Some Characteristics of Adolescent Subcultures

Herman Schwendinger and Julia Schwendinger

Department of Criminology

University of South Florida, Tampa


Television, movies and books such as Greaser, Graffiti, Gidget, Outsiders, Revenge of the Nerds, West Side Story, Breakfast Club, Freaks and Geeks and Beverly Hills 90210 have for decades conjured up subcultural scenes and stereotypes. Scaling the heights to another level of understanding, we will use sociographs to detect fundamental units predicted by our theory of adolescent subcultures and delinquency. These units are composed of individuals standing for adolescent social types, broadly differentiated by their subcultural and nonsubcultural identities. Centered around high school districts, these units are building blocks for ‘general structures’ of informal adolescent relations. They serve this function because their friendship ties cement the architecture of subcultural and multi-subcultural networks.

To help the reader understand these relationships, we will talk about characteristic properties of adolescent subcultures. Nevertheless, the limits of this article preclude a rounded description of our theory and research. Since that description can be found elsewhere (Schwendingers 1985, 1997). this material should be supplemented with other publications.

As indicated, the fundamental units are composed of individuals standing for adolescent social types, broadly differentiated by their subcultural and nonsubcultural identities. The number of subcultures has increased over the years and American peers who adopt their styles of life are labeled socialites, preppies, jocks, greasers, kickers, homeboys, vatos, druggies, hicks, skate rats, hot rodders, nerds, intellectuals, surfers, hippies, goths, punkers and metalbangers, etc., depending on their subcultural identity. We call (1985:65-116) these labels ‘social-type metaphors’ because their meanings, among other things, signify social regularities in personal behavior.

We have characterized (ibid.: 30-56, 79-91) three subcultures, in most high school districts, as ‘main perceptual anchors’ of local status systems. However, because the names for the same subcultures vary from one community to another, we chose superordinate terms to simplify reference points. We eventually adopted the term socialite as a generic for preppies, socialites, collegiates, shiddities, ivy-leaguers, elites, nine-0’s, etc.; streetcorner youth as a generic for greasers, hempies, burnouts, vatos, gowsters, etc.; and intellectual or brain as generics for nerds, brainiacs, intellectuals, egg heads, pencil necks, etc. Finally, the socialite and streetcorner networks frequently overlap with and influence intermediary networks whose identities depend largely on local conditions, recreational trends and specific fashions encouraged by sports manufacturers, mass media, popular music and apparel industries at different stages of peer group development. Networks of surfers, low-soshes, hot rodders and metalbangers (heavy metalers) have at times played this intermediary role.

Subcultures organized by socialites, corner youth and intellectuals represent life styles that regularly appear in school districts throughout the country despite endless alterations. Furthermore, individual groups within these subcultures are usually nested in ‘stratified domains of informal groups’ or stradoms in which subcultural processes evolve.

The words ‘stradom’ and ‘stradoms’ have no counterparts in network theory. They are not ‘crowds’ although crowds are nested in them. Nor can they be reduced to ‘social circles’ because they contain a variety of circles. More important, most stradoms are themselves incorporated within irregular stratified systems of informal relationships. They do not stand alone.

The words, ‘stratified domains,’ and ‘stradoms,’ in our theory, function as replacements for customary sociological terms such as ‘stratum’ and ‘strata’. The difference is that these latter terms signify networks; but, we found that references to an upper middle-class streetcorner stratum or a working-class socialite stratum confused colleagues who habitually employed hierarchical images, generated originally by Lloyd Warner, August Hollingshead, and others. After displaying a geometric figure containing 18 cliques arranged vertically to denote differences in status, Warner and Lunt (1942:112) asserted, "our interview material attested to the fact that all cliques fell into an interlocking vertical hierarchy which cross-cuts the entire society." In Hollingshead's (1949) study, all peer networks were sorted into five distinct social-classes. But, we have proposed that subcultural networks refute these patterns. We do not believe that this hierarchy of peer relations ever existed. Furthermore, their socioeconomic relationships were far more complicated than these theorists had suggested.

