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

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From the very first time the concept was applied at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, subculture was described as a set of values, modes of behavior, and attitudes relating to the lifestyle and ritual of social groups that were different from the mainstream or the dominant culture of society. As a concept, subculture remains important within the disciplines of criminology and sociology because subculture represents a struggle over meaning and lived experience.

For almost a century, within criminology and sociology, the concept of subculture has been applied within different paradigms, including positivism, functionalism, behaviorism, symbolic interactionism, Marxism, and postmodernism. As a consequence, the concept of subculture has been used to define people in different ways, such as subnormal, dysfunctional, delinquent, resistant, and consumerist. The concept of subculture attracts attention because it is focused on deviance, and at the same time, each approach puts forward a definite answer to a social issue. As a result, for decades, there has been a cyclical debate where different paradigms have fought over ownership of the concept of subculture. Theoretically, one of the key issues within the subcultural debate relates to agency and constraint, whether the concept allows individuals to express meaning or whether the concept determines individuals rendering them passive.

Normality or Criminality

From its earliest usage, the concept of subculture has been associated with deviance and criminality, because the so-called deviant was assumed to be part of a subculture, which showed opposition to the dominant order. One sociological theory that has played a major role in understanding the social condition of deviance in society has been anomie. It was a concept that one of the founding figures of sociology, Émile Durkheim, first outlined in his study of suicide. While anomie gives an account of how we experience hopelessness, it is also concerned with normlessness in society. This means that as a concept, it is focused on explaining social action at the level of the individual and, at the same time, seeking to understand how a person’s actions can be explained by the social structure. In contemporary society, young people are searching for meaning, and anomie is a measurement of the degree to which social solidarity or disintegration is experienced in communities. The Chicago school approach fought to understand the deviant within his or her social context rather than adopt a pathological understanding of deviance derived from biology. The early sociologists and criminologists at the University of Chicago looked at collective rituals within urban settings and put forward ways to empirically examine how individuals and groups construct and negotiate social and cultural meaning. As a result, subcultural deviance was explained as a form of behavior within the wider context of social normality.

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During the early to mid-20th century, two dominant sociological approaches of social thought were the behavioralist and the functionalist paradigms. Both approaches defined subculture as a negative attribute that promoted delinquency and caused problems for order and consensus in society. Both the American and British theories of subculture located the cause of deviance in biology and psychology. In Britain, the eugenics movement saw the term subculture as a means to describe sets of young people defined as subnormal. This understanding was established through the Mental Deficiency Committee (the Wood Committee) in 1929. Policymakers and academics were heavily influenced by the hereditarian interpretation of the eugenics movement and saw subculture as a sign of mental deficiency or social evil. Working-class young people who became part of a subculture were described in depersonalized language as delinquents who were “shiftless” and “subnormal.” In Britain, after the Second World War, this evolutionary theory of the delinquent subculture metamorphosed into a psychoanalytical theory of inadequate socialization. Here, psychoanalysis was the driving force behind this view of subculture as a sign of young people’s inability to integrate into society, which accelerated their movement into a deviant subculture. Participation within a subculture was identified as a sign of an “affectionless personality,” which was defined in social class terms of originating from a deprived culture suffering from psychological problems.

During the 1950s, the most popular and orthodox theory of subculture was developed within the American sociological school of structural functionalism. The general theory of subculture was shaped by two macro theories: first, Durkhiem’s theory of anomie and, second, Sigmund Freud’s theory of reaction formation. The functionalist theory of subculture placed at its center a theory of deviance, which asserted that delinquency resulted from the interplay between culture and structure caused by differential access to rewards between social classes. This structural strain of the social class system generated deviance due to different levels of access to opportunity. This was first theorized as individual adaptation toward acceptance or refusal of the institutional means to achieve social mobility. Subsequently, individual adaptation changed to collective adaptation; here, the delinquent subculture is born, whereby movement along the matrix from normal to deviant became a marker of anomie and a sign of subcultural affiliation. It was not only social hierarchy, which created structural strain and the generation of the subcultural identity, it was identified that working-class young people experience status frustration at school.

