Anthropology: Subcultures in the United Kingdom and Their Impact on Society

British subcultures (also referred to as urban youth tribes) have a long history that helped shape and define the country. Many subcultures in the United Kingdom emerged after World War II and caused moral panic. The country is famous for its different styles and music that has spread across the world with time. Punks, Mods, Goths, Skinheads, Ravers, and Casuals, to name a few, are all British-born trends. But what role do subcultures play in articulating identity and providing a sense of belonging? This article will look into the relationship between subcultures and society. It will also explore some of the most famous subcultures in Britain, and their cultural significance in anthropology.

Subcultures. What are they?

The concept of subcultures was developed in sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies. It refers to a group of people within a culture that is different from the wider culture that it belongs to. It develops its own norms and values in relation to culture, politics, and sexual issues. Thus, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED), subculture is defined as “an identifiable subgroup within a society or group of people, especially one characterized by beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger group” (NYU Libraries,  2022). The term first appeared in English language documents in 1914.

The Chicago School

The subcultural theory of Chicago schools focuses mostly on subcultures and their relationship with deviance. Deviance refers to behavior that breaks the agreed rules of the wider society and fails to conform to its norms and expectations. The subcultural theory was developed in the 1920s by sociology scholars at the Chicago School. The Chicago School studied the existence of deviant behavior and discussed deviance as a side effect of different social problems that occur within society.  The subcultural theory originated in studies on gangs and developed through symbolic interactionism at school into a set of theories arguing that certain groups or subcultures in society have values and attitudes that are facilitative to crime and violence (Subculture List, 2022).

The Chicago School is known for the work of a prominent American criminologist, Albert Cohen. In “Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang” (1955), Cohen argues that subcultures are groups of individuals who collectively resolve societal status problems by forming new values which create status-worthy characteristics they share (Cavander, 2014). This process involves acquiring a label. Labeling and exclusion from the rest of society result in the group’s hostility toward outsiders.

Black and white image showing a police officer detaining a man
Skinhead being detained by a police officer in Essex, 1980 (allthatsinteresting.com)

The Birmingham School

Subcultures were studied further in the mid-1960s. In 1964, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was founded at the University of Birmingham, England. The school’s aim was to explain the emergence of youth subcultures, such as Teddy boys, Mods, Skinheads, and Rockers in post-World War II Britain.  It introduced the analysis of various aspects of British culture. This included popular culture, subcultures, race, and the mass media (UK Research and Innovation, 2022). In turn, it provided new theoretical approaches, and consequently, expanded on the work done by the Chicago School.

The Birmingham School viewed subcultures as a reflection of the position of working-class young people in relation to the particular societal circumstances of the 1960s and 1970s Britain. Joining subcultures provided a resolution to the frustration caused by the socio-economic obstacles standing in the way of achieving a better standard of living for working-class young people in the United Kingdom.

Black and white image of a group of women on the street giving way to the police officer riding a horse
Hip-Hop subculture in the 1980s/1190s UK. Photo by Norman Anderson “Normski”(museumofyouthculture.com)

The role of subcultures in society

Subcultures play an important role in identity expression. They allow its members to feel a sense of belonging and influence them to consider their relationship with the rest of society. They have also been significant because they allow young people to find strength and identity. Shared dress, music, and outlooks on life have been a large part of every subculture, and deliver messages that new generations are no longer satisfied with old ways (Ismail, 2016).

There are various characteristics that subcultures have in common. For example, they do not consist of formal leadership, membership, or organizational structure. They are loose and fluid. In addition to this, subcultures have shared meanings, values, and practices. The meanings grow and change and are created and learned through social interaction (Buckner et al).

One of the main features of subcultures is cultural resistance. This refers to the use of meanings and symbols to challenge and combat the dominant power. Style and language are the highlights of any subculture. When we think of a ‘punk’, we have an immediate image of what that means. Another important feature of subcultures is resistance and marginalization. Very often, participants of a subculture resist the values and beliefs of the dominant culture because they do not fit well within it. They are often marginalized individuals who cannot meet the norms of the dominant culture. Thus, they are labeled as deviant (Buckner et al).

