In sociology, counterculture is a term used to describe a cultural group whose values and norms are at odds with those of the social mainstream, a cultural equivalent of a political Opposition. In casual practice, the term came to prominence in the general press as it was used to refer to the youth rebellion that swept North America and Western Europe in the 1960s. Earlier countercultural milieus in 19th century Europe included the traditions of Bohemianism and of the Dandy.


1960s counterculture

This movement was a reaction against the conservative social norms of the 1950s, the political conservativism (and perceived social repression) of the Cold War period, and the US government's extensive military intervention in Vietnam. It is sometimes discussed as the inheritor of the "Beat Generation" sensibility of the late 1940s and 1950s. Opposition to the war was exacerbated in the US by the compulsory military draft.

In one view, the 1960s youth rebellion largely originated on college campuses. The Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley was one early example, as a socially privileged group of students began to identify themselves as having interests as a class that were at odds with the interests and practices of the university and its corporate sponsors. However, other rebellious-youth formats also contributed, some involving people who had never been college students. The beatnik caf and bar scene was a tributary stream.

As the sixties progressed, the Vietnam war became an increasingly high-profile object of criticism, and the sense of the younger generation as a class who wished to create a different society gained momentum. One manifestation of this was the general strike that took place in Paris in May 1968, nearly toppling the French government.

As criticism of the established social order became more widespread among the newly emergent youth class, new theories about culture and personal identity began to spread, and traditional non-Western ideas -- particularly with regard to religion, social organization and spiritual enlightenment -- were also embraced.

This introduces one way of looking at the particular countercultural development of the mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s – simply (or mainly) an upwelling of youth. A quip from Winston Churchill is often paraphrased these days; it goes: "If you are not a liberal at 20, you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative at 40 you have no brain."

Many segments of the youth of this period were well educated, by comparison with earlier periods, leading to an interest in political philosophies. So, in the "youth culture" view of the phenomenon, every sort of outlook and political philosophy (and form of political apathy) except social conservatism might be expected to flourish: libertarianism, left-libertarianism, liberalism, socialism, anarchism, communism, materialism, mysticism, hedonism, spirituality, environmentalism, and many other basic orientations. Given the era's capacity for both direct and media communication, it would be natural too that some members of the older generation would contribute to, and be influenced by, this social current within society.

During the period in question, new cultural forms that were perceived as opposed to the old emerged, including the pop music of the Beatles, which rapidly evolved to shape and reflect the youth culture's emphasis on change and experimentation. Underground newspapers sprang up in most cities and college towns, serving to define and communicate the range of phenomena that defined the counterculture: radical political opposition to "the establishment," colorful experimental (and often explicity drug-influenced) approaches to art, music and cinema, and uninhibited indulgence in sex and drugs as a symbol of freedom.

The most visible radical element of this counterculture were the hippies, some of whom formed communes to live as far outside of the established system as possible. This aspect of the movement rejected active political engagement with the mainstream and, following the dictate of Timothy Leary to "tune in, turn on and drop out", attempted to change society by dropping out of it.

A considerable impediment to the success of alternative movements growing within the counterculture was posed by the very nature of the hippie ethic. When "doing one's own thing" runs to an extreme, there is an inherent rejection of values imposed from without and an adamant avoidance of other people's expectations. So,at the extreme, the individual tends to be isolated, which may or may not be much of a problem for that individual -- but it does threaten to abort or curtail collaborative action or accomplishment.

Musical and other performing groups noticeably formed within the counterculture, but very many had a far shorter active existence than, say, the Grateful Dead (a rather unusual example of countercultural longevity). Since this ephemerality has long been the case in the performing arts, in itself it hasn't seemed like a noticeable failure. But not all attempts to "think outside the box" or blaze new trails were related to the arts.

Still, there were people who participated in aspects of the counterculture who were stable, dedicated, and persistent. The countercultural years and efforts had their representatives in the sciences, the trades, business, and law, to name only several walks of life. Much was done in the area of the human interface with the natural environment (in connection with science, technologies, community planning, parks, and other spheres).

In his essay From Satori to Silicon Valley (published 1986), cultural historian Theodore Roszak made the point that the Apple Computer emerged from within the West Coast counterculture. Roszak gives a bit of background on the development of the prototype models of these original home computers and on the two Steves' (Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the computer's developers) evolution toward being businessmen. In fact, a considerable number of early computing and networking pioneers - after discovering LSD and roaming the campuses of UC Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT in the late 60s and early 70s - would emerge from this caste of social "misfits" to shape the modern world.

Of course, it cannot be claimed that everyone involved with the counterculture lacked concern for others (or qualities like loyalty and conscience). Some people were consciously experimenting, with one eye to common-sensical social norms, acknowledging their customary value (and not wishing to "throw out the baby with the bathwater").

Then too, "the counterculture" may or may not be something that an individual himself or herself identified with, even when that person was identified as an apparent member of it by someone observing it from the outside. Perhaps those people who were in fact successful in achieving something in cooperation with others (or who, as '60s individualists were able to find a niche and pursue some career) either never really identified themselves with the counterculture, or came to dis-identify with it over time.

In any case, as members of the hippie movement grew older and moderated their lives and their views, the 1960s counterculture was to some extent absorbed by the mainstream, leaving a lasting impact on morality, lifestyle and fashion, and a legacy that is still actively contested -- debates that are sometimes framed in the U.S. in terms of a "culture war".

See also

See earlier countercultural manifestations

External links

fr:Contre-culture pt:Contracultura ru:Контркультура


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