counter culture and social movements

Last semester, an undergraduate student wrote an essay about the Vietnam war movement. She asked why the movement itself was relatively unpopular even though the public was becoming disillusioned with the war. In other words, the antiwar movement won on policy, but lost on politics. Why?

Her hypothesis was that the antiwar movement became strongly associated with the counterculture. This is an important point. In my research on movements – mainly movements of the left for the most part – I have found that activists tend to have a very tense relationship with mainstream American culture at best. They think that conventional politics and bourgeois culture are to be mistrusted.

This leads to an issue that I’ve been thinking about – is left politics inherently counter cultural? Maybe not. The Civil Rights movement was obsessed with adherence to the social norms of the day. Participants were urged to be polite, look proper, and learn how to work within and against mainstream institutions. Nowadays, most left movements seem to have a hostile relationship to mainstream culture. Occupy Wall Street was a grungy DIY movement. The antiwar movement of the 2000s followed in the steps of the anti-globalization movement in working outside conventional channels. For anyone interested in social change, it is worth thinking about this link and if it is a necessary development, or merely an affectation of a current generation of activists.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 17, 2013 at 12:02 am

12 Responses

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  1. Interesting points. I’m curious how you think the Tea Party – as a movement on the right – compare? As an outsider looking in (from Canada), it seems like the Tea Party movement has done a good job of working within mainstream institutional channels to achieve legitimation, and have outlasted Occupy. Is the general perception that they do not have a tense relationship with mainstream culture, or are they too seen as “counter-cultural”?


    January 17, 2013 at 12:15 am

  2. @Alex – I think this is an interesting question. In many respects the Tea Party tried to cast themselves as being very mainstream. If you look at the statements of Tea Party leaders (and protesters) from the early days of the movement, they frequently made a point of describing themselves as “ordinary Americans” and to a large extent the media ran with this description until polling data showing some rather extreme views in the movement started to come out. I think they were intentionally trying to disassociate themselves from the view of protesters as “counter cultural” that is held by much of the public. At the same time, their opponents attempted to cast them as outside the mainstream (e.g. racist, extremist, conspiracy theorists, etc). I’m not really sure if there is a generally held consensus in the public regarding the cultural status of the Tea Party, though.


    January 17, 2013 at 1:52 am

  3. @JD – I’d forgotten about the early Tea Party rhetoric positioning themselves as “ordinary Americans.” It seems like an insidious strategy really (whether deliberate or emergent): 1) rhetorically position themselves as “ordinary;” 2) rebuke attacks from “the left” by linking the attacks to “liberalism” or other labels which are, perhaps, associated with notions of counter-cultural agitation. The latter tactic invites sympathetic support from groups that may not be in full alignment with the Tea Party position, but that view “liberalism” or “liberal views” as inherently less desirable – the way “liberal” is used sometimes seems to suggest it is equated with nihilism in some circles. All the while, Tea Party members work to establish themselves through legitimation within/leveraging established institutions.

    In contrast, it seems like something like Occupy could only appeal to counter-cultural tropes because its very nature was anti-thetical to working within established structures to seek institutional legitimation. Maybe this is a feature of certain forms of leftish movements, to avoid appearing to have “sold out?”


    January 17, 2013 at 2:44 am

  4. Aren’t all movements, certainly those on the scale of the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements, by definition counter-cultural? I think it is somewhat pretentious to suggest that the politics of the left are inherently counter-cultural. Alex’s recognition of the right leaning tea party is a good example, although I would challenge his perception that they are viewed by mainstream America as a legitimate (i.e., non-counter-culture) entity. All successful movements, as examined retrospectively, have their tipping point when the policy and political objectives are assimilated by the majority and establish the new culture.


    January 17, 2013 at 3:12 am

  5. @Dan: In one way, you are right. If you feel the need to set up a movement, your views are probably not mainstream. In another way, you are wrong. Movements can choose to court the mainstream or ignore it. There’s enough evidence to suggest to me that movements vary in this sense. Some movement may want non-mainstream things but do not reject mainstream culture in trying to achieve those goals.


