AskDefine | Define counterculture

Dictionary Definition

counterculture n : a culture with lifestyles and values opposed to those of the established culture

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Any culture whose values and lifestyles are opposed to those of the established mainstream culture, especially to western culture

Extensive Definition

For the Roy Harper album Counter Culture, see Counter Culture.
Counterculture (also "counter-culture") is a sociological word used to describe the values and norms of behavior of a cultural group, or subculture, that run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day,

Sixties and seventies counterculture

The counterculture of the 1960s began in the United States as a reaction against the social norms of the 1950s, segregation in the Deep South, and the Vietnam War In the United Kingdom the counterculture was mainly a reaction against the post-war social norms of the 1940s and 1950s, although "Ban the Bomb" protests centered around opposition to nuclear weaponry.
White middle class youth, for the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, had sufficient leisure time to raise concerns about social issues - especially civil rights, the Vietnam War and women's rights. The far-reaching changes that began during the late 1960s and early 1970s affected many aspects of society, creating a social revolution in many industrialized countries. The effects of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture also significantly affected voters and institutions, especially in the U.S. Every Western capital experienced significant protests.
As the 1960s progressed, widespread tensions developed 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, experimentation with psychedelic drugs and a predominantly materialist interpretation of the American Dream.
The Hippies became the largest countercultural group in the United States, fighting for racial equality, women's rights, sexual liberation (including gay rights), relaxation of prohibitions against recreational drugs, and an end to the Vietnam War. Hippie culture was best embodied by the new genre of psychedelic rock music and the artists who exemplified this era, such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin. The pop-art culture led by Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick also played a prominent part in the social change in the United States by redefining what "art" was and what made it valuable. His mass-produced monographs and silk-screens, such as the iconic Campbell's Soup Cans challenged the notion that art is only about certain subjects -ie. wealthy patrons or pretty landscapes, or that art is a singular creation. Warhol's expressed views of glamour, art, and drugs very prominently through Warhol's paintings, films, and music (through his sponsored bands The Velvet Underground and Nico and his Factory).
Theodore Roszak stated,
During World War II, millions of American men and women were uprooted from their homes, and relocated to large port cities, such as New York City and San Francisco, either en route to tours of duty abroad or to serve in the home-front war effort. Being "anonymous" in the large urban landscape and separated from 'shaming' societal figures, many who otherwise would have spent their lives closeted were exposed to nascent gay culture. When the war ended, many of these people chose to permanently settle in New York and San Francisco and live more openly gay lives.
At this time, 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 Well of Loneliness or 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).
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. 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".
The AIDS epidemic was a massive, 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.’ The LGBT community 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.
Among the steps to greater acceptance was the reclaiming of language, such as the word "queer", once been used as a derogatory term. During the 1980s gay people embraced the word as a defiant, pro-gay term. Its use became a broad declaration that gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people would no longer 'apologize' for themselves, or try to placate homophobic elements.
In 2003, the United States Supreme Court officially declared all sodomy laws unconstitutional. Virtually every large city and community in America has its own network of bars, gay-friendly businesses and community centers. Annual gay pride events take place throughout the US and the world. Many of the current debates at the forefront of the LGBT community, such as same-sex marriage and parenting) would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. As of 2007, the gay community is focusing on marital rights, although sufficient numbers of Americans oppose gay marriage to the point that 27 state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage have been passed by comfortable popular margins of 60-80%. This indicates that despite the wider acceptance and tolerance of homosexual life, it is still viewed by mainstream American society as an aberration, making it in every sense one of several contemporary 'countercultures'.

