American society is composed hundreds of millions of people. While most of us would be hard-pressed to avoid the influence of over-arching American cultural values (think, individualism and consumerism), many of us also partake in subcultures, which are smaller groups within society that have their own unique values, symbols, and practices separate from larger culture. In this post, Kim Cochran Kiesewetter uses the music festival, Bonnaroo, as an example of a subculture in the US.
My day-to-day life is pretty normal by US’ standards for a working adult: I get up, I shower, I go to work, and tuck myself in with a book well before midnight every weekday (and full disclosure… most weekends, too). I’m not extreme by any definition of the word and do my best to adhere to most social norm expectations. But once a year, I throw off convention. I pile into an RV with friends, drive hundreds of miles to the middle of Tennessee where, for four days, I shower only by dumping bottles of water over my head and stay up most of the night dancing while wearing accessories like glow stick headbands. Welcome to Bonnaroo, middle Tennessee’s answer to popular, large-scale music festivals like Coachella that have been attracting music-lovers from around both the country and globe for over a decade. Bonnaroo is my chance once a year to blend into a subculture, while deviating from mainstream American culture.
Culture v. Subculture
Culture, in a nutshell, is everything that is not nature. Culture is the common beliefs, values, traditions, symbols, and behaviors a group of people in a given society share. If you grew up in the United States, you learned culture from people around you to keep you from sticking out too much in a crowd. You learned when you talked to your friend you shouldn’t do so three inches away from her face. You learned when you get on the elevator at the mall you shouldn’t face to the back unless you want to be considered a creeper. You learned an incredibly long list of behaviors, values, and beliefs from those around you as a sort of invisible guidebook to fitting in to mainstream culture. By high school, you were likely very conscious of what you needed to do to fit in and what you could do to stand out.
Culture is…big. And kind of vague. As such, within the larger culture, subcultures exist. Subcultures are smaller groups of people with unique-to-them beliefs, values, traditions, symbols, and behaviors they share with one another that still function relatively smoothly within larger culture. When we first think about subcultures we may jump to images of people who live lives that are really, really different from mainstream culture, however, many of us participate in subcultures throughout our lives. Some subcultures, like the Amish for example, are distinguished from mainstream culture on a daily basis due to the fact that their shared culture is very distinctive.
Participation in a subculture, though, doesn’t necessarily involve a whole-life, all-day, everyday commitment. Some people may only participate in a subculture in secret, perhaps because they are afraid of friends’ or family’s reaction. Subculture involvement may also only occur periodically, as is the case of those who go to Bonnaroo for a long weekend.
Bonnaroovians, as a subculture, come together every summer to share in a love of music. Additionally, as the festival has grown, Bonnaroo’s distinctive subculture has grown with it, now including a code that covers shared behaviors and ideologies – everything from coming prepared for the experience at The Farm (as the hundreds of acres of land in Manchester, Tennessee are known), to living as a community, radiating positivity, and picking up one’s trash (Bonnaroovian Code here). Bonnaroo’s leave-no-trace-communal subculture differentiates itself from mainstream culture as an antidote to everyday American life for those who want to experience something “different”. While some attendees might live that way most of the year too, many others, like myself, attend the experience to deviate from mainstream culture just for the long weekend.
Subculture participation can be exhilarating – it allows us a chance deviate from the norm at least a little, while still playing into our human desire to belong to a group and feel accepted. Since tens of thousands of people attend each year, there’s no way one could even know a fraction of each year’s attendees, but post-festival, all I need to do is see a car with a Bonnaroo sticker or someone still wearing their admission bracelet to feel a sort of bond with them… which is what culture (and subculture) is really about: belonging.
- Can you think of an example of a subculture you have participated in? If you can’t think of one you have participated in, just think of a specific subculture you have some familiarity with.
- In what ways is the subculture (you thought of for Question 1) different from mainstream culture?
- How does the subculture promote a sense of group belonging? Give specific examples including clothing, territory, behavior, and other group symbols.
- This article explores the relativity of subculture belonging using the example of “hipsters”. Since culture and subculture have blurry boundaries at times, think of ways the subculture defines group belonging. How do you/can you know someone “belongs” to this subculture?