As mentioned in a previous article, an organisation is any group of people who work together with a common purpose. Every organisation has a culture comprising values, norms, beliefs, operational knowledge, and symbols.
In common parlance during the 1960’s, the word “sub-culture” was associated with rebellious, western, youth cultures. More recently, it has become associated with style-based cultures, predicated on fashions in music and clothing. However, these are merely the most overtly expressed sub-cultures. The more general definition used in this article is a group of individuals within a parent culture who, whilst largely subscribing to the latter, deviate from some of its norms, values, beliefs, and symbols in an identifiable way.
The parent culture can be that of an organisation of any scale, from a club, through a nation, to the global community. However, we most often tend to think of sub-cultures as being relative to national culture. The most significant national sub-cultures are political, ethnic, religious, regional, gender based, age based, occupation based, class based, and so on.
How Sub-cultures Arise
There are three main ways in which a sub-culture can arise.
- Organisational Emergence. A sub-culture can arise in the same way as any other organisation. A group of individuals who identify a common threat or opportunity come together with a common purpose. Within such a group, a common culture arises, and a leadership hierarchy can also arise. It is worth noting, however, that there also exist interest based sub-cultures, e.g., sports and hobbies, which do not necessarily become organized. Thus, whilst an organisation always has a culture, a culture is not necessarily part of an organisation.
- Cultural Migration. The anthropologist, Roland B Dixon, noted that ethnic migration can also result in cultural change. However, more general cultural migrations can also occur, for example, when one business is taken over or merged with another.
- Top-down Design. Present day marketing specialists are well aware of the importance of sub-cultures as consumers, and are capable of promoting a designed sub-culture via the internet and social media. Many, but not all, Western sub-cultures are now consumer based, therefore. This is an example of how an improved knowledge of social systems can alter a culture.
In extreme cases, the parent culture can be regarded as a threat by a group of individuals. So, they may come together to form a counter-culture, which seeks to radically alter the parent culture. Counter-cultures are normally political in nature and organised.
Sub-cultures and Cultural Evolution
Sub-cultures play an important part in cultural evolution. A sub-culture may be relatively minor at first, but can grow and ultimately become absorbed by the parent culture. Recent examples in the West include the absorption of the following sub-cultures: women’s rights, LGBT rights, ethnic minority rights, religious rights and so on.
Historically, due to the prevalence of authoritarian regimes, sub-cultures tended to emerge in hiding at first. This is because authoritarian regimes tended to regard them as a threat to the status quo, and because sub-cultures were, initially, relatively powerless and easily eradicated. For example, in the dark ages, people who did not conform to religious norms, or who questioned the social hierarchy, could be burnt at the stake. However, the Renaissance sub-culture later emerged. It sought the reinstatement of knowledge lost following the collapse of the Roman Empire. This ultimately led to a more rational approach to theology, the natural world, and the arts. The Renaissance was followed by the Reformation, a reaction against the Catholic Church’s doctrine. It led not only to religious change but also to more general social change. It highlighted corruption in the Catholic Church hierarchy, afforded women a greater role in society, helped to spread literacy, and weakened the relationship between church and state. The subsequent Age of Enlightenment, in which philosophy, logic, and reason flourished, resulted in major political changes that formed the liberal democracies that we see in the Western world today. All of these changes originated with a sub-culture.
Alongside the decline of authoritarianism, there has been growing tolerance for sub-cultures. Increasingly, they have been allowed to grow or expire with relatively little interference from established institutions. The effect of this has been to increase the pace of cultural evolution.
Despite this growing tolerance, social pressures remain. We all hold our culture in mental schemata, and these can cause us to behave towards others in a way that encourages them to adopt the same culture. That is, we aim for cultural homogeneity or the sharing of a common culture. Inevitably, the likelihood of such homogeneity decreases with organizational size.
On the other hand, cultural entrenchment, i.e., the unchangeability of an organisation’s culture, generally increases with size. Our cultural schema can also cause us to regard people who hold a different culture or sub-culture as a threat and we can, therefore, attempt to stifle emerging sub-cultures. The larger the group of people who hold a culture the more successful this will tend to be.