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A counterculture (also written counter-culture) is a subculture whose values and norms of behavior deviate from those of mainstream society, often in opposition to mainstream cultural mores.[1][2]

A countercultural movement expresses the ethos, aspirations, and dreams of a specific population during a well-defined era. When oppositional forces reach critical mass, countercultures can trigger dramatic cultural changes.

Prominent examples of countercultures in Europe and North America include Romanticism (1790-1840), Bohemianism (1850-1910), the more fragmentary counterculture of the Beat Generation (1944-1964), and the Hippie counterculture (1964-1974).[3]

Definition and characteristics

The term counterculture is attributed to Theodore Roszak,[3][4][5] author of The Making of a Counter Culture.[6] It became prominent in the news media amid the social revolution that swept North and South America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand during the 1960s and early 1970s.[1][3][5]

Scholars differ in the characteristics and specificity they attribute to "counterculture". "Mainstream" culture is of course also difficult to define, and in some ways becomes identified and understood through contrast with counterculture. Counterculture might oppose mass culture (or "media culture"),[7] or middle-class culture and values.[8] Counterculture is sometimes conceptualized in terms of generational conflict and rejection of older or adult values.[9]

Counterculture may or may not be explicitly political. It typically involves criticism or rejection of currently powerful institutions, with accompanying hope for a better life or a new society.[10] It does not look favorably on party politics or authoritarianism.[11]

Typically, a "fringe culture" expands and grows into a counterculture by defining its own values in opposition to mainstream norms. Countercultures tend to peak, then go into decline, leaving a lasting impact on mainstream cultural values. Their life cycles include phases of rejection, growth, partial acceptance and absorption into the mainstream. During the late 1960s, hippies became the largest and most visible countercultural group in the United States.[12] The "cultural shadows" left by the Romantics, Bohemians, Beats and Hippies remain visible in contemporary Western culture.

According to Sheila Whiteley, "recent developments in sociological theory complicate and problematize theories developed in the 1960s, with digital technology, for example, providing an impetus for new understandings of counterculture".[13] Andy Bennett writes that "despite the theoretical arguments that can be raised against the sociological value of counterculture as a meaningful term for categorising social action, like subculture, the term lives on as a concept in social and cultural theory… [to] become part of a received, mediated memory". However, "this involved not simply the utopian but also the dystopian and that while festivals such as those held at Monterey and Woodstock might appear to embrace the former, the deaths of such iconic figures as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, the nihilistic mayhem at Altamont, and the shadowy figure of Charlie Manson cast a darker light on its underlying agenda, one that reminds us that ‘pathological issues [are] still very much at large in today’s world".[14]

Western (1960s and 1970s) counterculture

In the United States, the counterculture of the 1960s became identified with the rejection of conventional social norms of the 1950s. Counterculture youth rejected the cultural standards of their parents, especially with respect to racial segregation and initial widespread support for the Vietnam War,[2][15] and, less directly, the Cold War — with many young people fearing that America's nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, coupled with its involvement in Vietnam, would lead to a nuclear holocaust.

In the United Kingdom, the counterculture of the 1960s was also mainly a reaction against the generational and social norms of the 1940s and 1950s, although "Ban the Bomb" protests centered around opposition to nuclear weaponry; the campaign gave birth to what was to become the peace symbol of the 1960s.

In the United States, widespread tensions developed in the 1960s in American society that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women's rights, traditional modes of authority, and a materialist interpretation of the American Dream. White, middle class youth — who made up the bulk of the counterculture in western countries — had sufficient leisure time, thanks to widespread economic prosperity, to turn their attention to social issues.[16] These social issues included support for civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements, and a rejection of the Vietnam War. The counterculture also had access to a media which was eager to present their concerns to a wider public. Demonstrations for social justice created far-reaching changes affecting many aspects of society. Hippies became the largest countercultural group in the United States.[12]

"The 60s were a leap in human consciousness. Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Mother Teresa, they led a revolution of conscience. The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix created revolution and evolution themes. The music was like Dalí, with many colors and revolutionary ways. The youth of today must go there to find themselves."

