Hipsters. Hippies. Punks. Goths. Beatniks. Nerds. Subcultures are a comparatively modern thing, becoming more common as cities have grown larger. They are both made possible by mass production and the Industrial Revolution, and a reaction against the modern society that has arisen because of them. There are many subcultural groups from the past century, each with their own motivations and activities.

Some subcultures have quite simple group identities revolving around shared fashion sense or musical taste. Other subcultures like hippies and vegans tend to have more prescriptive and ideological viewpoints on acceptable lifestyle activities and views of the subculture’s members. While many of the best known subcultures are liberal, there are others like the Amish are conservative.

A subculture must define its identity somehow in opposition to the culture it operates within. The hipster desire to seek out indie, handmade and boutique as a conscious rejection of modern, digital and especially mass-produced goods, is in reality just as much a statement of identity and rejection of the mainstream as the stereotypically dark makeup and clothes of the Goth movement.

Many subcultures don’t translate across cultures, yet increasingly they draw influence from global sources. For example heavy metal influences are now seen worldwide, even popping up in Botswana.

With the rise of the internet and social networking, people can join and interact with their subculture of choice, regardless of the physical size or location of their home town. Having these options is mostly a good thing, since subcultures help people find a place to belong if they feel alienated by their ‘mainstream’ experiences.

My view is that there are four basic social needs which can be filled by a subculture: identity, participation, expression, and defence. Not all subcultural groups will meet each of these needs equally or at all.

Identity is a validation of the fact that you are not alone which comes from being among like-minded people. Participation is simply the sharing of a common pastime or pursuit. Expression comes from feeling able to do things when among others of your subculture which you might not feel able to do by yourself, or could not do by yourself. And finally a subculture is a physical defence if are able to rapidly mobilize and act in a coordinated way.

Some of Canberra’s more notable subcultural groups and events include:

  • Hipster Lane: While it’s a stretch to claim that we are now a “hipster city” with the transformation of Lonsdale St in Braddon, there is no doubt that Canberra is seeing many more people adopting the hipster lifestyle and fashions.
  • National Folk Festival: For the past 25 years, Canberra has hosted Australia’s largest folk music festival, which is marketed as an “alternative cultural experience” as much as a series of concerts.
  • Canberra Bridge Club: In the 1970s and 1980s Canberra regularly hosted one of the largest contract bridge events in the world. It continues to have a highly competitive scene including its annual Summer Festival of Bridge.
  • Rat Patrol: The customised pedal bikes of this eccentric but enthusiastic Canberra group were regularly seen and often covered by the RiotACT in years gone by, although they seem to have been dormant since around 2012.
  • CANCON: Australia’s largest convention for people into “tabletop gaming”, regularly attended by 8000 people or more, is a hugely successful event for more intellectual pursuits.

What other Canberra subcultures are out there? If you participate in a subculture, what attracts you to it?

Photo credit: Luis Alvarez Marra