The term ‘subculture’ can be defined as ‘a relatively diffuse social network having a shared identity, distinctive meanings around certain ideas, practices, and objects,
and a sense of marginalization from or resistance to a perceived ‘conventional’
society’ (Haenfler, 2014 introducing cult studies). It is necessary to point
out that subcultural groups are not shaped from one single factor alone, but
rather they are constructed and influenced by a range of determinants; all of which
contribute to the formation of a specific group/culture with its own set of
beliefs, values and style which run parallel to the dominant culture within a
contemporary society.

In this essay I will be investigating how the identities of
working-class youths are constructed in relation to social norms and individual
choices within a contemporary mainstream society. My research will focus on the
emergence of chav culture as I believe this to be the subculture most often
identified with working-class youths in modern-day Britain. I will explore the
potential factors which determine the existence of the chav subculture and
attempt to explain how working-class youth subcultures are created and shaped
by: deviance, resistance to hegemonic values, commercial culture and social

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There has been research to suggest that one of the most
prominent factors in shaping the formation of subcultures amongst the
working-class youth population is the desire to deviate from mainstream
traditions and values in society. Developed by the Chicago School, social
disorganization theory is a theory which links crime rates to the economic
aspects of a neighbourhood and remains significant in the attempt to clarify
why working-class youth subcultures form based on deviancy. The school found
that crime and delinquency rates remained higher in areas of relative
socio-economic deprivation compared to areas of low socio-economic deprivation,
the reasoning behind this relating to the lack of supervision in cities
undergoing rapid urban change. It can be said that delinquent values and
traditions are passed on from generation to generation despite the overturn of
people living in those cities as communities develop traditions in which
criminal activity is learned and praised. (Criminology, Tim Newburn page
191-193). Therefore, this theory implies that deviance occurs through learned behaviour
and that subcultures that form within an area of low-socio economic deprivation
are more likely to pass on their acquired skills and knowledge to others rather
than branch out and challenge what is deemed as ‘normal’ behaviour for them. In
this sense, deviance offers youths in gangs a sense of familiarity and
belonging which are important values to subcultures, including the chav
subculture, as it provides them with the stability they possibly would not receive
in the dominant culture.

In addition to this, anomie and strain theories remain
influential in the effort to justify juvenile delinquency amongst working-class
subcultures. The origins of these theories can be related to the work of
sociologist Robert K. Merton as although he does not use these terms to outline
his explanation for deviance, others have used strain theory as the nucleus to
develop their own ideas on deviance within subcultures. Merton’s take on Anomie
Theory refers to “the imbalance between goals and institutional means, in which
the goal of monetary success is emphasized without clear normative standards
for achieving success” (Juvenile Delinquency: An Integrated Approach bottom of
page 229). Anomie implies that the correlation between societal goals in the
form of economic success and the institutional tools available to achieve this
is highly imbalanced. Thus, those who lack the resources to gain legitimate
economic success are likely to resort to illegitimate means, including crime.

The strain theory builds on this as it states, “youth who
adopt goals of economic success, but who feel that they are unable to reach
those goals because of limited opportunities, are more likely to experience
emotional strain in the form of anger, and this motivates delinquency” (JD
p231). This theory implies that without the necessary means to achieve the
ultimate societal goal of monetary success, working-class youths often
experience the build-up of social pressure as they wish to be successful in the
mainstream society. As they cannot gain success through a legitimate channel,
youths often turn to a world of crime where unlawful acts such as theft and
robbery permit them to illustrate their success through material objects. It
can be argued that deviance is a significant factor which shapes the
construction of the chav subculture as working-class youths desire to avoid
societal failure as well as gain economic success.  This could also explain the reason why
expensive commercial brands such as Adidas, Nike and Burberry remain at the
heart of style for chav culture; working-class youths choose to dress
themselves in expensive brands as it connotes their financial prosperity.

Some may argue that Merton’s work is slightly outdated as it
is becoming increasingly possible for children who were once deprived of the
institutional means to gain a legitimate means of economic success. Due to the
passing of the Rab Butler Act of 1944, all children have the right to a free secondary
education; this arguably takes a step towards achieving equality and equal
opportunities between the social classes. Although this act creates equal
opportunities for working-class and middle-class youths alike with regards to
access to a free secondary education and schooling, there remains factors which
contribute to the inequality of opportunities within the working-class which
therefore positions them at an educational disadvantage. For example, according
to Albert Cohen, lower-class parents are “easy-going” and “permissive” whereas
middle-class parents are “rational, deliberate and demanding” (Cohen, JD p236).
As a result of this, lower-class boys do not learn the importance of adult core
values such as respect and working hard to achieve success and therefore, they
lack the means to compete against middle-class youths in an educational environment.
Although in theory working-class youths are presented with the same
opportunities as middle-class youths, the lack of parental intervention from a
young age arguably inhibits their academic achievement in later life.
Therefore, the chav subculture could be formed based on the desire for
working-class youths to deviate from social norms and connect with individuals who
find themselves in a similar situation.

