Research Paper on Cultural Transmission Theory of Crime

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I. Introduction

II. Conceptual Foundation: Representations of Subculture and Cultural Transmission in the Criminological Literature

III. The Rise of the Subcultural Perspective

IV. Subcultural Theories and Empirical Validity

V. Subcultural Theories Today

I. Introduction

A core tenet of social science theory holds that normative systems, in part, produce the varied patterns of social behavior evident across and within societies. In essence, norms are ideas, and ideas are transmitted in social interaction. The collective manifestation of norms or shared ideas—that assume a semblance of time invariance—is culture. Cultural artifacts figure prominently into the logical framework of theories formulated to explain the uneven representation of violence within American society. The point of departure for these works is that neither violent crime rates nor culture are characterized by a homogeneous pattern. Indeed, cultural theories posit that variation in value systems predicts simultaneous variation in the scope and form of violent actions. Systems of shared values that do not conform to conventional culture, known as subcultures, explain the spatial concentration of serious and lethal violence in disadvantaged urban areas and in the southern region of the United States. Furthermore, the relative spatial permanence of violence is owed largely to the continued transmission over time of the subcultural values that sanction such behavior.

The acquisition of values favoring law violation, including violence, occurs through repeated exposure not only to unlawful behavior itself but also to the values underlying it that are entrenched in actors’ social milieu. Criminologists stress that agents within an individual’s social context, such as peers, the family, and neighborhood residents, convey normative protocols regarding illegal conduct. An actor’s reaction to verbal threats, his or her strategy of response to economic distress, and his or her adherence to formal legal mandates are artifacts of the normative complex that blankets the actor’s daily life and that is procured through social interaction. Violence-conducive value orientations are thus effectively transmitted throughout local collectivities over time and sustained spatially.

This research paper delineates the leading perspectives in the field of criminology on subcultural processes, namely, cultural transmission. It also highlights the empirical evidence pertaining to these theories and briefly discusses the current state and future of subcultural research.

II. Conceptual Foundation: Representations of Subculture and Cultural Transmission in the Criminological Literature

There is not a precise or uniform definition of subculture in the criminological literature. For this reason it is vulnerable to critique, and the theories organized around the term are prone to misinterpretation. Subculture is, of course, a deductive artifact of culture, although it is substantively distinctive. An explicit classification of culture holds that it is the meaning humans generate and apply to their environment. This perspective permits culture to take on a variant shape across society, and it permits social consensus on values implying that, although values may differ, they do converge and assemble among groups, providing the empirical possibility of subculture. Some values are more widespread; those that are less conventional are said to be shared by a subculture. Theoretically speaking, what signifies membership into subcultures is not simply commonality in behavior patterns but a sense of mutual cognitions pertaining to objects and actions (e.g., behaviors). To be part of a subculture necessitates that persons hold a salient and intense degree of identification with others who also make a decision to attribute similar meaning to factors in their social world. Social structural conditions, such as wider patterns of social relations, potentially function as a stimulus for group identification, serving as a salient force in collective organization and ultimately facilitating subculture formations.

By the first half of the 20th century, the study of deviance was situated in a vibrant intellectual environment, setting the stage for the development of what are now regarded as core theories of criminology. Criminologists at the time began to assume the analytical posture of positivism, in that they sought to discover the law-like structure governing social actions. Their objective was to develop a science of crime by way of theoretical construction. Scholars in the Chicago School of sociology applied this strategy while investigating the implications of normative shifts on behavioral patterns among rural populations negotiating the transition to urban life. Others contrasted the complex interdependence of urban growth dynamics and human behavior to the notion of symbiotic development found in the study of plant ecology. It is in this vein that the early subcultural theories of delinquency emerged from the Chicago School.

During the 1920s and 1930s, empirical research on social ecology contributed importantly to the conceptual understanding of the symbolic conditions stimulating criminal offending. On the basis of analyses of county juvenile court records, early Chicago School theorists concluded that rates of delinquency decreased precipitously with gains in distance from the city center and that rates tended to remain relatively stable across neighborhoods, despite population turnover. It was believed that such marked stability in the spatial concentration of crime was sustained by ecologically situated value systems espousing criminal behavior. This idea was ultimately incorporated as the cultural transmission dimension of ecological theory. It suggests that deviant subcultures act as hosts for the system of nonconventional values and are responsible for disseminating it across generations. Furthermore, structural conditions allegedly erode social control mechanisms, thereby permitting the proliferation of subcultures within neighborhoods.

