Youth culture and youth subcultures have been a subject of research since the early 1930s.  This paper attempts to explore the main changes of youth subcultures during the last twenty years and presents two youth subcultures that have been generated since the 1960s and are both still widely influential today - the motor-bike boys, sometimes known as bikers or greasers and, more recently, the ‘ravers’ and their connections to ‘recreational’ drug use. This paper will focus on some of the past theoretical perspectives and trace the origins and development of youth cultural studies from socialisation and resistance to a more post-modernist perspective.  Are these original theories changing in a more contemporary world?  Are youth styles today more a form of identification through consumption?  Are there any similarities and connections between the two subcultures.

Defining ‘youth’ can be difficult and is described in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as:

  “the state of being young, the period between childhood and
    adult age” -  Oxford Dictionary (1990)
This would indicate that youth is described as an age group and people can be distinguished by the different age groups.  However, it could be questioned that not all children stop being children at the same time. Frith  describes youth as “not simply an age group, but the social organization of an age group” (1986:2)   Sociologists of youth, according to Frith, describe youth culture as “the way of life shared by young people”. 
Subculture, as defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is a ‘cultural group within a larger culture often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture’. (Oxford Dictionary 1990)  This would imply that a subculture is a subdivision of a national culture; it exists between the parameters of certain cultures.  Talcott Parsons (taken from Pilkington 1977: 22) saw youth subcultures usually having important positive functions in easing the transition from childhood to full adult life in marriage and occupational status.  It would appear that the majority of people leave these youth subcultures at some latter point, often at the point of marriage, therefore Parsons theory could be justified.
Empirical observation carried out by sociologists find that youth sub-cultures have a distinct individual style.  They have certain ways of dressing (i.e. shoes, clothing and hairstyles), speaking (i.e. slang), listening to music and gathering in similar places i.e. bikers at race meetings and bars and ravers at dance clubs or outdoor raves.  It is then assumed that shared activities reflect shared values.  Firth states that “culture is all learned behavior which has been socially acquired” (Firth 1951: 27)

A.K. Cohen (1955:51) saw a major determinant of subcultures among youth as ‘What people do depends upon the problems they contend with’. Ford (1942) states that culture is a ‘traditional way of solving problems, a learned problem solution’.   These quotes would imply youth culture has a problem solving function and refers to the way these problems are solved.  It describes the values and activities that young people develop to make sense of and cope with their shared experiences. This is a functionalist approach towards youth culture and this has, on the whole, been the American approach to youth culture.  Youth culture was seen by structural functionalists as a central aspect of the socialisation process and thus as a mechanism of maintaining social stability rather than bringing about either social change or disruption. (Pilkington 1997:22)

Analysis of youth culture in Britain has been influenced mainly by Marxist thought.  Marx believed all cultures are produced by ‘social conditions’ and that these ‘social conditions’ depend upon social class and the problems social class provides; age, according to Marx, was also a contributor. However, it has been argued that Marx didn't discuss other principles regarded as important, such as gender and race. Writing in Resistance through Rituals, Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber criticized other members of the CCCS (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at University of Birmingham) for their lack of attention to the issues of gender and race in both their ethnographic work and their theorising.  (taken from Pilkington: 1997:23)  This was blamed on both researchers and the media concentrating on male-dominated subcultures due to concern of  ‘the spectacular and the violent’.

Although there are variants of bike-boys they were broadly from a working class background and were seen as outsiders and loners linked by the love of motor-bikes and heavy rock music.  Their style was masculine and their appearance was aggressive. 
The motor-cycle gear looked tough with its leather studs, denim and heavy leather boots.  Hair was worn long in a greasy swept-back style and many were tattooed on the hands, arms and chest.  A typical evening for the bike boys would consist of permutations of the same activities: a drink and a game of darts in their local pub, a game of pinball and a coffee in the coffee bar and general horseplay and chatter in a club. 
Paul Willis conducted an ethnographic study of a group of bikers during the 70s and described the group as being almost all male and from typical working class backgrounds.  The composition of Willis’s group revealed members working backgrounds included scaffolders, foundry workers, students, a milkman and a number of  unemployed.  However, it could be argued that today’s bikers come from a variety of class and professional backgrounds from bricklayers to bankers. In Britain, the general fears about young people and youth subcultures have been focused on working class youth styles.  The young people concerned, according to Frith (1986:41) “come from working class families and neighbourhoods, have a working class experience of growing up, in lower stream of school and leave as soon as possible often becoming unemployed or going through a succession on dead-end jobs.’  This appeared to be the case in Willis’s study which seemed to follow a Marxist perspective.
However different youth groups are from each other, i.e. bikers as opposed to the more ‘recent’ ravers, they appear to outrage ‘straight’ society and are often labelled deviant or delinquent.  Youth has been seen as a ‘social problem’  for at least one hundred years. 