Albert Cohen also offers a different perspective on
subcultures as a form of deviance. Like Merton, he suggests that juvenile
deviance occurs because of the blocked opportunities that working-class youths
face. However, he introduces the idea that societal goals are not based solely
on monetary success, but also the desire to achieve respect and status. Cohen
states that lower-class youths are ‘denied status in the respectable society
because they cannot meet the criteria of the respectable status system’ (p197
Criminology, Tim Newburn, Cohen) and as result of this denied status, youths are
likely to feel shame and experience what is known as ‘status frustration’ (the
feeling of frustration felt when lower-class youths cannot gain respect and
status in the dominant culture). In order to overcome this frustration, gangs
are formed within the working-class community as ‘lower-class boys in gangs
develop alternative values that allow them to experience success and thereby
gain status (at least in the eye of their peers)’ (Cohen, JD p236). Delinquent
acts easily fulfil the values of the gang subculture as they tend to reject core
adult values such as respect and replace them with opposing values such as
hedonism and negativism which can be demonstrated through committing crimes such
as vandalism which has no economic gain. This challenges Merton’s strain theory
as it conveys the idea that deviance within the chav subculture is not only
constructed on the need for monetary success, but also forms as a way of
gaining higher status and respect in which they cannot achieve from individuals
within the dominant culture.

A further key factor which shapes the construction of subcultures is
the idea of resistance. It can be contended that working-class youth
subcultures form based on their desire to resist against the ruling-class and
the hegemonic ideologies enforced on society by capitalism. Hegemony is a
concept developed by Antonio Gramsci which can be defined as ‘a cultural and
ideological means whereby the dominant groups in society maintain their
dominance by securing the ‘spontaneous consent’ of subordinate groups’ (Dominic
strinati intro to theories), it possesses a high level of importance when
debating the creation of subcultures, especially working-class youth
subcultures. Many theorists use the concept of hegemony as the focal point to
explain why subcultural groups form in relation to hegemonic ideologies
(dominant ideas) imposed on society by the bourgeois (ruling class).


Relating to the previous arguments on the creation of
subcultures as a form of deviance, Paul Willis offers a slightly different
perspective in his book ‘Learning to Labour’ as he discusses how subcultures
can form as a sign of resistance. Willis argues that working-class youths often
develop a negative educational experience due to the capitalist structure of
schools and proposes that schooling institutions are heavily middle-class in
the sense that they project middle-class cultural values, teach middle-class
knowledge and are ran by middle-class people. Working-class youths end up
feeling isolated and bored as they begin to accept the idea that they are
unvalued in a schooling environment; through this boredom, working-class youths
equip themselves with the skills needed to maintain a career doing manual
labour. Willis considers that working-class youths are not passive to this
process, however, they are aware of the capitalist class-based hierarchy. This
could explain why many working-class youths who belong to the chav subculture
do not conform in an educational environment: misbehaving in classes, not
taking examinations seriously and branding middle-class children who succeed
academically as ‘swots’. Subcultures develop amongst working-class youths as a
way of conflicting hegemony and dealing with the unjust system enforced on them
by capitalism. Like the working-class youths Willis wrote about, the chav
subculture also heavily revolves around hedonism and ‘having a laugh’; it can
be said that this subcultural formation could be a way of attacking hegemony
and consciously opposing the dominant culture – in this sense, the chav
subculture forms to resist. (Kidd and teagle book)

However, it can be debated that resisting and adopting a
negative attitude towards academia within an educational environment poses a
threat to the future of working-class youths as they are potentially limiting
the opportunities available to them. As the dismissal of a proper education
develops amongst the working-class youths, including the chav subculture, the
likelihoods of progressing onto higher education and attaining a qualification
dramatically decreases. As a result of this, the opportunities to resist
against the capitalist-class become limited and ultimately, working-class youths
develop into reflections of their parent culture. (Kidd and teagle book) It can
be deduced that it is the personal choice of youths to misbehave and deprive
themselves of an education, and through this decision they inhibit their
ability make an imprint in the social system and challenge the superstructure.

Dick Hebdige, and influential media theorist and sociologist, remains
at the forefront of the argument for the existence of subcultures in relation
to hegemonic resistance. In his book ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’, he
stresses the power that subcultures possess by stating that, ‘we should
therefore not underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture
not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism
of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of
representation.’ (Hebdige meaning of style p90). This implies that subcultures
do not form ‘out of the blue’ but rather they form to stand for something that
challenges the cultural values of the dominant culture, it conveys the idea
that the ruling class should not underestimate the power of a subculture and
their ability to create chaos within the class-based social structure.


