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What is a subculture?

What is a subculture?

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The subcultural

Gary Alan Fine, from the University of Minnesota, points out that despite the term’s wide usage in sociology, the subculture has not proved to be a very satisfactory explanatory concept. Several problems are discussed in previous subculture research: the confusion between subculture and subsociety, the lack of a meaningful referent for subculture, the homogeneity and stasis associated with the concept, and the emphasis on defining subcultures in terms of values and central themes.

While exact definitions vary, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a subculture as "a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture." As early as 1950, David Riesman distinguished between a majority, "which passively accepted commercially provided styles and meanings, and a 'subculture' which actively sought a minority style (...) and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values".

So, in terms of sociology, there is no certain explanation for the term “subculture”, except a group of people sharing a style, and ideas about life and dissociation with popular culture. But what is the existential meaning of being in such a group? Is it about feeling a part of a group, of something visible? Is it about defining oneself with a more close and empiric process in terms of reasons to be alive?


Since the very beginning, human civilization has existed in social circles. That was actually what provided the possibility for development and brought us to where we are now. And though there are other animals (mammals such as elephants or wolves for example) who spend their lives in groups, humans were the only animals to create symbols for connecting with others, such as language, religion, later nationality and ideology. Homo Sapiens, as the writer Yuval Harari defines, are the only creature on Earth to develop not only the subjective perception of existence but also the intersubjective. This gave us the possibility to identify with something more than just the borders of our own mind and body, and though this rather is an illusion there is no man or woman on Earth who exists outside the network of intersubjectivity (which creates our society and therefore personalities). Even money is such an idea –would you believe in the price of a piece of paper if there were no banks and governments behind it?

Anyway, people are connected in many ways, but a tendency of breaking humanity’s illusionary ideas, caused by the entropy of ongoing gaining knowledge is observed in history. With the rising of humanism and rationalism as main ideals in Europe, the beliefs in phenomena such as God and superstitions, which united people before, has decreased to make place for other religions such as nationalism, communism, fascism and other similar forms, which in their turn died recently (though we still see the shadows of their existence trying to fight for a place in the more and more complex society) and now humanity experiences the crisis of identity and beliefs.

In the 20th century it was way harder to identify with anything as it was in any other point of history and this tendency is growing larger and larger. The complexity of social structures became way more difficult to define than just with the working-and middle class, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, or anything of that kind. The number of people started growing, the variety of possibilities started growing, the information reach started growing and this changed everything drastically (this growth continues exponentially, especially nowadays). It was harder than ever to understand who you are, what is right and wrong because everything seemed so enormous and unknown. Imagine living in the times after Hitler or the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing. What does it mean to be human in a time where humans are capable of and are actually doing such things? Are these humans the same humans as I am? Technological and scientific progress is taking its toll.

After World War II Homo Sapiens have been trying to rebuild the faith in the human agenda. This came in several ways: creating organizations such as the UN which had to prove the end of wars forever and rebuild a war-torn Europe, and so on. The 20th century’s post-war youth had united around the idea of breaking the conservative moral and philosophical beliefs, identifying themselves with the fight for love, peace, and freedom for everybody. There was no need for more progressiveness and economics, no more war, people were seeking unity. At first the hippie movement was marginalized by society, but later their ideas were swallowed, like every revolution it evolved in status quo and it turned out to become part of the mainstream culture, accepted by everybody: the peace sign become a stamp for t-shirts, hippie music became accepted by critics and magazines started to write about rock’n’roll. Business as usual. Everything could be sold, everybody wanted to buy and that’s how the last of the revolutions died. That is probably the best thing to happen in the world’s order or at least the only thing we’ve got.

Honestly speaking, the free market is what we make it and though we shall search for better, for now, capitalism is the best performed political and philosophical approach to society. The problem appears when humanity meets the lack of causes, ideas that unite and when there is a loss of meaning to keywords which were shaping every person’s perception of life until that point in time – religion, nationality, monarchy or whatever else.

Subcultures were the last desperate cry for human-to-human interaction in the social life of the 20th century. People started uniting over music as to a movement of a religious value and even more because of its much more real and plausible appearance. Groupies become popular cult subjects, and soon people began to appreciate company mainly by followers of the same music. The information in the world is expanding and becoming more difficult to comprehend but people had found a secure place in their island of shared art and main ideology.

 The problem is that with time passing, everything grows, as we mentioned, and things kind of get mixed up. It becomes difficult to identify certain subcultures because their style gets adopted by mass culture for commercial purposes. Businesses often seek to capitalize on the subversive allure of subcultures in search of “Cool”, which remains valuable in the selling of any product. This process of cultural appropriation may often result in the death or evolution of the subculture, as its members adopt new styles that appear alien to mainstream society. Music-based subcultures are particularly vulnerable to this process; what may be considered subcultures at one stage in their histories – such as jazz, goth, punk, hip hop and rave cultures – may represent mainstream taste within a short period. Most subcultures reject or modify the importance of style, stressing membership through the adoption of an ideology which may be much more resistant to commercial exploitation. The punk subculture's distinctive (and initially shocking) style of clothing was adopted by mass-market fashion companies once the subculture became a media interest, so modern subcultures are trying to escape from the mainstream. That, most probably, is one of the reasons and explanations of the seeking for the alternative with which the 21st century may be characterized.

This in itself, however, is also becoming mainstream, and as we continue watching our world, the desire to identify with something and the focus on individuality is living through its final, quivering, breath.



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