1. The Concept of Youth Subcultures
The word 'culture' suggests that there is a separate entity within the larger society with which the larger society must contend. According to Jordaan and Jordaan in Man in Context (1984), "a subculture group is a social-cultural formation that exists as a sort of island or enclave within the larger society". One definition of subculture is: "subcultures are meaning systems, modes of expression or life styles developed by groups in subordinate structural positions in response to dominant meaning systems, and which reflect their attempt to solve structural contradictions rising from the wider societal context" (Michael Brake). For Brake membership of a subculture necessarily involves membership of a class culture and the subculture may be an extension of, or in opposition to, the class culture. The significance of subcultures for their participants is that they offer a solution to structural dislocations through the establishment of an achieved identity - the selection of certain elements of style outside of those associated with the ascribed identity offered by work, home, or school. He suggests that the majority of youth pass through life without significant involvement in deviant subcultures. He says that the role of youth culture involves offering symbolic elements that are used by youth to construct an identity outside the restraints of class and education.
Snejina Michailova, in Exploring Subcultural Specificity in Socialist and Postsocialist Organisations, presents the following definitions of subculture: (1) Subcultures are distinct clusters of understandings, behaviors, and cultural forms that identify groups of people in the organization. They differ noticeably from the common organizational culture in which they are embedded, either intensifying its understandings and practices or deviating from them" (Trice and Beyer). (2) Subculture are a "...compromise solution between two contradictory needs: the need to create and express autonomy and difference and the need to maintain identifications to the culture within whose boundaries the subculture develops" (Cohen)." Snejina adds: "Subcultures posses their own meanings, their own way of coping with rules, accepted to be valid for the organization, their own values structured in specific hierarchies, they develop their own categorical language for classifying events around them, they create their own symbolic order." A key element in subcultures is sharedness - the sharing of a common set of perspectives.
Jordaan and Jordaan (Man in Context, Page 726) write: "From the work of Cartwright and Zander (1968), Hare (1976), Douglas (1978) and Janis (1972) it would appear that a group shows, inter alia, the following special characteristics.
* The collection of people share an awareness of membership;
* The collection of people are interacting with one another - they intercommunicate on an informative level and on a metacommunicative level;
* The collection of people share one or more implicit or explicit objectives or motives which provide the reason for them being in the group (a group must have a goal, even it it's just to have fun, since without a goal interaction cannot be easily maintained for long);
* The collection of people develop explicitly or implicitly a set of norms or rules which put pressure on the members in respect of the permissible behaviour within the group, and sometimes also in respect of the attitudes and behaviours of group members towards other groups. Group norms and the consequent pressure can lead to conforming behaviour aimed at achieving the group's goals.
* The collection of people can consider consensus within the group so highly that the phenomenon of group thinking manifests;
* If the interaction between the members of the group of people is long-lasting, a leader and followers pattern develops within the group'
* If the interaction is long-lasting there develops between the members of the group a network of interpersonal attraction based on the likes and dislikes members have in respect of one another."
The common elements of a subculture include: (1) relatively unique values and norms, (2) a special slang not shared with society, (3) separate channels of communication, (4) unique styles and fads, (5) a sense of primary group belonging seen in the use of 'us' and 'them', (6) a hierarchy of social patterns that clarify the criteria for prestige and leadership, (7) receptivity to the charisma of leaders and (8) gratification of special unmet needs. (source unknown)
To suggest that there is a youth subculture requires proof that they are a distinct group with their own set of characteristic. This is true in terms of (1) aesthetics: youth have a distinct style and taste that is expressed in their personal appearance and an artistic flair expressed in spontaneity and creativity. Their values include an emphasis on community, a sense of belonging and on collectively shared ecstasy. Youth culture also exists as shown in their distinct (2) morality: there is a strong emphasis on liberation from all restraints and on a guiltless pursuit of pleasure. In the area of sexuality we find an aspect of life where the individual is to experience themselves and others with complete freedom and honesty. There is a combination of both individualism (youth culture affirms the autonomy of each individual who has the 'right' to do their own thing) and collectivism (many individuals are fused into a common experience). The search for identity is at the core.