Individual-level theories of social interaction were also developed around the mid-20th century with the explicit goal of explicating the symbolic aspects underlying unlawful behavior as well as its spatial persistence. The individual-level intellectual approach, which is somewhat consistent with the ecological position of cultural transmission originating in the Chicago School, posited that the stimulus for delinquency was produced in interaction with others. Stated succinctly, this model, known as differential association theory, stipulates that greater exposure to persons who hold values supportive of law violation amplifies the odds that one will engage in this behavior. The propositions of the theory involve both the content of what is learned as well as the process through which it is done so. Most relevant to subcultural theory, in particular the notion of cultural transmission, is the notion that exposure to “definitions” favorable or unfavorable to law violation constitutes the content of acquired knowledge in interaction. Definitions are, in essence, ideas regarding appropriate behavior, and one is exposed to definitions favoring law violation in the same context wherein he or she is exposed to definitions regarding the appropriateness of conventional actions. Absent continued social interaction, exposure to definitions in favor of violence is probable, and hence the transmission of subculture is more likely to be sustained. There is one caveat to this position, however: It leaves little room in the process for agency—that is, the conscious decision by the actor to engage the definitions.

III. The Rise of the Subcultural Perspective

By the 1950s and 1960s, theorists in criminology identified limitations of the ecological and symbolic interaction variants of subcultural theory. They also sought to overcome what were perceived as the limitations of these models and to expand on their unique strengths. Where the ecological model emphasized structural sources of behavior and offered ideas about the transmission of cultural orientations, the individual-level interaction model largely overlooked structural factors, opting instead to focus more exclusively on the symbolic dimension of crime causation. During this time frame one scholar, Albert Cohen, who was working in the tradition of strain theory (although within a sub-branch known as the reaction-formation perspective), took issue with the fact that strain theory did not focus on the role of the group and that subcultural theories—both the ecological and interactionist brands—neglected to account for the origins of the subculture, in particular its content and its disproportionate presence in the working class.

Cohen argued that the strain model accounts for the perceived limitations of earlier subcultural models in that strain theory implicates the wider conventional culture as the force underlying delinquent behavior. More specifically, he argued that the status configuration of the wider value complex dominates all aspects of American life. By virtue of their socialization into working-class families, youth are poorly equipped to abide by the criteria of a middle-class existence (e.g., self-reliance, worldly asceticism, exercise of forethought, manners and sociability). The structural deficits of the working class also translate into cultural deficits, because the middle-class cultural standards are used by all to evaluate one’s worth. Deficits produce social psychological strain, and a reaction ensues. Similarly situated youth find common ground and ultimately band together to reject middle-class values. They collectively devise an alternative status system that overturns the tenets of the middle-class existence. In the alternative system, respect is conferred by the subculture to those members who excel at fighting, who are physically aggressive, and who display an all-around disregard for middle-class standards. Because of their repudiation of the conventional culture and deep reliance on their own social milieu for status, members of the delinquent subculture develop a strong dependence to their system for identity. This trait helps to uphold its distinct degree of permanence across contexts.

Sociological theorists maintain that in the wider culture actors rely on substantial educational achievement, occupational advancement, and the acquisition of rare or expensive material items to demonstrate marked success along conventional lines. Success measured in this sense is a constant across time in American society. Cohen argued that marked demonstration of aversion to conventional standards becomes a valued end for the lower class in much the same manner as conventional goals for those who are more advantaged: The lower-class value set is made known through what he considers class-based interaction. Relying on the group as the catalyst for behavior-strain-based subcultural models therefore effectively merges the interactive component of earlier models, addressing the atomistic limitation of strain theory. At the same time, the strain-based model pinpoints the etiology of the contemporary delinquent subculture as a collective and violent reaction formation against conventional culture. It also expands on the work of the Chicago School, positing that the reservoir of identity provided by the subculture incurs its transmission.

Other theorists in the strain-based tradition of subcultural theory, however, take issue with the idea that frustrated individuals reject the American success goals and formulate their own status system. Two theorists, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, questioned the notion of the ubiquity of a violent reaction among the lower class. In contrast, they developed a variant of the strain model, labeled the opportunity theory of subcultures, in which they posited that youth facing strain seek out illegal solutions (e.g., hustling, robbery) in their own social environment that permit them to attain conventional success. What distinguishes this model from Cohen’s subcultural theory is the notion that the circumstances of actors’ neighborhood determine the availability of illicit income-generating opportunities and ultimately success by illegitimate means. Thus, norms in favor of success through illegal means are locally situated according to the opportunity model. The transmission of values suggesting crime in an appropriate means is, however, contingent on the extent to which it is an entrenched property in one’s neighborhood. So, in this sense, culture is transmitted through social interaction—as others suggest, however, the neighborhood more or less makes available the subcultural protocols. A logical implication implies that as the subcultural complex wanes in intensity over time—if in fact it does—so should the behavior it sanctions.

