Each person living in a society is a part of its culture. This is inevitable; whether we want it or not, we learn from what surrounds us and adopt other people’s habits and manners. However, there exists such a phenomenon as subcultures; members of subcultures are a part of a somewhat different culture than the mainstream one.
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But, if we take into the account that the main culture is virtually omnipresent, a question arises: how is it even possible? In our paper, we are going to discuss how a subculture is able to appear, survive and remain successful even though it is constantly pressurized by a dominant culture.
Definition of the Term “Subculture”
Before trying to answer the given question, it is important to define the notions. The term “subculture” is somewhat contradictory; it is sometimes used disapprovingly to say that the participants of the indicated group are deviants who disrupt the normal, orderly flow of things; but sometimes it is utilized to refer to groups that oppose the mainstream culture, having the progress of society as their aim (Dowd & Dowd, 2003, p. 20).
However, we are going to describe a subculture using a more neutral definition, according to which it is a group of individuals who possess a particular type of beliefs and attitudes that differ from those of the mainstream, and attempt to keep to those beliefs and behaviors. Therefore, our definition includes both the “deviant” and the “progressive” types of groups.
Subcultures are often comprised of people who, using various methods (such as particular styles of clothing, music, etc.), try to differentiate themselves from the mainstream (Hebdige, 2002, p. 2-4). It should also be pointed out that if a subculture deliberately and systematically endeavors to be antagonistic towards the mainstream culture, such a subculture is usually described as a counterculture (Dowd & Dowd, 2003, p. 22).
There are many famous examples of subcultures; they include the punk subculture coming from the UK, the hippies subculture originating from the USA, and many others.
Why Do Subcultures Successfully Exist for So Long?
Subcultures are the target of constant pressure. They are continuously pressurized by the culture that has hegemony in the society. The word “hegemony” indicates a situation when a number of social groups are able to “exert ‘total social authority’ over other subordinate groups, not simply by coercion… but by ‘winning and shaping consent so that the power of the dominant classes appears both legitimate and natural’” (Hebdige, 2002, p. 15-16). Therefore, the pressure subcultures experience comes from everywhere, for, as it was mentioned above, their members are sometimes (actually, quite often) perceived as deviants and ones that should be returned to the mainstream culture.
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Despite that, subcultures often exist and even remain successful for many years or decades. So, what are the factors that contribute to their ability to survive and for such a long time despite the severe conditions they find themselves in?
It might be argued that one of the main reasons for this longevity is the fact that subcultures usually emerge to existence as an opposition to the dominant, hegemonic culture (Dowd & Dowd, 2003). Even though this opposition is not always very strong (for not every subculture is a counterculture), it is present in most cases. It means that the members of a counterculture have a particular set of views which restrain them from merging into the majority.
Sometimes this set of views develops into a whole ideology, which may directly resist the hegemonic culture. Moreover, members of a subculture often socialize mostly with fellow members of the same culture, or, at least, experience their continuous influence, which means that they continuously experience direct influence from their peers, and are therefore much less likely to leave them (Dowd & Dowd, 2003, p. 34).
We might generalize the statement about a subculture’s emergence as an opposition to something by saying that the reason not only for their emergence but also for their longevity is the fact that there is a flaw of some kind in the society, a nagging problem that may or may not be explicitly realized by most people (but often, even if it is realized, this realization is not very clear in society). It means that a subculture is the society’s response to this flaw.
This response might be of different natures, from peaceful according to principles to extremely violent. It is logical to assume that the more major the flaw is, the more radical subculture appears as a result. Therefore, it might be reasoned that before the flaw is gone, this flaw, as one of the main conditions that led to the subculture’s appearance, continues to maintain its existence and successfulness, supply it with new members, and persuade many ‘veteran’ members to carry on.
A subculture often spreads to other regions where there is the same problem; it might undergo various metamorphoses depending on changing internal needs and external circumstances (transformations in the flaw that caused the culture’s emergence, or other conditions such as a shift in the environment caused either by change in the mainstream culture or by the subculture’s spreading to new regions, etc.), like it happened e.g. with punks (Paris & Ault, 2004, p. 404). This, obviously, also maintains the subculture’s existence, even though in a new form.
We would like to give two examples of subcultures, even quite extreme countercultures, which have or had a great influence on the society they exist or existed in. The first one is the contemporary gangs present in Central America, the so-called maras. Breve-Travieso (n.d.) argues that their emergence in 1990–2000s was the result of military actions in their country, and it was worsened by social problems such as poverty, bad education, unemployment or underemployment, and so on. (para. 2, 5).
Maras pose a great threat, terrorizing the locals, dealing in drugs and weapon, etc. Until the trouble that led to the emergence of maras is solved, and their current members are rehabilitated, the gangs are most likely to continue their terror.
Another example is the anarchist counterculture and a political movement. It opposes capitalism and hierarchization (inequality) of society, which it perceives as immense flaws, and supports those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, the poor and blue-collar workers being among them.
The movement has existed for centuries, though often in a somewhat clandestine form. One of the major achievements of the movement is now celebrated internationally on 1 May: anarchists played an important role in 1886 Haymarket protests in Chicago; the protests eventually became an important reason for adoption of 40-hour work week (Zinn, n.d., p. 249-251). Still, this achievement, or any other ones, did not solve the problem of social inequality, and the movement continues to exist nowadays.
As we have seen, there are reasons why subcultures are able to exist and remain successful for years, decades and even centuries. The main reason for this, in our opinion, is that there is a flaw in society, and the emergence of a subculture is the society’s response to this flaw. Subcultures might try to solve the flaw they are a result of; sometimes they even exacerbate the problem. But, in any case, until the main reason of their appearance is gone, their existence can continue for a long time.
Breve-Travieso, F. (n.d.). The maras: A menace to the Americas. Web.
Dowd, J. J., & Dowd, L. A. (2003). The center holds: From subcultures to social worlds. Teaching Sociology, 31, 20-37.
Hebdige, D. (2002). Subculture: The meaning of style. London, UK, New York, NY: Routledge.
Paris, J., & Ault, M. (2004). Subcultures and political resistance. Peace Review, 16(4), 403-407.
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Zinn, H. (n.d.). A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present.