Countercultures

The enclaves in which people of the modern era live no longer resemble the small, integrated, and homogeneous communities of earlier times; rather, these have been replaced by large societies that are complex and diverse in their composition. The United States, a prime exemplar, is composed of multiple smaller groups holding characteristics, beliefs, customs, and interests that vary from the rest of society. While there are many cultural universals binding such groups to the mainstream, they also exhibit significant cultural diversity. Some of these groups display no clear boundaries demarcating them from the rest of society and fail to achieve any degree of permanence. Yet those that do, and that also share a distinctive set of norms, values, and behavior setting them off from the dominant culture, are considered subcultures. Subcultures can be organized around age, ethnicity, occupation, social class, religion, or lifestyle and usually contain specific knowledge, expressions, ways of dressing, and systems of stratification that serve and guide its members (Thornton 1997). Distinctive subcultures within theUnited States include jazz musicians, gangs, Chicanos, gay, college athletes, and drug dealers. While it was once hypothesized that these subcultures would merge together in a ‘‘melting pot,’’ incorporating a mix of the remnants of former subcultures (Irwin 1970), trends suggest that they resist total assimilation and retain their cultural diversity and distinct identity.

Some subcultures diverge from the dominant culture without morally rejecting the norms and values with which they differ. Others are more adamant in their condemnation, clearly conflicting with or opposing features of the larger society. Milton Yinger first proposed, in 1960, to call these contracultures, envisioning them as a subset of subcultures, specifically, those having an element of conflict with dominant norms, values, or both (Yinger 1960). Indeed, the feature he identified as most compelling about a contraculture is its specific organization in opposition to some cultural belief(s) or expression(s). Contracultures often arise, he noted, where there are conflicts of standards or values between subcultural groups and the larger society. Factors strengthening the conflict then strengthen the contracultural response. Contraculture members, especially from such groups as delinquent gangs, may be driven by their experiences of frustration, deprivation, or discrimination within society.

Yinger’s conceptualization, although abstract and academic at first, came to enjoy widespread popularity with the advent of the 1960s and the student movement. Here was the kind of contraculture he had forecast, and his ideas were widely applied to the trends of the time, albeit under another label. Most analysts of contracultures preferred the term counterculture, and this soon overtook its predecessor as the predominant expression. In 1969 historian Theodore Roszak published his The Making of a Counter Culture, claiming that a large group of young people (ages fifteen to thirty) had arisen who adamantly rejected the technological and scientific outlook characteristic of Western industrialized culture, replacing this, instead, with a humanistic/mysticist alternative. In a more recent update, Roszak (1995) reflected back on that time, further locating the counterculture phenomenon as an historical aberration that arose out of the affluence of post-World War II America. Kenneth Keniston (1971) described this counterculture as composed of distinct subgroups (radicals, dropouts, hippies, drug users, communards, or those living in communes) rising from the most privileged children of the world’s wealthiest nation. Jack Douglas (1970) also discussed the social, political, and economic background to this movement and its roots in members’ entrenchment in the welfare state and the existing youth and student cultures. While this movement was clearly political as well, Douglas outlined some of its social dimensions, including rejection of the workaday world and its idealization of leisure, feeling, openness, and antimaterialism. Richard Flacks (1971) and Fred Davis (1971) followed with descriptions of the counterculture’s overarching lifestyles, values, political beliefs, and ideologies. Ralph Turner (1976), Nathan Adler (1972), and Erik Erikson (1968) explored the social psychological implications of this counterculture, positing, respectively, a transformation in the self from ‘‘institution’’ to ‘‘impulse,’’ the rise of an antinomian personality, where individuals oppose the obligatoriness of the moral law, and the formation of the negative identity. John Rothchild and Susan Berns Wolf (1976) documented the vast extension of countercultural outposts around the country and their innovations in child rearing. Charles Reich (1970) emphatically stated that this counterculture, consisting mostly of students, was being reinforced by merging with nonstudent youth, educated labor, and the women’s movement, already effecting a major transformation in Western laws, institutions, and social structure. There was strong belief that this movement would significantly and permanently alter both society and its consciousness (Wuthnow 1976). After researching one commune in depth, Berger (1981) later mused about the survival of the counterculture, acknowledging its failure to meet earlier expectations, yet examining how its ideals and values become incorporated into the mainstream culture (cf. Spates 1976).

Other subcultural analysts noted more broadly that these groups are typically popular among youth, who have the least investment in the existing culture, and that, lacking power within society, they are likely to feel the forces of social control swiftly moving against them, from the mass media to police action. Countercultures were further differentiated from subcultures by the fact that their particular norms and values, were not well integrated into the dominant culture, generally known among group members, and other mainstream subcultures.

