Counterculture Examples in History and Today

The term counterculture refers to a group or movement that espouses norms, ideas and values that are different from those of the time period's dominant culture. There are many counterculture examples throughout history, as well as in modern life. What starts out as a counterculture movement often transitions over time to represent dominant cultural beliefs.

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Counterculture vs. Dominant Culture

Dominant cultural beliefs tend to develop in every society. These beliefs may represent what the majority of people within the culture believe or seek to observe, but they don't usually reflect the values of every person within that society. As a result, counterculture movements tend to develop. Their behaviors and norms often differ substantially from what would be expected in light of mainstream society.

Counterculture Examples Today

As long as there is a dominant culture, there will always be examples of counterculture. Counterculture definitely is not a phenomenon that is limited to the past. There are multiple examples of counterculture in the modern world.

  • families that opt to homeschool children rather than participating in the mainstream school system
  • militant or militia groups that rebel against governmental power and/or intervention
  • those who seek information from sources other than mainstream news media
  • preppers and other people who choose off-grid, self-sufficient lifestyles without modern-day conveniences
  • partners who participate in consensual polyamorous relationships rather than traditional monogamous ones
  • those who subscribe to and/or act upon the beliefs of hate groups or others that promote antisocial and/or unlawful behaviors

It's important to note that counterculture movements aren't inherently good or bad. What makes a group a counterculture is simply that it doesn't adhere to the cultural norms of mainstream society.

Counterculture Examples in History

There are many examples of counterculture throughout history.

  • the women's movement of the 1960s and 70s, in which women's liberation activists sought equality for women and to pass the Equal Rights Amendment
  • so-called free-spirited "hippies" of the 1960s that advocated against the Vietnam War and for equality and the environment
  • civil rights activists who pushed back against Jim Crow Laws, racial segregation, and racial inequality in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond
  • those who ran speakeasies and bootlegged alcohol during the prohibition era of the 1920s and 30s
  • the women's suffrage movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s that led to a Constitutional Amendment granting women the right to vote
  • the abolitionist movement that sought to do away with slavery prior to and during the Civil War

These historical counterculture examples had a significant impact on the world. The people who led and participated in these movements played a role in changing the world, largely contributing to how the dominant culture evolved over time.

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Counterculture Can Lead to Social Change

It's interesting to note that much of what these historical counterculture groups sought to achieve did in fact become part of mainstream culture, either as a result of attitudes and behaviors changing over time or as a result of legislative action, or a combination of both.

  • For example, in the United States, there are now laws prohibiting racial segregation and promoting equality based on race, sex and other protected characteristics.
  • Groups that fought for these things were initially considered to be counterculture. Now, related to the work of many who participated in early counterculture movements related to desegregation and equality, the idea that all people are created equal is part of the legal environment and mainstream culture in the U.S.
  • That doesn't mean, however, that there is absolute agreement among all members of society with regards to this topic. Groups that fall outside of modern norms about equality would be considered counterculture groups.

Counterculture vs. Subculture

Counterculture and subculture do not mean the same thing. While counterculture refers to groups that are at odds with the prevailing mindset of the day, a subculture is simply a smaller portion within a larger culture. Subcultures can develop within the dominant culture, but they can also develop within a counterculture movement.

  • counterculture is always inconsistent with the norms of mainstream culture
  • subcultures are smaller groups of any culture; they can be associated with a counterculture or mainstream culture
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Learn More About Cultural Groups

Now that you are familiar with some contemporary and historical counterculture examples, take the time to learn more about cultural groups and cultural identity. Start by considering some subculture examples from the past century. From there, discover how different cultures impact each other by exploring cultural diffusion in the world around you.