Besides, the concept of social strata, when applied to adolescent networks by Hollingshead (1949) and others, even in the 1990s, usually denoted all-inclusive social networks that were directly determined by parental social-class status. But, after mapping subcultures from barrios of East Los Angeles to hangouts in Beverly Hills,, we found that the socioeconomically stratified domains of high school groups never included the entire local population of youth. A large, theoretically and numerically significant, residual category of nonstradom formations remained.

Secondly, informal peer groups were relatively independent, voluntaristic entities. They were influenced by local inequalities that were partly (but not wholly) independent of social class relations. In fact, even though we recognized that socioeconomic segregation (e.g., of residential communities and high schools) objectively constricted the variation in friendship choices, we further discovered that wherever adolescents with different socioeconomic statuses actually had the latitude to choose companions voluntarily, their choices were not usually determined directly by the socioeconomic status of their parents. Certainly, socialites were more likely to belong to families whose socioeconomic statuses were relatively higher than families of intermediary and, especially, streetcorner youth in the same community. But we found that there were too many other adolescents whose friendship choices could not have been predicted from the socioeconomic status of their families.

Empirical studies back our assessment of Hollingshead’s work. The largest sociometric studies published while his theory was enjoying virtually universal acclaim, without exception, disproved his central proposition about adolescent friendships and parental status (e.g., Sower 1948; Smith 1943; Dalke 1953; Oppenheim 1955; Udry 1960). In addition, as indicated, our own field observations repeatedly uncovered status anomalies such as groups of working-class youth emulating socialite life styles and upper middle-class groups that emulated streetcorner life styles. Social-class processes influenced the cultural parameters and relative magnitudes of the subcultures but they also to some degree cultivated these subcultures among youth in all classes.

Stradoms are informally stratified adolescent networks with distinctive life styles, standards of social worth and struggles for honor. While the composition of some stradoms is influenced by economic factors, their social networks are more akin to Max Weber’s ‘status groups’ than economic strata. Even among socialites, "money and property are not in themselves status qualifications, although they may lead to them; and the lack of property is not in itself a status disqualification, although this may be a reason for it" (Weber 1968:306). Likewise, adolescent subcultures should not be hierarchically arranged merely because hegemonic-class standpoints assign the highest status to the socialites and the lowest, to the streetcorner youth. One can readily imagine (and our research bears this out) that streetcorner groups do not collectively subscribe to a standpoint depicting them as worthless human beings even though this standpoint is shared by soces (pronounced ‘soshes’). Besides, some status attitudes supported by both socialite and streetcorner groups are rejected by intellectuals who judge peers on the basis of very different criteria.

Finally, our concept, stradoms, assumes that adolescents who share similar subcultural identities, will have friends who are in similar subcultural networks. Yet it is important to note this assumption does not preclude the possibility that they may also be members of other kinds of networks. Most adolescents are found in a variety of networks.

Nonetheless, if our category, ‘stradoms,’ is empirically valid, observations must at least show that, regardless of other friendship ties, stradom relationships are anchored by friendships linking adolescents with common subcultural identities. Accordingly, a three-dimension, iconic display of friendship relationships should find individuals with fundamental subcultural identities massed in similar parts of this display.

The Orderly Chaos of Fundamental Units

Some scholars have centered attention on subcultural labels such as preppie, burnout or brain and raised questions about their dependence on actually existing friendship relations. They claim that these adolescent metaphors are so indeterminate, unrealistic or inconsistent that they merely refer to stereotypes having little to do with friendship groups, styles of life or other recurrent patterns of interaction. For example, the scholars most responsible in educational research for summarizing recent studies on subcultures, B. Bradford Brown, Margaret S. Mory and David Kinney (1992), assume that metaphors such as socialites, homeboys and freaks, do not actually signify ‘interaction patterns’ or ‘friendship groups’ such as cliques. These researchers adopt the term ‘crowds’ to classify peer networks, but a crowd, they say, ‘defines what a person is like more than whom she or he ‘hangs around with’ (our emphasis).