Conceptual models framed around class position, in the manner as those noted earlier, are often referred to by social scientists as theories of relative deprivation. An alternative branch of subcultural theory, in contrast, claims that a subcultural value complex is the symbolic aspect of a given class structure and does not originate from, nor is consciously propagated by, class differences. Instead, the subculture is simply part of the class itself, and to the extent to which this is true the subculture arises from a person’s absolute position in the class structure. To reiterate, a central component of both theories is the actors’ structural position, yet they take widely different positions on this point. More specifically, theories of absolute position assert that lower-class delinquents are not motivated to violate the law by a referent value complex, but their actions are dominated by the dictates of their absolute position as members of the lower class, whereas strain-based models assume that delinquency is produced by the awareness of those in the lower class of their lack of access, relative to the affluent, to the means of attaining socially defined ends.

A prominent subcultural model focusing on the importance of absolute structural position was put forth in the late 1950s by Walter Miller. According to Miller, the lower-class cultural system is distinctive in its symbolic content, or what are referred to as focal concerns. Focal concerns are analogous to values in the sense that they represent components of a culture and that each attracts deep emotional involvement. Focal concerns (or values) include trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. A unique feature of social life among the lower class is the “adolescent street corner group.” This single-sex social conglomerate provides a certain degree of affective and material resources unmet in the widespread absence of the two-parent family unit. Participants are socialized to the normative demeanor of the male sex role, an opportunity not otherwise available in their surroundings. Two additional focal concerns—“belonging” and “status”—are critically important to the lower-class peer group. Each is a by-product of adherence to the general array of focal concerns held by the lower class. The concept of belonging implies a preoccupation with in-group membership, and the concern with status refers to the desire of youth to achieve a position of good standing among group members. Personal status or rank is earned by exhibiting skills in the behavioral hallmarks of toughness and smartness. Showing physical prowess in the face of a rival group incurs a reputation for toughness, a quality that engenders a high ranking in one’s group. For lower-class youth to closely conform to the normative imperatives of their group is to act in a manner inconsistent with the conventional values of wider society. Therefore, in direct contrast to a strain-based subcultural perspective, Miller’s model asserts that criminal involvement by lower-class youth is not motivated by the desire to defy the lofty demands of the middle-class value system. Such a logical configuration is advocated by those who use the middle-class principles as a point of reference.

With regard to the permanence of the lower-class subculture, Miller suggested that lower-class culture is transmitted over time to the extent that lower-class persons aspire for membership into street corner groups. Membership, again, is granted to those who overtly commit to focal concerns; however, here the causal role of the cultural and structural components of Miller’s subculture model is imprecise. As explicated earlier, reaction formation models more clearly defined the structural genesis of the subcultural system and described how its continuity arises from members’ increased reliance on its cultural precepts. However, the group concept in the model of absolute structural position assumes a more autonomous form; in other words, it exists independent of other class-based systems. In the early strain-based depiction, the group establishes an autonomous norm structure, yet it subsists— at least initially—by virtue of its polarization against middle-class standards. Again, the logical juncture at which the two branches of subcultural theory differ is on the origins of the subculture and its transmission. With regard to the latter point, it is unclear whether in the theory of absolute position the actor is predicted to shed the lower-class preoccupation with focal concerns in favor of more conventional values if he or she were to escape the lower class. Furthermore, the question remains as to whether the reaction of the lower class in the Cohen’s account would diminish if they were unable to align themselves with like-minded others.

IV. Subcultural Theories and Empirical Validity

Empirical researchers have found some support for theorists’ claims with regard to the class origins of subcultural values; nonetheless, the evidence is ambiguous at this point. For instance, studies show that middle- and lower-class non-gang and gang members positively value conventional standards, but this same body of findings shows that with a decline in one’s social class level the salience of proscriptive norms grows increasingly untenable. Lower-class participants’ behavior is also less consistent with their values, suggesting that the degree to which they actually conformed to middle-class standards is weaker than that among their higher status counterparts.

