From New World Encyclopedia

Counterculture is a term used to describe a group whose values and norms of behavior run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day, the cultural equivalent of political opposition. Although distinct countercultural undercurrents exist in all societies, here the term "counterculture" refers to a more significant, visible phenomenon that reaches critical mass and persists for a period of time. A counterculture movement thus expresses the ethos, aspirations, and dreams of a specific population during a certain period of time—a social manifestation of zeitgeist. Successful countercultures invoke social change, through this process usually becoming mainstream or close to it, and thus losing their identity. Countercultures, therefore, can be valuable in a society, as agents of change that avoid stagnation and ossification of no longer appropriate norms.

On the other hand, countercultures can be detrimental to society, as they do not have inherent standards that guide them to promote change that is good for society as a whole: Some promote change that serves the interest of a small, vocal minority; some encourage problematic and destructive behavior, such as the abuse of dangerous drugs; some merely promote change for the sake of change. Thus, the role of counterculture in any society may be seen as rather normal, even necessary, but to be tempered with the wisdom and vision of those who sincerely seek the advancement and success of society as a whole.


Counterculture is generally used to describe a theological, cultural, attitudinal, or material position that does not conform to accepted societal norms. Yet, counterculture movements are often co-opted to spearhead commercial campaigns. Thus, once taboo ideas (men wearing a woman's color—pink, for example) sometimes become popular trends.

In contemporary times, counterculture came to prominence in the news media as it was used to refer to the youth rebellion that swept North America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand during the 1960s and early 1970s. Earlier countercultural milieux in nineteenth century Europe included the traditions of Romanticism, Bohemianism, and of the Dandy. Another important movement existed in a more fragmentary form in the 1950s, both in Europe and the U.S., in the form of the Beat generation (Beatniks), who typically sported beards, wore roll-neck sweaters, read the novels of Albert Camus, and listened to Jazz music.

Examples of counterculture

Counterculture of the 1960s

Though it also developed in the United Kingdom, the counterculture of the 1960s began in the United States as a reaction against the conservative social norms of the 1950s, the political conservatism (and social repression) of the Cold War period, and the U.S. government's extensive military intervention in Vietnam.[1]

As the 1960s progressed, widespread tensions developed in American society that tended to flow along generational lines regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women's rights, traditional modes of authority, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and a predominantly materialist interpretation of the "American dream." New cultural forms emerged, including the pop music of English band the Beatles, which rapidly evolved to shape and reflect the youth culture's emphasis on change and experimentation. This was accelerated after 1964, when the Beatles were introduced to cannabis in a New York City hotel room by Bob Dylan, another youth culture icon.

A number of freedoms were endorsed within countercultural communities: "Freedom to explore one’s potential, freedom to create one’s Self, freedom of personal expression, freedom from scheduling, freedom from rigidly defined roles and hierarchical statuses." Additionally, people in such communities wished to modify children's education so that it did not discourage "aesthetic sense, love of nature, passion for music, desire for reflection, or strongly marked independence."[2]

Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King is perhaps most famous for his "I Have a Dream" speech, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) was a biblically based movement that had significant social and political consequences for the United States. Black clergymen such as the Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, Wyatt T. Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth, and numerous others relied on religious faith strategically applied to solve America's obstinate racial problems. Black Christian leaders and their white allies joined together to challenge the immoral system of racial segregation. The Civil Rights Movement of 1955-1968 sought to address and rectify the generations-old injustices of racism by employing the method of "nonviolent resistance" which they believed to be modeled after the life and sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. The founding fathers of the United States had written of humanity's inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but many did not believe this should apply to black slaves or women. The African-American Civil Rights movement put up a decade of struggle long after slavery had ended and after other milestones in the fight to overcome discriminatory, segregationist practices. This struggle for equal rights was also a struggle for the soul of the nation.

Antiwar movement

Opposition to the Vietnam War began in 1964, on United States college campuses. Student activism was reinforced by the "baby boomers," growing to include many Americans. Exemptions and deferments for the middle and upper classes resulted in the induction of a disproportionate number of poor, working-class, and minority registrants. By 1967, a majority of Americans opposed the war.


Ken Kesey and his "Merry Pranksters" helped shape the developing character of the 1960s counterculture when they embarked on a cross-country voyage during the summer of 1964, in a psychedelic school bus named "Furthur." Beginning in 1959, Kesey had volunteered as a research subject for medical trials financed by the CIA's MK ULTRA project. These trials tested the effects of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other psychedelic drugs. After the medical trials, Kesey continued experimenting on his own, and involved many close friends; collectively they became known as "The Merry Pranksters." The Pranksters visited Harvard LSD proponent Timothy Leary at his Millbrook, New York retreat, and experimentation with LSD and other psychedelic drugs, primarily as a means for internal reflection and personal growth, became a constant during the Prankster trip. The Pranksters created a direct link between the 1950s Beat Generation and the 1960s psychedelic scene; the bus was driven by Beat icon Neal Cassady, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was on board for a time, and they dropped in on Cassady's friend, Beat author Jack Kerouac—though Kerouac declined participation in the Prankster scene.

