In societies where there are different kinds of people, one group is usually larger or more powerful than the others. Generally, societies consist of a dominant culture, subcultures, and countercultures.
The dominant culture in a society is the group whose members are in the majority or who wield more power than other groups. In the United States, the dominant culture is that of white, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent. There are more white people here than African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, or Native Americans, and there are more middle-class people than there are rich or poor people.
A subculture is a group that lives differently from, but not opposed to, the dominant culture. A subculture is a culture within a culture. For example, Jews form a subculture in the largely Christian United States. Catholics also form a subculture, since the majority of Americans are Protestant. Members of these subcultures do belong to the dominant culture but also have a material and nonmaterial culture specific to their subcultures.
Religion is not the only defining aspect of a subculture. The following elements can also define a subculture:
- Financial status
- Political ideals
- Sexual orientation
- Geographical location
W. E. B. Du Bois
One important theorist of subcultures was W. E. B. Du Bois. The first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Du Bois was one of the most renowned sociologists of race relations in the United States. He described racism as the predominant problem that American culture faced in the twentieth century. He paid special attention to the effects of what he called the “color line” in America and studied the impact of racism on both whites and blacks.
A counterculture is a subculture that opposes the dominant culture. For example, the hippies of the 1960s were a counterculture, as they opposed the core values held by most citizens of the United States. Hippies eschewed material possessions and the accumulation of wealth, rejected the traditional marriage norm, and espoused what they called free love, which was basically the freedom to have sex outside of marriage. Though hippies were generally peaceful, they opposed almost everything the dominant culture stood for.
Not all countercultures are nonviolent. In 1995, the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was blown up, killing 168 people and injuring many others. That horrific crime brought to light the existence of another counterculture in the United States: rural militias. While such groups go by several names, their members tend to be people who despise the U.S. government for what they see as its interference in the lives of citizens.