Yinger reclaimed theoretical command of the counterculture concept with his reflective expansions on the term in a presidential address for the American Sociological Association (Yinger 1977) and a book that serves as the definitive statement on the topic (1982). He asserted the fundamental import of studying these sharp contradictions to the dominant norms and values of a society as a means of gaining insight into social order. Countercultures, through their oppositional culture (polarity, reversal, inversion, and diametric opposition), attempt to reorganize drastically the normative bases of social order. These alternatives may range from rejecting a norm or value entirely to exaggerating its emphasis in their construction of countervalues. As a result, some countercultures fade rapidly while others become incorporated into the broader cultural value system. Examples of countercultural groups would include the 1960s student counterculture (in both its political and social dimensions); youth gangs (especially delinquent groups); motorcycle gangs (such as the Hell’s Angels); revolutionary groups (the Weathermen of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, millenialists [Williams 1996]); terrorist organizations (such as the Symbionese Liberation Army); extremist racist groups (the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads [Baron 1997; Hamm 1995; Young and Craig 1997] , the Aryan Nation); survivalists (Branch Davidians); punkers; bohemian Beats; ‘‘straight edgers;’’ Rainbow family; Earth First! (Lange 1990; Short 1991) and some extreme religious sects (such as the Amish and the Hare Krishnas [see Saliba 1996]).

Varieties of Countercultures

Yinger believed that countercultural groups could take several forms. The radical activist counterculture ‘‘preaches, creates, or demands new obligations’’ (Yinger 1977, p. 838). They are intimately involved with the larger culture in their attempts to transform it. Members of the communitarian utopian counterculture live as ascetics, withdrawing into an isolated community forged under the guidelines of their new values. Mystical countercultures search for the truth and for themselves, turning inward toward consciousness to realize their values. Theirs is more a disregard of society than an effort to change it. These three forms are not necessarily intended to describe particular groups. Rather, they are ideal types, offered to shed insights into characteristics or tendencies groups may combine or approximate in their formation. Hippie communities or bohemian Beat groups combined the mystical and utopian features of countercultures in their withdrawal from conventional society and their search for a higher transcendence. Revolutionary youth gangs, such as the 1960s radicals, the Hell’s Angels, and the punkers, fuse the mystical search for new experiences and insights (often through drug use) with an activist attack on the dominant culture and its institutional expressions. Survivalists, Amish, and Hare Krishnas fuse the radical critique of conventional values and lifestyles with a withdrawal into an isolated and protected community.

Countercultures can be differentiated by their primary breaks with the dominant culture. Some take odds with its epistemology, or the way society contends that it knows the truth. Hippies and other mystics, for example, have tended to seek insight in homespun wisdom, meditation, sensory deprivation, or drugs, rejecting the rationality of science and technology. Others assert an alternative system of ethics, or the values pursued in defining good or striving for the good life. Some, like skinheads or KKK members, may be quite conservative in their definition of the good life; others are libertarian, advocating for people to ‘‘do their own thing.’’ Still other countercultures offer alternative aesthetic standards by which fashion, taste, and beauty are judged. Punk or acid rock musical movements, performance or postmodernist art movements, and bohemian or hippie fashion movements were all aesthetic statements that incorporated a radical rejection of the standards of conventional taste and its connection to conventional values. Thus, entire countercultural movements may be based on their advocacy of these competing beliefs.

Countercultures and Social Change

Due to their intense opposition to the dominant culture, countercultures are variously regarded as ‘‘engines of social change, symbols and effects of change, or mere faddist epiphenomena’’ (Yinger 1982, p. 285). Examining these in reverse order, countercultures are often considered mutations of the normative social order, encompassing such drastic lifestyle changes that they invoke deep ambivalence and persecution. Most major countercultural mutations appear in the form of religious movements. Other countercultures arise out of underlying or developing societal stress: rapid political or economic change; demographic transformations in the population (age, gender, location); a swift influx of new ideas; drastic escalation or diminishment of hopes or aspirations; weakening of ties to primary support circles (families, neighborhoods, work groups); and the erosion of meaning in the deepest symbols and rituals of society. These factors are then augmented by communication among people sharing such experiences or beliefs, leading them to coalesce into normatively and ideologically integrated groups. Countercultures can also precipitate social change if the norms and values they champion are incorporated into the mainstream. In commenting on the 1960s student movement, Chief Justice Warren Burger of the United States Supreme Court stated that ‘‘the turbulent American youth, whose disorderly acts [I] once ‘resented,’ actually had pointed the way to higher spiritual values’’ (cited in Yinger 1977, p. 848). Lasting influence may not always result from major countercultural movements, as witnessed by the rapid erosion in influence of Mao’s cultural revolution after his death, yet it is possible. This occurs through a cultural dialectic, wherein each existing system, containing antithetical, contradictory ideas, gives rise to the oppositional values of a counterculture. These are ultimately incorporated into a future new order.

Counterculture Case Studies

While the student movement of the 1960s was undoubtedly the largest and most influential counterculture to arise in the United States, a review of three more contemporary American countercultures may yield further insight into the parameters and character of these movements. Let us focus on the Hare Krishnas, punks, and survivalists.

