Subcultural theory proposes that those living in an urban setting are able to find ways of creating a sense of community despite the prevailing alienation and anonymity.

subculture theory

The beginnings of subculture theory involved various theorists associated with what became known as the Chicago School. Subcultural theory emerged from the work of the Chicago School on gangs and developed through the symbolic interactionism school into a set of theories arguing that certain groups or subcultures in society have values and attitudes that are conducive to crime and violence. The work associated with Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was most responsible for the association of subculture with groupings based around spectacular styles (teds, mods, punks, skins, motorbike boys and so on).

Subculture theory: Chicago School of Sociology

The beginnings of subcultural theory involved various theorists associated with what became known as the Chicago School. Though the emphasis of the theorists varies, the school is most famous for a conception of subcultures as deviant groups, whose emergence had to do with ‘the interaction of people’s perceptions of themselves with others’ view of them’ . This is, perhaps, best summarized in Albert Cohen’s theoretical introduction to a study of ‘Delinquent Boys’ (1955). For Cohen, subcultures consisted of individuals collectively resolving societal status problems by developing new values which rendered status-worthy the characteristics they shared.
Acquisition of status within the subculture entailed being labelled and, hence, excluded from the rest of society, something the group would respond to through its own hostility to outsiders, to the extent that non-conformity with dominant norms often became virtuous. As the subculture became more substantive, distinctive and independent, members would become increasingly dependent on each other for social contact and validation of their beliefs and way of life.

The themes of labelling and subcultural dislike of ‘normal’ society are also emphasized in Howard Becker’s work which, among other things, is notable for its emphasis on the boundaries drawn by jazz musicians between themselves and their values as ‘hip’ and their audience as ‘squares’ . The notion of increasing polarization between subculture and the rest of society, as a result of outside labelling, is developed further in relation to drug-takers in Britain by Jock Young (1971) and in relation to media moral panics surrounding mods and rockers by Stan Cohen. For Cohen, the generalized negative images of subcultures in the mass media both reinforced dominant values and constructed the future form of such groupings.

Frederic M. Thrasher – (1892-1962) was a sociologist at the University of Chicago.
Studied gangs in a systematic way, analyzing gang activity and behavior. He defined gangs by the process they go through to form a group.

E. Franklin Frazier – (1894 – 1962), was an American sociologist, first African-American chair at University of Chicago.
In the earliest stages of the Chicago School and their investigation of human ecology, one of the key tropes was the concept of disorganization which contributed to the emergence of an underclass.

Albert K. Cohen (1918 – ) is a prominent American criminologist.
He is known for his Subcultural Theory of delinquent urban gangs, including his influential book Delinquent Boys: Culture of the Gang. Cohen did not look at the economically oriented career criminal, but looked at the delinquency subculture, focusing on gang delinquency among working class youth in slum areas which developed a distinctive culture as a response to their perceived lack of economic and social opportunity within U.S. society.

Richard Cloward – (1926 – 2001) was an American sociologist and an activist.
Lloyd Ohlin – (1918 – 2008) was an American sociologist and criminologist who taught at Harvard Law School, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago.
Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin made reference to R. K. Merton’s Strain Theory, while taking a further step in how the Subculture was ‘Parallel’ in their opportunities: the Criminal subculture had the same rules and level. It was, henceforth, a ‘Illegitimate Opportunity Structure’, which is parallel, yet still a polarization of the legitimate.

Walter Miller, David Matza, Phil Cohen.

Subculture theory: Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS)

Rather than individual problems of status, The Birmingham School, from a neo-Marxist perspective, regarded subcultures as a reflection of the position of mainly working-class young people in relation to the particular societal conditions of 1960s and 1970s Britain. Spectacular youth subcultures, it is argued, functioned to resolve the contradictory societal position of working-class young people between the traditional values of a working-class ‘parent culture’ and a modern hegemonic culture of mass consumption dominated by media and commerce.