H. Varenne (1982) is used to justify this idiosyncratic definition of ‘crowds’ because his observations seemed to affirm ‘contradictions’ between the articulated norms of a crowd and its members’ observable behavior. After making this point, Brown and his associates (1992) say:

Varenne . . . was bemused that members of two crowds routinely depicted as arch-rivals could often be observed interacting with each other, or that a student widely regarded as a member of the popular crowd, known for its trendy style of dress, often came to school in blue jeans and a work shirt the signature apparel of a very different crowd. Such contradictions led Varenne to propose that crowds seemed to exist much more ‘in teenagers’ heads’ than in reality.

‘[T]o a certain degree,’ Brown and his associates conclude (1992:126) teenage ‘crowds’ are based on a person’s ‘reputation’ rather than ‘interaction patterns’ and they ‘exist more profoundly at the cultural and symbolic level than at the level of definite individual behaviors.’ These ‘crowds,’ they said, were ‘caricatures’ of peer relations that had something to do with networking although they weren’t necessarily composed of close friends. Stereotypes such as preppies, burnouts, freaks and brains supplied the primary reason why adolescents were identified with a ‘crowd’.

Unfortunately, this interpretation is based on confusing and mistaken assumptions about vernacular usage and network relationships. Even though metaphors such as preppies, burnouts and freaks do, in fact, stereotype peers and have reputational implications, the so-called ‘contradictions’ mentioned by Brown and his associates hardly support the judgment that these labels are primarily artifacts of ‘reputational’ judgments and are, at most, secondarily dependent on network relations.

Actually, these metaphors serve a variety of functions that are not obvious because the metaphors cannot be taken literally. They are, after all, only ‘metaphors,’ that is, figures of speech, that name one set of relations by comparing it to another. For example, adolescent socialites in middle or working class communities are not genuine socialites if the word means what Webster’s Dictionary says it means: ‘a person prominent in high society, preferably one in the social register.’ Yet the metaphor socialite makes sense to adolescents in the same speech community because it compares peer relations with such things as dress, grooming, consumption patterns and status mannerisms, depicted by popular impressions of how upper-class socialites behave. Furthermore, ‘making sense,’ even with the appropriate comparisons, is still not settled because the meanings of the metaphor can be actualized in a number of ways: Metaphors such as socialite can refer to numerous attributes - purely descriptive (e.g., fads, fashions, manners, friendships), reputational (e.g., popularity), or judgmentally significant (snobbishness, meanness, arrogance), and all sorts of combinations of these criterial attributes. The particular attributes being invoked by metaphorical usage, at any given time, depend upon the social contexts in which this usage occurs and these contexts, in turn, are ordinarily dependent on informal conventions that enable adolescent conversationalists to decode the labels.

However, such criterial attributes are socially standardized because they are linked, in most contexts, to collective behavior; they are not ordinarily predicated upon acts of individuals apart from these relationships. For example, since certain clothing fashions often implicate socialite identities, the descriptive attributes invoked by the metaphor, socialite, make sense as a criterial attribute because members of socialite groups are likely to dress in this fashion. Hence, the metaphor is standardized with reference to a collective style of life - not the recurrent adoption of a fashion by individuals who otherwise have no meaningful ties with one another.

In addition, these attributes refer to probabilities (i.e., what we call ‘probable meanings’) because the metaphors still make sense even though conventions adopted by members of subcultural networks rarely require them to dress on any given occasion in a particular fashion. Unlike the label, traffic officer, and its associated uniform dress, which is regulated by clear cut institutionalized standards, a metaphor like socialite is standardized around dress codes and other behavior that function as probable - not inevitable - criterial attributes.

Some appreciation for the fuzziness of subcultural boundaries and conventions is important for understanding subculturally sanctioned behavior. Brown’s and Varenne’s ‘contradictions’ for instance, are irrelevant for confirming the importance of subcultural networks because the identities and networks referenced by the metaphors usually do not have rigid boundaries. Individual adolescents belong to a variety of groups and some adopt multiple subcultural identities. Some adolescents ‘flip’ in-and-out of identities because the everyday contexts in which these identities are adopted do not necessarily impose strict conduct requirements. The codes that regulate these relationships are equally fuzzy because they are based on informal conventions. A high status socialite or streetcorner group may reject two adolescents but this does not mean that they will thereby be restricted from membership in a lower status group. Peers tend to combine identities such as soc-jock that are generally regarded as being compatible but this does not mean that other combinations such as soc-vato, while rare, are impossible. Subcultural networks are dynamic, diffuse and turbulent entities; like patterns of fluids or currents of air predicted by chaos theory, they respond dramatically to changes in initial conditions. They permit seemingly chaotic arrangements that cannot be grouped in a tightly arranged social order.

