Maxwell School, Syracuse University

J. Milton Yinger


Countercultures: The Promise and Peril of a World Turned Upside Down
New York: Free Press, 1982




A counterculture is “a set of norms and values of group that sharply contradict the dominant norms and values of the society of which that group is a part.”

“In my judgment we are in the midst of a major civilizational transformation.  The critical issue that humankind faces today is how to create a rolling adjustment to the incredibly rapid and drastic changes taking place on the planet.  We’re faced with the problem of rebuilding the station, relaying and changing the gauge of the tracks, and accommodating vastly more passengers, while still keeping the trains running.  Some say:  Don’t change; civilization can be breached too easily; or, in the language of the train analogy, patch up the station a bit, but don’t tamper with the basic structure.  Others say:  Stop the trains; the building isn’t worth saving; it’s about to collapse; we need a clean field on which to build anew.  That is the position taken by countercultures.  If we think of them as art forms, we may find that, like other forms of art ranging from the sublime to the ugly, they highlight, dramatize, and anticipate drastic problems.  Whether as ‘voices crying in the wilderness’ or as symptoms of major disorders—unintended warnings and illustrations of what may lie ahead—countercultures require the most intensive study, not only by those whose aim and task it is to examine societies and to seem them whole, but also by those who strive to improve them.  We shall be fortunate if these are in many instances the same people.”


[In a review of four books on countercultures].  “J. Milton Yinger’s Countercultures is the  most comprehensive of the four and will probably be the most widely read.  In 1960 Yinger published a seminal article in ASR on “contraculture,”[1] but here he gracefully yields the linguistic ground to “counterculture,” Theodore Roszak having been there with the right word in the right place at the right time.  A product of more than twenty years of reading and reflection on the topic, Yinger’s book is as good a model of sympathetic and detached scholarship on a still volatile subject matter as I have seen, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to those who did not experience the sixties as the single best place to begin their education.  It is also a good place for those who did experience the sixties to broaden and deepen their understanding of what they went through. 

Indeed, if there is such a thing as an excess of scholarly virtue, Yinger has it in abundance.  He is so thorough, so careful, so balanced in judgment, so multi-perspectival, so humane, so gentle, so uncontentious, so universal in his sympathies, so catholic, so Quaker, that one begins to search his texts hoping to find some evidence of a mean streak, some axe to grind, some distortion, immoderateness, or overstatement.  They are very nearly impossible to find.  If there is an irony in that, it is only that Yinger has taken a topic that I once thought nobody could civilize, and worked into, well, a textbook:  as definitive a textbook as we are likely to see for a long time to come.” 

Bennett M. Berger (University of California, San Diego), Contemporary Sociology, September 1983, pp. 482-514. 


Yinger’s book is a synthetic work of immense range, erudition, and sophistication…Such a short review makes it impossible to convey a sense of the richness of the argument, the abundance of source materials, and the sheer erudition that characterizes Yinger’s work.  I think it is fair to say that Countercultures will become a standard point of departure for studies of particular countercultures for some time to come.”  Peter Clecak, American Journal of Sociology, September 1984, pp. 465-466.   


Countercultures is like Yinger’s conception of society:  it forms an organic whole.  Moreover, unlike society, there are no jarring inconsistencies:  the parts articulate smoothly to make a very satisfying book.  But the measure of Yinger’s contribution is the number of questions the book raises in the reader’s mind.  When are countercultural values absorbed by a society?  Which of the dominant values ought to be balanced by countercultural values?  In what ways should we go about introducing these changes?  Yinger recognizes that it is not easy to answer these questions but he will not let that deter him from addressing the serious issue of directing social change for human betterment.  This is not just an elegant book, nor just a thorough study of countercultures, it is a statement of Yinger’s concern that we try to control social change for the better rather than let it control us for the worse.” Maren Lockwood Carden, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, December 1983, pp. 387-398. 

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[1] This article is “Contraculture and Subculture,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 25, 1960, pp. 625-35.



Trustee Professor of Public Administration and Economics