Lade Inhalt...

‘Subculture’ as a theoretical problem in Cultural Studies

Seminararbeit 2007 23 Seiten




1 The theories of delinquency

2 New Subcultural Theory
2.1 Phil Cohen
2.2 “Resistance through rituals”
2.3 Dick Hebdige “Subculture: the meaning of style”
2.4 Angela McRobie
2.5 The critique

3 Contemporary theories of subcultures
3.1 Clubcultures
3.2 The theory of ‘Neo-tribes’
3.3 The theory of lifestyle




Youth subcultures have always attracted a lot of attention, both from the media and from academics. It is not surprising because members of youth subcultures tend to be highly visible and often are responsible for moral panics. Secondly, youth cultures have been considered to be “the product or epitome of social change, or a barometer of future changes”.[1] That is why, in the twentieth century, in the time of social, economic and political changes, youth became an object of sociological, cultural, and psychological analyses. The concept of subculture has been an attractive model for explanation and analysis of youths’ individual and collective behaviours in sociology for a diversity of theoretical positions. It is noticeable that every successive paradigm has tried to criticize or to show its dominance and authority over previous understandings. The term subculture was initially used in 1950’s in the works of the Chicago School in the US to refer to the urban gangs. In British subcultural theory has begun with the studies of sociologists who sought to explain delinquent behaviour of young people and consistently relied on psychology and psychoanalysis. But the most influential body of work is New Subcultural Theory that was created during the 1970’s by the researchers from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University. It has been strongly criticized but is still considered to be the ground work on subcultures. However, according to Rupa Huq, the term subculture has in many ways come of age.[2] There are a lot of academics that criticize the writings of the CCCS and have developed postmodern theories on subcultures. They suggest new definitions and explanations of subcultures or even claim that the notion of subculture cannot be applied anymore to describe the culture of today’s youth.

In this paper, I will introduce some different strands of the subculture theory about youth during the twentieth century. I will briefly introduce the theory of delinquency of American and British sociologists, and then I will give an overview of the Cultural Studies approach from the University of Birmingham in the 1970’s and briefly indicate its weaknesses. Then I will introduce the approach of the contemporary subcultural theory and explain the concepts of clubculture, neo-tribe and lifestyle which are considered to be alternative to the concept of subculture.

1 The theories of delinquency

The influential literature on subculture developed at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies came to be known as New Subcultural Theories. But as Widdicombe and Wooffitt state, in order to understand what was new about this perspective it is useful to consider the earliest functionalist theories developed by American sociologists interested in delinquency, and by British educational sociologists. These studies focused on the key themes of class, delinquency, culture and leisure which were also dominant in the works of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.[3]

According to Skelton, Valentine and Chambers, adolescents began to be treated as a problem for society after the Second World War, a period, when young men were gaining cultural and economic independence from their families. Academic study of ‘youth’ as a distinctive social category became established during the 1950’s and 1960’s in the United States and Britain. Academic interest in teenagers was born within criminology strengthened by moral panics and public condemnation of working class adolescents.[4]

The American theorists were critical of the assumption, perpetuated by the mass media, that youth was homogeneous, unified and classless group with its own distinct culture. They emphasized the significance of growing up in a society structured by classes. Albert Cohen, for example, described what an important role inequalities and disadvantages in the education system played in shaped self-value of young working-class males. He and other researchers interpreted delinquency as collective, immediate, and practical solution to problems imposed by class structure.[5]

The delinquent youth were engaged in particular kinds of activities which were part of a culture of delinquency which included a set of core values such as toughness, defiance of authority, hedonism, excitement and smartness. Disagreement amongst theorists focused on the origins of the values, but they agreed that youth subcultures had to be understood in relation to rather than separate from working- and middle-class background and values.[6]

The British educational sociologists developed the ideas of American theorists further. They emphasized the significance of cultural artefacts and leisure in the delinquent solution. The researchers observed that youth rejected the school culture and centred their culture on leisure-based activities of pop music and fashion. According to sociologist, class also played an important role in respect to rejection of the school culture and choice of another culture. For example, working class adolescents had worse chances at school and did not have the same possibilities and access to the sphere of leisure as the youth from other classes; therefore, many working-class male youth chose delinquent street corner culture as a solution of their disadvantages. Delinquent behaviour was said to be a disturbing reflection of the leisure meanings of the dominant culture.[7]

As Skelton, Valentine and Chambers claim, the problem of the early theorist was that they mainly concentrated on defining ‘delinquency’ but there was very little direct research conducted on actual groups of young people; their theories were empirically weak. Secondly, there were no explanations of gender relations and the role of girls in gangs. ‘Youth’ was defined as consisting of young men.[8]

2 New Subcultural Theory

At the beginning of the twentieth century British subculture theory has consistently relied on psychology and psychoanalysis to explain the social. From the late 1960’s British researchers began to criticize this approach and developed a more sophisticated theories that interpreted youth subcultures in terms of social class relations and social change. During the 1970’s, a distinctive contribution to youth subcultures theory was made by members of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), University of Birmingham. The researchers of Birmingham Centre linked youth culture to the social relations of production, leisure and class structure, accepting yet also criticising the young consumer and juvenile delinquency concerns of functionalist sociology.