At the center of the functionalist theory of subculture was a belief in the American Dream. It was argued that the deviant subculture inverts the legitimate aspirational goals of middle-class culture, through the creation of their own delinquent set of values, which then preoccupy young people offering an alternative reward system. Based on an inversion, the normal goals of society get replaced with a delinquent solution. This theory of subculture seeks to explain the motivation for joining a subculture on the basis of a psychoanalytical theory of deviance derived from Freud. The attraction of the functionalist theory of subculture is that it provides an answer for the origin of deviance and labels subcultural members as dysfunctional for society as a result of their inadequate socialization and failure to accept the values of society. A further attraction of this theory relates to its apparent common sense rationale that subcultures are the result of class conflict where working-class youth suffer status frustration because their avenue to social mobility is blocked. While this theory quickly became adopted in the United States and the United Kingdom to become the orthodox interpretation that specified that subculture was a causal link to deviance, a major weakness of the functionalist theory of subculture was its inherent class discrimination. As a theory, it could not explain middle-class deviance because the middle classes were already in possession of status. Only working-class youth became defined as pathological, thereby the model predicted too much proletarian deviance and could not explain middle- or upper-class deviance.

Resistance or Consumer Choice

In Britain, the functionalist theory of subculture became subject to criticism during the 1960s and 1970s from the British National Deviance Conference. In particular, the challenge came from the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham, Britain. A range of the contemporary social and cultural approaches influenced the CCCS theory of subculture, including cultural and structural Marxism, literary theory, anthropology, the Chicago school, ethnography, post-structuralism, labeling theory, and psychoanalysis. At the center of the CCCS theory of subculture is resistance and dissent. For this subcultural theory to possess agency, it was linked to the idea of hegemony and placed in the center of the Marxist base and superstructure problematic.

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Both the functionalist and the CCCS theory of subculture put great emphasis on social class as a determining factor in the formation and meaning of subculture. Subcultures were defined as working class and emerged from social and class struggle. During the post–Second World War period working-class young people within their communities sought to resolve the social problems and contradictions of change created by harsh material conditions. Within the world of leisure, young people’s adoption of subcultural style gave expression and articulation to class experience and became the source of their attempt to resolve the social problems of class tension. The interpretation of subcultural activities by the CCCS theory gave agency to young people who were defined as engaged in counterhegemonic practices. So the theory saw subcultures through the lens of symbolic politics rather than criminality or deviance. A major contribution of the CCCS theory was to separate subculture from delinquency. This enabled youth subcultural style to operate on many platforms and to create identity and express imagination through do-it-yourself practices. Each subculture could demonstrate its own value and meaning through its dress and appearance, objects, music, image, and identity.

One of the problems with the CCCS theory is that while subcultures were engaged in re-creating new forms of class solidarity, this was at the expense of a focus on the role of women in subcultures, and hence, subcultural theory tended to be male centered or even repressive toward women. At the same time, the social issue of race tended to be seen as less relevant by the CCCS theory, although subsequently, through further work at the CCCS, race became identified as a key variable to explain how successive youth subcultures develop and articulate their stylistic practices. One of the reasons why the CCCS theory was less developed in terms of gender and race may be because the core case study ethnographies advanced on teds, mods, and skinheads occurred at the level of literary or textual ethnography rather than through direct empirical observation as in the anthropological understanding of ethnography. This is not to say that the CCCS failed to undertake ethnographic studies because they clearly did, but in the examples selected to advance their theory of subculture, evidence did not derive from firsthand empirical research.

During the 1990s, an emergent critique of the CCCS theory of subculture developed among theories of postmodernism. By the start of the 21st century, this had turned into a rejection of the concept of subculture advanced under what was termed the postsubcultural turn. The criticism put forward of the CCCS theory of subculture included the lack of empirical evidence and the claim that the CCCS did not consider local variations in young people’s responses to music and style. Furthermore, postsubculturalists claimed that not only was the CCCS approach theoretically driven, it was also too preoccupied with social class, modernism, and emancipation within a Marxist framework, making it irrelevant to the postmodern age. Thus, a series of new terms to replace subculture were proposed, including tribe, neo-tribe, postsubculture, lifestyle, and scene.

