Counter-Culture: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Counterculture: Definition
  • 0:33 Counterculture Movements
  • 1:19 Examples of Countercultures
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Countercultures are a big part of our history, but how much do you really know about them? In this lesson, we'll explore this concept and check out a few notable countercultures throughout history.

Counterculture: Definition

Culture is a pretty powerful thing. It impacts the ways you act, the way you think, and the way you live. Culture's a big part of our lives. But, what happens if you just don't quite get along with the mainstream culture? Throughout history, there have always been groups of people who rejected mainstream cultural ideas and embraced a contradictory culture, a counterculture. Opposing something as powerful as culture can end up being pretty powerful as well.

Counterculture Movements

Countercultures are shared identities among a group of people that directly oppose and do not fit in with mainstream culture. So, countercultures are almost always associated with some sort of political or cultural movement that is seeking to create substantial and widespread change. Basically, countercultures exist with the purpose of changing mainstream culture.

This makes countercultures different from sub-cultures. A sub-culture is a unique and distinct system of identity that, while deviating from strict cultural norms, still fits within mainstream society. They aren't trying to overthrow a cultural system. Hipsters are a good example of a sub-cultural movement. Hipsters stand out, to be sure, but their shared ideologies do not directly contradict mainstream cultural values.

Examples of Countercultures

So, let's take a look at countercultures throughout history. As we said earlier, countercultures see coexistence with mainstream culture as unlikely or even impossible and intend to create widespread change. Basically, their goal is to turn counterculture into mainstream culture.

For now, we're going to mostly focus on counterculture movements that impacted the United States and Europe, although countercultures can be found around the world. A great starting place is the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Intellectuals of the Enlightenment opposed pretty much every accepted idea about government at the time. They introduced radical ideas like the inalienable rights of humans and the democratic republic as a system of government.

This countercultural movement began in Europe, but it really took hold in the American colonies. The American colonists implemented Enlightenment ideas to a greater degree than anyone else, and fought to declare their individual liberties. In a world full of powerful hereditary monarchs and strict class systems, this idea flew in the face of every mainstream cultural value. Of course, the counterculture of the American colonies eventually grew so large that it became mainstream culture in North America. The colonists declared their independence, and the rest is history.

Now let's look at the suffragettes. Up into the 20th century, women were not only prohibited from voting, they were tightly constrained within the gender norms of the time. Some women fought for the right to vote, but did so within accepted conventions. Suffragists in the United States held rallies, used the law to their advantage, and advocated for suffrage, or the right to vote. The suffragettes, a parallel group, were active in England.

The suffragettes represented a true countercultural movement. Like the suffragists, they wanted the right to vote, but they advocated for the right by opposing gender norms and challenging the very concept of female identity in the early 20th century. Suffragette tactics included things like chaining themselves to the gates in front of government buildings. They protested aggressively, shouting and demanding the right to vote. They even advocated arson and other forms of violent protest. These militant women advocated for change and opposed not only a restrictive law, but also a culture of restriction against women.

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