Counterculture of the 1960s

Do ordinary people have the power to change mainstream culture? Yes, they do! Let's go back to the Counterculture of the 1960s in America to find out exactly how.

Counterculture of the 1960s Counterculture of the 1960s

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Table of contents

    Counterculture Definition Sociology

    To understand counterculture thoroughly, we must first determine its meaning. So, what is culture? In terms of Sociology, it refers to the behaviours that each person believes are correct in relation to their values. This can manifest itself in different ways.

    Mainstream Culture

    These values and behaviours conform to the cultural preferences of society as a whole.


    These values and behaviours differ from the societal norm.


    Not content with only differing from the societal norm, these values and behaviours actively oppose and rebel against mainstream culture.

    That's the theory out of the way, so when did 'counterculture' truly take off in the United States? Theodore Roszak first coined the term in 1969, but there had been a subterranean undercurrent against the established order since the 1950s.

    Counterculture Definition US History

    The Beat Generation of the 1950s encapsulated a reaction against the established American order. Through their art, they questioned and openly challenged the post-war United States.

    Beat Generation

    A movement originating in the 1950s that centred around the rejection of consumerism engulfing the USA. Self-expression and literature, inspired by improvised jazz music, became their protest method. Prominent members or 'beatniks' included Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.

    As Pop Art boomed and TV sets entered households, these artists sought to reconnect with the self. The Beat Generation set about breaking down taboos with spiritual, sexual, and drug-fuelled experimentation. They explicitly detailed their actions in their poems and novels to the dismay of the mainstream, who tried to censor them.

    Counterculture of the 1960s Allen Ginsberg StudySmarterFig. 1 - Allen Ginsberg, whose 1956 poem 'Howl' caused controversy for its open discussion of homosexual and heterosexual activities

    There became an increasing set of issues to complain about and rally against for young people. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had its first meeting in 1960, provided an insight into the psyche of the movement in their 1962 manifesto (The Port Huron Statement), capturing their concerns with mainstream culture.

    We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modern comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit.1

    - Extract from The Port Huron Statement

    The middle-class 'baby boomer' student, afforded the luxury of introspection, morphed along with the Beat Generation into the 'hippy' counterculture. Much of this started on university campuses where the SDS were responsible for organising many of the early Vietnam Anti-war Protests. The youth of the 1960s were acutely aware of the generational chasm between them and their parents in a rapidly changing world.

    Baby boomer

    The generation born between 1946 and 1964 that makes up the largest portion of the United States population because of the post-war increase in births.


    A counterculture movement beginning in the early 1960s in the United States. A hippy often had an unconventional appearance, rejected mainstream culture, and experimented with sex, music, and drugs.

    This new counterculture also went on a journey through self-liberation, this time through music rather than literature. Threading this together was the psychedelic experience, and the questioning of reality, chiefly through LSD, which was legal until 1965.


    Relating to a heightening and distortion of the senses that is produced by drugs such as LSD that create hallucinations.

    US Counterculture 1960s

    Several of the issues outside the mainstream present in the 1950s truly surfaced in the 1960s. There were some breakthroughs concerning Civil Rights for African Americans, anti-war and anti-nuclear concerns boiled over with the US involvement in the Vietnam War, and feminism and LGBT rights campaigns advanced.

    With a mechanism to express these concerns and the erosion of traditional Christian values, the hippy movement was born. The SDS and the hippy movement were the youthful energy behind the desire for social change. They did not focus on one movement but came up with their own set of beliefs which challenged the mainstream and allowed them to fight for the causes mentioned above.

    Counterculture Examples

    Here are some examples of the hippy counterculture movement in action. Let's see how these events actively opposed the mainstream narrative.

    Summer of Love (1967)

    The Summer of Love was a gathering in the summer of 1967 in San Francisco. The Haight-Ashbury district of the city already had a reputation for hippies and people came from far and wide to make music, love and take drugs. They appeared with flowers in their hair to oppose the Vietnam War, an idea furthered by beatnik Allen Ginsberg.

    In January 1967 there had been a concert in San Francisco that cemented the hippy message when Timothy Leary stated:

    Turn on, tune in, drop out.2

    - Psychologist Timothy Leary

    Travel was very much at the heart of the hippy values, borrowed from the beatniks, and they took this call to arms seriously, with over 100,000 descending on the city by the summer.

    Did you know? The Summer of Love was equally about hedonism and defiance, though the media used this title to put a positive spin on events. This was when the mainstream sat up and took notice of the hippy counterculture.

    Woodstock Festival (1969)

    Many of the sentiments of the Summer of Love crystallised during the Woodstock Festival in 1969 in the state of New York. Originally billed as 'An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music', the message referred to the Aquarius star sign and a proposed seed change in human consciousness.

    It ended up being a four-day celebration in August of 1969 attended by at least 400,000. Musicians and bands who inspired the hippy movement performed and once more the counterculture demonstrated that peace was possible, as their nation waged war.

    A Song for Every Social Movement

    Rock 'n' roll and other genres of music played a hugely important role in the hippy counterculture as a mouthpiece for the effective and memorable deliverance of their message.

    Here are a few songs that dovetailed with the social movements present in the 1960s:

    • Lesley Gore, 'You Don't Own Me' (1963) expressed the independence of women, in the face of male oppression.
    • The Beatles, 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' (1967) celebrated experimentation with the psychedelic drug LSD.
    • The Kinks, 'David Watts' (1967) detailed the crush of a man on the illusive and eponymous David Watts.
    • James Brown, 'Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)' (1968) empowered African Americans in their quest for Civil Rights.
    • Neil Young, 'Ohio' (1971) lamented the murder of peaceful anti-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio.