Postsubculturalist theory with its new focus on spatiality, locality, and fluid individual identity wants us to view subcultures more creatively, liberating identity from the subordination of oppression. The aim is to move away from models of social constraint and place increased emphasis on agency. The argument of this new approach to subculture was based on positioning the CCCS theory as a Marxist determinist approach that defined subculture within a totalizing perspective. The foundation of the postsubculturalist theory is based on Weberian concerns fused with contemporary postmodern theory, which argues against grand theory and claims that the social structure is unstable and fragmented. Hence, the postsubcultural position argues that style is expressed through individual consumption and lifestyle rather than its relations to production and struggle. The postmodern argument is focused on particularity and individualism where postsubcultur-alists assert that subcultural formation and practice are no longer articulated by the modernist structuring relations of class, gender, and race. Subculture is shaped by consumption and individual autonomy through choice. The emphasis of the postsubcultural argument based on individual consumer creativity enables individuals to forge their own identity. Here, subcultures appear to be cut adrift from the social structure, social divisions, and the collectivity of young people’s identity. Subculture is reduced to a matter of choice without constraint. This represents an overemphasis on agency. Through seeking to move away from models of social constraints and increased emphasis on agency in subcultural action, the postsubculturalist position aligns with classical neo-liberal ideology; here, individuals pursue entrepreneurial freedom of choice in the subculture supermarket. With little focus on the material experiences of young people, postsubcultural studies tend to marginalize questions of social class and structural inequalities and appear to have little interest in examining social divisions that may generate deviance. In contrast, in the early 21st century, the increased levels of social disturbance by young people and young adults, from micro antisocial behavior to mass rioting, have shown that subcultural identities are shaped through material and social conditions.

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The postsubculturalist critique of the CCCS theory has tended to be based on a series of assertions without evidence; for example, it has been claimed by postsubculturalist theorists that academics rather than young people created subcultures. It is ironic that postsubculturalists should argue that little empirical evidence exists to support the CCCS theory of subculture, when it is now admitted by postsubculturalists that few studies have been undertaken to support their own theoretical argument. Furthermore, it was claimed by postsubcultural theorists that subcultures are fragmented and possess no rules, making subcultures depoliticized. It is clear that the development of contemporary subcultural practices among groups of young people who identify with punk, goth, hip-hop, metal, mod, dance, and grime, whether at festivals, concerts, through the Internet, or on the street, reveal that subcultural activities have a strong collective and symbolic presence in culture and society. In contrast, the postsub-culturalist advocacy for and take-up of postmodern theory has resulted in an interpretation of subculture that gives priority to the individual over the collective and fails to identify the collective and global basis to subcultures. The reluctance to focus on structural inequalities and material differences among young people in subcultures reduces the understanding of how the social structure influences the formation of subculture. In this sense, postsubculturalist analysis amounts to a mirror reflection of a consumer-driven ideology of neo-liberalism. The response to the post-subcultural critique of subculture has resulted in a defense of the concept, and in the United States and Britain, there have been a series of suggestions to fuse together elements of both approaches to the concept. But even those theorists who previously argued for the rejection of the concept of subculture have moved their argument to acknowledge that the likelihood is that subculture will remain significant as a concept within both criminology and sociology.


Subculture fits within a field of knowledge that is both historical and contemporary but also contested. It can be suggested that the different approaches to understanding subculture from each sociological paradigm are still in operation today both within the wider social community and within academic discourse. As a concept, subculture captures the popular imagination because it is most associated with young people and deviance through representations of the outsider. Because subcultures are often linked to fashion and style this guarantees attention, which gives them an appeal of immediacy and their association with deviance or alternative modes of life can be suggestive of danger. Thus, the concept is heavy with meaning, even excitement, because through the application of the concept, a certain group in society is labeled, identified, and put before us to be read.

Shane Blackman

Further Readings

Bennett, A. (2011). The post-subcultural turn: Some reflections 10 years on. Journal of Youth Studies, 14 (5), 493–506.

Blackman, S. J. (2004). Chilling out: The cultural politics of substance consumption, youth and drug policy. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Cohen, A. (1956). Delinquent boys: The subculture of the gang. London, England: Collier Macmillan.

Hall, S., & Jefferson, T. (Eds.). (2006). Resistance through rituals. London, England: Hutchinson and Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham. (Original work published 1975)

Hart, C. (Ed.). (2010). The legacy of the Chicago school of sociology. Kingswinsford, England: Midrash.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London, England: Methuen.

Muggleton, D. (2000). Inside subcultures: The postmodern meaning of style. London, England: Berg.

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Shildrick, T., & MacDonald, R. (2006). In defence of subculture: Young people, leisure and social divisions. Journal of Youth Studies, 9 (2), 125–140.

Williams, P. (2011). Subcultural theory. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6501000298