After the Pranksters returned to California, they popularized the use of LSD at so-called "Acid Tests," which initially were held at Kesey's home in La Honda, California, and then at many other West Coast venues. Experimentation with LSD and other psychedelic drugs became a major component of 1960s counterculture, influencing philosophy, art, music, and styles of dress.


In 1967, Scott McKenzie's rendition of the song "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" brought as many as 100,000 young people from all over the world to celebrate San Francisco's "Summer of Love." While the song had originally been written by John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas to promote the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, it became an instant hit worldwide (#4 in the United States, #1 in Europe) and quickly transcended its original purpose. San Francisco's "Flower Children," also called "hippies" by local newspaper columnist Herb Caen, adopted new styles of dress, experimented with psychedelic drugs, lived communally, and developed a vibrant music scene.

When people returned home from "The Summer of Love" these styles and behaviors spread quickly from San Francisco and Berkeley to all major U.S. cities and European capitals. A counterculture movement gained momentum in which the younger generation began to define itself as a class that aimed to create a new kind of society. Some hippies formed communes to live as far outside of the established system as possible. This aspect of the counterculture rejected active political engagement with the mainstream and, following the dictate of Timothy Leary to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," hoped to change society by dropping out of it. Looking back on his own life (as a Harvard professor) prior to 1960, Leary interpreted it to have been that of "an anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars and drove home each night and drank martinis … like several million middle-class, liberal, intellectual robots."

Hippies also played a role in the "sexual revolution," which refers to a change in sexual morality and sexual behavior throughout the Western world. In general use, the term refers to a later trend of equalizing sexual behavior which occurred primarily during the 1960s, although the term has been used at least since the late 1920s. A new culture of "free love" arose, with tens of thousands of young people becoming hippies and preaching the power of love and the beauty of sex as a natural part of ordinary life.

The hippie ethic posed a considerable impediment to the success of alternative movements growing within the counterculture. At the extremes, "doing one's own thing" could lead to rejection of values imposed from without and adamant avoidance of other people's expectations. As a result, the individual tends to be isolated, which may or may not be much of a problem for that individual—but it does threaten collaborative actions or accomplishments.

As members of the hippie movement grew older and moderated their lives and their views, and especially after all U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ground to a halt in the mid 1970s, the counterculture was largely absorbed by the mainstream, leaving a lasting impact on philosophy, morality, music, art, lifestyle, and fashion.


Second Wave Feminism is generally identified with a period beginning in the early 1960s and extending through the late 1980s. Whereas first-wave feminism focused largely on de jure (officially mandated) inequalities, second wave feminism saw de jure and de facto (unofficial) inequalities as inextricably linked issues that had to be addressed in tandem.

The role of women as full-time homemakers in industrial society was challenged in 1963, when American feminist Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, giving momentum to the women's movement and influencing the second wave of feminism. The movement encouraged women to understand aspects of their own personal lives as deeply politicized and reflective of a sexist structure of power. If first-wave feminism focused upon absolute rights such as suffrage, second-wave feminism was largely concerned with other issues of equality, such as the end to discrimination and oppression.


During the early 1960s, Britain's new generation of blues rock gained popularity in its homeland and cult fame in the United States. Folk singers like Peter, Paul & Mary ("Puff the Magic Dragon") and Bob Dylan influenced the British groups, and popular music became more closely aligned with the counterculture.

An international sound developed that moved towards an electric, psychedelic version of rock. In 1962, The Beatles ("Please Please Me") emerged from England and popularized British rock, while The Beach Boys' success brought harmony-laden surf music to the forefront of the American scene. With country and soul musicians unable to maintain their hipness, both faded from mass consciousness.

The Beatles went on to become the most prominent commercial exponents of the "psychedelic revolution" that occurred during the late 1960s, with few Americans able to challenge them—exceptions included The Mamas & the Papas ("California Dreaming") and Jimi Hendrix ("Are You Experienced?"). The most hard-edged psychedelic American bands, like Jefferson Airplane ("Surrealistic Pillow") and The Grateful Dead ("American Beauty"), achieved limited commercial success. As the first jam band, The Grateful Dead might also be considered the first cult act. Popular music underwent a major change, and psychedelic rock came to dominate the music scene for both black and white audiences.

As the psychedelic revolution progressed, lyrics grew more complex and long playing albums enabled artists to make more in-depth statements than could be made in a single song. Even rules governing single songs were stretched—singles lasting longer than three minutes emerged for the first time (Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was the first of these).

