The concept of subculture has a particularly strong, yet controversial trajectory in the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular. The concept was formulated in early social theory to address a variety of sociocultural forms that are included in a totality, be it society or national culture. These forms could be the subdivisions of national culture, minority groups, immigrant or refugee populations, or rural/ semi-rural communities, for example. Subcultures were seen by many authors as both “cohesive social systems” and variants of a national culture, cultures within a cultural world. For instance, various community studies of rural populations were conceptualized as completely integrated systems, subcultures that are autonomous from the works of the nation-state. This perspective was mostly shaped by the modernist paradigm, which views society as an integrated whole, a thing which can be understood through concepts of order, systems, shared norms, and values.
The urban ecological model calls for ethnographic methods to study peculiar urban situations (e.g., ghettos, social and economically isolated neighborhoods) that generate particular conditions for emerging norms and behaviors that contrast with those of the dominant society, and was put forward by the School of Chicago. In the United States, the Great Depression and the aftermath of World War II led to mass migrations of diverse populations and structural transformations in major cities, which contributed to increased marginalization of minorities, violence, illegal drug trafficking, and crime. These created conditions that fostered youth frustrations and fed their articulations into subcultures, such as gangs, with complex norms, structures, and behaviors that are contrary to the mainstream society. The ethnographic study of subcultures brought to light in sociological and anthropological discourses complex sociocultural processes that underlay these behaviors. Indeed, the social sciences were called upon to help formulate public policies that target the minorities and the marginalized. “Subculture” in these studies was a keyword that was widely understood as a metaphor for social pathology (for many authors, the analytical framework was formulated in terms of “deviancy” or “anomy”). It referred to a process through which marginalized groups took their marginalization as a condition for transgression, yet not for protestation or resistance.
The neo-Marxist assumptions that underwrote the cultural studies (formulated through the British scholars at the Birmingham Centre Contemporary) favored a conceptualization of subculture as resistance. Drawing from Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and Louis Althusser’s ideology, its tenets suggested an approach to subculture that emphasizes both the specificity of (sub)cultural practices and the historical process that sustains these practices in the first place, as well as the dialectic of social conditions and consciousness. Although “subculture” became the theme of predilection for cultural studies, anthropology’s unique contribution was in understanding the meanings of these practices as related to some form of resistance.
Although subcultures as phenomena remain understood as dominated cultures (reactive to or expression of resistance against the dominant culture) and as such associated with the working class, (sub)cultural practices are co-opted and commodified by larger socioeconomic processes. This is the case in terms of youth cultural practices, for example rap music in the United States, where, with the incorporation of youth culture into popular culture, the concept of subculture becomes difficult to delineate. The role of anthropology is thus critical in defining the future of this concept in a globalized world.
- Cohen, A. K. (1997). A general theory of subcultures. In K. Gelder & S. Thornton (Eds.), The subcultures reader (pp. 44-54). London: Routledge.
- Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Methuen.
- Jenks, C. (2005). Subculture: Fragmentation of the social. Thousand Oaks: Sage.