Subcultural theories

Subculture Theory-Definition, Examples, and Explanations


A subculture is a group of people who differentiate themselves from mainstream culture, often leading to social conflict. Subculture theory focuses on the relationship between groups and their cultures.

The subcultures are relative to each other, and as a result, there is bound to be a conflict between them. These conflicts can arise from issues relating to the subculture’s identity and its place in society.

A subculture is a culture within a larger group, and it can be in any form; class, religion, gender, age, or ethnicity. It can also be an alternative culture with its own set of norms or values.

A subcultural theory is based on the idea that societies consist of more than one group, with at least one sub-group wishing to differ from the norm. As a result of this, they may develop their language or style.

Examples of subcultural theories are:

The Working Class Focal Concerns by Walter Miller

Walter Miller (1965) suggested that the working class in America consists of two different groups, which he categorized as “the decent” and “the vulgar.”

This theory was based on two different “modes of life” within the working class. The decent group was in pursuit of middle-class ideals, which included making enough money to live in a house and respecting other members of society.

Miller claimed that the working class is experiencing a crisis, with some wanting to fit into the middle-class lifestyle and others rejecting it. As a result of this, the decent members of the working class conflict with those who want to reject middle-class norms.

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Cohen’s Status Frustration Subcultural Theory

Cohen (1955) suggested that there is a link between the social structure and subcultures.

He believed that there are two main goals within a society, they are:

  • Achievement– the desire to earn success through hard work.
  • Affiliation- the desire to gain social status from the groups we belong

Cohen claimed there are two main ways of achieving these goals, they are:

  • Conformity– the desire to earn success by conforming and working hard towards society’s goals.
  • Rebellion– the desire to gain social status by deviating from society’s goals and achieving them in your way.

Cohen argued that these two strands of society conflict with each other. This is because conformity offers an opportunity to achieve goals through hard work, and as a result, it is likely to reduce frustration for members of society.

However, rejection of conformity will result in a lack of social status. This tension causes frustration in mainstream society.

According to Cohen, each social group will have a different approach to frustration. Members of one will turn to deviance, whereas others may adopt religious beliefs or political ideologies as an escape.

What are the implications of Cohen’s Criminal Policy?

Cohen claimed that there are two types of individuals; those who feel socially included and those who do not.

Consequently, there are two types of criminal policy; those directed at including the marginalized and those directed at excluding them.

He believed that societies should provide opportunities for the marginalized to achieve success through hard work. This provision would include improving education, increasing equality of wealth, and reducing discrimination.

According to Cohen, different social groups will adopt different strategies for getting ahead in life. This adoption can either involve conforming to society or adopting a rebellious approach and rejecting mainstream culture.

Cohen argued that the criminal justice system greatly influences the relationship between society and marginalized subcultures.

The criminal justice system is responsible for reducing deviance through the punishment of those committing crimes.

Cohen claimed that this might lead to a process of ‘criminalization.’ It involves the criminal justice system defining certain behavior as socially unacceptable and, therefore, a ‘crime.’

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Underclass and Crime by Charles Murray

According to Charles Murray, there is a subculture living in the ghettos in America, which rejects mainstream values. He called this subculture the “underclass.”

Murray claimed that within the underclass, there is no social stability. As a result of this, members of the underclass have developed their norms and values. There is a hierarchy in which those at the top gain monetary rewards and are considered high-class boys. Those at the bottom are seen as low-life individuals.

The lower class members of the underclass are often involved in criminal activity. This behavior led to tensions between them and the upper classes.

The criminal gangs in the underclass have conflicts with those that are trying to live a respectable life. As a result, members of the two groups have opposing cultural goals and live in different areas of society.

The underclass and crime theory is an example of subcultural theory because it explains how people can develop their own culture within a larger one.

The two groups are conflicting with each other over the goals in society. As a result of this, they develop their norms and values to cope with the conflict.

However, they are not completely secluded from one another. There is still some mixing between the groups.

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Ohlin and Cloward’s Subcultural Theories

Ohlin’s (1953) subculture theory stated that people living in poverty have low self-esteem. The poor members of society feel the need to prove their worth by achieving success in their way.

As a result, they reject societal goals and instead work towards their own subcultural goals. The poor develop conflicts with the middle-class and upper classes.

Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) subculture theory stated that poverty causes strain between working-class members. This is because there is an emphasis on hard work in the middle-class culture, and the poor reject this.

The pressure to compete frustrates the poor, and they form a community that favors them. This community is based on the particular values of violence and illegal drugs.

Ohlin and Cloward developed three subcultural theories. These are ;

  • The Conflict subculture theory. It states that the poor conflict with other classes and cultures.  As a result of this, they develop a subculture to cope with the strain.
  • The Defiance subculture theory. This theory states that the poor reject mainstream values and instead develop their values.
  • The Retreat subculture theory. It states that people create a social network in deprived areas to cope with the strain of poverty.

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Subcultural Deviance Theory

According to subcultural deviance theory, societies are stratified. Those at the top live well and can afford luxuries, while those at the bottom struggle to make ends meet.

The strain of this causes the lower classes to reject the cultural norms and values of the upper classes. The lower classes will live in their communities and create their norms and values.

As a result of this, the lower class conflicts with the upper classes. They live different lifestyles and have different cultural goals.

Subcultures emerge when there is a conflict between people with opposing values and norms. The subculture members will reject the norms and values of the larger society instead of developing their own.