Black and white image of British young people in the 1960s
British young people lobby MPs about the high level of unemployment in their age group, London, 1964 (standard.co.uk)

The relationship between subcultures and deviance

From a sociological point of view, subcultures are complex, and therefore, there is no one agreed definition of a subculture. But many subcultural explanations focus on status frustration, which results in deviance. The goals of wider society are often related to obtaining wealth, achieving educational success, and having good incomes. The majority of young people from the lower working class accept the main goals of society. However, they have little chance of attaining them (Browne, 2005).

As a result, they develop status frustration. They lack status in society and feel frustrated at being unable to achieve the status by accepted means. Young people then respond to this sense of status frustration by developing a set of alternative, deviant values which provide them with alternative ways of gaining status.

However, many sociological theorists neglect the fact that there are also healthy subcultures in society, which create cohesion and reinforce the presence and absorption of cultural values. Not every subculture poses a threat to the dominant culture. These kinds of subcultures can thus benefit everyone by promoting a greater sense of connection. Thus, it has to be kept in mind that the sociological explanations outlined in this article do not constitute a definitive definition of subcultures.

Black and white image of a police man arresting a man in the 1960s
A policeman arrests a Mod, Kent, 1964 (allthatsinteresting.com)

Some of the most famous British subcultures

Looking at the timeline of British subcultures, it seems like they have suddenly emerged in the 1950s. However, there are some signs of youth cultures that originated in the Victorian era and consisted of specific trends that targeted youth. The British subculture as we know it today began in the 1920s and was shaped by various factors and events surrounding culture, society, politics, and economics.

Dandies and Flappers

Between the 1920s and 1930s, there was a significant increase in earning power. ‘Dandies’ is a term that originated in the late 18th century and described aristocrats. ‘Flappers’, on the other hand, were the young Western Women in the 1920s, who disagreed with the conservative societal expectations of the time (Rowland, 2021).

Despite youth unemployment still present in some areas, young workers were in high demand because they were cheap labor. This allowed the young people to earn income and spend money. Thus, young people have started to focus more on appearance, physique, and hygiene. Early Hollywood films started to be shown in British cinemas. The new influence from America resulted in a new language and behavior among the British youth. Smoking was one of the main trends taken up by many young people watching Hollywood films (Study Smarter, 2022).

Black and white image of five women walking and posing for a photograph in the 1920s
1920s Flappers (blue17.co.uk)

Teds

Teddy boys and Teddy girls are considered the first youth movements of post-war Britain, and the most distinctive youth style of 1950s Britain (Rowland, 2021). World War II had a huge economic impact on people in the UK. Despite this, teenagers who had income began to spend their money on leisure, clothes, records, concerts, makeup, and magazines (Study Smarter, 2022). Their style was strongly influenced by the Chicago gangster zootsuits of the 1940s and the black market ‘spivs’ (Rowland, 2021). After the war, the UK imported a lot of things from the US. Even the term ‘teenager’ came to Britain from the United States (Study Smarter, 2022).

During this time, the British youth became more affluent. There was a rise in consumerism in American pop culture and new forms of mass media. Young British people started to listen to American music, such as jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. All of these social changes gave a start to the ‘generation gap’ and the older generation started to become concerned or even panicked about juvenile delinquency (Study Smarter, 2022).

Mods

In the late 1950s, a new youth subculture took over Britain, with a new wave of music. African American R&B bands and British jazz groups brought a new style and values. Many immigrants started to come to Britain, bringing different ethnicities and races together. There was a strong American, French, and Italian influence on their style, with polo shirts and sharply tailored clothing. The way that the Mods dressed was an important part of their subculture.

It symbolized new societal beliefs and “a common desire to embrace a newfound financial and parental freedom and to stand above the crowd” (Mods Shaping Generation, 2022). They distanced themselves from the mundane lifestyle that their parents and older siblings had experienced and created a completely new outlook on life.

Black and white image of British youth posing for a picture on a scooter
Mods in London in the 1960s (allthatsinteresting.com)

Rockers

After the Mods came the rockers, who were the rivals of the mods. In the early 1960s, Britain started moving into a more free and hopeful future after World War II. There were various social changes that contributed to the formation of new youth subcultures, thus new social behavior, new values, and beliefs. Young men were no longer required to serve in the army. The Beatles and other British groups influenced young people in Britain and caused an incredible moral panic among the adult generation.

