Subculture Essay

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Subculture came into vogue in US sociology in the mid to late 1950s stemming from the Chicago School’s ethnographic emphases and empirical studies of youths informed by Robert Merton’s strain theory. Drawing from US sociology, subculture gained ascendance in the United Kingdom during the 1970s through studies of working class youth, soccer hooligans and the critical ethnographies at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Subculture stems from culture – one of English’s most complex words (Williams 1958). From its origin in tending nature, by analogy culture soon included training the mind and then an overall state of mind; expanding to represent a society’s general intellectual achievements, culture stood for the arts and finally denoted a whole way of life – spiritual, intellectual and material.

Subculture arose in response to culture as an all encompassing idea and reference. By focusing on the socio-material creation of habits of mind, outlooks, innovative artistic expression, presentation and ”performance,” subcultural studies indicated how youths, delinquents, rebels, even athletes, gamers and conformists produced separate, shared activities, knowledge, referents and lifeworlds that distinguished them from the ”mainstream.”

With current postmodernist emphases on social fragmentation, subculture has lost much of its former, analytic popularity.


  1. Gelder, K. & Thornton, S. (eds.) (1997) The Subcultures Reader. Routledge, London.
  2. Williams, R. (1958) Culture and Society. Chatto & Windus, London.

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