Russian/Soviet counterculture

Although not exactly equivalent to the English definition, the term "Контркультура" (Kontrkul'tura, "Counterculture") found a constant use in Russian to define a cultural movement that promotes acting outside usual conventions of Russian culture - use of explicit language, graphical description of sex, violence and illicit activities and uncopyrighted use of "safe" characters involved in everything mentioned.
During the early 70's, Russian culture was forced into quite a rigid framework of constant optimistic approach to everything. Even mild topics, such as breaking marriage and alcohol abuse, tended to be viewed as taboo by the media. In response, Russian society grew weary of the gap between real life and the creative world. Thus, the folklore and underground culture tended to be considered forbidden fruit. On the other hand, the general satisfaction with the quality of the existing works promoted parody, often within existing settings. For example, the Russian anecdotal joke tradition turned the settings 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-80s, the Glasnost policy allowed the production of not-so-optimistic creative works. As a consequence, Russian cinema during the late 80s to the early 90s was dominated by crime-packed action movies with explicit (but not necessarily graphic) scenes of ruthless violence and social dramas on drug abuse, prostitution and failing relations. Although Russian movies of the time would be rated R in the USA due to violence, the use of explicit language was much milder than in American cinema.
Russian counterculture as we know it emerged in the late 90s with the increased popularity of the internet. Several web sites appeared that posted user-written short stories that dealt with sex, drugs and violence. The following features are considered most popular topics for the works:
  • Wide use of explicit language
  • Deliberate bad spelling
  • Drug theme - descriptions of drug use and consequences of substance abuse
  • Alcohol use - negative
  • Sex and violence - nothing is a taboo. In general, violence is rarely advocated, while all types of sex is considered to be a good thing.
  • Parody - media advertising, classic movies, pop culture and children's books are considered to be fair game.
  • Non conform to daily routine and set nature of things
  • Politically incorrect topics - mostly racism, xenophobia and homophobia
As with pornography, Russian counterculture has blurred borders and is hard to define. Generally, any content posted on a number of counterculture sites, like Udaff, Litprom or (No longer available) is considered counterculture, although some of the stories there have nothing to do with all of the above apart from being counterculture-inspired. Although seen as outcasts by conventional media, some of the countercultural authors have become extremely popular in modern Russia. People like Sergei Minayev (aka Amiga), Andrei Orlov (aka orlusha), Rustem Samigullin (aka Shchikotillo) and Yekaterina Temirgaliyeva (aka Кошки 2 шт.) are widely considered as icons of popular culture, art and literature, are frequently interviewed by press, radio and television, being recognised on the street and asked for autographs like movie or rock stars. The impact of Litprom on off-line Russian media has become a real shock for the closed and snobbish official Russian ;culture'. Having hit the shelves midsummer of 2006, Minayev's premiere book Духless has become the national mega-bestseller with the current print run of over 500 000 copies, while a sharp pooooooooop and ironic obscene poem ЗА-Е-БА-ЛО! by orlusha has topped the list of downloaded ring-tones, leaving the most popular pop- and rock tunes far behind. Much to a surprise of the Moscow authorities, graffiti like ЛИТПРОМ ФОРЕВА (Litprom forever) and УДАВ СОСЁТ (udaff sucks) have outnumbered such previous hits like ЦОЙ ЖИВ (Tsoi is alive) and ОТСОСИ У КРАСНО-СИНИХ (suck the red-blue army dick) in the Moscow public toilets and elevators. It is also really hard to overestimate the influence of Dr. Samigullin's (Щикатиллло) extreme promiscuity and outrageous sexual practices on everyday life of both married and single house-wives over 42 y.o. The ROFL-esque works of Renson (preved renad) & Raider (voffka the crazy drummer), the core and hard-standing members of the Russian countercultural movement, have also become quite some benchmarks for many a reader of aforementioned counterculture sites.
The interesting aspect is the influence of the contra-cultural developments on the Russian pop culture. In addition to traditional Russian styles of music like 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, 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".

Notable countercultures


  • Theodore Roszak (1968) The Making of a Counter Culture.
  • Elizabeth Nelson (1989) The British Counterculture 1966-73: A Study of the Underground Press. London: Macmillan.
  • George McKay (1996) Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London Verso. ISBN 1-85984-028-0.

Further reading


External links

counterculture in Asturian: Contracultura
counterculture in Danish: Modkultur
counterculture in German: Gegenkultur
counterculture in Spanish: Contracultura
counterculture in Esperanto: Kontraŭkulturo
counterculture in French: Contreculture
counterculture in Italian: Controcultura
counterculture in Hebrew: תרבות הנגד
counterculture in Georgian: კონტრკულტურა
counterculture in Hungarian: Ellenkultúra
counterculture in Dutch: Tegencultuur
counterculture in Japanese: カウンターカルチャー
counterculture in Norwegian: Motkultur
counterculture in Norwegian Nynorsk: Motkultur
counterculture in Polish: Kontrkultura
counterculture in Portuguese: Contracultura
counterculture in Russian: Контркультура
counterculture in Simple English: Counterculture
counterculture in Serbian: Kontrakultura
counterculture in Serbo-Croatian: Kontrakultura
counterculture in Swedish: Motkultur
counterculture in Thai: วัฒนธรรมต่อต้าน
counterculture in Ukrainian: Контркультура
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