Furthermore, according to Hebidge, the ‘style’ of a subculture (the
choice of clothing, hairstyles, behaviour, language etc) can be a symbolic way
of challenging the capitalist class and standing for oppositional values. He
argues that the styles communicated by different subcultures represent a
particular reaction to social conditions and that the process of bricolage (the
creation of a subcultural style which has taken features from other
subcultures) ‘often encode an opposition to the dominant or hegemonic forms of
culture’ (Introducing cult studies – brian Longhurst). This can apply to the
chav subculture as they possess a rebellious style which is said to consist of ‘baggy
tracksuit trousers, branded sports top, gold-hooped earrings, “sovvy” rings,
and the ubiquitous Burberry baseball cap’ (p 332 Emotions: a social reader). As
I have previously mentioned when discussing Merton’s strain theory, the
creation of this style and the inclusion of designer gear, irrespective of its
legitimacy, could be a way in which the chav subculture communicates their
economic success to the middle-class and dominant culture. However, it can also
be debated that this distinct trend amongst the chav subculture connotes a
sense of rebellion and can further be a way in which they resist the hegemonic
cultural style.


Hebdige also argues that subcultures are incorporated into the dominant
culture through what is known as the commodity form. The commodity form suggests
that subcultures are viewed by the ruling-class as consumers as a subcultural
style which originally represented resistance to hegemony is recreated into products
of commercial culture which generates economic profit for the bourgeois. As
John Clarke has noted ‘The diffusion of youth styles from the subcultures to
the fashion market is not simply a ‘cultural process’, but a real network or infrastructure
of new kinds of commercial and economic institutions. (p95 subculture,
hebdige). This infers that once subcultures are translated into commodities
which are made available to the general public, the opposition to dominant
values in which subcultural groups stand for lose their authenticity and in a
way, they become controlled products of capitalism. Although it can be argued
that originally, subcultures formed to resist capitalism and the hegemonic
ideologies injected into the dominant culture, the commercialisation of
subcultural styles have made it so that subcultures are maintained by large
capitalist manufacturing institutions. This ultimately defeats their original
intentions of subverting mainstream values which poses the question: are
subcultures truly resistant to social norms, or do they unconsciously comply
with the cultural values of the dominating groups?


A final factor which must be considered is based on the work of Stanley
Cohen in his book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’. The book addresses the
media’s reaction to the subcultural clashes of two working-class youth groups
in Britain in the 1960’s: the mods and the rockers. According to Cohen, the
mass media is responsible for the representations of subcultural groups and the
way they are viewed in society. ‘There are three processes in such
symbolisation: a word (mod) becomes symbolic of a certain status (delinquent or
deviant); objects (hairstyle, clothing) symbolise the word; the objects
themselves become symbolic of the status (and the emotions attached to the
status)’ (Cohen, 1973, 40 Introducting cult studies – longhurst). This can be
applied to the chav subculture as often chavs are branded as menaces and
burdens to society through mediation and portrayal in the media. The term
‘chav’ itself has become a derogatory label for working-class youths and can be
academically defined as ‘an aggressive teenager, typically unemployed, who
repeatedly engages in anti-social behaviour’ (Kidd and Teagle 2012, p.183). This
stereotype permits passive audience members to believe that chavs are dangers
to the social order within the dominant society.

In this sense, the media attempts to assert power over the public by
creating panic and fear of the chav culture. Owen Jones is aware of this
mediated construction of the chav culture as he poses the question ‘to what
extent is chav-hate just a new wave of old style snobbery, rebranded for the
twenty-first century?’ (Jones, Chavs). This is relevant as it infers that
chav-hate is just another way to keep subcultures under control as the
bourgeois are aware that subcultures have the potential to cause anarchy within
the dominant society.


Overall, it can be deduced that working-class youth subcultures form
for various reasons. Perhaps the most significant factor in the formation of
the chav subculture revolves around the basic human instinct of wanting to
belong. Working-class youths arguably discover comfort in connecting with those
in a similar social situation to them as they frequently find themselves
victims of negative press and alienation in the dominant culture. As they often
lack the institutional means to prosper in the dominant society, working-class youths
resort to forming their own subcultures in which their own set of values, rules
and beliefs permit them to create their own success and provides them with an
alternative sense of security and status in which they are not offered in the
mainstream society.


Although many of the individual choices of working-class youths are
intended as a form of deviance and resistance against hegemonic ideologies –
whether this be through refusing to comply with educational expectations or
choosing to adopt a particularly rebellious style – there still remains the
question of whether subcultures are a legitimate way of resisting capitalism,
or whether their intentions to create opposition are incorporated into the
dominant culture by capitalist leaders through methods of commercial culture
and negative mediation of representations in the press.


Word count – 2850 words


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