Widely and broadly used, the core idea of subcultural theory is of the formation of subcultures as a collective solution to, or resolution of, problems arising from the blocked aspirations of members, or their ambiguous position in the wider society. Thus subcultures are distinct from the larger culture but borrow (and often distort, exaggerate, or invert) its symbols, values, and beliefs. The concept is widely used in the sociology of deviance -particularly in studies of youth culture.
In the American tradition, a major influence has been Robert Merton's reformulation of Émile Durkheim's concept of anomie , whilst the influence of the Chicago School is also important to note. Albert K. Cohen (Delinquent Boys, 1955) argued that delinquent subcultures developed around adolescent status problems. He described the status frustration of young working-class men, taught at school to aspire to middle-class values, yet remaining tied to their limited, working-class opportunity structures . Faced with a lack of legitimate opportunities, status could only be achieved within a subculture of oppositional, expressive, hedonistic, and non-utilitarian values. (‘Lower-Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency’, Journal of Social Issues, 1958) argued that delinquent subcultures were rooted in aspects of working-class culture; and, rather than being merely a reaction to middle-class society, were more an expressive emphasizing of the ‘focal concerns’ of the parent culture. (Delinquency and Opportunity, 1960) combined elements of the anomie approach with Edwin Sutherland's theory of differential association , identifying ‘strain’ as a result of the perceived blocking of legitimate means to attain internalized, conventional (middle-class) goals. Some youths resolved this strain by turning to the illegitimate opportunity structures of the local working-class community. Apart from legitimate opportunities these also offered ‘criminal’ or ‘conflict’ means of succeeding. ‘Retreatist’ behaviour (such as drug-taking or alcohol use) signalled a double failure to succeed in the spheres either of legitimate or illegitimate enterprise.
British subcultural studies have drawn heavily upon the American tradition, but frequently provided new perspectives: for example, in terms of the ways youth experiences British working-class culture (, The Delinquent Solution, 1966); the bohemian hedonism of middle-class youth subcultures (, The Drugtakers, 1971); the idea of subcultures as arenas of ‘cultural resistance through ritual’ (, Resistance through Rituals, 1976); and ‘reading’ the meaning of style in subcultures (, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, 1979).
Subcultures can arise, according to some authors at least, as forms of symbolic resistance within social institutions which reflect aspects of the social organization of wider society, including schools (, Social Relations in a Secondary School, 1967) and prisons (, The Society of Captives, 1958), or can provide wider networks for those seeking to assert the sense of difference they feel, for example as homosexuals (see, Sexual Stigma, 1975). Feminist writers have explained the absence of girls from street youth culture by reference to a feminine ‘bedroom subculture’ (see, ‘Girls and Subcultures’, in , Resistance through Rituals, 1976).
Subcultural theory can be criticized on several grounds. It can overdraw differences between (and, relatedly, overemphasize the internal homogeneity of) groups identified by, for example, their social class or their age. A consistent failing in subculture studies has been their neglect of women and non-White groups. The idea of a subculture implies difference from a dominant, superordinate host culture, yet it can be argued that the plurality and fragmentation of modern or post-modern culture erodes the significance of the former concept. Since, latterly, subcultural theory has come to embrace many different (by no means wholly compatible) theoretical standpoints, it is hard to formulate definitive assessments. However, Stanley Cohen has proffered a fairly damning critique of the ‘resistance through rituals’ tradition of British subcultural theory, arguing that the exercises of decoding and deciphering the subcultural styles in question (punk, skinhead, or whatever) are politically partisan, and ultimately unconvincing, since they nowhere address themselves to the explicit intentions of the research subjects themselves (Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 2nd edn., 1980). See also Coleman , James S.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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