In support of subcultural accounts, qualitative evidence indicates that lower-class boys place greater value on displaying a tough-guy reputation and being skilled at fighting. Other researchers who have used nationally representative data in a quantitative approach have discovered that youth of lower socioeconomic status are more apt to commit violence because they have acquired definitions favorable to violence through interactions with members of their social milieu, especially family. Also, studies have revealed that nonconventional attitudes mediate the pathway between actors’ class position and violence. What the latter collection of findings conveys is that, indeed, subcultural systems are structural in origin and produced by key agents of socialization who comprise one’s same class position.

Another branch of subcultural theory, developed by Wolfgang and Ferracuti, departs from those already described in that it gives little explanatory power to structural factors in producing patterns of violence. It is considered a pure subcultural theory because it virtually ignores the role of broader structural factors. Wolfgang and Ferracuti interpreted rates of violent crime among groups and collectivities as evidence that the group—for instance, African Americans—holds attitudes that favor violent conduct. Their theory of subcultures bridges racially differentiated patterns of violence with oppositional value orientations, construing social structural factors with a relatively minimal degree of explanatory power. Wolfgang and Ferracuti stressed that a subculture cannot fully differ from the wider culture. According to this view, societies tend to have a common value pattern to the extent that even subcultures remain within the wider culture. The subculture and wider culture are, in essence, cultures in conflict. Wolfgang and Ferracuti further argued that social groups modulate conduct norms, and for conduct norms or values to be salient they must be situationally invariant; if not, they reflect no enduring allegiance. Moreover, normative systems develop around values in that values engender the normative standards relating to proper behavioral responses. Pure subcultural theory, however, allows for values to affect behavior independent of propinquity to like-minded others, unlike strain-based accounts and even those of the Chicago School.

According to Wolfgang and Ferracuti, the extent to which people identified with subcultural values is made obvious to the observer in light of their actions. Their theory focuses largely on understanding the cultural foundation underlying “passionate,” or nonpremeditated, acts of homicide. To the perpetrators who commit this category of crimes they impute the subculture of violence. People occupy a subculture of violence by virtue of the fact that they are violent. Many scholars conclude, however, that this approach is tautological. Theorists insist that among groups who display the highest rates of homicide the subculture of violence should be most intense. An actor’s integration into the subculture (measured by behavior) reflects his or her degree of adherence to its prescriptions for behavior. Violence does not represent the constant mode of action among subcultural members. Wolfgang and Ferracuti argued that if this were the case, the social system itself would become debilitated. In this regard, their perspective is relatively limited in scope because it illuminates only the value set that translates situations into violence, instead of the entire array of values held by a class position.

With regard to the etiology of subcultural traditions, the pure subcultural theory advocated by Wolfgang and Ferracuti remains intentionally silent. It implies that structural factors may contribute to the genesis of subcultures through the process hypothesized in strain-based accounts. However, the model suggests that norms favoring violence are perhaps causally related with socioeconomic factors. For instance, it indicates that the concentration of a subcultural orientation among African Americans, as reflected by their involvement in homicide and assaultive crimes, may be a product of the urban deterioration and economic disparities affecting this population. However, they made no consistent and precise statement about the linkage between social structural factors and the subcultural traditional they delineated. It is interesting, however, that the theorists appear to contend that it is structural factors such as poverty and deprivation that account for the generational transmission of the subculture. People who are beleaguered by impoverished conditions become frustrated and aggressive. Parents are hypothesized to pass this experience on to their children, in whom it blossoms fully into a subculture of violence. To prevent the continual cycling of the subcultural tradition, pure subcultural theory suggests that the persons who carry it should be forcefully dispersed and resocialized into the middle-class system. For some analysts, this programmatic implication of their theory makes it less palatable on the whole.

V. Subcultural Theories Today

More recently, scholars of the subcultural tradition have focused on the dynamics of contemporary urban America, including widespread joblessness, high rates of concentrated poverty, and general urban structural decay. An important aspect of a contemporary approach is explicit attention to the experience of urban African American males and their disproportionate involvement in violent crime. Early pure subcultural theories, such as Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s, largely circumnavigated the political and social structural dimensions of violence and in the process emphasized the existence of a counterproductive culture among groups who demonstrate extensive involvement in violence—namely, African Americans as well as lower-class persons. Contemporary approaches expand on this tradition and study the symbolic or normative aspects of violent actions among urban blacks. Current models, however, take a step forward by examining the social structural, historical, and political backdrop against which these values subsist.