    January 17, 2013 at 3:14 am

  6. I agree that all movements seek cultural change. Even if their explicit goals relate to policy changes, they must work to increase public support for these policy changes. That being said, seeking to change culture does not necessarily involve explicitly challenging it or undermining it. Hippies and punks were explicitly counter-cultural; they conspicuously rejected mainstream norms and values and did not attempt to portray themselves as “ordinary”. They sought to undermine cultural values that they viewed as corrupt or stultifying by publicly flouting them. Other movements that try to influence culture don’t directly challenge culture but try to expand the definition of the mainstream by convincing the public that some group or some idea that is currently outside the mainstream is actually “ordinary” or is just like everyone else. This is how I see the Tea Party trying to portray itself. It is trying to change the public’s values and push the US to the right culturally, but it is trying to do this by convincing the public that these conservative ideas are “ordinary” and “mainstream.”


    January 17, 2013 at 3:28 am

  7. I’m not sure just what the boundaries of mainstream culture are anymore. If Bill O’Reilly (hmmph!) is right, at some point in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a white, suburban, vaguely Christian culture that dominated social norms. Whether or not that was true then, it’s certainly not now. I’m also not sure how you would define the content of mainstream or dominant culture empirically. If this is right, the mission of figuring out whether movements of the left (or right?) appropriate–or challenge–it.
    Very interested in insight on this one.

    David S. Meyer

    January 17, 2013 at 5:41 pm

  8. David – Here’s a few thoughts:

    1. you can measure mainstream culture through polls – do activists accept/reject what the average person believes?

    2. you can measure mainstream culture through participation – do activists accept/reject traditional modes of cultural or political participation?

    3. you can measure mainstream culture through reciprocation – do activists reciprocate the behaviors that the average person would believe to be “normal” in terms of interaction, speech, dress, and so forth?

    Let’s take OWS and the tea party as examples. If you use these measures, OWS and TP are not mainstream in terms of average political opinions. For example, TP activists tend to be socially conservative and strongly oppose legal abortion – but public opinion has been stable. The public wants the “safe legal and rare” approach. OWS is similarly non-maintream. For example, they’d prefer that the gov’t cut defense and massively boost social welfare spending – also a non-started.

    In terms of participations, OWS and TP are opposites. The TP loves fighting primary battles and working through the election system. OWS seems allergic to anything resembling conventional electioneering, lobbying or whatever.

    In terms of interaction, OWS and TP are different. We can argue about whether middle class white culture is normative, but it is acceptable to most people. The OWS grungy style of dress, talk, and interaction is certainly not normative in most circles.


    January 17, 2013 at 6:13 pm

  9. I’m unconvinced of your claim here, Fabio. The average opinion isn’t the average person’s opinion, and I’m always wary when reading about the American public as a singular noun. On abortion, for example, I’m sure you can choreograph a majority around the safe, legal, rare principle you articulate, but not a huge majority. Plenty of Americans, including people I know, are horrified that legal abortion is accessible–and they rarely encounter friends and neighbors who believe otherwise. In daily life, I rarely encounter people who see reducing the number of abortions through legal restrictions as worthwhile. Each position gets constant local reinforcement and can find plenty of evidence and argumentation for support. When people of good will and good manners know they disagree on such matters, they usually avoid the topic. This doesn’t strike me as a uniform or consistent culture; indeed, anti-abortion fundamentalists and abortion rights adherents can find plenty of support somewhere in the morass that we call mainstream culture.

    David S. Meyer

    January 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm

  10. [...] week, I asked if it was true that left social movements were counter-cultural. A lot of the debate seems to revolve over whether there is a mainstream culture or average voter. [...]

  11. The idea of a monolithic culture is as mythical now as it was during Talcott Parsons’ day. I am amazed by the thickness of the conceptual thinking “social scientists” seem to still be mucked up in. If you guys are really serious about organizational thinking you need to square off, as Troy Duster suggested a few years ago, head-on with the socio-biological, neuroscientific, quasi-social assertions being made by those using biology to “explain” social, individual, and organizational relationships.

    Larry Irons

    January 21, 2013 at 3:22 am

  12. What if the difficulty is with researchers definition and operationalization of movements? Perhaps we identify social movements more easily when they are counter culture. it is maybe very hard to identify movements that are ‘mainstream’ or maybe they are called something else – although I also hear the point about the difficulty with an actual mainstream.


    January 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm

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