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In sociology, and cultural studies, a subculture is a group of people within a culture that differentiates themselves from the larger culture to which they belong. The term subculture has become deprecated among some researchers, who prefer the term co-culture, in order to avoid the connotations of inferiority associated with the "sub-" prefix. While exact definitions vary, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as "a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture."
As early as 1950, David Riesman distinguished between a majority, "which passively accepted commercially provided styles and meanings, and a 'subculture' which actively sought a minority style ... and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values". In his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige argued that a subculture is a subversion to normalcy. He wrote that subcultures can be perceived as negative due to their nature of criticism to the dominant societal standard. Hebdige argued that subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity.
In 1995, Sarah Thornton, drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, described "subcultural capital" as the cultural knowledge and commodities acquired by members of a subculture, raising their status and helping differentiate themselves from members of other groups. In 2007, Ken Gelder proposed to distinguish subcultures from countercultures based on the level of immersion in society. Gelder further proposed six key ways in which subcultures can be identified through their:
The study of subcultures often consists of the study of symbolism attached to clothing, music and other visible affectations by members of subcultures, and also the ways in which these same symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture. According to Dick Hebdige, members of a subculture often signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, which includes fashions, mannerisms, and argot.
Subcultures can exist at all levels of organizations, highlighting the fact that there are multiple cultures or value combinations usually evident in any one organization that can complement but also compete with the overall organisational culture. In some instances, subcultures have been legislated against, and their activities regulated or curtailed. Youth subcultures have been described as a moral problem that ought to be handled by the guardians of society within the post-war consensus. British youths in the post-war era were labeled as troublemakers by members of the dominant culture.
It may be difficult to identify certain subcultures because their style (particularly clothing and music) may be adopted by mass culture for commercial purposes. Businesses often seek to capitalize on the subversive allure of subcultures in search of Cool, which remains valuable in the selling of any product. This process of cultural appropriation may often result in the death or evolution of the subculture, as its members adopt new styles that appear alien to mainstream society.
Music-based subcultures are particularly vulnerable to this process, and so what may be considered a subculture at one stage in its history—such as jazz, goth, punk, hip hop and rave cultures—may represent mainstream taste within a short period of time. Some subcultures reject or modify the importance of style, stressing membership through the adoption of an ideology which may be much more resistant to commercial exploitation. The punk subculture's distinctive (and initially shocking) style of clothing was adopted by mass-market fashion companies once the subculture became a media interest. Dick Hebdige argues that the punk subculture shares the same "radical aesthetic practices" as Dada and surrealism:
Like Duchamp's 'ready mades' - manufactured objects which qualified as art because he chose to call them such, the most unremarkable and inappropriate items - a pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon - could be brought within the province of punk (un)fashion...Objects borrowed from the most sordid of contexts found a place in punks' ensembles; lavatory chains were draped in graceful arcs across chests in plastic bin liners. Safety pins were taken out of their domestic 'utility' context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear or lip...fragments of school uniform (white bri-nylon shirts, school ties) were symbolically defiled (the shirts covered in graffiti, or fake blood; the ties left undone) and juxtaposed against leather drains or shocking pink mohair tops.
In 1985, French sociologist Michel Maffesoli coined the term urban tribe. It gained widespread use after the publication of his Le temps des tribus: le déclin de l'individualisme dans les sociétés postmodernes (1988). Eight years later, this book was published in the United Kingdom as The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society.
According to Maffesoli, urban tribes are microgroups of people who share common interests in urban areas. The members of these relatively small groups tend to have similar worldviews, dress styles and behavioral patterns. Their social interactions are largely informal and emotionally laden, different from late capitalism's corporate-bourgeoisie cultures, based on dispassionate logic. Maffesoli claims that punks are a typical example of an "urban tribe".
Five years after the first English translation of Le temps des tribus, writer Ethan Watters claims to have coined the same neologism in a New York Times Magazine article. This was later expanded upon the idea in his book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment. According to Watters, urban tribes are groups of never-marrieds between the ages of 25 and 45 who gather in common-interest groups and enjoy an urban lifestyle, which offers an alternative to traditional family structures.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s led to a countercultural rejection of the established sexual and gender norms, particularly in the urban areas of Europe, North and South America, Australia, and white South Africa. A more permissive social environment in these areas led to a proliferation of sexual subcultures—cultural expressions of non-normative sexuality. As with other subcultures, sexual subcultures adopted certain styles of fashion and gestures to distinguish them from the mainstream.
Homosexuals expressed themselves through the gay culture, considered the largest sexual subculture of the 20th century. With the ever increasing acceptance of homosexuality in the early 21st century, including its expressions in fashion, music, and design, the gay culture can no longer be considered a subculture in many parts of the world, although some aspects of gay culture like leathermen, bears, and feeders are considered subcultures within the gay movement itself. The butch and femme identities or roles among some lesbians also engender their own subculture with stereotypical attire, for instance drag kings. A late 1980s development, the queer movement can be considered a subculture broadly encompassing those that reject normativity in sexual behavior, and who celebrate visibility and activism. The wider movement coincided with growing academic interests in queer studies and queer theory. Aspects of sexual subcultures can vary along other cultural lines. For instance, in the United States, the term down-low is used to refer to African-American men who do not identify themselves with the gay or queer cultures, but who practice gay cruising, and adopt a specific hip-hop attire during this activity.
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