Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Rethinking Subculture and Subcultural Theory in the Study of Youth Crime - A Theoretical Discourse

Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Rethinking Subculture and Subcultural Theory in the Study of Youth Crime - A Theoretical Discourse

Article excerpt


Subcultural theory is an invention of the Anglo-American sociologists and criminologists of the 1960s and 1970s. They chiefly refer to male urban working class youths whose behaviours are contrary to the dominant society. These youths are usually culturally identified with music, dress code, tattoo, and language. Whereas, it is assumed that subculture refers to lower subordinate or dominant status of social group labelled as such, yet, in societies where the Anglo/American cultural identities are wanting, it becomes difficult to recognise such deviant group of youths as subculture.

This paper argues there should be a rethink about "subculture" and "subcultural theory". The rethink must ensure that youth subcultures are not benchmarked by those Anglo/American cultural identities, but should in the main refer to youths whose behaviours are oppositional to the mainstream culture, irrespective of the societies they come from.

Meaning of subculture(s)

One of the assumptions about "subculture" is the lower, subordinate, or deviant status of social groups labelled as such. These labelled groupings are distinguished by their class, ethnicity, language, poor and working class situations (Cutler, 2006); age or generation (Maira, 1999). These cultural and socio-structural variables make subcultures relatively homogeneous (Epstein, 2002). That is to say, subcultures must bear specific and similar cultural identities to qualify for the name, and they must also be particular to certain societies that labelled them as such. In most cases reference must be made to the Anglo/American youth subcultures, which dominated the whole idea of subculture and subcultural theory for many decades.

Phil Cohen (1972:23), one of the most influential British subcultural scholars describes subculture (s):

as so many variations on a central theme - the contradiction, at an ideological level, between traditional working class Puritanism, and the new hedonism of consumption; at an economic level, between the future as part of the socially mobile elite, or as part of the new lumpen. Mods, Parkers, Skinheads, Crombies, all represent, in their different ways, an attempt to retrieve some of the socially cohesive elements destroyed in their parent culture, and to combine these with elements selected from other class fractions.

Cohen has clearly indicated that subculture has many varied ways of describing it, which seem contradictory. Irrespective of all these different patterns, the overriding principle is the struggle of the membership to aim at solving the problem created by the dominant culture, which apparently has been considered the main object of subcultural formation. As Newburn (2013) argues, the emergence of subculture is not just to respond to human material conditions, but far beyond that, they also represent a symbolic appraisal of the parent culture in which "style" was considered a form of resistance. Similarly, Jones (2013) stresses that the subcultural activity of youths is a manifesatation of political reaction to the dominant culture from which such youths consided themselves excluded.

Since the 1990s, the term subculture has been used in a much broader perspective to explain any group of people who adjust to norms of behaviour, values, beliefs, consumption patterns, and lifestyle choices that are distinct from those of the dominant mainstream culture (Cutler, 2006). According to Gelder (2005: 1):

Subcultures are groups of people that are in some way represented as nonnormative and/or marginal through their particular interests and practices, through what they are, what they do, and where they do it. They may represent themselves in this way; since subcultures are usually aware of their differences, bemoaning them, relishing them, exploiting them, and so on. But they will also be represented like this by others, who in response can bring an entire apparatus of social classification and regulation to bear upon them. …

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