The Hare Krishna movement, also known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), is one of the religious movements that became popular in the United States during the great ‘‘cult’’ period of the 1970s (Judah 1974; Rochford 1985). Its rise after the decline of the 1960s student movement is not coincidental, for many people who were former hippies or who were influenced by or seeking the ideals and values of the 1960s turned toward new religions (Tipton 1982) in search of the same features of community, idealism, antimaterialism, mysticism, transcendence to a higher plane, and ‘‘a spiritual way of life, which stands outside the traditional institutions found in America’’ (Rochford 1985, p. 44). Its primary values conflicting with mainstream culture include the rejection of

(1) material success through competitive labor;

(2) education to promote that end;

(3) possessions for sense gratification;

(4) authority favoring the status quo;

(5) imperialistic aggression; and

(6) the hypocrisy of racial discrimination (Judah 1974, p. 16).

After the death of its American spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, in 1977, however, the movement peaked and became more commercialized, transferring its emphasis from self-expression and uniqueness perpetuation of the sect, thereby becoming more of a mass phenomenon.

In contrast to the religious and value components of the Hare Krishnas’ rejection of mainstream culture, the punk or punk rock counterculture of the late 1970s and early 1980s was more of a style movement (Hebdige 1981). As Fox (1987, p. 349) has noted, ‘‘The punks created a new aesthetic that revealed their lack of hope, cynicism, and rejection of societal norms.’’ This was expressed in both their appearance and their lifestyle. The punk belief system was antiestablishment and anarchistic, celebrating chaos, cynicism, and distrust of authority. Punks disdained the conventional system, with its bureaucracies, power structures, and competition for scarce goods (Fox 1987). Members lived outside the system, unemployed, in old abandoned houses or with friends, and engaged in heavy use of drugs such as heroin and glue. Hardcore commitment was usually associated with semipermanent alteration of members’ appearance through tattoos, shaven heads, or Mohawk hairstyles (Brake 1985). The musical scene associated with punks was contrary to established tastes as well and often involved self abandonment characterized by ‘‘crash dancing’’ (Street 1986).

In contrast to the hippies, Krishnas, and punks, the survivalist counterculture was grounded in exaggeration of right-wing beliefs and values. While some of the former groups preached love, survivalists were characterized by hate. Formed out of extremist coalition splinter groups such as neo-Nazis, the KKK, the John Birch Society, fundamentalist Mormon Freemen, the White Aryan Resistance, and tax protesters from Posse Comitatus, survivalists drew on long-standing convictions that an international conspiracy of Jews was taking over everything from banking, real estate, and the press to the Soviet Politburo, and that the white race was being ‘‘mongrelized’’ by civil-rights legislation. A cleansing nuclear war or act of God, with ‘‘secular’’ assistance, would soon bring the Armageddon, eradicating the ‘‘Beast’’ in their midst (Coates 1987). Members thus set about producing and distributing survivalist literature, stockpiling machine guns, fuel, food, and medical supplies on remote farms and in underground bunkers, joining survivalist retreat groups, and attending survivalist training courses (Peterson 1984). Within their retreat communities they rejected the rationalization, technologization, secularization, and commodification of society, creating an environment of creative self-expression where an individual could accomplish meaningful work with a few simple tools. In their withdrawn communities and‘‘utopian’’ future scenario, men would reclaim their roles as heads of the family; women would regain mastery over crafts and nurturance. Theirs is thus a celebration of fantasy and irrationality (Mitchell, n.d.). Yet while they isolate themselves in countercultures composed of like-minded individuals, they try to influence mainstream society through activism in radical right-wing politics as well. Their actions and beliefs, although rejecting the directions and trends in contemporary society, arise out of and represent frustrations felt by embattled segments of the Moral Majority (mainly fundamentalist Christian, white groups).

Scholarly treatment of counterculture movements is not limited to the United States. In the field of new social movements research, many European scholars have looked at organizations that are designed to mobilize forces against nationalistic cultures. These studies, ranging in topics from nuclear weapons, ecology, squatters’ rights, gays, women, and other countercultural groups (i.e., Autonomen or terrorist organizations), have explored the common denominators inherent in all new social movements. Using quantitative data from protest events collected from newspaper sources in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, Hanspeter Kriesi and others (1995) outlined the ‘‘new cleavage’’ that exists in these Western European societies.

Countercultures thus stand on the periphery of culture, spawned by and spawning social trends and changes [by their opposition to dominant culture]. As Yinger (1977, p. 850) noted, ‘‘Every society gets the countercultures it deserves, for they do not simply contradict, they also express the situation from which they emerge. . . . Countercultures borrow from the dominant culture even as they oppose it.

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This Aricle was Written by
PATRICIA A. ADLER
PETER ADLER

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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