Articulating the "Counter" in Subculture Studies

Patrick Williams, Erik Hannerz



As street protests and clashes between citizens and authorities in places as different as Ferguson, Missouri and Hong Kong in autumn 2014 demonstrate, everyday life in many parts of the world is characterised by conflicting and competing sets of cultural norms, values, and practices. The idea that groups create cultures that stand in contrast to “mainstream” or “dominant culture” is nothing new—sociology’s earliest scholars sought cultural explanations for social “dysfunctions” such as anomie and deviance. Yet our interest in this article is not about the problems that marginalised and non-normative groups face, but rather with the cultures that are created as part of dealing with those problems.

Milton Yinger begins his 1982 book, Countercultures: The Promise and Peril of a World Turned Upside Down, by contrasting multiple perspectives on countercultures. Some thinkers have characterised countercultures as not only a mundane feature of social life, but as a necessary one:

Countercultures and the many types of intentional communities they commonly create are not social aberrations. For thousands of years there have been attempts to provide alternatives for the existing social order in response to the perennial grounds for dissent: hierarchy and privilege […,] disgust with hedonism and consumerism […, and] a decline in the quality of life. (Yinger, Countercultures 1)

Others, however, have discursively delegitimised countercultures by characterising them as something in between naiveté and unschooled arrogance. Speaking specifically about hippies in the 1960s, Bell argued that

the so-called counter-culture was a children’s crusade that sought to eliminate the line between fantasy and reality and act out in life its impulses under a banner of liberation. It claimed to mock bourgeois prudishness, when it was only flaunting the closet behavior of its liberal parents. It claimed to be new and daring when it was only repeating in more raucous form […] the youthful japes of a Greenwich Village bohemia of a half century before. It was less a counter-culture than a counterfeit culture. (xxvi-xxvii)

If Bell is at all right, then perhaps countercultures may be better understood as subcultures, a term that may not require the idea of opposition (but see Gelder; Williams, Subcultural). To tease this distinction out, we want to consider the value of the counterculture concept for the study of oppositional subcultures. Rather than uncritically assuming what counter means, we take a more analytical view of how “counter,” as similar to other terms such as “resistant” and “oppositional,” has been articulated by social scientists. In doing this, we focus our attention on scholarly works that have dealt explicitly with group cultures “that sharply contradict the dominant norms and values of the society of which that group is a part” (Yinger, Countercultures 3).

The Relationship between Counterculture and Subculture

Many scholars point to the Chicago School of sociology as developing the first clear articulation of subcultural groups that differed clearly from mainstream society (see for example, Gelder and Thornton; Hannerz, E.; Williams, Youth). Paul G. Cressey, Frederic Thrasher, and later William Foote Whyte each provide exemplary empirical studies of marginal groups that were susceptible to social problems and therefore more likely to develop cultures that were defined as problematic for the mainstream. Robert Merton argued that marginalised groups formed as individuals tried to cope with the strain they experienced by their inability to access the cultural means (such as good education and good jobs) needed to achieve mainstream cultural goals (primarily, material success and social status), but Albert Cohen and others subsequently argued that such groups often reject mainstream culture in favour of a new, alternative culture instead.

Within a few years, conceptual distinctions among these alternative cultures were necessary, with counterculture and subculture being disambiguated in American sociology. Yinger originally employed the term contraculture but eventually switched to the more common counterculture. Subculture became most often tied either to the study of religious and ethnic enclaves (Mauss) or to deviance and delinquency (Arnold), while counterculture found its currency in framing the cultures of more explicitly political groups and movements (see for example, Cushman; George and Starr). Perhaps the clearest analytical distinction between the terms suggested that subculture refer to ascribed differences based upon socio-economic status, ethnicity, religion (and so on) in relation to the mainstream, whereas counterculture should refer to groups rooted in an explicit rejection of a dominant culture. This is similar to the distinction that Ken Gelder makes between subcultures based upon marginalisation versus non-normativity. Counterculture became best used

wherever the normative system of a group contains, as a primary element, a theme of conflict with the values of the total society, where personality variables are directly involved in the development and maintenance of the group's values, and wherever its norms can be understood only by reference to the relationships of the group to a surrounding dominant culture. (Yinger, Contraculture 629)

