Countercultures are groups of people who attempt to challenge the prevailing cultural norms, assumptions, trends, or ideologies of a society.
Sociologists look at countercultures as cultures that challenge the values of the dominant social, ethnic, or political group. The dominant group attempts to impose its own culture upon the rest of society.
Counterculture then becomes an important political force resisting the hegemony of dominant groups, and for this reason, is of interest to sociologists and political scientists.
Important 20th century theorists of cultural hegemony have been:
- Antonio Gramsci,
- Louis Althusser, and
- Pierre Bourdieu.
A formal definition of counterculture is given below:
“Counterculture is a sociopolitical term indicating a point of dissent between dominant or mainstream ideologies and alternative value systems, creating a collective voice that can be considered a significant minority.” (Whiteley 2015)
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Counterculture vs Subculture
Counterculture is a unique type of culture different from subculture because subcultures are not directly in opposition to the mainstream culture. They can live with and within the main culture without upsetting it or threatening its values.
Nevertheless, like a counterculture, a subculture is distinguishable from the wider social milieu by its distinct customs, rituals, beliefs, values, aesthetics, etc.
A subculture may not take an oppositional stand against its parent culture. A counterculture on the other hand is characterized by a spirit of resistance.
Countercultures and Retreatism
Some countercultural groups, such as cults, will participate in a practice known in sociology as retreatism. This occurs when you stop trying to engage with mainstream culture and instead isolate yourself and your group from the rest of society.
Examples of Countercultures
Hippies in the 60s are perhaps the most instantly recognizable symbols of counterculture.
The Hippie movement peaked during the 1960s and 70s was a classic counterculture. It rejected mainstream materialistic culture, was opposed to the constant warfare that characterized international politics, and believed in freedom to explore sexuality and mind-altering substances.
They began as a revolt against conservative post-war American moral values.
They were also instrumental in the movement against the Vietnam War and the excesses of capitalism.
The Punk movement was born in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. It was loud and trenchant, with a distinctive anti-establishment tenor born out of its working-class and blue collar origins.
Both Hippie and Punk countercultures, besides their strong anti-authoritarian politics were defined by particular aesthetics, musical tastes, and ways of dressing that instantly set them apart from larger society.
Punk bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones introduced music with a rapid-fire driven beat. Subsequent waves of punk rock never matched the original wave, but gave rise to several worldwide supergroups including Blink 182 and Green Day.
The first wave of punks was strongly anti-corporatism, against ‘selling out’ to music labels, and even embraced anarchism.
Punks wore leather jackets, Dr. Martens boots and spiked colorful mohawks.
The new wave punks of the 1990s and 2000s were distinctly subcultural rather than countercultural because they were less interested in rebellion and were more focussed on middle class youth angst.
Fear of the challenge punks (and related groups like the mods and rockers) has led to widespread moral panic in society.
3. Socratic Philosophy
Socrates’ core philosophical teaching was an exhortation to relentlessly question everything without prejudice.
“The unexamined life is not worth living”, he is famously believed to have declared.
The path to truth, Socrates believed, lay in questioning all forms of knowledge, authority, tradition, and received wisdom.
However, Socrates’ call to challenge authority ran counter to the prevailing norms of Athenian culture, which though otherwise liberal, lay great emphasis on respecting the gods and following rules.
This focus on servitude to gods was crucial to the survival of Athenian society as it was a militaristic, war-like culture engaged in constant warfare with other Greek city-states, most notably Sparta, about whose god was best.
Socrates’ vision of a world in which nothing was sacred and everything was up for questioning was the inverse of what a war-like society hungry for impressionable minds to train, discipline, and march off to battle needed.
As Socrates developed a small but loyal following of philosophers, among them his most famous disciple, Plato, he began to be viewed as a threat to society by Athenian aristocrats. He was condemned to death by drinking a bowl of poison on charges of corrupting young minds and not acknowledging the old gods. (Goffman & Joy 2005).
Sufism is a sect within Islam that began in West Asia and quickly spread to Persia and South Asia.
Often referred to as Islamic mysticism, Sufism incorporated several practices that were forbidden in orthodox Islam such as singing and dancing.
The Sufi philosophy of being inclusive, accommodating and syncretic ran counter to the prevailing Islamic orthodoxy with its emphasis on rigid boundaries. It was this countercultural syncretism of Sufi practice that became the very reason for its popularity in several parts of the Islamic world.