Besides, subcultural conventions that prevent interaction under some conditions do not apply to other conditions. Thirty years ago, in one Los Angeles high school district, we observed senior high socialites rarely ‘mixing’ with the streetcorner youth at school dances. But we also found a group of soc-jocks repeatedly joining a streetcorner crowd for an evening of sex and alcohol, in an apartment rented by two 19 year old streetcorner males who had attended the same school. Thirty years later, in a high school 32 miles north of our university town, we observed adolescent social-types segregating themselves by sitting at different school lunchroom tables. But, we also found a crowd of skate-rats (with skateboards), metalheads, burnouts and druggies skating, talking, singing, playing or flirting on the sidewalk and lawn in front of the school.

Subcultural relationships appear especially chaotic when individual-level behavior is being scrutinized. A brain may help a homeboy because they grew up together and their long-standing friendship overrides any rejection due to their subcultural differences. A socialite may associate with a freak at times because they are members of the drama club in school and their common interest neutralizes socialite contempt for freaks during their theatrical activities. But, for understanding the systemic characteristics of subcultures, these anomalies are more apparent than real because individual-level behavior at any given moment does not provide the key to these characteristics.

Such distinctions between levels of reality are not arbitrary. After all, they have been recognized by scientists in other disciplines for centuries. Take the familiar contrast between the motions of a single molecule of air and a mass of molecules. While the single molecule zigzags randomly from collisions with other molecules, the movement of these masses are, under certain conditions, highly regular. Molecules of air expand when heated and move upward and; when cooled, they contract and descend in a convection current.

Like a seemingly unpredictable dynamic system whose structure is revealed by the nonlinear dynamics of ‘chaos theory,’ the structural order underlying subcultural systems is only revealed after applying a theory about dynamic relations among informal groups. Adolescents, we have observed, develop their fuzzy typifications because they feel compelled to classify the different forms of collective behavior emerging around them - the patterns of interaction, dress, grooming styles and types of associates - because this labeling process helps them understand, judge and cope with the rise of adolescent subcultures (Schwendingers 1985:68-69). Consequently, in addition to other things, the metaphors covary with behavioral norms and styles of life because they personify observable social regularities, and so any theory that restricts their semiotic relationships primarily to ideological constructions in ‘teenagers’ heads’ would have to be wrong. Relying on individual-level anomalies to justify such an interpretation only compounds the error.

Besides, mistaken assumptions and inadequate research are not the only reasons behind the confusing modification of the vernacular word ‘crowd,’ invented by Brown and his associates. Scrutiny of its operational usage reveals that they have searched for a category for classifying subcultures without using the word subculture. Further, instead of developing a theoretical category for subcultural networks, they have opted for ‘blind empiricism’ in preferring a descriptive term with doubtful validity. Since their ‘crowds’ are primarily considered artifacts of reputational labels, these labels became necessary conditions for ‘crowds’. But such labels do not create teenage crowds. Although adolescents adopt categories like ‘popular crowd’ or ‘the crowd of burnouts’ or ‘the drug crowd,’ such labels, while signifying attributes having to do with status or disengagement from school or drug use, are not necessary conditions for the subcultures.

Obviously, teenage isolates can adopt whatever style of life they please. But, subcultural labels represent ‘social facts’ because they are materially dependent on styles of life exhibited by members of groups. Social relations among groups, in turn, form subcultural networks and these, to some degree, interpenetrate each other. Finally, the resulting systems of multi-cultural domains are themselves nested within even larger networks, composed of almost all youth in a high school. As a result, vernacular terms such as ‘clique’ or ‘crowd’ are inadequate for dealing with the social systems created by the dynamic interplay among subcultural groups or the interplay between these systems and larger, more inclusive networks.


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