 “Deviant styles are, obviously, non conformist and such non conformity is,
 according to  Resistance through Rituals, not simply a gesture of adolescent 
 rebellion against parents, but involves, more importantly, a confrontation with
 middle class authorities, a statement of working class identity” (Frith 1981: 41)
This would imply there is a shock value to deviant styles of youth sub cultures who wish to look menacing and mean like bikers, skinheads and punks.
Willis’s study revealed that this particular group of bikers’ style, values and activities were equally shared and would match  Frith’s definition of youth culture:
  “the particular pattern of beliefs, values, symbols and activities that
    a group of young people are seen to share”  (Frith 1986:8)
It could be said that not all bikers today share the same values and enjoy the same activities as do the 60s style of bikers.  This could be because members of the subculture break away from a particular group or never ‘join’ in the first place.  Age could have implications here; the transition from youth to adult may determine how long a member stays in one particular subculture. 
Willis described their musical  taste ‘highly distinctive and very consistent’. (Willis 1978: 35)  This was usually early rock n roll of the 50s. Principally Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly as well as some Rolling Stones.  However, it could be argued that not all bikers liked these particular groups.
It was clear in Willis’s study that this particular group of bikers did not take drugs.  In fact, they ‘despised’ drugs - they were not seen (as was the motor-bike) as ‘the unformed material of excitement, glamour or new experience’ (Willis 1984:14)  I would argue that  some groups of 60s bikers, and indeed some of today bikers, have and still do take drugs.  A bike club I recently visited in Exeter revealed members openly smoking dope and taking amphetamines.
Although bikers, as a subculture, still exist today, it would appear that changes have been made as to the composition of members within the subculture; their values, beliefs and shared activities.

During the late 80s, young people with bandannas, brightly coloured clothes and a crazed look in their eyes were being presented as the next youth subculture.  For the ravers (also known as clubbers) the shared experience is attending a rave and possibly taking ecstasy which has become synonymous with the rave culture.  This is often the only thing ravers have in common with each other unlike other subcultures.
These parties, where extensive use of strobe lighting and psychedelic imagery was used, were attended by young males and females stereotypically dressed in baggy oversized T-shirts, track suits and baggy jeans.  The clothes were comfortable, brightly coloured and cheap.  The intensive dancing to fast beating music, along with the use of hypnotic drugs, went hand-in-hand. 

This style of clothing suited excessive body movement, however, this fashion style began to change.   With interest coming from the fashion industry, the style began to change and evolve.   Baggy clothes for girls were replaced by tight body-hugging outfits made of materials such as lycra emphasising appearance rather than comfort and practicality.  This shows that ravers are not always identifiable by their clothes.  Brands names like Naf Naf and Kangol soon became high street brand names.
It is difficult to define the common experiences that lead people to go to raves.  It could be that many youths wanted a form of ‘escapism’ to get away from the norms of every day life or  problems like unemployment.  Most ravers only attend raves or clubs at the weekend;  it could be argued that rave is more a leisure pursuit as opposed to a subculture.  Ravers appear to cut across all social divisions, classes, gender and age.  Unlike the 60s bikers, ravers are not exclusive to the working class, the unemployed or dominated by male members.  It is  difficult to make analogies between the common experiences of an eighteen year old student and a thirty year old computer analyst both attending raves on a Saturday night.  According to Pendry, ‘the concept of masculinity is missing’. (Pendry1997)  Unlike bikers, ravers are not menacing, aggressive or heavy drinkers.  Rave culture is not gang culture like many other subcultures. 
In Redheads account of youth culture, Cohen made the connection of the term ‘moral panic’ with young people.  Cohen believed that, every now and then, societies are subjected to periods of moral panic. Social class interaction in youth and the social infrastructure can determine a reaction - a division in society.  As the year 2000 approaches a ‘hedonism in hard times’ is the way Redhead (1993) described the:

 “sea of youth styles circulating and re-circulating in a harsh economic and 
 political climate where youth is increasingly seen as a source of fear for employed,
 respectable and law and order problems for police”.
Bikers and, more recently ravers, had all had tabloid front page headlines.  In Redhead’s  account of youth culture he states that “the mass media had a veritable field day with some of the key features of what it perceived to be a new youth style or subculture, to rival punk in the 70s or hippies in the 60s. (Redhead 1993)  These headlines persisted for years telling their own story of the law and order which has taken place:
Were the media right to perceive ravers as rivals to punk and hippies?  By media turning youth subcultures into front page news, and possibly distorting the truth, it can create a moral panic amongst other ‘law abiding’ citizens.  According to Cohen it can create stereotyping and stigmatise those involved.  In turn, this can demand quick and often authoritarian solutions.

To summarise, youth culture has become complicated.  There are so many different theories now that they could easily come into doubt.  It would seem that, when comparing the two different subcultures, that patterns and common beliefs differ and have changed over the last 20 years. Bikers had a tighter sense of belonging to their subculture than the more recent ravers.  Society appears to be so complex now; there seems to be a wider social system with changes in class, occupational structure, neighborhood structure and family and leisure patterns.  Today’s youth subcultures point to an interweaving of style with gender, class and age which follows a more contemporary outlook as opposed to some of the classic theories.  Under post-modern conditions, identities appear to be in a constant state of change: individuals move freely from one sub-cultural group and enthusiasm to another; they mix and match what were formerly distinct categories like the 60s bikers.  Style, enjoyment, excitement, escape from boredom at work or play, being attractive to ones self have now become central life concerns. 
During the 1980s, market researchers began to change ways in which they saw the various groups of consumers.  This change in the way in which consumption patterns are perceived by market researchers from being seen as influenced by socio-economic class to being seen as influenced by life-cycle stages.  Mike Featherstone has written:
“The term life-style is currently in vogue.  While the term has a more restricted sociological meaning in reference to the distinctive style of life of specific status groups, within contemporary consumer culture it connotes individuality, self expression, and a stylistic self-consciousness.  Ones body, clothes, speech, leisure pastimes, eating and drinking preferences, home, car, choice of holidays, etc. are to be regarded as indicators of the individuality of taste and sense of style of the owner/consumer.  In contrast to the designation of the 1950s as an era of grey conformism, a time of mass consumption, changes in production techniques, market segmentation and consumer demand for a wider range of products, are often regarded as making possible greater choice (the management of which becomes an art form) not only for the youth of the post 1960s generation, but increasingly for the middle aged and the elderly.....we are moving towards a society without fixed status groups in which the adoption of styles of life (manifest in choice of clothes, leisure activities, consumer goods, bodily disposition) which are fixed to specific groups have been surpassed”.   (Featherstone, 1991: 83)
It could be questioned that much of the ethnographic work carried out studying youth subcultures is not undertaken by ‘real’ members and therefore can result in a false picture. It has also been argued that many studies of youth culture are (still) about urban, Western male youth.


Cohen, A. K. (1955) Delinquent Boys, The Subculture of the Gang.  Collier MacMillan:

Featherstone, M (1991)  The Body in Consumer Culture. Sage: London

Firth, R. (1951)  Elements of Social Organisation: Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Ford, R. (1942) Culture & Human Behaviour, Scientific Monthly, vol: 44 p546-57

Frith, S. (1984) The Sociology of Youth.  Causeway Press Ltd.

Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture.  The Meaning of Style.  Methvan & Co Ltd.

Pendry, D. (1996) ‘Do not resist an ‘E’: An Exploration of Rave Dance Culture.
        Dissertation. University College St. Mark St. John. 

Pilkington, H. (1997) Youth Cultural Studies. Sociology Review  Vol: 7. Nos 1. 

Redhead, S. (1993) Rave Off.  Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Willis, P. E. (1978)  Profane Culture.  Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

 back to guest page
 back to samples