For instance, in the Indian subcontinent, Sufism interacted with the monistic Hindu traditions to give rise to a unique syncretic theology and devotional practice which became popular over much of what is now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable images of Sufi practice are the whirling dervishes of Iran. The 13th century Sufi mystic, Jalal ul Din Rumi ( or simply Rumi) enjoys a cult like status in 21st century popular culture (see more: pop culture examples). His quotes on the nature of life, love, and the divine being endlessly shared on the internet.
As heterodox practitioners of their faith, Sufis historically faced persecution from Islamic orthodoxy, with many even labeling them heretics.
5. The Enlightenment
Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, was an intellectual movement in 17th and 18th century Europe that marked a watershed moment in the evolution of western thought.
The movement began as a counterculture centered upon a small group of thinkers, scientists, and philosophers such as John Locke, Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, Rene Descartes, Voltaire to name a few.
Until the enlightenment, religion and the ‘divine will of god’ dominated human modes of thinking about the world. The world was thought to be mysterious, magical, and miracle-ridden, with submission to the ‘divine will’ being the only path available to man to navigate its unpredictable, unknowable nature.
This conception of the universe as an enchanted place reflected in all spheres of human endeavor up to the middle-ages.
Ideas of politics and governance, for instance, were centered around the divine rights of kings to hereditary rule.
The enlightenment turned these ideas on their head, asserting that the world was governed by scientific principles, and that human action was capable of making a positive difference to it.
Because of their oppositional stance to the prevailing dogma, Enlightenment thinkers suffered constant persecution from the authorities. The French philosopher Voltaire, for instance, spent several years in exile and in prison for his outspoken views on religion and freedom of speech.
6. Australian Surf Culture
Countercultures do not always emerge in response to sweeping philosophical movements, or the grand currents of history; they can also be located in smaller, more localized phenomena.
For instance, surfing is a niche sporting-come-recreational activity that originated on the American pacific coast.
For a long time, Californian and Hawaiian surfers dominated surfing and defined its culture.
In the late 1960s however, Australian surfers led by Bob McTavish and John Witzig led a surfing counterculture that defied the American surfing culture.
McTavish and Witzig designed a new kind of surfing board that made vertical surfing movement on a wave possible, thereby completely revolutionizing the sport of surfing.
The innovations, Witzig would later explain, were driven by an Australian resistance to American cultural imperialism. The Australian surfers were angered by Australia blindly following the USA into the Vietnam war, causing the surfers to develop a deep distrust for government and authority (Sweet 2013).
The Australian surfing counterculture further gave birth to corporate giants such as the sportswear retailing major Billabong.
In the 21st century, a new Australian Aboriginal surfing counterculture has emerged that seeks to challenge the dominance of Australian surfing by white males. (Grandinetti 2017)
7. American Transcendentalism
If the Enlightenment sought to “disenchant” the world by ridding it of all mystery, the transcendentalist movement sought to “re-enchant” the universe.
Transcendentalists stress the importance of subjective intuition over the cold, objective scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment.
In so doing, the transcendentalists stood against the dominant cultural current of Enlightenment, which by the 1820s had swept over much of the known world.
The transcendentalists were inspired by the pristine, awe-inspiring, and as yet untouched natural beauty of the north-eastern United States. They set up communes based on Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, and Christian Unitarianism, in places like Oregon and California.
Among its famous exponents were the poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, and the writer Henry David Thoreau.
Where the Enlightenment was fuelled by a discourse of opposition between man and nature (presenting nature as a force to be conquered, harnessed, and exploited for the betterment of man), the transcendentalists advocated a unity between man and nature.
Not surprisingly, the transcendentalists were ridiculed by their contemporaries for their beliefs. Edgar Allen Poe, for instance, famously called transcendentalism “a disease” (Sova 2001).
Bohemianism was a literary and artistic countercultural movement that began in mid-19th century Paris.
Bohemians were characterized by their anti-establishment attitude, a disdain for Victorian moral and social norms, and contempt for the newly arrived industrial capitalism that prevailed over much of 19th century Europe.
Bohemians expressed their opposition to the prevailing culture by living frugal lives dedicated to the pursuit of the arts in contravention to the capitalist values of wealth accumulation.
They revolted against Vicotorian morality by indulging in free love making and deviant sexuality.
These values found their way into the art and literature produced by the Bohemians that displayed a startlingly radical break from the prevailing aesthetics.