Rejection of mainstream culture was best embodied in the new genres of psychedelic rock music, pop-art and new explorations in spirituality. Musicians who exemplified this era in the United Kingdom and United States included The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, and, in their early years, Chicago. New forms of musical presentation also played a key role in spreading the counterculture, with large outdoor rock festivals being the most noteworthy. The climactic live statement on this occurred from August 15–18, 1969, with the Woodstock Music Festival held in Bethel, New York — with 32 of rock's and psychedelic rock's most popular acts performing live outdoors during the sometimes rainy weekend to an audience of half a million people. (Michael Lang stated 400,000 attended, half of which did not have a ticket.)[18] It is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history — with Rolling Stone calling it one of the 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.[19] According to Bill Mankin, “It seems fitting… that one of the most enduring labels for the entire generation of that era was derived from a rock festival: the ‘Woodstock Generation’.”[20]

Sentiments were expressed in song lyrics and popular sayings of the period, such as "do your own thing", "turn on, tune in, drop out", "whatever turns you on", "Eight miles high", "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll", and "light my fire". Spiritually, the counterculture included interest in astrology, the term "Age of Aquarius" and knowing people's signs. This led Theodore Roszak to state "A [sic] eclectic taste for mystic, occult, and magical phenomena has been a marked characteristic of our postwar youth culture since the days of the beatniks."[5] In the United States, even actor Charlton Heston contributed to the movement, with the statement, "Don't trust anyone over thirty," in the 1968 film Planet of the Apes; the same year, actress and social activist Jane Fonda starred in the sexually-themed Barbarella. Both actors opposed the Vietnam War during its duration, and Fonda would eventually become controversially active in the peace movement.

The counterculture in the United States lasted roughly from 1964 to 1972[21] — coincident with America's involvement in Vietnam — and reached its peak in 1967, the "summer of love".[22] Unconventional appearance, music, political activism, public protests, drugs, communitarian experiments, and sexual liberation were hallmarks of the sixties counterculture — most of whose members were young, white and middle-class.

In 1967 thousands of young people flocked to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The counterculture lifestyle integrated many of the ideals and indulgences of the time: peace, love, harmony, music, and mysticism. Meditation, yoga, and psychedelic drugs were embraced as routes to expanding one's consciousness. In Toronto, Canada, the Yorkville district served as a kind of Haight-Ashbury North, serving as another major hippie and musical crossroads.[23] In Quebec, the Front de libération du Québec was in a quest for an independent socialist Quebec during the 1960s to early 1970s. The group, an example of some of the countercultures seeking to disrupt society, resorted to bombings, kidnappings and murder in order to try achieve their quest.[24]

In the United States, the movement divided the population. To some Americans, these attributes reflected American ideals of free speech, equality, world peace, and the pursuit of happiness; to others, they reflected a self-indulgent, pointlessly rebellious, unpatriotic, and destructive assault on the country's traditional moral order. Authorities banned the psychedelic drug LSD, restricted political gatherings, and tried to enforce bans on what they considered obscenity in books, music, theater, and other media. Parents argued with their children and worried about their children's personal safety, while the children worried about the world's future. Some adults accepted elements of the counterculture, while others became estranged from sons and daughters.

The counterculture collapsed in the early 1970s, and many have attributed two major reasons: First, the most popular of its political goals — civil rights, civil liberties, gender equality, environmentalism, and the end of the Vietnam War — were accomplished (to at least some degree), and its most popular social attributes — particularly a "live and let live" mentality in personal lifestyles (the "sexual revolution") — were co-opted by mainstream society.[16][22] Second, a decline of idealism and hedonism occurred as many notable counterculture figures died, the rest settled into mainstream society and started their own families, and the "magic economy" of the 1960s gave way to the stagflation of the 1970s[16] — the latter costing many in the middle-classes the luxury of being able to live outside conventional social institutions. The counterculture, however, continues to influence social movements, art, music, and society in general, and the post-1973 mainstream society has been in many ways a hybrid of the 1960s establishment and counterculture.[22]

Counterculture literature

The counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s generated its own unique brand of notable literature, including comics and cartoons, and sometimes referred to as the underground press. In the United States, this includes the work of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, and includes Mr. Natural; Keep on Truckin'; Fritz the Cat; Fat Freddy's Cat; Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers; the album cover art for Cheap Thrills; and in several countries contributions to International Times, The Village Voice, and Oz magazine. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, these comics and magazines were available for purchase in head shops along with items like beads, incense, cigarette papers, tie-dye clothing, DayGlo posters, books, etc.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of these shops selling hippie items also became cafés where hippies could hang out, chat, smoke marijuana, read books, etc., e.g. Gandalf's Garden in the Kings Road, Chelsea, London, which also published a magazine of the same name.[25] Another such hippie/anarchist bookshop was Mushroom Books, tucked away in the Lace Market area of Nottingham.[26][27]

Lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender counterculture

The Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual community (commonly abbreviated as the "LGBT" community), mostly evident in North America, Southern Cone, Western Europe, Australasia and South Africa, fits the definition of a countercultural movement as "a cultural group whose values and norms of behavior run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day."

