Sociology of Subculture Research Paper

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More than the notion of culture, that of subculture poses more problems for sociologic analysis than it is able to solve. Just as specialists have enumerated several dozens of definitions of the word culture (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952, Shils 1961), it would be easy to do likewise for the notion of subculture.

1. The Concept Of Subculture

When the concept of culture is taken in a normative manner, as being the set of works of the mind, art, philosophy, religion, and science, thus entailing a high level of work and development, the notion of subculture would seem to subtend the degraded or ‘vulgar’ forms of that culture. Within the hierarchical framework of culture, the subcultures may be understood as the popular cultures, often marginal, and especially the mass culture engendered by the cultural industries. On the one hand, a whole conservative tradition (Bloom 1987) and on the other, a critical one, the Frankfurt School (Adorno 1980), has analyzed this mass subculture as being a mixture of propaganda, commerce and alienation, and as being a degradation of both the aristocratic and rationalist ideal of a great culture, as widespread as civilization itself. In short, this view holds subculture to be an inferior culture.

While much thinking on mass culture has considered subculture as being centered on leisure activities, entertainment and cultural consumption, the limitations of such a view were soon revealed. First (Morin 1962), it was demonstrated that mass culture could play an integrating and communicative role at the same time as the traditional social cultures and affiliations were declining, such as those involving classes and religions. Moreover, this form of culture does not remain superficial when it induces strong cultural transformations, and when it is partially associated with social movements such as youth culture and the production and consumption of music. For many years thought of as a soft form of propaganda, the mass subculture conveyed by the media plays a more ambiguous and probably more democratic role than one might believe (Lazarfeld et al. 1968). Finally, the notion of mass cultures comprises a set of specific forms of cultural consumption, ranging from art to leisure activities, including more private activities which have become the object of public cultural policies playing a leading role in the definition of ways of life and social identities. This mass culture might even be a degradation of ‘real’ culture; indeed, while some of its productions are authentic cultural works, the question arises as to whether cinema, sport and television are an integral part of culture, or whether they are only subcultures. In fact, the issue is hardly of scientific interest and has perhaps come about only through the ethnocentricity of culturally dominant and legitimate groups. At best, the notion of subculture in this view is only a polemic device, the danger being that we may become blind to the diversity of mass culture and to the value of studying its modes of production and forms of consumption.

2. The Hierarchy Of Cultures

When culture is considered from an anthropologic viewpoint as a set of values, representations, and ways of being and acting, the problem of the hierarchy of cultures is resolved, since each group is logically defined by a culture (Levi-Strauss 1952). In this case, however, it is only the nature of the difficulty which changes, because the major issue is that concerning the demarcation between cultures held to be coherent and relatively closed entities and consequently defining where the frontier with subcultures lies. In fact, there is a risk of associating a subculture to just about every identifiable activity/practice, and therefore of diluting the concept into an ongoing continuum.

It is clear that any group, social category or set of activities/practices may be more or less clearly defined by a subculture. It is valid to talk of youth subcultures, peasant subcultures, class subcultures, the subculture of chic or delinquent city quarters, and even professional subcultures. Numerous authors have investigated these themes and there is now a whole anthropology of modernity. However, the notion of subculture took on a particular meaning with studies on the culture of poverty. R. Hoggart (1957) highlighted two essential dimensions to working-class culture: first, the way a community culture can be based on social distance and how the working class is locked into its own values; second, the manner in which a culture serves to ratify the social domination that the working class undergoes, with the result that one’s class destiny is widely accepted. In this view, the subculture is seen as a way of maintaining social order. In describing the culture of poverty, O. Lewis (1963) treads similar ground, but with more clarity. For him, poverty engenders a specific culture which, more than just a form of adaptation to economic constraints, is rather a normative interiorization of poverty, thus explaining the way it is reproduced and why its actors are unable to escape from their situation in life. Thus, poverty may be explained by its own subculture. This idea has been heavily criticized owing to its conservative undertones, suggesting that the poor are victims, more of their culture, than of the social conditions that are imposed on them.

Beyond this criticism, the notion of subculture is problematic, since it is difficult to know where the frontiers between cultures lie in a porous society where there is interpenetration, imitation and opposition between groups and cultures (Bourdieu 1979). Moreover, this view tends to reify cultures and subcultures, to give them more homogeneity than they really have, and to explain the conduct of actors only by their cultural identification.

3. The Links Between Culture And Action

To these first two difficulties is to be added a third, i.e., the links between culture and action. While it is clear that social action is normatively and culturally orientated and that it proceeds in ‘patterns’ of action, it is problematic to explain action as the simple application of a cultural program, as postulated by the most radical thinkers on culturalism (Benedict 1935, Kardiner 1939, Linton 1968). More precisely, by explaining social conduct in terms of cultures and subcultures, there is a great risk of getting into a tautologic loop. For example, deviant behavior could be explained by the existence of a deviant subculture, authoritarian behavior by the existence of authoritarian subcultures, and people might play soccer because it likewise has its own subculture. Even if such an explanation were to be admitted, the main scientific issue remaining would be the ability to explain the development and logic of subcultures. Regarding deviance, for example, there are several competing theories of the subculture, because they explain the development of the subcultures differently.

It is clear that delinquent behavior supposes specific norms, a particular form of socialization, a conception of social life and its values, if only to neutralize the interiorization of conformist norms (Matza 1964). Three schools of thought may be distinguished here. The first (Thrasher 1927, Jankowski 1991) considers the subculture of gangs of youngsters as being a response to a phenomenon of social disorganization and anomie. Enhancement of the bonds of solidarity in the gang, the logic of confronting other gangs and the police, and the obsession with honor may all be seen as ways of constructing a subculture, guaranteeing limited social integration for individuals who cannot play a full role in social life. The second school of thought regarding delinquent subculture derives from the Mertonian model of anomie (Merton 1965). Here, subcultures are seen as a way to reduce the structural tension brought about by the juxtaposition of profound social inequality with the democratic culture of achievement and its concomitant realization of the individual in economic success. The various deviant cultures may therefore be considered to enhance either delinquency as a response to frustrated conformism (Cohen 1955), or social retreat, withdrawal from the game and holing up in a primary group (Cloward and Olhin 1960). Finally, other more marginal theories hold deviant subculture to be the product of confrontation between the working class and the conformism of the middle classes. Consequently, the actors of social control are seen as engendering deviance and the labeling of individuals by way of their own professional subcultures. Hence, social conflicts may be considered to be conflicts between subcultures.

To be clear and not fall foul of tautology, subculture may be explained as the product of social relations and of the strategies that the actors implement. In general, subcultures result from the meeting of wider cultures and particular social situations (Dubet 1987). Therefore, subcultures could be considered as the way in which actors interpret whole cultural settings in the light of the situations and contexts in which they find themselves. In these terms, subcultures are ‘constructed’ by actors and are not imposed on them as principal determinants of their action. Moreover, it is difficult to free the notion of subculture from the value judgments that define it. Indeed, it is very often used in a naive ideological way by researchers oscillating between populist enchantment and aristocratic loftiness.


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