Difference between Subculture and Counterculture

You may have heard these words in discussions about modern society. If you understand what each of them means, then you have noticed that some people use these terms interchangeably, even though this is not the case. If you do not have a firm grasp of the difference between subculture and counterculture, keep reading this article.


Subculture vs Counterculture
A rocker and his baby

A subculture is a small cultural group within a larger cultural group. Normally, small communities are more homogeneous, while large communities in big cities tend to favor the creation of numerous forms of subculture. These are usually developed around people with shared interests in music, films, trends and anything that can inspire a lifestyle change. People belonging to these groups will usually make visible changes and adapt their image to make their belonging to the group obvious.

The values of the subculture are not altered compared to the values of the mainstream culture. They still function and play a part in society. However, people keep to their own sense of style and their own vocabulary, for example.

Iconic photo of a female hippie demonstrator offering a flower to the military police representatives called at the anti-Vietnam war protest

A counterculture is the ideology of the people going against the mainstream culture. They do not share the same values, and they are actively protesting and trying to change them. The hippie movement and the people protesting the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was a good example of opposing sets of values and of people living outside of already established social norms.

Being part of a counterculture means having a different set of rules, a different type of behavior and an intentional wish to separate from the unaccepted mainstream values. It implies an active protest against them.

Subculture vs Counterculture

So what is the difference between subculture and counterculture?

The main difference between the two consists in their relationship with the mainstream culture. The subculture is part of the main culture. Its members mainly choose to stand out by adopting a different image. Although they choose to present themselves differently compared to the rest of the community, they still function and abide by the general rules.

By contrast, the members of the counterculture actively go against the mainstream culture. They care less about being visually tied to a group and more about being able to live according to a different set of rules.

The hippie movement is a good example in both respects. One can be a part of the hippie subculture by merely adopting some visual characteristics such as clothing, eating habits and a general positive attitude. On the other hand, one can become a member of the hippie counterculture and join a community living off grid, grow the food they eat and actively protest everything the system does.

Comparison Chart

Subculture Counterculture
A small group within the larger community A small group outside of the larger community
Can live within the mainstream culture Goes against the mainstream culture
Is more an issue of image, style, vocabulary, perception Is an issue of values
Groups are formed around shared interests and likes Groups formed around shared interests and dislikes