    This was a new, succinct method, more consumable than the sometimes erratic literature of the Beat Generation.

    Guitar icon Jimi Hendrix was the final performer of the festival. He produced a memorable, psychedelically-tinged version of the US anthem, 'The Star Spangled Banner', as he provocatively highlighted the negatives of his country,

    Counterculture of the 1960s Jimi Hendrix StudySmarterFig. 2 - Jimi Hendrix

    Social Movements of the 1960s and 1970s

    Now that we understand what made the 1960s hippy counterculture tick, we can go into greater depth about the development of social movements of that decade and the 1970s. Let's examine how counterculture impacted society and helped trigger some of the breakthroughs.

    Social movement

    A group of people seeking to reach a particular social or political goal by halting, undoing or triggering change.

    Below is a table outlining some of the key social movements in these two decades.

    MovementDescriptionProgress (on a scale of 1 to 5)
    Civil Rights MovementA movement dedicated to the end of racist discrimination towards African Americans which gained momentum during the 1960s. ✔: The Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965) and Fair Housing Act (1968) all pointed to huge legislative breakthroughs. However, the assassination of leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X showed much still had to be done.
    Anti-war MovementA movement coalescing many different groups, all united against the US military involvement in Vietnam. The SDS, musicians, celebrities, Buddhists and war veterans all got involved.✔: The coordination of disparate movements for a united cause was incredibly effective, producing the largest anti-war protests in history. This helped to change the course of President Nixon, but there were still US troops in Vietnam until 1973.
    Feminist MovementAlong with musicians such as Lesley Gore, important texts including Betty Friedan's 'The Feminist Mystique' (1963) empowered a movement for women's rights. ✔✔: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1965) represented progress, but a proposed Equal Rights Amendment did come to fruition, meaning gender inequality regarding divorce, property and employment was still a reality. Coupled with abortion, this is still an issue for women today.
    LGBT MovementIn 1952, the American Psychiatric Association diagnosed homosexuality as a mental disorder. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights lagged behind other movements. ✔✔: Taking inspiration from the Civil Rights' "sit-ins", underground gay clubs defied police discrimination. This culminated in the Stonewall Riots (1969), which represented a watershed moment. In 1970 there was the first Gay Pride Parade and in 1978 Harvey Milk became the first gay politician in California. However, he was assassinated in the same year.

    The SDS and hippy counterculture proved successful and influential because they did not prioritise one cause over another.

    Counterculture of the 1960s Harvey Milk memorial plaque StudySmarterFig. 3 - Harvey Milk memorial plaque

    Basic and universal principles of introspection, peace, and tolerance lent themselves organically to these social movements, and more, including environmentalism and veganism.

    The fact that the SDS disbanded in 1974, after a radical left-wing faction (the Weathermen) threatened these values, is a testament to this. Economic stagnation in the 1970s meant that the counterculture generation had to work and assimilate into normal society. The height of US counterculture was over.

    Did you know? Within each of these social movements, there were more active countercultural groups. The Black Panther Movement fought for Civil Rights and the Redstockings fought for feminism.

    Does counterculture exist today?

    Today, counterculture has shifted, meaning that the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s have achieved great advances. In the space of around 50 years additional movements such as veganism, have become less and less marginalised. Counterculture does not have the same resounding anguish of the 1960s or 1970s, but there are still many behaviours outside of the mainstream narrative including homeschooling, off-grid lifestyles, and polyamorous relationships that represent a counterculture of sorts, in terms of actively opposing societal expectations.

    Counterculture of the 1960s Vegan logo StudySmarterFig. 4 - Vegan logos such as this are increasingly common in restaurants and big-brand supermarkets

    Are these countercultures akin to the hippy movement? We will let you decide.

    Counterculture of the 1960s - Key takeaways

    • The post-war United States of the 1950s coincided with a group of writers known as the Beat Generation, who rejected mainstream consumerism and wanted sexual and spiritual liberation, often through drug use.
    • At the start of the 1960s, the issues in society became starker. These included Civil Rights for African Americans, the US military involvement in Vietnam, feminism, and LGBT rights.
    • The Students for a Democratic Society formed in 1960 and began to organise Anti-war protests. They fused with Beat Generation ideals to create a hippy counterculture.
    • Values of peace, love, and tolerance contributed to the credence of many of the social movements listed above. These universal principles allowed all humans to be considered worthwhile.
    • Nowadays, counterculture is less prominent, though there are still many prevailing beliefs outside of the mainstream.


    1. Edward P. Morgan, The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America (1991), pp. 94.
    2. Silke Wünsch, 'How the Summer of Love came to San Francisco 50 years ago', DW (25th August 2017).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Counterculture of the 1960s

    What are some examples of counterculture in today's society?

    Homeschooling, self-sufficient off-grid lifestyles and polyamorous relationships are all examples of counterculture in today's society.

    What is the current counterculture?

    There is not a singular counterculture today in comparison with the hippy movement of the 1960s.

    What is counterculture?

    Counterculture is the disagreement with and active opposition to mainstream cultural norms.

    What were the reasons for the rise of American counterculture in the 1960s?

    The Beat Generation, the generational gap and student organisations all contributed to American counterculture in the 1960s.

    What did members of the American counterculture do?

    Members of the American counterculture attended concerts and protests, experimented with sex and drugs and made music.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Students for a Democratic Society looked uncomfortably to the future.

    What became more common in American households in the 1950s?

    The Stonewall Riots marked a turning point for LGBT rights.

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