2. The Formation of Youth Subcultures
A subculture group forms when the larger culture fails to meet the needs of a particular group of people. They offer different patterns of living values and behaviour norms, but there is dependence on the larger culture for general goals and direction (unlike counter-cultures which seek to destroy or change the larger culture). Subcultures try to compensate for the failure of the larger culture to provide adequate status, acceptance and identity. In the youth subculture, youth find their age-related needs met. It is a way-station in the life of the individual - it is as if society permits the individual to 'drop out' for a period of years and is even willing to subsidise the phase. However, for some people the way-station becomes the place of permanent settlement. This is when a group moves towards becoming a counter-culture.
Industrialisation and the related social-psychological factors of modern industrial societies caused the phenomenon of youth subcultures for the following reasons: (1) The deepening of the division of labour separated the family from the processes of modern production and administration. Youth is a further extension of the same process of institutional separation or differentiation. With the industrial revolution there arose an institutional structure that 'allowed room' for youth. (2) With this division of labour there came an increasing specialisation which led to a lengthening of the period of time that the individual needed to spend in the educational system. Youth were separated from the process of production by child labour laws. (3) The rise of modern medicine and nutrition led to the sheer numbers of youth increasing. (4) The sheer complexity of modern society has meant that different individuals lead vastly different lives. When adults disappear into a strange world, reappearing for limited contact with youth, a degree of estrangement results. This trend has caused youth to become autonomous, establishing norms and patterns of their own that are independent from the adult world. (5) Socialisation in modern societies is characterised by high degrees of discontinuity and inconsistency. This produces individuals who are not well integrated and a period of time is needed where they can complete the process of socialisation - a time to find themselves, hence adolescence.
A number of different theories have been suggested for the formation of youth subcultures:
A. A Natural Part of the Journey from Childhood to Adulthood
As discussed under the youth culture section, there is a journey from childhood to adulthood. Youth ban together for support into groups that function as half-way houses between the world of being a child and the world of being an adult. Here youth subcultures are about survival in an otherwise hostile world.
B. A Class Struggle Expressed Through The Use of Style
In the resistance through rituals understanding of culture the members are always striving against dominant classes; older generations and against those who conform. They are always trying to find ways to disrupt the ideological and generational oppression in order to crease spaces for themselves. The resistance through personal expression is often contrasted against the conformity of the ‘normals’. In many writings youth are counterposed against adults - they hate and avoid adults and oppose them because they represent authority. A dichotomy was created between, for example: Goths and Normals where Goths avoid and hate adults, oppose adults who represent authority and are deemed to resist; while Normals relate well to adults, consult adults with problems and are deemed to conform. Linda Forrester in a web article speaks of youth generated culture where visual communication is predominant and language is subservient to visual means of communications. Visual cultures include: skateboarders; graffiti artists; street dancers and street machiners which communicate through movement or gesture. These are periphery groups empowered by the space that they have created through visual representation. They cultural production is recognised by mainstream culture and in that recognition they are given power to speak. The process empowers them and provides identity. Group control is managed through the visual display of creative talent, ie, skaters out-skate each other, graffiti artists out-image each other; street machines out-car each other; street dancers fight each other though art. In mainstream culture discourse is primarily verbal but in youth generated culture discourse is primarily visual. It is through style that criticism of performance and image occurs and it is through criticism that higher forms of visual representation occur.
C. A Rebellion Against the Dominant Culture Using Shock Tactics
Young people in creating subcultures are setting out to shock. One of the key ways in which they shock is through the clothes they wear. Oppositional subcultures (ie. Punk and Hip-hop subcultures) are movements dedicated to rebellion against the dominant culture.
D. A Construction of New Identities Based on Individualisation
The new ideas in youth culture suggest a more positive view of the role of youth in society. Youth is viewed as an active category - a sociocultural view of youth is introduced where youth are involved in the development of society through their creations. Youth must be allowed to exercise the power to bring change - they do so in their cultural expressions all the time. Youth culture is about individualism - an expanding degree of separation of individuals from their traditional ties and restrictions. As people have 'broken free' they feel a need to look for fixing points - material with which to form a new social and cultural identity. The motivation behind participating in the activities of a subculture involves coping with suffering (the sense of loss at being cut off from the past and hence one’s identity), ie. alienation, loneliness, meaningless, etc. The motive is to be reinstated into responsive and responsible relationships. The individualisation has produced post-traditional communities - because they are focussed on the individual they are looser and more fluid than traditional communities but they are still settings in which youth find self-expression and identity. The subculture is an identity-related substitute for the lost collective world of modernism but with the disintegration of tradition, subcultures has lost their identity-creating potential. There is a now a pluralisation of needs and interests that result from the process of individualisation and culturalisation - so culture ruptures are normal. Not only do these ruptures affect all social classes, but the traditional generational gap is also blurred. Alongside individualisation there is a tendency towards self-organisation - probably the new communities will be organised around the needs of the individuals and their interests. Douglas Rushkoff, in Playing the Future, suggests that as the world has become increasingly complex the children have adapted to its demands, and they have the ability to navigate it's terrain - adults must learn from them!