The subculture members develop a shared identity to cope with the stress of living in a society where they are not valued. Through this shared identity, they gain respect and status within their community.

In this way, the members can find an identity in a society where they were not previously valued.

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Subcultural Distinction Theory

Figure : The Social class hierarchy

Subcultural distinction theory (Wiley, 1995) stated that there are two types of subcultures: ‘those with a high level of distinction and those with a low level of distinction.’

The theory stated that subcultures develop to cope with differences between the working class and the middle class. In some societies, there is a large gap between the rich and the poor, whereas there isn’t much of a gap in others.

In some societies, the working class members try to gain status to act similar to those in the middle class. This causes the working class subculture to be similar in values and norms to those in the middle class.

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Subcultural Identity Theory

Raymond W. Gibbs Jr. introduced subcultural identity theory in 1982. It explained how people develop a shared identity as a coping mechanism to find status and solidarity within their community.

Subcultures develop in times of conflict (for example, when there is a large class difference). When people feel their values and norms are being rejected by the dominant culture, they will try to find an identity in a new group. The need to belong will cause them to develop a new shared identity that they share with other community members.

Consequently, there are two different types of identity:

  1. Primary identity
  2. Secondary identity

Primary Identity

The primary identity is the one we develop through our family and friends. It is very similar to the shared identity in a subculture.

This identity is the first one we form, and it will be very strong throughout our lives. It will not change easily, even if the values and norms of mainstream society change.

Individuals who have this identity within a subculture will not admit to being part of it, as they are trying to act similar to the dominant culture.

Because it is so hard for them to admit to being part of a subculture, they will develop secondary identities, which allow them to fit in with the rest of society. They will adapt their values and norms depending on who they are around.

Secondary Identity

The secondary identity is the one developed to fit in with the mainstream society. This identity will be different depending on who we are around.

When the subculture is not in conflict with society, it will be hard to tell if someone is part of a subculture or not.

Similarly, when the dominant culture conflicts with the subculture, it will be easy to tell if someone is part of a subculture or not.

Individuals who do not fit into society will try to find a separate subculture (a community where they feel comfortable and accepted). This subculture will have its own culture, norms, and values.

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Subcultural Resistance Theory

The theory behind subcultural resistance is that people with high crime levels will develop their ways to deal with this. They will band together to protect themselves from criminals and develop their norms and values.

The dominant culture will have a high level of influence on the rest of society. However, there will be some members that refuse to conform. They will develop their subculture and live in their community.

These subcultures will have different cultural goals from the dominant culture, as well as different values. They will develop their norms to cope with the conflict.

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Postmodernists’ Subcultural Theories

Postmodernism is a philosophy that denies the existence of objective reality and believes in subjective perceptions. This philosophy is related to subculture theory as it believes that a culture is only different in the eyes of those who perceive it.

Postmodernists believe that there is no such thing as a coherent identity. They argue that identity was invented at the end of the 18th century.

These people also believe that the idea of a coherent identity is just an illusion created by society. They also believe that identity is never fixed, and it is constantly changing depending on our contacts. This argument means that there are no subcultures, as they are just an illusion created by society.

Examples of postmodernist subcultural theories are:

  • Rave culture and drug use  – The rave subculture developed in the 1990s to respond to society. This was because society rejected the use of drugs, so those who wanted to do drugs had to create their own community. This meant that there was no real shared culture in the rave subculture, as it was only created because of a rejection of society.
  • Neo-liberalism and hip hop culture– Neo-liberalism was a form of economic privatization (anti-public). It led to an increase in competition, and many people felt left out of the system. Hip hop resulted from people trying to find a new identity and create their culture and style due to this frustration with society.
  • Sexuality and gender identity – Sexuality and gender identity have social construction. This means that these identities are not natural but constructed by society. Society gives you sexuality and gender identity, and it is up to you to accept these or not. The postmodernists believe that there are no fixed sexualities or gender identities.
  • The punk subculture – This is a perfect example of a postmodernist subculture theory, as it is focused on the idea that everything is fake and there are no real subcultures. The punks want everyone, including themselves, to destroy society and its rules. They see themselves as rebels that want to upset the mainstream culture.

Punks do not feel like they belong to a certain subculture, as they are trying to uproot the whole idea of subcultures. They hate the idea of fitting in, and they want everyone else to hate the idea as well.

The punk subculture is primarily focused on shocking society, breaking the rules, and destroying everything.

  • Metalheads – Metalheads believe that they are the ones rejecting mainstream society. They see themselves as completely different from those who listen to pop music, thus creating their own culture. Metalheads will only hang around with other metalheads, as they do not want to be associated with those who listen to pop music.
  • Emos – Emos are also trying to create their subculture. They believe that they have a completely different culture to popular culture, and they will reject anyone who does not fit into their culture.
  • The mods – This is a perfect example of making yourself the same as those in popular culture. The mods want to be like the rockers, who they see as rebellious and cool. This is a good example of rejection and trying to belong.
  • The transgender subculture-It is also a perfect example of resistance, as it is doing the opposite of popular culture. Transgender people are resisting the traditional gender roles and trying to create their own unique identity.

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Subculture theory is a way of understanding how cultural groups form and interact with one another. It has been used to study everything from gang violence to the formation of musical genres among teenagers. Understanding different subcultures will enable you to appropriately address members of various groups since you know what they believe and practice.

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