Subcultures are cultural groups that are the marginalized minority cultures. It’s not often you see them in dominant mass media discourse, and when you see them they’re often shown in stereotypical manners. They are usually associated with youth.
Countercultures are a specific type of subcultures defined in opposition or as an alternative to dominant ways of life. Counter-cultural groups often seek broad social change in ways that subcultures do not.
Throughout the last 50 – 70 years, subcultures and countercultures have also been looked upon with suspicion. Societies often experience “moral panic” when a sub- or counter- culture becomes prominent. Adults often fear their children will be tempted to join their ranks, while the subcultures themselves often challenge dominant ideas of youth, masculinity, femininity, social class and political ideology.
Below is an in-exhaustive list of subcultures.
Examples of Youth Subcultures
Hippies were one of the most powerful countercultures of the 20th Century. They started in the mid- 1960s in the Unites States as a youth subculture characterized by free love, utopian socialism, sexual revolution and psychedelic art and music. The movement peaked in the 1969 Summer of Love and subsided by the mid 70s. They were strongly against the Vietnam war and often took psychedelic drugs like LSD and mushrooms.
Hackers are a new media subculture built around gaining access to hidden corners of the internet and suppressed online data. Hackers embark on ‘hackathons’ where they work together on multi-hour sprints to develop ways to hack into networks. They exist upon a spectrum of illegal hackers gaining data for nefarious means, through to hackers working for companies or governments to stress test security software.
3. New Age
New age spirituality emerged as a spiritual and religious subculture in the 1970s. It is highly eclectic without a central unifying doctrine. However, it is often characterized by a holistic understanding of divinity (similar to pantheism) and belief in the ability to communicate with angels and the afterlife.
4. Surf Culture
Surf culture existed as a small sub-culture throughout the 20th Century, but boomed in the 1960s in Southern California. It is often associated with a ‘chilled out’ approach to life, love of the surf and sun and 1960s beach music. There are sub-sets of this cultural grouping, such as big wave surfers and ocean environmentalism. A common trope in surf culture is territorialism, with surfers laying claim to certain surf breaks as their own. This culture is also visible in Hawaii and Australia.
5. Ski Bums
Similar to surf culture, ski bum culture is predominantly found in the Alps in Europe and Rockies in North America. This culture is also characterized by a laid-back approach to life, and has its own fashion and lingo (‘gnarly dude’). Ski bums and surfer culture overlap, with the cultures dovetailing between winter and summer months. Some ski bums also follow the snow between the northern and southern hemispheres, chasing the “endless winter”.
Hipsters were a sub-culture in the 1940s, but made a resurgence in the early 21st Century. It is characterized by counter-cultural fashion, including wearing clothing and stylings ironically. Full beards, twirled mustaches, big glasses, bicylces and skinny jeans are common. While intended to be counter-cultural, the fashion is derided for its internal consistency and conformism, and was quickly co-opted into the fashion mainstream of the 2010s. The term ‘hipster’ is often pejorative, and rarely used by hipsters themselves.
The portmanteau of ‘costume play’, cosplayers are a sub-cultural group of nerds and geeks who gather in dress up costumes that mimic their favorite comic book, cartoon and film characters. Cosplay events such as Comicon are world-wide annual celebrations of this subculture.
Steampunk is associated with art, fashion and literature that is retrofuturistic. The fashion combines Victorian and industrial era iconography such as gears and steam powered machinery with futuristic science fiction. Steampunk films include The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Golden Compass and Wild Wild West. Steampunk has significant overlaps with cosplay due to the strong fan dress-up culture.
9. Graffiti Artists
Graffiti subculture is an underground counterculture with eclectic members. It ranges from gangs making their marks on public infrastructure to lay claim to territory, through to legitimized graffiti art commissioned by councils and landowners. Graffiti art can range from simple ‘tags’ spray painted in public spaces as a conquest and sign of rebellion, through to political art such as the famous wall art in Medellin’s Communa 13 in Colombia.
LGBTQI and ‘queer culture’ is a sub-culture characterized by the non-heteronormative sexuality of its members. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, questioning and 2-Spirit sexualities (in Indigenous North American culture) are central to the movement. This subculture has gained significant legitimacy and recognition in law in recent years, and has a significant political sub-set that advocate for the rights of its members. Culturally, many people in this culture congregate in gay and drag clubs, and even have their own rainbow flag as the emblem of the sub-culture’s pride.
Skaters (skateboarders) are a sub-cultural group who gather around love of the sport of skateboarding. It grew throughout the second half of the 20th Century and was particularly strong in the 1980s. There are two overlapping sub-groups: vert and street. Street skaters embrace skating in public urban areas, using the street landscape to do tricks. Vert skaters started with skating in empty pools, with Tony Hawk revolutionizing vert by launching off the lip of pools to gain ‘air’. Vert is now commonly associated with skating on halfpipes.