At the outset of the 20th century, homosexual acts were punishable offenses in these countries. The prevailing public attitude was that homosexuality was a moral failing that should be punished, as exemplified by Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial and imprisonment for "gross indecency". But even then, there were dissenting views. Sigmund Freud publicly expressed his opinion that homosexuality was a perfectly normal condition for some people.[Freud, 1905] According to Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis, there were already semi-public gay-themed gatherings by the mid-1930s in the United States (such as the annual drag balls held during the Harlem Renaissance). There were also bars and bathhouses that catered to gay clientele and adopted warning procedures (similar to those used by Prohibition-era speakeasies) to warn customers of police raids. But homosexuality was typically subsumed into bohemian culture, and was not a significant movement in itself.[28]

Eventually, a genuine gay culture began to take root, albeit very discreetly, with its own styles, attitudes and behaviors and industries began catering to this growing demographic group. For example, publishing houses cranked out pulp novels like The Velvet Underground that were targeted directly at gay people. By the early 1960s, openly gay political organizations such as the Mattachine Society were formally protesting abusive treatment toward gay people, challenging the entrenched idea that homosexuality was an aberrant condition, and calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Despite very limited sympathy, American society began at least to acknowledge the existence of a sizable population of gays. The film The Boys in the Band, for example, featured negative portrayals of gay men, but at least recognized that they did in fact fraternize with each other (as opposed to being isolated, solitary predators who "victimized" straight men).

Disco music in large part rose out of the New York gay club scene of the early 1970s as a reaction to the stigmatization of gays and other outside groups such as blacks by the counterculture of that era.[29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36] By later in the decade Disco was dominating the pop charts.[37] The popular Village People and the critically acclaimed Sylvester had gay themed lyrics and presentation.[38][39]

Another element of LGBT counter-culture that began in the 1970’s - and continues today - is the lesbian land, or Landdyke movement.[40] Radical feminists inspired by the back-to-the-land initiative abandoned their traditional roles and migrated to rural areas to create female-only lesbian communes.[41] “Free Spaces” are defined by Sociologist Francesca Polletta as “small-scale settings within a community or movement that are removed from the direct control of dominant groups, are voluntarily participated in, and generate the cultural challenge that precedes or accompanies political mobilization.[42] Women came together in Free Spaces like music festivals, activist groups and collectives to share ideas with like-minded people and to explore the idea of the lesbian land movement. The movement is closely tied to eco-feminism[43]

The four tenants of the Landdyke Movement are relationship with the land, liberation and transformation, living the politics, and bodily Freedoms.[44] Most importantly, members of these communities seek to live outside of a patriarchal society that puts emphasis on “beauty ideals that discipline the female body, compulsive heterosexuality, competitiveness with other women, and dependence.” [45] Instead of adhering typical female gender roles, the women of Landdyke communities value “self-sufficiency, bodily strength, autonomy from men and patriarchal systems, and the development of lesbian-centered community.” [45] Members of the Landdyke movement enjoy bodily freedoms that have been deemed unacceptable in the modern Western world – such as the freedom to expose their breasts, or to go without any clothing at all.[46] An awareness of their impact on the Earth, and connection to nature is essential members of the Landdyke Movement's way of life.[47]

The watershed event in the American gay rights movement was the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Following this event, gays and lesbians began adopting the militant protest tactics used by anti-war and black power radicals to confront anti-gay ideology. Another major turning point was the 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the official list of mental disorders.[48] Although gay radicals used pressure to force the decision, Kaiser notes that this had been an issue of some debate for many years in the psychiatric community, and that one of the chief obstacles to normalizing homosexuality was that therapists were profiting from offering dubious, unproven "cures".[28]

The AIDS epidemic was initially an unexpected blow to the movement, especially in North America. There was speculation that the disease would permanently drive gay life underground. Ironically, the tables were turned. Many of the early victims of the disease had been openly gay only within the confines of insular "gay ghettos" such as New York City’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Castro; they remained closeted in their professional lives and to their families. Many heterosexuals who thought they didn't know any gay people were confronted by friends and loved ones dying of "the gay plague" (which soon began to infect "straight" people also). LGBT communities were increasingly seen not only as victims of a disease, but as victims of ostracism and hatred. Most importantly, the disease became a rallying point for a previously complacent gay community. AIDS invigorated the community politically to fight not only for a medical response to the disease, but also for wider acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream America. Ultimately, coming out became an important step for many LGBT people.

