York, NY: Anti-Defamation League.

Waldner, L. K., Martin, H., & Capeder, L. (2006). Ideology of gay racialist skinheads and stigma management techniques. Journal of Political & Military Sociology, 34, 165–184.

Wood, R. T. (1999). The indigenous, nonracist origins of the American skinhead subculture. Youth & Society, 31, 131–151.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6501000274