Even at that time, however, such a neat distinction was problematic. Sociologist Howard S. Becker demonstrated that jazz musicians, for example, experienced a problem shared in many service occupations, namely that their clients did not possess the ability to judge properly the value of the service rendered, yet nevertheless sought to control it. As a consequence, a subculture emerged based on the opposition of “hip” musicians to their “square” employers’ cultural sensibilities. Yet Becker framed their experiences as subcultural rather than countercultural, as deviant rather than political (Becker 79-100). Meanwhile, the political connotations of “counterculture” were solidifying during the 1960s as the term became commonly used to describe aspects of the civil rights movement in the US, hippie culture, and the anti-Vietnam or peace movement. By the end of the 1960s, subculture and counterculture had become analytically distinct terms within sociology.

Cultural Studies and the Class-ification of Counterculture

The reification of subculture and counterculture as ontologically distinct phenomena was more or less completed in the 1970s through a series of publications on British youth cultures and subcultures (see Hall and Jefferson; Hebdige; Mungham and Pearson). The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in particular expended a great deal of collective mental energy theorising the material base upon which cultures—and in particular spectacular youth subcultures such as mods and punk—exist. As with Marxist analyses of culture more generally, class was considered a key analytic variable. In the definitive theoretical statement on subculture, Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, and Roberts argued that “the most fundamental groups are the social classes, and the major cultural configurations will be […] ‘class cultures’” (13). Subcultures were thus seen as ideological reactions to the material conditions experienced and made meaningful within working class “parent culture.” This is what made youth subcultures sub—a part of the working-class—as well as cultural—the process of expressing their structural position. Given the Marxist orientation, it should go without saying that subcultures, as working-class youth cultures, were seen as naturally in a state of conflict with bourgeois culture.

But that approach didn’t account well for counter-currents that emerged from within the middle-class, whose relationship with the means of production was markedly different, and so the concept of counterculture was appropriated to describe a distinctly middle-class phenomenon. The idea that counterculture represented an overtly political response from within the dominant culture itself fitted with work by Theodore Roszak and Frank Musgrove, and later Yinger (Countercultures) and Ulf Hannerz, who each defined counterculture through its political and activist orientations stemming from a crisis within the middle-class. To further differentiate the concepts, the CCCS dismissed the collective aspect of middle-class resistance (see Clarke et al., 58-9, for a list of phenomena they considered exemplary of middle-class counterculture), describing it as more “diffuse, less group-oriented, [and] more individualised” than its working-class counterpart, the latter “clearly articulated [as] ‘near’ or ‘quasi’-gangs” (Clarke et al. 60). And whereas subcultures were centred on leisure-time activities within working-class environments, countercultures were concerned with a blurring of the boundaries between work and leisure. This conceptualisation was problematic at best, not least because it limits counterculture to the middle-class and subculture to the working class. It also gave considerably more agency and consequence to middle-class youths. It seemed that countercultures, with their individualist tendencies, offered individuals and groups choices about what and how to resist, as well as some expectations for social change, while subculturalists, locked within an unfortunate class position, could only resist dominant culture “at the profoundly superficial level of appearances” (Hebdige 17).

Beyond the Limits of Class Cultures

By 1980 cultural studies scholars had begun disassembling the class-basis of subcultures (see for example, G. Clarke; McRobbie; Griffin). Even though many studies still focused on stylised forms of opposition, subcultural scholarship increasingly emphasised subcultures such as punk as reflecting a more explicitly politicised resistance against the dominant or mainstream culture. Some scholars suggested that “mainstream culture” was used as a contrastive device to exaggerate the distinctiveness of those who self-identity as different (see U. Hannerz; Copes and Williams), while others questioned what subcultures could be seen as existing independently from, or in assumed opposition to (see Blackman; Thornton). In such cases, we can see a move toward reconciling the alleged limits of subculture as a countercultural concept.