A whole new approach to the field of subculture theory is emerging. It is an approach that is critical of the subculture theory approach popular since the seventies. Read about this new view in my article entitled: A New Approach to Youth Subculture.
3. The Increase of Youth Subcultures
A number of factors account for the increase in the number of subculture groups in society:
A. The Size of the Society
Charles Kraft in Anthropology for Christian Witness says: "larger societies will also develop more subgroupings. These subgroupings are usually referred to as subcultures."
B. The Rate of Change in the Society
In societies with slow pace of social change the transition to adulthood goes smoothly and youth are similar to their parents. There is a unity and a solidarity between the coming generation and the generation of parents. In societies undergoing rapid social change a smooth transition to adulthood is no longer possible and there is a strong dissimilarity with parent generations. Here an individual cannot reply on their parents identity patterns as they no longer fit into the social context. Because youth realise that they cannot learn from past experiences, they search for new identities that are relevant. In fact, the greater the change in a society the more intense and stronger the subcultures as people identify more with their subculture in order to find identity and security.
C. The Globalisation of the Society
The rate at which cultural objects and ideas are transmitted in large parts of the world today is a significant factor in the number of youth subculture groups that are identified. Where a society is connected to the global village through communication technology, they experience simultaneous pressures to unity and fragmentation.
D. The Position of Youth in the Society
People who are marginalised or deprived make their sense of loss known as they resist to the dominant culture. Where youth are connected to the center of the dominant culture they do not need to rebel or form counter-cultural groups.
E. The Generational Size in the Society
The size of a generation impacts on youth subcultures because the overall age structure within a society influences the social, economical and political make up of age groups. When the number of youth entering the market place drops, then youth as a portion of the total labour force also falls. This decline in youth as a market force, both as consumers and producers will significantly alter the social and political visibility of youth.
4. The Features of Youth Subcultures
Looking at various writings on youth culture the following features are noted (some of which may well overlap): style; language, music, class, rebellion, gender, art, rebellion, relationship to the dominant culture, degree of openness to outsiders, urban/rural living, etc. The following insights were gained from class interaction on youth subculture groups:
A. Class and Youth Subcultures
It was found that within different socio-economic groups subculture groups take on different characteristics and are based on different factors. Within the working class communities youth tend to have more interaction with parents and therefore don’t seem to rebel as much against their parents as youth in middle to upper classes. Youth subcultures in working class communities will show a greater among of gang activity, with subculture groups being defined around gangs in some areas. In middle class areas youth seem to form their subcultures around interests, such as sports.
B. Music and Youth Subcultures
Most subculture groups could be identified with a specific music genre and in some instances music was the defining characteristic around which the group was formed (such as with the following subcultures: Ravers, Metalheads, Homeboys, Ethno-hippies, Goths, Technos, Rastas and Punks). In other communities music is a key feature, but another factor would be the key characteristic, such as with Bladers, Bikers, Skaters, Surfers, etc.).
C. Family and Youth Subcultures
In working class families, we noted that families tend to have closer interaction and youth do not seem so intent on being different to their parents, whereas in other communities youth may deliberately choose a certain subculture group to reinforce their independence and even opposition to their parents. In upper-class communities (or among youth from upper-class homes) youth are given a lot more disposable income with which to engage in sports, computers, entertainment, etc. So they are able to engage in a greater diversity of pursuits - so there are possibly more subculture groups in middle to upper-class communities.
D. Fashion and Youth Subcultures
It was noted that fashion plays a role in all subculture groups and that some are more strongly defined by their fashion, while others take the clothing that relates to the music or sport to define the subculture group. Working class youth tend to place greater emphasis on fashion as it is the one way in which they can show off what they own, whereas middle class youth have other things to show off, such as homes, smart cars, fancy sound systems, etc.