12. Beat Generation
The beat generation was a literary movement of the 1950s that widely influenced subsequent culture and music in the 20th Century. Known as the beatniks, they created beat poetry and the free-flowing literary style evident in Allan Ginsberg’s poem Howl and Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road. Common themes in their work were pseudo-intellectualism, existentialism and drug use. Moral panic surrounded their sympathy for communism, with the term ‘beatnik’ being a portmanteau of ‘beat generation’ and ‘Sputnik’, a reference to the Soviet Union’s satellite.
Examples of Music Subcultures
Goths are a music subculture that originated in the UK in the 1980s. Its group members embrace post-punk Gothic rock from bands like Bauhaus and Joy Division. Their fashion includes all-black clothing, dark eyeliner, pale face blush, black nail polish, and androgynous dress.
Punk rock was one of the most influential youth music subcultures in the 20th Century. Born in the 1970s, the original wave of punk rock only lasted a few years, but has influenced many subsequent subcultures hoping to embrace the passion and creativity of punk rock. Punk bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones introduced music with a rapid-fire driven beat. The subculture 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. Subsequent waves of punk rock never matched the original wave, but gave rise to several worldwide supergroups including Blink 182 and Green Day.
Mods were a British sub-culture in the 1950s and 1960s who garnered their name because they coalesced around modern jazz music. Their fashion was dominantly characterized by tailor-made suits. They also embraced Vespa motorized scooters into the culture. They were made famous for their violent clashes with rockers in the UK, leading youth subculture theorist Stanley Cohen to theorize the concept of ‘Moral Panic’, explaining society’s exaggerated fear of youth subcultures. A break-off working class group of Mods eventually created the Skinheads subculture.
Skinheads were a working-class British subculture of the 1960s who fraternized with the middle-class Mods but split off to create their own sub-culture in opposition to both the middle-class values of the Mods and free love mentality of the hippies. They primarily defined themselves by their embrace of British working-class culture. While originally apolitical and mostly united around social class groupings as well as and ska, R&B and Reggae music, some skinheads broke off to create far-right neo Nazi groupings. Many skinheads reject this political association.
Grunge was a west-coast subculture which emerged mainly out of Seattle in the late 1980s and early 1990s (it is often referred to as Seattle Sound). Their music was a hybrid of metal and punk. Key bands include Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Stone Temple Pilots. Their music is characterized by guitar distortion, and the undisputed anthem of grunge music is the song Smells Like Teen Spirit, which encompassed the quintessential grunge mood of the early 1990s. Critics of grunge claim it is emblematic of the narcissism of privileged and bored white middle-class youth during an era of American prosperity.
6. Hip Hop
Hip-hop is a subculture that emerged in the mid-1970s in The Bronx, NY. Its members are primarily Black, Caribbean and Latino American youth. Key activities include disc-jockeying, breakdancing and rapping, but many members also identify with the graffiti artist subculture. The ‘golden age of hip hop’ spanned 1987 – 1996, and saw the rise of key artists from the genre including Public Enemy, NWA, Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. Much of the music explores Black poverty, gang affiliation and police violence against people of color in areas of the US such as the Bronx and Crompton.
7. Drum and Bass
D’n’B is a musical subculture that grew in the 1990s with a strong focus on electronic music, fast back beats and heavy bass. Influenced by Jamaican dub music and reggae, D’n’B was very popular in Northern Europe and is celebrated for leading the way in electronic music, strongly influencing subsequent music styles like EDM and progressive house music.
Emos were a music subculture of the early 2000s known for melancholic music designed to empathize with teen angst. Shortened from ’emotional music’, Emos gathered inspiration from pop punk and gothic rock music. They’re identifiable by their all-black outfits, black died mid-length hair swept over their faces, skinny jeans, and gauge earrings. Central bands from the movement include Simple Plan, Jimmy Eat World, My Chemical Romance and Weezer.
Shortened from ‘Korean Pop’, K-Pop was a subculture that became a predominant cultural identification among Korean youth, although its influence is global. Upbeat pop and hiphop music, its most globally recognizable song is Gangnam Style. Fashion from this sub-culture includes sporty street wear, bandanas and hip-hop outfits.
Conclusion – List of Subcultures
This list of subcultures is just a small example of the endless potential subcultures list one could create. I have attempted to present here a few highly influential subcultures of the past 100 years. It is interesting to note that each subculture is a renewal and re-imagining of previous subcultures, where new surges of creative energy and fusions creates a new outlet for personal expression. Each subculture is an expression of generational concerns – cultural, social, economic and political – and often emerges out of the contexts of the time.