The Cambridge Dictionary defines subculture as a “way of life, customs and ideas of a particular group within a society that are different from the rest of society.” This is a broad definition, which does not take into account the several sociological nuances that are present behind the concept.
Howard Becker, in Outsiders: The Sociology of Deviance (1963) provides a lengthier understanding of the term subculture. He explains that subcultures consist of people who participate in a lifestyle that is typically regarded as deviant in dominant society. Engagement in such deviant activities usher people to find other like-minded individuals and interact with them in order to build a culture. This helps in the development of perspectives about oneself with relation to others in society. Becker (1963) believes that subcultures operate within, and in distinction to, the culture of larger society. In his introduction, he emphasizes that the degree of deviance of a group of individuals differs from case to case. As a result, different groups end up judging other groups to be deviant.
The context-dependent nature of subcultures aligns them with the theory of micro-hegemonies. It relates to Becker’s (1963) view that within a society, there are many groups, and each group has their own set of rules. People can belong to several groups at once. The idea of deviancy, therefore, is ambiguous because of rules that may apply to one group but not another.
The simplest view of deviancy, Becker (1963) notes, is one where something is seen as too varied from the average. This includes both rule-breaking as well as deviancy in terms of not breaking any enforced laws. This view is too broad, and comprehension of the particularity of subcultures requires a more streamlined definition. Another sociological view, according to his research, links deviancy with pathological behaviour. Under this view, people who are thought of not exhibiting healthy behaviour are deviant. Several sociologists use this definition to discuss about the functionality of deviancy in society, which might be easier in theory than in practice. They dictate what behaviour is deviant depending on whether it may or may not affect the stability of society.
While Becker’s (1963) outlook on deviancy and subculture behaviour provides a more concrete definition of subculture, newer theoretical approaches, such as the one taken up by Jenks in Subculture: The Fragmentation of the Social (2004) raises further questions about the ambiguous nature of what can be considered as deviant. Whereas Becker (1963) underlined the operation of subcultures both within and without society, Jenks (2004) wonders to what extent subcultures can be thought to be outside of society. He cites Downes (1966) in his work to explain that there are two potential kinds of subcultures. One, is that they can be formed outside of the dominant group. Two, they can be formed within the group, but either as a positive response to the norms of that group, or a negative response. This points to the “within and without” feature of a subculture, but like Downes (1966), Jenks (2004) notes the elusiveness of the boundary between subculture and culture (the dominant group).
He says that subcultures cannot be meaningfully isolated from society, of which they are unmistakably a part. The definitional necessity of subcultures, he holds, bears a relationship to a wider normative structure. However, since no culture is a fully integrated one, there lies a complication with drawing a clear division between the end of culture and the beginning of subculture.
In his third chapter, Jenks (2004) elaborates on one of the many views of the concept, that sees subcultures as groups which differ in elements like language, beliefs and lifestyle from the mainstream. This is closer to the Cambridge Dictionary definition, as well as Becker’s (1963) first given definition of deviancy. Just as Becker (1963) offers different definitions of deviancy, Jenks (2004) maps out the several theories behind subcultures to emphasize the concept’s inevitable link to broader social and cultural contexts. That there is no one specific way to consider subculture is voiced by Hebdige in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). He says that the meaning of subculture is always in dispute, and that the word is shrouded in mystery. A subculture can be seen as a symbolic violation of the social order. They are groups with their own expressive forms and rituals.
The availability of different definitions of subculture, or lack thereof, points to some conclusions. Subculture, as a concept, needs to be viewed as being a part of culture and society at large. They may exist in distinction to society but are a part of, or formed within, it. Subcultures are context-based and particular. Depending on the kind of subculture, each group will have their own set of structures, even if they are a variation of (or deviant from) the mainstream. In this way, a subculture is present outside of what one might consider as the dominant group, but has its own rules within which it operates.
Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Cambridge Dictionary (n.d). Subculture.
Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routeledge.
Jenks, C. (2004). Subculture : The Fragmentation of the Social. Sage Publications.