“Youth subculture” is part of the lexicon of pop sociology. Most teen librarians can point to examples of youth subcultures, punks, goths, metalheads etc., but even sociologists haven’t always had a practical definition of the term. Defining “youth subcultures” can be key to understanding the world view of some of the young patrons we serve.

The term has its origins in the work of Albert Cohen in the fifties. He studied the cultures of delinquent gangs. “Youth subculture’s” biggest public exposure came from “Subculture: The Meaning of Style,” Dick Hebdige’s 1979 book. The book was published in the aftermath of the first wave of British punk and was often sold in alternative record stores, despite its very academic style. It is still the most famous work on the subject despite being both dated and flawed. Hebdige’s work tied a definition what youth subcultures were with a questionable Marxist theory of why they were. He also did not interview or interact with anyone in a subculture.

Paul Hodkinson’s 2002 book “Goth: Identity Style and Subculture” contains what is probably the most practical definition of what a youth subculture is to date. He is both a goth and a sociologist. His is a case study based on his participation in the goth scene in central England in the 1990s. He argues that subcultures can be distinguished from other broader trends in popular culture because of their “substantiveness.” Hodkinson cites four indicators that demonstrate that goth is a substantive culture. They are, “consistent distinctiveness,” by which he meads the shared tastes and values that are distinct from those outside the group, “identity” the fact that they share feelings of identity with one another, “commitment,” and “autonomy.” By autonomy he means that much of the clothing, music, and events that kept the goth scene going were produced by goths and are directly marketed to goths.

Hodkinson’s definition provides ideas that every librarian who has ever had an unusually dressed teen come into their branch should understand. The young patron may be following some nebulous trend that value only marginally however, he or she might see what they are doing as substantive identity to which they are very committed. It’s important to know the difference, and useful to know of enough about established and emerging subcultures to help make that judgment call.

Hodkinson’s concept of autonomy points out another important fact. Recording and publishing music, starting a small scale clothing company, or booking a venue for a club night require access to money and other resources that teens seldom have. This means that the movers and shakers in a subculture are not teens. They are in their twenties, often their thirties, sometimes even older. Teens who are seriously involved in a subculture know this. This means that they see themselves as forming an adult identity. Activities geared toward them should not appear juvenile.

The concept of consistent distinctiveness is also an important one. The tastes and values of teens in a subculture are not shared by their peers. Indeed subcultural participants and their tastes may even be mocked by those outside their group. A program geared to them may not appeal to other teens. On the other hand the fact that subcultural teens often feel unwelcome in many public places and so lack places to gather, can make catering to them a strategy for gaining a very loyal group of young patrons.

The teen community of every library is different. You may work at a library with a firmly established group of very mainstream youth, but this could change quite suddenly as high school classes graduate and new youth come in. Having some understanding of the dynamics of youth culture and subculture and knowledge of existing and emerging subcultures may help you build a strong connection with some smart literate teens.

About Eric Chamberlin

Prior to becoming a librarian I studied youth subcultures as part of a masters program at NYU. I'm a contributing author to Youth Cultures: Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes. After starting my career as a substitute librarian I have moved into youth services. I currently work for the San Diego Public Library System.

One Thought on “Youth Subculture: What It Is, and Why it Matters for Librarians

  1. Joseph Wilk on August 14, 2008 at 9:39 pm said:

    Excellent first post, Eric, and a great way to tie social theory in with library service. Welcome to YALSA blogging! I feel like–as far as subculture is concerned–many of the acts you listed are now within the financial and material reaches of being a teen-only enterprise. Their friends can now record their band or produce their beats, and their other friends are running their own DIY label. Or they’re making their own clothes by piecing together thrift store fashion with duct tape. Etc. etc. In many cases, at least in my experiences, teens are becoming more and more self-sufficient, putting them at odds with adults who sort of see themselves as gatekeepers… like the people who preceded them were, etc. In addition to what you suggest, engaging this might mean giving teens an opportunity to use library space wholly independently–as another tool that they can use to record an album, throw a party, or set up whatever other equipment they need to take care of their own business.

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