Subcultural theories of Youth Culture


23 Mar 2015 21 Apr 2017

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Subcultural theories of youth culture owe much to the pioneering work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) during the 1970s and early 1980s. The CCCS make use of the term "subculture" from US sociologists at Chicago University, and applied it to visually distinctive post-World War II British working class youth cultures, such as teddy boys, mods, and skinheads.

Sociologists today employ three primary theoretical perspectives: the functionalist perspective, the Marxist perspective and the post-modernist perspective. These perspectives offer sociologists theoretical paradigms for explaining how society influences people, and vice versa. Each perspective uniquely conceptualises society, social forces, and human behaviour.


Functionalism is the oldest, and still the dominant, theoretical perspective in sociology and many other social sciences. According to the functionalist perspective each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society's functioning as a whole. Functionalists see society as having a structure, with key institutions performing vital functions, and roles directing people in how to behave. They identify the functions of each part of the structure. For example, the state, or the government, provides education for the children of the family, which in turn pays taxes on which the state depends to keep itself running. This means that the family is dependent upon the school to help children grow up to have good jobs so that they can raise and support their own families. In the process, the children become law-abiding, taxpaying citizens, who in turn support the state. If the process succeeds the parts of society produce order, stability and productivity. On the other hand, if the process does not go well, the parts of society then must adapt to recapture a new order, stability, and productivity. For example, as we are presently experiencing, during a financial recession with its high rates of unemployment and inflation, profit and salary reduction, social programs are trimmed or cut. Families tighten their budgets while employers offer fewer business programs, and a new social order, stability and productivity occur. Functionalists believe that society is held together by social consensus, or cohesion, in which society members agree upon, and work together to achieve, what is best for society as a whole. Emile Durkheim suggested that social consensus takes one of two forms:

  • Mechanical Solidarity: This is a form of social cohesion that arises when people in a society maintain similar values and beliefs and engage in similar types of work. Mechanical solidarity most commonly occurs in traditional, simple societies such as those in which everyone herds cattle or farms. Amish society exemplifies mechanical solidarity.
  • Organic Solidarity: This is a form of social cohesion that arises when people in a society are interdependent, but hold to varying values and beliefs and engage in varying types of work. Organic solidarity most commonly occurs in industrialised, complex societies such as those in large American cities like New York in the 2000s.

Leading functionalists include Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. Robert Merton (1910), who was a functionalist as well, developed his theory of deviance which is derived from Durkheim's idea of anomie. It is central in explaining how internal changes can occur in a system. For Merton, anomie means a discontinuity between cultural goals and that accepted methods available for reaching them. Merton (1968) has proposed a number of important distinctions to avoid potential weaknesses and clarify ambiguities in the basic functionalist perspective. First, he distinguishes between manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are recognised, intentional and obvious, while latent functions are unrecognised, unintentional, and thus not obvious. Merton used the example of the Hopi rain dance to show that sometimes an individual's understanding of their motive for an action may not fully explain why that action continues to be performed. Sometimes actions fulfil a function of which the actor is unaware, and this is the latent function of an action. Second, he distinguishes between consequences which are positively functional for a society, those which are dysfunctional for the society, and those which neither. Third, he also distinguishes between levels of society, that is, the specific social units for which regularised patterns of behaviour are functional or dysfunctional. Finally, he maintains that the particular social structures which satisfy functional needs of society are not indispensable, but that structural alternatives may exist which can also satisfy the same functional needs.

Merton expanded on the idea that anomie is the alienation of the self from society due to conflicting norms and interests by describing five different types of actions that occur when personal goals and legitimate means come into conflict with each other.