According to Rupa Huq, the CCCS’s studies of youth were theoretically heavily based on continental traditions, particularly Marxism, Gramscian theory of hegemony and French structuralist philosophy. The concepts of culture, semiotics and ideology and the study of language, anthropology and literary criticism are all analyzed by emphasizing the fact that social structures are very important in predetermining individual choices and developments. The researchers of the Birmingham Centre followed such theorists as Saussure, who linked language and its meanings to culture rather than nature; Lévi Strauss, who suggested the idea of binary opposition; and Barthes, who done work on semiology, the science of signs.[9] As McGuigan explains, two forms of empirical research on youth subculture meanings and actions became established by British Cultural Studies research: ethnographic and textual. Ethnographic research was based on anthropological and sociological methods of participant observation, and textual analyses drew on techniques of critical analysis drawn from semiotics, literary theory and structuralist anthropology.[10]

The well-known contributions to the studies of youth subcultures in the 1970’s were made by the following members of Birmingham Centre: Phil Cohen, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts, Dick Hebdige and Angela McRobbie.

2.1 Phil Cohen

Phil Cohen’s article “Subcultural conflict and working class community” is the ground work of the subculture theory of the CCCS. His approach called for three dimensions of analysis in the study of youth subcultures: an historical analysis allowed the examination of class fractions; a structural or semiotic analysis allowed the study of the system of style, dress, slang and rituals; and an ethnographic analysis explained the subcultural group’s daily practices. Cohen’s theory reminds the early Chicago School’s ecological perspective in so far as it is concerned with special organization as well as social structure and historical change. Cohen studied the youth of East London in the early 1970s. He was interested in how working-class communities had changed during the 1950’s and 1960’s.[11] The patterns of housing and employment changed which led to the destruction of cultural patterns of the community. The traditional structure changed and the concepts of community and collective identity became weaker. Cohen tried to explain the emergence of youth subcultures as a result of interaction between the parent culture, rooted in the relations of production and clinging to nostalgic class loyalties and traditional working class puritanism, and the hedonist, consumer, mass-mediated culture offering rather different identity-building resources.[12]

Phil Cohen introduced ideas of ‘imaginary relations’ and ‘magical solution’ to subculture. He argued that youth develop a cultural style as a means of coping with their particular circumstances and of resisting the dominant values of society. As Blackman claims, Cohen interpreted youth subcultures as a language and considered their style to be imaginary. Working-class youth were seen to be the product of a conscious perception of their economic position in society. The contradictions of advanced capitalism were experienced by the working class within the workplace and resolved in the realm of leisure through the adoption of oppositional lifestyles in an ‘imagined reality’. The style of youth subcultures was ‘real’ in so far as it derived from their contradictory class position but young people were not fully aware of this repression. The youth failed to overcome class contradictions because the attempts to solve material problems took place in the domain of leisure, leaving the problems of work apart. Working-class youth through their subcultural style expressed and ‘magically’ resolved the ideological contradictions that remained hidden or unresolved in the parent culture.[13]

2.2 “Resistance through rituals”

“Resistance through rituals” was a volume consisting of essays of multiple authors that was inspired by Cohen’s theorization of class and youth that was linked to production and consumption. As Blackman maintains, the major contribution brought by this paper to youth studies was to systemize the topic as a field of academic discourse. The cultural studies approach to subculture theory was innovative; they read youth subculture style as a text and interpreted each subculture through its creation of meaning as a collective force. The basic assumption is that youth subcultures belong to the working class, deriving from the experience of subordination. Subcultural activity is interpreted as a form of symbolic politics to particular class and cultural experiences.[14]

The concepts of culture, hegemony, dominant culture, dominant ideology, class culture, subculture and parent culture are introduced in this book. The definition of culture produced within this tradition explains that:

We understand the word culture to refer to that level at which social groups develop distinct patterns of life, and give expressive form to their social and material life experience. Culture is the way, the forms, in which groups ‘handle’ the raw material of their social and material existence.[15]

As Mcguigan argues, the emphasis on ‘experience’ there is grounded first and foremost in class experience, because class is principal structuring division of capitalist society. Subcultures in this approach have to be seen in a class context. There is a distinction to be drawn, however, between subcultures and other resistant or alternative cultures; working class cultures are the home of subcultures, while middle-class cultures create counter-cultures. Though the writers see working-class subcultures as resisting to dominant culture and ideology of the dominant class, those concepts are not explained in detail. They argue that class-cultural differences are further complicated by generational differences, associated with which are distinct subcultures:[16]


[1] Widdicombe, Sue / Wooffitt, Robin, 1995, p.7.

[2] Huq, Rupa, 2006, p. 9.

[3] Widdicombe, Sue / Wooffitt, Robin, 1995, p.15.

[4] Skelton, Tracey / Valentine, Gill / Chambers Deborah, 1998, p. 10.

[5] Baldwin, Elaine / Longhurst, Brian / McCracken, Scott / Ogborn, Miles / Smith, Greg, 2000, p. 318-319.

[6] Widdicombe, Sue / Wooffitt, Robin, 1995, p.15.

[7] Widdicombe, Sue / Wooffitt, Robin, 1995, p.15.

[8] Skelton, Tracey / Valentine, Gill / Chambers, Deborah , 1998, p. 10-11.

[9] Huq, Rupa, 2006, p. 13.

[10] McGuigan, Jim, 1992, p. 90-91.

[11] McGuigan, Jim, 1992, p. 93-94.

[12] Storey, John, 1996, p. 21.

[13] Blackman, Shane, 2005, p.5.

[14] Blackman, Shane, 2005, p.6.

[15] Clarke, John / Hall, Stuart / Jefferson, Tony / Roberts, Brian, 1976, p. 10.

[16] McGuigan, Jim, 1992, p. 95.


ISBN (eBook)
531 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Rostock – Anglistik/Amerikanistik
Cultural Studies Popular Culture Theory Practice



Titel: ‘Subculture’ as a theoretical problem in Cultural Studies