As understood in sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, a subculture is a set of people with a distinct set of behaviour and beliefs that differentiate them from a larger culture of which they are a part. The subculture may be distinctive because of the age of its members, or by their race, ethnicity, class and/or gender, and the qualities that determine a subculture as distinct may be aesthetic, religious, political, sexual or a combination of these factors. Subcultures are often defined via their opposition to the values of the larger culture to which they belong, although this definition is not universally agreed on by theorists.
According to key theorists of subculture such as Dick Hebdige, members of a subculture will often signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style. Therefore, the study of subculture often consists of the study of the symbolism attached to clothing, music and other visible affectations by members of the subculture, and also the ways in which these same symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture. If the subculture is characterized by a systematic opposition to the dominant culture, then it may be described as a counterculture.
More simply, subcultures are groups of individuals who, through a variety of methods (conspicuously clothing and behavior), present themselves in opposition to the mainstream trends of their culture. Their specifics vary immensely, and in fact many would find it appropriate to include groups as diverse as ravers, Nazi-Skinheads, BDSM fetishists, and fundamentalist Christians under the category 'subculture'.
It may also be difficult to identify subcultures because their style (particularly clothing and music) may often be adopted by mass culture for commercial purposes, as businesses will often seek to capitalise on the subversive allure of the subculture in search of cool, which remains valuable in selling any product. This process of cultural appropriation may often result in the death or evolution of the subculture, as its members adopt new styles which are alien to the mainstream. A common example is the punk subculture of the United Kingdom, whose distinctive (and initially shocking) style of clothing was swiftly adopted by mass-market fashion companies once the subculture became a media interest. In this sense, many subcultures can be seen to be constantly evolving, as their members attempt to remain one step ahead of the dominant culture. In turn, this process provides a constant stream of styles which may be commercially adopted.
Subcultures resisting commercialisation
Many people would consider that the most visible examples of subcultures are youth groups which identify themselves through distinctive styles of dress, activity and music. However, there is a certain difficulty in supplying examples, in that the process by which subcultural style is incorporated by the dominant culture provokes a state of constant evolution in many subcultures. Musical subcultures are particularly vulnerable to this process, and so what may be considered a subculture at one stage in its history (jazz, punk, hip-hop, rave culture) may represent mainstream taste within a short period of time.
However, many subcultures also reject or modify the importance of style, stressing membership through the adoption of an ideology which may be much more resistant to commercial exploitation. Indeed, the resistance to commercial exploitation may often represent a key part of this ideology.
Perhaps the best example would be the punk subculture, which has progressed through several cycles of revival and commercial appropriation in its history. Members of the punk subculture can often be identified by their distinctive clothing, hair, jewellery and tattoos. In contrast to its commercialised variant, many punks consider that the subculture also possesses a distinctive punk ideology which rejects commercialism and conformity. A similar philosophy may be found in underground hip hop, which has also faced mass-market commercialisation and dilution of its ideals.