Conventional accounts of "new social movements", "the Sixties", green parties, "the alternative economy", and some contemporary subcultures often accept the existence of connections between some at least of these developments, but without making the attempt to analyse them as parts of a single historical process or as aspects of a more complex social formation. It may be possible to overcome the (theoretical, methodological, disciplinary) isolation of these subjects from one another in terms of a concept of counter culture which attempts to locate them within the total life-worlds of the participants.
This means treating counter cultures as historically developed complexes of institutions and practices, structures of meaning, forms of consciousness and modes of organisation of everyday life. This also makes it possible to distinguish between networks which are deeply involved in this counter cultural totality, and those which are essentially oriented towards dominant institutions and structures but which are receptive to isolated counter cultural practices or meanings. The argument is illustrated in relation to developments in (West) Germany since the 1960s.
A possible approach to the historical and social-structural specificities of the genesis of counter cultures is in terms of the opening up of "free spaces", in a variety of contexts where the determining effects of power and of the work process on ideas and practices are particularly weak. It is argued that this approach represents a greater closeness to the lived experience of those who become involved in counter cultures than traditional explanations of "new social movements" in terms of class of origin or class of destination. This situation offers unusual scope for the working-out of alternative logics of (socio-cultural) process: in contemporary contexts these emphasise above all a "new language" of reflexivity and autonomy. This relates to the central role of skills and knowledge in the making of the counter culture.
These internal developments, however, lead to conflict, on sociopolitical and / or sociocultural lines, with dominant institutions. Counter cultures are then not simply coherent sets of practices or oppositional subcultures, but represent a sustained challenge over the directions of societal self-production, and are themselves structured by this conflict. The concept of counter culture thus bears some analogies to the Marxian concept of "class for itself" and to the work of EP Thompson and Raymond Williams on class culture. It is then possible to discuss both "political" and "cultural" aspects of the challenge, without arbitrarily privileging either.
The conclusion identifies some possible issues for research on counter cultures in the Irish context, and discusses some of the implications of this analysis.