In sociology, anthropology and Cultural Studies, a subculture is a group of people with a culture (whether distinct or hidden) which differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong. If a particular subculture is characterized by a systematic opposition to the dominant culture, it may be described as a counterculture.

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".[1] Sarah Thornton described subcultural capital as the cultural knowledge and commodities acquired by members of a subculture, raising their status and helping differentiate themselves from members of other groups. Roe uses the term "symbolic capital".

Identifying subcultures

Subcultures can be distinctive because of the age, race, ethnicity, class, and/or gender of the members. The qualities that determine a subculture as distinct may be aesthetic, religious, political, sexual, or a combination of factors. Members of a subculture often signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, which includes fashions, mannerisms, and argot.[2]

The study of subcultures often consists of the study of symbolism attached to clothing, music and other visible affectations by members of subcultures, and also the ways in which these same symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture. According to Richard Middleton, "the audience ... manipulates the product (and hence the producer), no less than the other way round."[3] For example, when a member of a subculture

listens to music, even if no-one else is around, he listens in a context of imaginary 'others' - his listening is indeed often an effort to establish connection with them. In general what he perceives in the mass media is framed by his perception of the peer-groups to which he belongs. These groups not only rate the tunes but select for their members in more subtle ways what is to be 'heard' in each tune.[4]

Subcultures' relationships with mainstream culture

It may be difficult to identify certain subcultures because their style (particularly clothing and music) may be 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. This process provides a constant stream of styles which may be commercially adopted.

Music-based subcultures are particularly vulnerable to this process, and so what may be considered a subculture at one stage in its history — such as jazz, goth, punk, hip hop and rave cultures — may represent mainstream taste within a short period of time. Some 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.

Punk subculture

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. According to Dick Hebdige, subcultural styles are distinguished from mainstream styles by being intentionally fabricated.[citation needed] He argues that the punk subculture shares the same "radical aesthetic practices" as Dada and surrealism:

Like Duchamp's 'ready mades' - manufactured objects which qualified as art because he chose to call them such, the most unremarkable and inappropriate items - a pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon - could be brought within the province of punk (un)fashion...Objects borrowed from the most sordid of contexts found a place in punks' ensembles; lavatory chains were draped in graceful arcs across chests in plastic bin liners. Safety pins were taken out of their domestic 'utility' context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear or lip...fragments of school uniform (white bri-nylon shirts, school ties) were symbolically defiled (the shirts covered in graffiti, or fake blood; the ties left undone) and juxtaposed against leather drains or shocking pink mohair tops.[5]

Urban tribes

In 1985, French sociologist Michel Maffesoli coined the term urban tribe, and it gained widespread use after the publication of his Le temps des tribus: le déclin de l'individualisme dans les sociétés postmodernes (1988).[6] Eight years later, this book was published in the United Kingdom as The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society.[7]

According to Maffesoli, urban tribes are microgroups of people who share common interests in metropolitan areas. The members of these relatively small groups tend to have similar worldviews, dress styles and behavioral patterns. Their social interactions are largely informal and emotionally-laden, different than late capitalism's corporate-bourgeoisie cultures, based on dispassionate logic. Maffesoli claims that Punks are a typical example of an "urban tribe"[8].

Five years after the first English translation of Le temps des tribus, writer Ethan Watters claims to have coined the same neologism in a New York Times Magazine article. This was later expanded upon the idea in his book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment. According Watters, urban tribes are groups of never-married's between the ages of 25 and 45 who gather in common-interest groups and enjoy an urban lifestyle, which offers an alternative to traditional family structures[9].


  1. Middleton 1990
  2. Hebdige 1981
  3. Riesman 1950: 361
  4. Riesman 1950: 366
  5. Dick Hebdige p.106-12
  6. Frehse, Fraya (2006). As realidades que as "tribos urbanas" criam. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais. Retrieved on 2008-02-08. Arquived at SciELO - Scientific electronic library online
  7. Maffesoli, Michel. The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. Retrieved on 2008-02-08.
  8. Maffesoli 1996
  9. Watters 2003


  • Cante, Richard C. (March 2008). Gay Men and the Forms of Contemporary US Culture. London: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 0 7546 7230 1. 
  • Hebdige, Dick (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Routledge, March 10, 1981; softcover ISBN 0-415-03949-5). Cited in Negus, Keith (1996). Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6310-2.
  • Huq, Rupa (2006) 'Beyond subculture' (Routledge, 2006; softcover ISBN 0-415-27815-5. Hardcover ISBN 0-415-27814-7
  • Maffesoli, Michel (1996). The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage Publications. ISBN-10: 080398474X
  • McKay, George (1996) Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-028-0.
  • McKay, George (2005) Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain. Durham NC: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-3573-5.
  • Riesman, David (1950). "Listening to popular music", American Quarterly, 2, p.359-71. Cited in Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music, p.155. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • Roe, K. (1990). "Adolescents' Music Use", Popular Music Research. Sweden: Nordicom. Cited in Negus, Keith (1996). Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6310-2.
  • Thornton, Sarah (1995). Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge: Polity Press. Cited in Negus, Keith (1996). Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6310-2.
  • Watters, Ethan (2003). Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment. ISBN 1-58234-264-4.

See also

External links