5. The Types of Youth Subcultures
Snejina Michailova, in Exploring Subcultural Specificity in Socialist and Postsocialist Organisations, presents the following understanding of the types of subcultures based on their internal logic of development: (a) Stable Subcultures - these are functional and hierarchical and age-based. (b) Developing Subcultures - here there are two types, those that are (i) climbing - their role is becoming more important, and those that are (ii) climbing-down - their significance is being reduced. (c) Counter Cultures - those that confront and contradict the official culture, also called oppositional subcultures.
6. The Variety of Youth Subcultures
Youth workers should, through research and observation, seek to identify the various subculture groups within the community in which the youth group operates, to ensure that the group is able to help to meet the needs of the different groups. In Britain in the 1980s the following groups of youth were identified: Casuals, Rastas, Sloans, Goths, Punks and Straights. In South Africa in the 1990s the following youth subculture groups were identified: Socialite, Striver, Traditionalist, Independent, Uninvolved, Careful and Acceptor. In 1995 a market research project discovered that within the Black youth culture there are three main subcultures: the Rappers, Pantsulas and the Italians. While within the White youth subculture only thirty percent of youth identify with a subculture and the subcultures are far more numerous: alternatives, Punks, Goths, Technoids, Metalheads, Homeboys, Yuppies, Hippies and Grunge.
The following subculture groups were identified by students studying at the Baptist Theological College in South Africa: Achievers; Intellectuals; Belongers; Image-Conscious; Very Poor; Models; Heavy Metal Dudes; Rugby Boys; Metalheads; Hippies; Mainstream; Average Teenager; Fashion Fanatic; Intellectuals; Physical; Clubers; Family Centered; Workaholics; Pleasure Seekers; Hobby Fanatics; Religious Freaks; Head Banger; Punk; Home Boys; Skater; Gothics; Yuppies; Trendys; Rappers; Club-Hoppers; Metal Heads; Socialites; Independents; Uninvolved; Carefuls; Socialites - Pantsulas; Mapanga (Punks); Mapantsula; Strivers; Comrades; Preppy; Outrageous; Sexy; Sporty; Gothic/Satanists; Nerds; Intellectual Strivers; Socialites; Jokers; Gangsters; Independents; Traditionalists; Teenyboppers; Trendy Group; Arty Type; Alternative Group; Drug Culture; Gay Culture; Squatters/Vagrants Culture.
In the movie, The Breakfast Club, five teenagers are sent to detention for eight hours on a Saturday at their school (Shermer High School, Illinois). They are:
* Brian Johnson, a nerdy computer type, an intellectual who belongs to the Maths club
* Clair Standish, a ‘princess' - wealthy kid who is a popular type
* Andrew Clark - a sporty type who is in the school wrestling team
* Carl - a ‘criminal' type who has had a hard upbringing, a kid with an attitude
* Alison Reynolds - a strange girl, who is secretive, uncommunicative and dresses in black
The teacher, Richard Vernon, says that they have to write an essay that explains who they are. During the day in detention, these five young people who would otherwise never together socially begin to find out about each other. They share about their home, their parents, the things that they are able to do, and why they are in detention (they even end up sharing a dagga joint). Very soon they are bonding together. Someone asks the questions about whether they will still be friends when they see each other on Monday. Some admit that they would be ashamed to greet the other person if they are with their friends.
They get Brian to write the essay for the teacher. This is what he writes: Dear Mr Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention, what we did was wrong, but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.
The movie starts and ends with this letter being read. During the opening sequence the following quote by David Bowie is written across the screen, while the song by Simple Minds, Don't You Forget About Me, plays in the background: "And these children that you spit on as they try to change their world are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through."
In the opening scene where the letter is narrated by Brian, the reading ends with: "That's how we saw ourselves at 7 o'clock this morning. We were brainwashed."
When social workers start to research a subculture group they often find that the members of the subculture group are less that helpful. Consider the following quotes:
"It is highly unlikely that the members of any of the subcultures described in this book (Reggae, Hipsters, Beats, Teddy Boys, Mods, Skin Heads and Punks) would recognize themselves here. They are still less likely to welcome any efforts on our part to understand them. After all, we the sociologists and interested straights, threaten to kill with kindness the forms which we seek to elucidate...we should hardly be surprised to find our 'sympathetic' readings of subordinate culture are regarded by members of a subculture with just as much indifference and contempt as the hostile labels imposed by the courts and the press." From: Subculture: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige, Routledge, 1967.
A 16-year-old mod from South London said: "You'd really hate an adult to understand you. That's the only thing you've got over them - the fact that you can mystify and worry them." From: Generation X by Hamblett and Deverson, Tandem, 1964.
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