Critics of the Chicago School and the Birmingham School of subculture theory

There are numerous well-recounted criticisms of the Chicago School and the Birmingham School approaches to subculture theory. First, through their theoretical emphasis on the solving of status problems in one case, and on symbolic structural resistance in the other, both traditions present an overly simplistic opposition between subculture and dominant culture. There is a relative neglect of features such as internal diversity, external overlaps, individual movement between subcultures, the instability of the groups themselves and the large numbers of relatively uncommitted ‘hangers-on’ . While Albert Cohen assumes that subcultures solved the same status problems for all members, Birmingham theorists presuppose the existence of singular, subversive meanings of subcultural styles which, ultimately, reflected the shared class position of participants.
Furthermore, there is a tendency to imply, without detail or evidence, that subcultures somehow originated through large numbers of disparate individuals all simultaneously and spontaneously reacting in the same way to ascribed social conditions. Albert Cohen indicates vaguely that a process of ‘mutual gravitation’ of disaffected individuals and their ‘effective interaction with one another’ led to the creation of subcultures.

Media and commerce relationship to subculture and subcultural theory

The tendency to locate both media and commerce in an oppositional relationship to subcultures is a particularly problematic element of most subculture theory. The notion of incorporation suggests that media and commerce only become self-consciously involved in the marketing of subcultural styles after they have been established for a time. Their role is restricted, in Jock Young and Stan Cohen’s accounts, to the inadvertent labeling and strengthening of existing subcultures. Meanwhile, for Hebdige, everyday consumables merely provide raw materials for creative subcultural subversion. The notion of incorporation suggests that media and commerce only become self-consciously involved in the marketing of subcultural styles after they have been established for a time, and Hebdige emphasizes that this involvement effectively spells the demise of subcultures. In contrast, Thornton suggests that subcultures are liable to involve a variety of both positive and negative forms of direct media involvement right from their beginnings.

Four indicators of subcultural substance

Four indicative criteria of subculture: identity, commitment, consistent distinctiveness and autonomy.

Subculture theory: Consistent Distinctiveness
It would be an over-generalization to seek the absolute removal of notions of symbolic resistance, homology and the collective resolving of structural contradictions from the analysis of popular culture. However, none of these features should be regarded as an essential defining characteristic of the term subculture. For the most part, the functions, meanings and symbols of subcultural involvement are liable to vary between participants and to reflect complex processes of cultural choice and coincidence rather than an automatic shared reaction to circumstances. However, this does not mean that there is no distinctiveness or consistency to the styles and values of contemporary groupings, or that, where present, such features are not socially significant. While accepting the inevitability of a degree of internal difference and change over time, then, the first indicator of subcultural substance comprises the existence of a set of shared tastes and values which is distinctive from those of other groups and reasonably consistent, from one participant to the next, one place to the next and one year to the next.

The second indicator of subcultural substance seeks to redress this problem by focusing on the extent to which participants hold a perception that they are involved in a distinct cultural grouping and share feelings of identity with one another. Leaving aside the importance of evaluating consistent distinctiveness from a distance, a clear and sustained subjective sense of group identity, in itself, begins to establish a grouping as substantive rather than ephemeral.

It is also proposed that subcultures are liable to influence extensively the everyday lives of participants in practice, and that, more often than not, this concentrated involvement will last years rather than months. Depending upon the nature of the group in question, subcultures are liable to account for a considerable proportion of free time, friendship patterns, shopping routes, collections of commodities, going-out habits and even internet use.

The final indicator of subculture is that the grouping concerned, while inevitably connected to the society and politico-economic system of which it is a part, retains a relatively high level of autonomy. Most notably, a good proportion of the productive or organizational activities which underpin it are liable to be undertaken by and for enthusiasts. Furthermore, in some cases, profit-making operations will run alongside extensive semi-commercial and voluntary activities, indicating particularly high levels of grass-roots insider participation in cultural production.

University of Birmingham
Chicago School of Sociology