Black and white image of a queue of people in a cafe in London
Rockers in a London cafe, the 1960s (dailymail.co.uk)

Hippies, skinheads, and punks

In the 1960s, there was also an increase in recreational drug use and activism. In addition to this, movements such as women’s liberation and environmentalism began to emerge. The Beatles, and particularly John Lennon, brought attention to the Vietnam War and protested against the conflict. The hippie culture strived for peace and questioned authority.

In the late 1960s, working-class youth in London formed a new subculture of ‘skinheads’ (recognized by their shaved heads and working-class clothing and shoes). They were originally influenced by the mod subculture and adopted various elements from the Jamaican immigrants (Study Smarter, 2022).

In the 1970s and 1980s, British cultural studies began to focus more on youth subcultures. This resulted in work by cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall and Phil Cohen. There were various economic changes that led to a recession. Youth unemployment in Britain increased so much, that almost a third of the unemployed were youth. Young people in Britain were frustrated by the crisis and reinforced this frustration with Punk rock music (Study Smarter, 2022). Thus, the Punk culture began to spread and was much more aggressive than the ‘gentle rebellion’ of the hippies (Rowland, 2021).

Black and white image of a group of young people passing by another group
London skinheads passing by hippies, 1976. Image credit: @PunKandStuff (twitter.com)

New Romantics and Goths

Another noticeable subculture emerged in the 1980s, after a bleak and difficult decade for the British youth. The 1980s arrived with an optimistic subculture of ‘New Romantics’, also referred to as the New Wavers, Blitz Kids, and New Dandies. In the 80s, British youth subcultures were becoming increasingly influential around the globe, introducing many popular trends of the decade, including bold makeup and hair. The New Romantic movement was characterized by eccentric and glamorous fashion, sharp suits, and power silhouettes (Darcy, 2021). Along with The New Romantics, came various significant social changes in gender norms, radical sexual politics, and technological innovations. Young people were thriving despite economic difficulties and expressed creativity, leadership, confidence, and freedom. The New Romantics were one of the most influential youth subcultures in the history of Britain despite lasting only a few years.

During the early 1980s, the Goths developed their own subculture derived directly from the Gothic rock music genre. This youth subculture has survived much longer than others of the same era and had a huge impact on other countries. This subculture defines various values that make it one of the least violent youth subcultures in Britain. Goths emphasize individualism, creativity, and tolerance for (sexual) diversity. Despite these values, there was a great moral panic around the Goth subculture, especially in the 1990s when Goth culture was the topic of media interest after the Columbine High School massacre.

Black and white image of two men posing for a picture
80’s London New Romantics, Boy George and Jeremy Healy, 1980 (cvltnation.com)

The cultural significance of youth subcultures in anthropology

Youth cultures, subcultures, countercultures, and urban youth tribes can provide a sense of belonging. This is because they often develop their own communication style, social norms, and distinguished patterns of behavior. The symbols, norms, and values developed by subcultures can be spread and shared in other countries to differentiate themselves from the larger culture to which they belong.  Such groups of people bring together like-minded individuals who disagree with societal standards or feel neglected by the mainstream culture, despite the culture they live in. This allows them to develop a sense of identity that is the key element of any culture.

 

References:

Browne, K. (2005) “Introduction to Sociology”. 3rd Ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Buckner, R. Acosta, A., Clarke, B. “What is a Subculture?”. Available: grinnell.edu

Cavander, G. (2014) “Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory: Cohen, Albert K.: Delinquent Boys.”. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. 

Darcy (2021) “The New Romantics: Birth of a New Movement”. Available: Rocks Off Mag

Ismail, N. (2016) “The Subculture Archive Preserving the History of British Youth”. Available: huckmag.com

NYU Libraries (2022) “Subcultures and Scenes”. Available: nyu.edu

Rowland, O. (2021) “Top 8 British Youth Subcultures”. Available: arts.ac.uk

Study Smarter (2022) “British Youth Culture”. Available: StudySmarter

Subculture List (2022) Subculture Theory: Chicago School of Sociology.  Available: subcultureslist.com

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