For instance, in painting, Picasso’s Cubism, Henri Matisse’s Fauvism, and Salvador Dali’s Surrealism first shocked, then repulsed, and finally awed European society.
These movements continue to inspire much of contemporary painting in the 21st century.
In literature, writers such as James Joyce introduced a bold new style that completely unsettled established ideas about the possibilities of literature.
9. Free and Open-Source Software
The free and open-source software movement began in the 1970s as a response to the control over computer software by governments and big corporations.
The initial proponents of the movement were a small subculture of computer programmers and ethical hackers who believed that software should be free to copy, distribute, and modify as per user needs.
With time the movement grew, representing a counterculture that resisted the dominance of software giants such as Microsoft.
The Linux operating system and the Mozilla Firefox internet browser were some free and open-source programs that were developed by the community. These represented the free and open-source alternatives to proprietary programs such as Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
The Free Software Movement acquired a cult-like following in the 90s, and developed its own terminology to describe usage licences, such as “copyleft”, instead of the conventional “copyright”.
Cryptocurrencies, of which Bitcoin is the best known example, are decentralized tokens that serve as mediums of exchange and stores of values.
In short, they serve the purpose of subverting conventional currencies in the digital world. They can be used to help people evade taxes and government detection.
Cryptocurrencies first caught the world’s attention in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis that demonstrated the disproportionate amount of power central banks had acquired over the global financial system, and by extension, the lives of billions of people across the world.
To break the monopoly of central banks, software engineers proposed to shift the power to print money away from central banks, and thus to decentralize the global monetary system.
For a long time however, cryptocurrencies were not taken seriously. They were seen at best as a countercultural movement composed of shady, anonymous forum posters confined to the virtual world.
Crypto enthusiasts, however, were more than just another underground internet subculture. They were driven by a desire to disrupt one of the most fundamental pillars of human society – the banking system.
Even today, cryptocurrencies divide the opinion of national policy makers, with the majority still not willing to accept cryptocurrencies as legal tender.
When Countercultures become the Dominant Culture
A counterculture is defined as ‘in opposition to’ the mainstream culture. But, it may not always remain so.
Several movements that begin life as a counterculture may, with time, find wider acceptance and become a part of the mainstream culture. Or, in several instances, the counterculture has become the mainstream itself.
Some examples are listed below.
1. Buddhism and Christianity
Religious traditions such as Buddhism or Christianity began life as small countercultural communities resisting the authority of a dominant mainstream. With time, they became mainstream themselves, to the extent that they are two of the major religions of the world.
2. Communists in Cuba
Cuban communism began as a militant counterculture in protest of American influence on the Cuban government and economy.
A small band of communists, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, ended up taking control of the island nation and re-constructing the economy, education system, and political system, in the image of a communist dictatorship.
Communism remains the dominant political ideology in Cuban cultural discourse, in large part because the Communist Party controls the media and education systems in the nation.
3. Hip Hop Culture
A more contemporary example is that of hip-hop which began as an African-American countercultural resistance to the dominance of white dominated rock and pop music.
However, today hip-hop is perhaps the most popular genre of music worldwide.
In fact, even white rockers now embrace hip hop as a legitimate form of musical and cultural expression, and team up with hip hop artists on tracks.
Countercultures have developed throughout human history, in all geographies, and in all spheres of human organization and endeavor.
With a sociological understanding of what constitutes a counterculture ( distinct aesthetics, morality, appearance, etc.), and how it is different from a subculture ( is politically charged and stands in opposition to the prevailing cultural hegemony), we can locate and analyze countercultures in different settings and different time periods.
Can you think of some more countercultural movements?
Goffman, K & Joy, D. (2005). Counterculture through the ages: From Abraham to Acid House. Villard.
Grandinetti, T. (2017). The ocean is my totem: Indigenous surfers find a spiritual anchor in the sea. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/mar/15/the-ocean-is-my-totem-indigenous-surfers-find-a-spiritual-anchor-in-the-sea
Sova, D.B. (2001). Edgar Allen Poe: A to Z. Checkmark Books.
Sweet, S. (2013). Australia’s surfing revolutionaries. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/australias-surfing-revolutionaries
Whiteley, S. (2015). Counterculture: the classical view in J.D. Wright (Ed.) International encyclopedia of social and behavioral sciences. (2nd edition, pp. 84-86). Pergamon
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]