Violent crime rates climbed in America’s cities throughout the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1990s, rates of homicide involving black youth peaked to an unprecedented level. Sociological studies of the urban economy during the 1980s were crucial to understanding this phenomenon because they systematically unraveled the sheer magnitude of the structural component behind urban violence. This work reveals that urban communities are distinguished by a disproportionate concentration of the most disadvantaged segments of the black population. The coexistence of structural deprivations undermines the formation of dense person– institution networks; as a consequence, the urban poor are socially isolated from mainstream roles. Urban sociologists propose that alternative behavior protocols emerge in such places. In their view, these socially structured cultural processes are less apt to assign negative sanctions to deviant behaviors, and thus the probability of violent actions is magnified.

It was in this intellectual context that ethnographers researched the cultural mechanisms driving violence in contemporary urban America. The contemporary cultural perspective is not unlike urban sociologists’ with regard to how structural organization affects the values toward behavioral protocols, and it shares themes found in earlier ethnographies demonstrating the diversity of conduct norms among residents of urban centers. However, current cultural theory differs primarily from urban sociologists’ ideas in that the cultural substrate they define purportedly sanctions the use of violence, whereas urban sociologists’ conceptualization holds that violent behavior is less condoned or tolerated. More critically, this new branch of cultural theory suggests that for black males (and females) in disadvantaged urban areas, their very identity is constructed early in life according to the standards of the oppositional culture. In fact, Elijah Anderson proposed that the social alienation brought about by economic transformation has spawned an oppositional street culture or street code in inner-city settings. It supplies the rules regarding the proper way to defend oneself, and at the same time it assigns the normative rationale for those seeking to provoke aggressive actions. The code serves as a shared relational script by which both victims and offenders must abide if they are to successfully navigate their precarious social world. The ideas of early and more recent subcultural models are similar in this respect, because advocates of each argue that the nonconventional culture they observed is useful in the ecological context in which it exists.

According to Anderson, the content of the code is composed foremost of the rules to achieve honor. Deference is a valuable commodity in the subculture. Someone who is respected is better equipped to avoid potential threats of violence plus the unwanted situation of being bothered by others. Perhaps more important, however, respect is an end in itself that affords the luxury of self-worth. By displaying a confident demeanor and wearing the appropriate attire, actors communicate a predisposition to violence. The street code requires actors to express their willingness to engage in physical aggression if the situation demands it. When an attack occurs, the code dictates that it should be met with a retaliatory response of like proportion; otherwise, respect is undermined, and the victim invites future attacks. With regard to victimization, how people respond illuminates the broad cultural disparities between the conventional and the oppositional system. In the case of the former, victimized individuals will either contact formal authorities or move on without rectifying the situation despite the degradation they experienced. In contrast, people whose existence is dominated by the imperatives of the street code actively pursue a strategy for revenge. The former group’s status does not hinge on whether its members avenge their aggressor; instead, rank is determined by their merit in conventional avenues.

Contemporary cultural models observe that not everyone accepts the oppositional culture as a legitimate value system; instead, in Anderson’s view, the urban landscape is occupied by two coexisting groups of people: (1) those who hold a “decent” orientation and (2) those whose lives conform more closely to standards of the code—a group Anderson refers to as “street”. The mechanism by which the street code is transmitted as a cultural system is said to occur not only through public exposure to manifestations of the code but also through socialization into the code that occurs in the street home.

According to Anderson, decent people socialize their children according to mainstream values. They believe that success is earned, in part, by working hard and maintaining a law-abiding lifestyle. Parents in decent families rely on strict methods of discipline to socialize their children according to mainstream values. Cognizant of the hazardous social environment they occupy, decent parents establish curfews and keep a watchful eye on their children’s activities.

As opposed to decent families, street families are more devoted to the oppositional orientation embodied in the code, according to Anderson. Their interpretations of their reality as well as their interpersonal behaviors rigidly conform to its standards. Their orientation approximates that held by youth in the subculture envisioned by some strain-based accounts. The cluster of values by which street folks abide are antithetical to the values of middle-class, conventional existence. Street families place less emphasis on work and education, which is underpinned by their deep distrust in the formal structure as a whole. Most are financially impaired; whatever income they earn is misused, spent on other priorities, such as cigarettes and alcohol. Children of street families witness numerous incidents suggesting that violent aggression instead of verbal negotiation is a means to achieve a desired end. For youth reared in street families, their unfavorable early life experiences and the inept, aggressive socialization they receive culminate to shape their strong proclivity toward an orientation consistent with the street code. The cultural standards to which decent and street families adhere are diametric opposites. Because both groups are immersed in the same contextual environment, their orientations are prone to clash, although the aggressive posture of the street orientation generally prevails. Because of this circumstance, decent folks have an incentive to become intimately familiar with the behavioral imperatives of the code; moreover, they must be prepared to momentarily perform them.