Though not unheard of before the 1960s, the idea that popular music could and should lead social change came into its own during this period. Most existing musical styles were influenced, and new musical genres came into being, including heavy metal, punk rock, electronic music, and hip hop.


The crowd at Woodstock filled a natural amphitheater with the stage at the bottom.

The Woodstock Festival held in 1969, in Bethel, New York, encapsulated the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The three day festival featured performances by many of the day's biggest musical acts including The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Sly & The Family Stone. It was aimed to be three days of "Peace and Music." Over 500,000 people are said to have attended at the show's peak. The area in which the concert was held could not accommodate such numbers and many of the concert goers slept in tent communities, sharing food and drugs with one another. The only reporter in attendance for the first day of Woodstock was the New York Times' Barnard Law Collier, who was pressed by his editors to report on the unsanitary conditions, ill planned logistics, and supposedly rampant crime.[3] The desire of The Times to portray Woodstock as a disaster is representative of the mainstream's relationship with the counterculture.


Environmentalism is a concern for the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment, such as the conservation of natural resources, prevention of pollution, and certain land use actions.

In 1970, Charles Reich's The Greening of America encouraged young people that every change was a beacon of the great new age that was now dawning, an age of living a life in harmony with nature. Counterculture environmentalists were quick to grasp the early analyses and the import of the Hubbert "peak oil" prediction. More broadly, they saw that the dilemmas of energy deprivation would have implications for geopolitics, lifestyle, environment, and other dimensions of modern life.

In Europe

The counterculture movement took hold in Western Europe, with London, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, and Rome rivaling San Francisco and New York City as counterculture centers. One manifestation of this was the general strike that took place in Paris in May 1968, which nearly toppled the French government.

In Central Europe, young people adopted the song "San Francisco" as an anthem for freedom, and it was widely played during Czechoslovakia's 1968 "Prague Spring," a premature attempt to break away from Soviet repression.

As this newly emergent youth class began to criticize the established social order, new theories about cultural and personal identity began to spread, and traditional non-Western ideas—particularly with regard to religion, social organization, and spiritual enlightenment—were more frequently embraced.

Russian/Soviet counterculture

Although not exactly equivalent to the English definition, the Russian term "Контркультура" (Kontrkul'tura, "Counterculture") found a constant use in Russian to define a cultural movement that promotes acting outside usual conventions of Russian culture: Use of explicit language, graphical description of sex, violence, and illicit activities and uncopyrighted use of "safe" characters involved in everything mentioned.

During the early 1970s, Russian culture was forced into quite a rigid framework of constant optimistic approach to everything. Even mild topics, such as breaking up marriages and alcohol abuse, tended to be viewed as taboo by the media. In response, Russian society grew weary of the gap between real life and the creative world. Thus, the folklore and underground culture tended to be considered forbidden fruit. On the other hand, the general satisfaction with the quality of the existing works promoted parody, often within existing settings. For example, the Russian anecdotal joke tradition turned the settings of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy into a grotesque world of sexual excess. Another well-known example is a "black humor" that dealt exclusively with funny deaths and/or other mishaps of small innocent children.

In the mid-1980s, the Glasnost policy allowed the production of not-so-optimistic creative works. As a consequence, Russian cinema during the late 1980s to the early 1990s was dominated by crime-packed action movies with explicit (but not necessarily graphic) scenes of ruthless violence and social dramas on drug abuse, prostitution, and failing relationships. Although Russian movies of the time would be rated R in the U.S. due to violence, the use of explicit language was much milder than in American cinema.

Russian counterculture as it is known today emerged in the late 1990s, with the increased popularity of the internet. Several web sites appeared that posted user-written short stories that dealt with sex, drugs, and violence. Since stories were actually posted by editors, it is quite clear what the characteristics of Russian counterculture were. The following features are considered most popular topics:

  • Wide use of explicit language
  • Deliberately bad spelling
  • Drug theme—descriptions of drug use and consequences of substance abuse—at times quite gruesome
  • Alcohol use-positive
  • Sex and violence—nothing is a taboo. In general, violence is rarely advocated, while sex is considered to be a good thing.
  • Parody—media advertising, classic movies, pop culture and children's books are considered to be fair game.
  • Nonconformism to daily routine and set nature of things
  • Politically incorrect topics—mostly racism, xenophobia, and homophobia

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender counterculture

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community (commonly abbreviated as the “LGBT” community) fits the definition a countercultural movement as "a cultural group whose values and norms of behavior run counter to those of the social mainstream of the day." At the outset of the twentieth century, homosexual acts were punishable offenses. The prevailing public attitude was that homosexuality was a moral failing that should be punished, as exemplified by Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial and imprisonment for "gross indecency." But even then, there were dissenting views. Sigmund Freud publicly expressed his opinion that homosexuality was a perfectly normal condition for some people. According to Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis, there were already semi-public gay-themed gatherings by the mid-1930s (such as the annual drag balls held during the Harlem Renaissance). There were also many bars and bath-houses that catered to gay clientèle and adopted warning procedures (similar to those used by prohibition-era speakeasies) to warn customers of police raids. But homosexuality was typically subsumed into bohemian culture, and was not a significant movement in itself.[4]