During the early 1980s what was dubbed "New Music", New wave, "New pop" popularized by MTV and associated with gender bending Second British Music Invasion stars such as Boy George and Annie Lennox became an what was described by Newsweek at the time as an alternate mainstream to the traditional masculine/heterosexual rock music in the United States.[49][50][51]

In 2003, the United States Supreme Court officially declared all sodomy laws unconstitutional.[52]

Russian/Soviet counterculture

Although not exactly equivalent to the English definition, the term "Контркультура" (Kontrkul'tura, "Counterculture") became common in Russian to define a 1990s cultural movement that promoted acting outside of cultural conventions: the use of explicit language; graphical descriptions of sex, violence and illicit activities; and uncopyrighted use of "safe" characters involved in such activities.

During the early 1970s, the Soviet government rigidly promoted optimism in Russian culture. Even mild topics, such as divorce and alcohol abuse, were viewed as taboo by the media. However, Russian society grew weary of the gap between real life and the creative world , and underground culture became "forbidden fruit." General satisfaction with the quality of existing works led to parody, such as how the Russian anecdotal joke tradition turned the setting of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy into a grotesque world of sexual excess. Another well-known example is black humor (mostly in the form of short poems) that dealt exclusively with funny deaths and/or other mishaps of small, innocent children.

In the mid-1980s, the Glasnost policy permitted the production of less optimistic works. As a consequence, Russian cinema during the late 1980s and the early 1990s was dominated by crime-packed action movies with explicit (but not necessarily graphic) scenes of ruthless violence and social dramas about drug abuse, prostitution and failing relationships. Although Russian movies of the time would be rated "R" in the United States due to violence, the use of explicit language was much milder than in American cinema.

In the late 1990s, Russian counterculture became increasingly popular on the Internet. Several websites appeared that posted user-created short stories dealing with sex, drugs and violence. The following features are considered the most popular topics in such works:

  • Wide use of explicit language;
  • Deliberate misspelling;
  • Descriptions of drug use and consequences of abuse;
  • Negative portrayals of alcohol use;
  • Sex and violence: Nothing is a taboo — in general, violence is rarely advocated, while all types of sex are considered good;
  • Parody: Media advertising, classic movies, pop culture and children's books are considered fair game;
  • Non-conformance; and,
  • Politically incorrect topics: Mostly racism, xenophobia and homophobia.

A notable aspect of counterculture at the time was the influence of contra-cultural developments on Russian pop culture. In addition to traditional Russian styles of music, such as songs with jail-related lyrics, new music styles with explicit language were developed.

Asian counterculture

In the recent past Dr. Sebastian Kappen, an Indian theologian, has tried to redefine counterculture in the Asian context. In March 1990, at a seminar in Bangalore, he presented his countercultural perspectives (Chapter 4 in S. Kappen, Tradition, modernity, counterculture: an Asian perspective, Visthar, Bangalore, 1994). Dr. Kappen envisages counterculture as a new culture that has to negate the two opposing cultural phenomena in Asian countries:

  1. invasion by Western capitalist culture, and
  2. the emergence of revivalist movements.

Kappen writes, "Were we to succumb to the first, we should be losing our identity; if to the second, ours would be a false, obsolete identity in a mental universe of dead symbols and delayed myths".

The most important countercultural movement in India had taken place in the state of West Bengal during the 1960s by a group of poets and artists who called themselves Hungryalists.

See also


  • Curl, John (2007), Memories of Drop City, The First Hippie Commune of the 1960s and the Summer of Love, a memoir, iUniverse.
  • Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. (Vol. 7, pp. 123–245). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1905)
  • Gelder, Ken (2007), Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice, London: Routledge.
  • Goffman, Ken (2004), Counterculture through the ages Villard Books ISBN 0-375-50758-2
  • Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter (2004) Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture Collins Books ISBN 0-06-074586-X
  • Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo (2009), Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-1633-0 ISBN 978-0700616336
  • Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson (1991), Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain, London: Routledge.
  • Hazlehurst, Cameron and Kayleen M. Hazlehurst (1998), Gangs and Youth Subcultures: International Explorations, New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers.
  • Hebdige, Dick (1979), Subculture: the Meaning of Style, London & New York: Routledge.
  • Paul Hodkinson and Wolfgang Deicke (2007), Youth Cultures Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes, New York: Routledge.
  • Macfarlane, Scott (2007),The Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co Inc, ISBN 0-7864-2915-1 & ISBN 978-0-7864-2915-8.
  • McKay, George (1996), Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London Verso. ISBN 1-85984-028-0.
  • Nelson, Elizabeth (1989), The British Counterculture 1966-73: A Study of the Underground Press. London: Macmillan.
  • Roszak, Theodore (1968) The Making of a Counter Culture.
  • Isadora Tast (2009), Mother India. Searching For a Place. Berlin: Peperoni Books, ISBN 978-3-941825-00-0


External links

  • The Guardian, 17 July 2009
  • magazine, Aug. 2002, 58--61. (extensive information on the origins of the counterculture)

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