Instead of seeing subcultures as magical solutions and thus inevitably impotent, more recent research has considered the agency of social actors to overcome social divisions such as race, gender, and class. On the dance floor in particular, youth culture was theorised as breaking free of its class-binding shackles. Along with this break came the rhetorical distancing from CCCS’s definitions of subculture. The attempted development of “post-subculture” studies around the Millennium focused on consumptive behaviours among certain groups of youths and concluded that consumption rather than opposition had become a hallmark of youth culture broadly (see Bennett, Popular; Huq; Muggleton). For these scholars, the rave and club cultures of the 1990s, and others since, represent youth culture as hedonistic and relatively apolitical.

“Post-subculture” studies drew in part on Steve Redhead’s postmodern approach to youth culture as found in The Clubcultures Reader and its companion text, From Subcultures to Clubcultures (Redhead). These texts offered a theoretical alternative to the CCCS’s view of oppositional subcultures and recognition that subcultural style could no longer be understood as a representation of ideological strain among working-class youths. Carried forward in volumes by David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl,,among others, “post-subcultural” scholarship criticised prior subcultural research for having objectified/reified mainstream/subcultural boundaries and authenticities, echoing Gary Clarke’s remark that the sharp distinction between us and them “rests upon [subculturalists’] consideration of the rest of society as being straight, incorporated in a consensus, and willing to scream undividedly loud in any moral panic” (71). Instead, the mixtures of punk, mod, skinhead and/or hippy styles among club-goers signalled “entirely new ways of understanding how young people perceive the relationship between music taste and visual style…revealing the infinitely malleable and interchangeable nature of the latter as these are appropriated and realised by individuals as aspects of consumer choice” (Bennett, Subcultures 613).

Reincorporating the Counter into Subculture Studies

The postmodern focus on cultural fluidity, individuality, and consumption highlights to some extent the agency that individuals have to make choices about the cultures in which they participate. To be sure, the postmodern and post-subculture critiques of class-based subculture studies were quite influential in the development of more recent subcultural scholarship, though not necessarily as they were intended. Much of the theoretical rhetoric of post-subculture scholarship (over-)emphasised heterogeneity, contingency, and play, which drew attention away from the collective identities and practices that continue to characterise many subcultures and groups. Fortunately, other scholars over the last decade have been critical of that approach’s failure to deal with perennial concerns related to participation in alternative cultural groups, including consumption (Buckingham), voice (Bae and Ivashkevich), education (Tuck and Yang), and group affiliation (Pilkington), among others. We want to follow this trajectory by explicitly reiterating the continuing significance of the “counter” aspects of subcultures.

Two trends in social theory are exemplary in this reiteration. The first trend is a growing interest in re-theorizing resistance to refer to “a contribution to progressive transformations and radical changes in social and cultural structures” (Johansson and Lalander) rather than to a set of styles and practices through which working-class youth impotently rage against the machine. Resistance is qualitatively different from rebellion, which is often framed in terms of unconscious or irrational behaviour (Raby); resistance is first and foremost intentional. Subcultures articulate resistance to mainstream/dominant culture and may be measured across several continua, including passive to active, micro to macro, covert to overt, individual to collective, and local to global (see Williams, Resistance; E. Hannerz). Participants in countercultures see themselves as being more critically aware of what is happening in the world than the average person, believe that they act on that critical awareness in their thoughts, words, and/or deeds, and electively detach themselves from “involuntary or unconscious commitments” (Leary 253) to mainstream culture, refusing to uncritically follow the rules.