A genuine gay culture began to take root, albeit very discretely, with its own styles, attitudes, and behaviors, with numerous industries catering to this growing demographic group. For example, publishing houses produced novels like The Well of Loneliness or The Velvet Underground, that were targeted directly at homosexuals. By the early 1960s, openly gay political organizations such as the Mattachine Society were formally protesting abusive treatment toward gay people, challenging the entrenched idea that homosexuality was an aberrant condition, and calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Despite very limited sympathy, American society began to acknowledge the existence of a sizable population of gays. The film, The Boys in the Band, for example, featured negative portrayals of gay men, but recognized that they did in fact fraternize with each other (as opposed to being isolated, solitary predators who victimized heterosexual men).

A watershed event was the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Following this event, gays and lesbians began adopting the militant street protest tactics used by anti-war and black power radicals to confront anti-gay ideology. Perhaps the zenith of this period was the 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the official list of mental disorders.

The AIDS epidemic was a massive, unexpected blow to the movement. But even AIDS had ironic, positive consequences. Many of the early victims of the disease had been openly gay only within the confines of insular gay ghettos (like New York City’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Castro). Many people who thought they did not know any gay people were confronted with friends, siblings, and loved ones who were dying of "the gay plague." Gay people were increasingly seen not only as victims of a disease, but as victims of ostracism and hatred. Most importantly, the disease became a rallying point for a previously complacent gay community. Gay people once again became political and fought not only for a medical response to the plague, but also for wider acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream America.

In 2003, the United States Supreme Court officially decriminalized all sodomy laws. Virtually every large city and community in America has its own network of bars, gay-oriented businesses, and community centers. Annual gay pride events take place throughout the country and the world. Many of the early twenty-first century debates concerning homosexuals (such as same-sex marriage and parenting) would have been unthinkable even 20 years previously.

Conservative counterculture

In the early 2000s, many political writers coined a new term, "Conservative Counterculture," to describe a growing youth movement in both the Catholic and Evangelical churches in the United States.[5] This group of American adolescents and young people who reject premarital sex, illegal drugs, and alcohol. This Conservative Counterculture can be seen as a backlash against the liberal "hippie" generation of the 1960s, in which sex and drugs were popularized and traditional relationships frowned upon.

Counterculture today

The legacy of the 1960s counterculture is still actively contested in debates that are sometimes framed in terms of a "culture war." Commenting on the popularity and prophetic vision of Charles Reich's The Greening of America, Walljasper noted that:

From the great gyrations of the counterculture would come a movement dedicated to the greening of America. While many once-ardent advocates of radical ideas now live in the suburbs and vote Republican, others have held fast to the dream of creating a new kind of American society and they've been joined by fresh streams of younger idealists.[6]

Today there may be no "definitive" counterculture, however several social scenes have continued to emerge as countercultures. In the early twenty-first century, such groups as the Punks, Bohemians, and Indies questioned how the United States conducts the "War on Terror," especially in Iraq. These groups also embraced the ideologies espoused in Communism, Anarchism, and Socialism opposing the more popular Conservative and Liberal political views. Along with the popular "New Age" approach to spirituality, such groups also oppose the excessive use of technology and embrace art and more "independent" views on products and music. Many such counterculture groups relate their ideas and views to those of the 1960s counterculture, with the resulting fear that such "forgotten" drugs as LSD and heroin might again become popular.


  1. E.D. Hirsch, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Houghton Mifflin, 1993, ISBN 0395655978).
  2. Jentri Anders, Beyond Counterculture: The Community of Mateel (Washington State University Press, 1990, ISBN 0874220602).
  3. Woodstock Preservation, More Links.
  4., The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996. Retrieved February 12, 2007.
  5. Rod Dreher, Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots (Three Rivers Press, 2006, ISBN 1400050650).
  6. Jay Walljasper, Greening of America? Retrieved April 10, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Goffman, Ken. Counterculture Through the Ages. Willard Books, 2004. ISBN 0375507582
  • Kaiser, Charles. The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. ISBN 029784217X
  • McKay, George. Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties. London Verso, 1996. ISBN 1859840280
  • Reich, Charles. The Greening of America. Three Rivers Press, 1995 (original 1970). ISBN 0517886367
  • Roszak, Theodor. The Making of a Counter Culture. University of California Press, 1970. ISBN 0520201221

External links

All links retrieved January 10, 2024.


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