New meaning of “subculture”

This is a concise translation of the ideas from this public resource describing changes in society that took place in Russia in the last 30 years. Their goal is very ambitious, and they take a tree-way approach to any topic: include interviews with 10 relevant people, summary of related social science and the reporter’s opinion. In particular, on the topic of subcultures, they quote a lot of western research, so I thought it’s a nice overview to keep in mind for any country. If I need to sum up in one sentence: the core properties of a subculture are different from its depiction in media, in particular, the media views are outdated.

More below:

An outsider view perceives subcultures as something in the photo above: a group of teenagers, 12-18 years old, being a fan of something, start imitating their idol: a singer, or a leader of troublemakers at their school. They spend money to look like them, and find ways to meet with their like-minded peers. The activities range from harmless to destructive (drugs) and criminal (gangs). The idol is typically older, but still about 24 tops. So why do we care?

A more deep understanding pays less attention to wearing visual attributes. Then, one realizes that the same thing happens for all ages, and with everybody to some extent. So if we all do it, let’s pay attention to at which circumstances does it happen, and how to do it “right” (meaning get the benefits, no the bad sides)?

Although many think that subcultures are about looks, the key part of imitation happens on a different level. The article points out that subcultures are about communication. And a very special communication: most of the time is spent “doing nothing”, with no exchange of ideas, just for the sake of communicating in a specific style. Apparently the first scientist accusing subcultures in “doing nothing” was Paul Corrigan (1976) – everybody quotes his article titled “doing nothing”, but I can’t find the source.

So subculture is not a trend in clothing or music: it’s an ability to talk in a particular way through a particular media. Suddenly, all the reddit and 4chan begin fitting into the definition, although their users would probably want to distinguish themselves from 12-18 years old youth. Recently, subcultures became heavily infused with politics. Your position on controversial issues, your decision to express yourself in a distinctively (non-)sexist, (non-)racist way determines which internet “subculture” you’re in. It is the same mechanism that gets you “addicted” to non-sexist way of speech, as what got first hippies to talk about peace. Sometimes, but not always, it also brings like-minded people together (it is not enough to announce your belonging to the subculture and start obeying rules, you don’t get friends immediately. Sometimes you never get friends)

Next idea is that it adds a few extra dimensions to society. If originally everything was determined by your class, wealth and looks (judged by traditional measures), now people with none of the above can compensate by having a high rank within a subculture. Subcultures are also generally characterized by higher mobilities than the rest of the society: you can move up and down in your subculture authority very quickly, and also you can move horizontally between the subcultures.

Now, feminists had their say about subcultures as well: they noted that no matter how deviant they may seem, most inherit the patriarchical structure from the society – women-punks and women-emo participate in the same roles of girlfriends with variations of the same dating tradition. New, gender-equal, way of relationship is not invented (although subculture theoreticians really expected that to happen). That encouraged to focus on non-traditional sexual orientation subcultures, as they could, potentially, reinvent relationships.

So, it is kind of insightful to think about both feminists and male rights as just two conflicting subcultures, fans of metal and fans of rock seeking to beat each other up. Other prominent subcultures are anime (in the Russian article it = experiments with gender, which is not entirely wrong, I have been walking around the con with a friend dressed as a girl, and it occured to me that we make a nice couple), then k-pop and hip hop are also easy to encounter. IT subculture that spreads the fascination with gadgets/soft can be also added to the list. All of these are what’s called “advanced” subcultures, those that seek and create new content, move on, and each member expands their social network to interact with a larger community.

Other large portion of subcultures are “normal” – they form around a location and focus on close friends. There each member’s communication consists mainly of gossip about other members. They do not search for new content, and do not do networking. All of this is still not “mainstream”, as the main mechanism of subculture is still in place: the communication is possible only for a members of a given location/circle of friends. For outsiders it is hardly understandable. Good example that one encounters in an academic setting are hovses (dorms) or fraternities/sororities.

With all the new knowledge, we conclude. The question “What’s the next subculture?” is not about what people are going to wear next year. It’s more like what are they going to talk about. The subcultures can be addictive as you lurk around the themed websites and get influence, but being part of it only gives you the real benefits if you participate in the communication in their language and is successful. Think about it before joining the subculture – will you get success and high rank within it, such that it will compensate for your low rank in society? If you see a clear way to be successful and have necessary talents, then good luck!




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