The concept of resistance thus gives some momentum to attempts to clarify the extent to which members of alternative cultures intentionally break with the mainstream. The links between resistance and counterculture are explicitly dealt with in recent scholarship on music subcultures. Graham St John’s work on electronic dance music culture (EDMC), for example, offers a complex analysis of resistant practices that he conceptualizes as countercultural. Participation in EDMC is seen as more than simple hedonism. Rather, EDMC provides the scripts necessary for individuals to pursue freedom from various forms of perceived oppression in everyday life. At a more macro level, Madigan Fichter’s study of counterculture in Romania similarly frames resistance and political dissent as key variables in the articulation of a counterculture. Some recent attempts at invoking counterculture seem less convincing. Noting that counterculture is a relatively “unpopular term in social scientific research,” Hjelm, Kahn-Harris, and LeVine nevertheless proceed to theorize heavy metal as countercultural by drawing on the culture’s “transgressive” (14) qualities and “antagonistic […] attempts to shock and provoke [as well as] those occasions when metal, by its very presence, is shocking” (15). Other studies have similarly articulated “countercultures” in terms of behaviours that transgress mainstream sensibilities (see for example, Arthur and Sherman; Kolind). It is debatable at best, however, whether hedonism, transgression, or provocation are sufficient qualities for counterculture without concomitant cultural imperatives for both resistance and social change.

This leads into a brief comment on a second trend, which is the growing interconnectedness of social theories that attend to subcultures on the one hand and “new” social movements (NSMs) on the other. “Traditional” social movements, such as the civil rights and labour movements, have been typically organised by and for people excluded in some way from full rights to participate in society, for example the rights to political participation or basic economic protection. NSMs, however, often involve people who already enjoy full rights as members of society, but who reject political and economic processes that injure them or others, such as marginalised groups, animals, or the environment. Some movements are contentious in nature, such as the Occupy-movement, and thus quite clearly antagonistic toward mainstream political-economy. NSM theories (see Pichardo), however, also theorize the roles of culture and collective identity in supporting both opposition to dominant processes and strategies for alternative practices. Other NSMs foster lifestyles that, through the minutiae of everyday practice, promote a ground-up reaction to dominant political-economic practices (see Haenfler, Johnson, and Jones). Both contentious and lifestyle movements are relatively diffuse and as such align with traditional conceptualisations of both subculture and counterculture. NSM theory and subcultural theories are thus coming together in a moment where scholars are seeking distinctly cultural understandings of collective lifestyles of resistance and social change.


Recent attempts to rephrase subcultural theory have combined ideas of the Birmingham and Chicago Schools with more contemporary approaches such as social constructivism and new social movements theory. Together, they recognise a couple of things. First, culture is not the determining structure it was once theorised to be. The shift in understanding subcultural groups as rooted in ascribed characteristics—being naturally different due to class, ethnicity, age, or to location (Park; Cohen; Clarke et al.)—to one in which subcultures are intentional articulations created by people, highlights the agency of individuals and groups to create culture. The break with realist/objectivist notions of culture offers promising opportunities for understanding resistance and opposition more generally.

Second, the “counter” continues to be relevant in the study of subcultures. Subcultural participation these days is characterised as much or more by non-normativity than by marginalisation. As such, subcultures represent intentional protests against something outside themselves. Of course, we do not mean to suggest this is always and everywhere the case. Subcultural homogeneity was never really real, and concepts like “the mainstream” and “dominant culture” on the one hand, and “counterculture” and “opposition” on the other, are dialectically constructed. The “sub” in subculture refers both to a subset of meanings within a larger parent or mainstream culture (meanings which are unproblematic within the subculture) and to a set of meanings that explicitly rejects that which they oppose (E. Hannerz). In this regard, “sub” and “counter” can come together in new analyses of opposition, whether in terms of symbols (as cultural) or actions (as social).


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counterculture; post-subculture; resistance; subculture; youth culture

Copyright (c) 2014 Patrick Williams, Erik Hannerz

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