While exact definitions vary, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a subculture as "a cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture."
As early as 1950, David Riesman distinguished between a majority, "which passively accepted commercially provided styles and meanings, and a 'subculture' which actively sought a minority style ... and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values". In his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige argued that a subculture is a subversion to normalcy. He wrote that subcultures can be perceived as negative due to their nature of criticism to the dominant societal standard. Hebdige argued that subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity.
In 1995, Sarah Thornton, drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, described "subcultural capital" as the cultural knowledge and commodities acquired by members of a subculture, raising their status and helping differentiate themselves from members of other groups. In 2007, Ken Gelder proposed to distinguish subcultures from countercultures based on the level of immersion in society. Gelder further proposed six key ways in which subcultures can be identified through their:
- often negative relations to work (as 'idle', 'parasitic', at play or at leisure, etc.);
- negative or ambivalent relation to class (since subcultures are not 'class-conscious' and don't conform to traditional class definitions);
- association with territory (the 'street', the 'hood', the club, etc.), rather than property;
- movement out of the home and into non-domestic forms of belonging (i.e. social groups other than the family);
- stylistic ties to excess and exaggeration (with some exceptions);
- refusal of the banalities of ordinary life and massification.
Sociologists Gary Alan Fine and Sherryl Kleinman argued that their 1979 research showed that a subculture is a group that serves to motivate a potential member to adopt the artifacts, behaviors, norms, and values characteristic of the group.