  • Conformity is the typical successful hardworking person who both accepts the goals of the society and has the means for obtaining those goals. This is an example of non-anomie.
  • Innovation refers to the pursuit of culturally approved goals by disapproved, including illegal means, in other words, they must use innovation in order to achieve cultural goals. (Example: Drug dealer who sells drugs to support a family.)
  • Ritualism refers to excessively rigid conformity to approved goals and means, even to the neglect of the actual results; inefficient bureaucrats who adhere rigidly to the rules are the classic example of ritualism.
  • The person who ignores and rejects the means and the goals of the society is said to be retreating from society. (For example a drug addict who has stopped caring about the social goals and chooses a drug induced reality in favour of the socially accepted lifestyle.)
  • Finally, there is a fifth type of adaptation which is that of rebellion which refers to the rejection of approved goals and means in favor of new ones.

Functionalism has received criticism as it has a conservative bias. Critics claim that the perspective justifies the status quo and complacency on the part of society's members. Functionalism does not encourage people to take an active role in changing their social environment, even when such change may benefit them. Instead, functionalism sees active social change as undesirable because the various parts of society will compensate naturally for any problems that may arise.


Marx argues that societies result from humans getting together to produce food. The forces of production shape social relationships. In Marxist theory, class is the most important social group in the capitalist society and the mayor social configurations are class cultures. The classes are organised depending on the mode of production that determine a concrete set of relations of production: the capitalists (bourgeoisie) and the workers (proletariat). These classes are all the time in conflict and negotiation because one of them is dominant and the other is subordinate.

This conflict perspective originated primarily out of Karl Marx's writings on class struggles and it presents society in a different light than do the functionalist perspective. While the latter perspective focus on the positive aspects of society that contribute to its stability, the conflict perspective focuses on the negative, conflicted, and ever-changing nature of society. Unlike functionalists who defend the status quo, avoid social change, and believe people cooperate to effect social order, conflict theorists challenge the status quo, encourage social change (even when this means social revolution), and believe rich and powerful people force social order on the poor and the weak. As we can see, most societies are based upon exploitation of some groups by others. Those who own the means of production, such as factories, land, raw material or capital, exploit those who work for them, who lack the means to produce things themselves. Thus, capitalists accumulate profits and get richer and richer. Eventually workers will come to realise that they are being exoploited and will overthrow capitalism and create a communist society. In communism the means of production will be communally owened, so there will be no ruling class, no exploitation and much less inequality than in capitalism.

Today, conflict theorists find social conflict between any groups in which potential for inequality exists, such as, racial, gender, religious, political, economic and so on. These theorists note that unequal groups usually have conflicting values and agendas, causing them to compete against one another. This constant competition between groups forms the basis for the ever-changing nature of society.

Critics of the conflict perspective point to its extremely negative view of society. The theory's ultimately central problems are:

  • it has difficulty explaining the more orderly and stable elements of social life,
  • it neglects or downplays the cultural and symbolic aspects of social life because it emphasises on economics and class,
  • conflict theorists tend to assume the power differences lead to conflict but differences do not necessarily provoke conflict.


Post modernist perspectives have developed since the 1980s. Some versions see important changes taking place in society, while other versions question the ability of conventional sociology to produce worthwhile theories of society. Some postmodernists argue that social behaviour is no longer shaped by factors such as class, gender, ethnicity and different types of socialisation. It is now simply a question of lifestyle choice.

Finally, Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, perspectives developed on the French intellectual scene, have had considerable influence on American sociologists in recent years (as well as on scholars in many other fields, especially literary studies). Derived from (but largely rejecting) both the Marxist tradition and the works of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss--who developed a "structuralist" theory of culture--these theoretical schools seek to account for the apparent disintegration of modern culture over the past several decades. Among the tradition's major figures, such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, perhaps the best known is Michel Foucault, a historian and philosopher. Tracing the historical changes in societal attitudes toward punishment, mental illness, and sexuality, among other topics, he argued that knowledge and power have become inextricably entwined. Foucault stressed the disciplinary nature of power, and argued that (social) scientific discourse as one such discipline may itself need to be questioned. Sociologists in this tradition seek not only to study the world differently, but to make the production of sociological knowledge, and thus our own situatedness within structures of knowledge and power, part of the study. American sociologists influenced by this tradition sometimes call their work Discourse Analysis or Cultural Studies.


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