With respect to empirical evidence, findings generated from survey data are inconsistent with the postulates of Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s subcultural model, suggesting scant evidence of between-group (e.g., race) differences with regard to support for the dictates of an oppositional subculture. Multilevel research also shows that blacks hold more negative views toward the agents of government authority (e.g., police, courts), but after incorporating neighborhood measures the relationship diminishes, suggesting that blacks’ attitudes are strongly influenced by their contextual circumstances. Quantitative studies also examine the purported association between people’s adherence to the oppositional subculture and unlawful behavior. The combined result of this work is somewhat ambiguous. Some investigators have explicitly examined the linkage among race, oppositional values, and patterns of violence implied in subcultural theory. Some have found that blacks are more likely to commit violent prison infractions in comparison to their white counterparts, suggesting a contextual invariance of behavior among the black population, which supports early pure subcultural models. Macrolevel research uses census data to investigate the validity of the subculture of violence thesis as it relates to violence across population segments. Using this method, researchers uncover a positive effect of racial composition on violence, net of economic factors.

Other research generates a construct approximating the attitudinal components of the street code. Findings from this work show that youth who reside in disadvantaged neighborhoods and who feel discriminated against are likely to adopt the street code. Results also show that the street code predicts violent delinquency. Similar studies have reported that the street code has a positive effect on individuals’ odds of victimization; furthermore, neighborhood disadvantage exacerbates this relationship. Others have found that retaliatory homicides—those reflecting subculture imperatives regarding honor—are more likely to occur in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This finding closely coincides with subcultural theory in general. It also supports more contemporary models that suggest an oppositional culture thrives in places that lack social structural resources, such as poor urban areas, where notions of honor are promulgated as an indispensable ideal.

Empirical evidence thus fails to disconfirm the idea that nonconventional culture plays a powerful role in stimulating violent behavior. However, what appears untenable is the notion that black violence is driven by an inherent subculture. Despite this, research focused on the high rates of violence among the black population has not abandoned cultural explanations entirely. A theory was recently developed that explicates the social ecology of violence, emphasizing both social structural and cultural mechanisms. A point of departure for this model is the inability of early pure subcultural theory to logically account for the uneven distribution of black violence. If pure subculture models are correct in their insistence that blacks adhere to a culture of violence, then rates of black violent crime should be equal across place. This is not the case: Blacks are differentially involved in violence across America’s cities. However, this does not render cultural explanations entirely flawed. Expanding on the Chicago School model, theorists propose that black violence is the outcome of social disorganization as well as cultural social isolation. Both ecological processes arise from structural disadvantage and residential instability. Social disorganization erodes informal regulation, whereas cultural social isolation shapes ecologically structured norms sanctioning forms of conduct. In turn, these mechanisms are hypothesized to jointly impact rates of violence. Such logic assumes that because black communities disproportionately experience structural disadvantage they also disproportionately experience the processes that fuel violent crime. Under the same social structural conditions, blacks and whites should exhibit similar rates of involvement in violent offending. On the basis of these assumptions, nonconventional dictates toward behavior are transmitted as a result of the failure of structural factors to restrain behaviors that represent subcultural preferences. Enabling social organization within a neighborhood would, in theory, diminish the power and the transferability of the nonconventional culture among persons over time.

By the latter part of the 1970s, there was marked level of antipathy toward any notion of a nonconventional culture within criminology. Whether it was a strain-based depiction, one of absolute position or a model of pure subculture, theorists advocating subcultural propositions were targeted by a cohort of scholars who preferred structural accounts. One prominent theorist, Ruth Kornhauser, claimed that the proliferation of oppositional values among groups, in particular those that sanctioned destructive behavior, would cause a society to more or less collapse. On the basis of her reasoning, exchange-based economies are particularly susceptible to violence because it threatens the ability of important resources to flow throughout networks. Kornhauser went on to argue that what other theorists conceived as subcultures are actually collective representations of weakened commitment to conventional culture, a condition produced by social structural patterns, namely, social disorganization. Her interpretation indicates that, were it not for social disorganization, nonconventional protocols would not exist within communities and neither would acts of law violation. Consensus- or control-based studies of crime causation such as Kornhauser’s dominated scientific discourse up until the late 1990s.A flurry of published articles centered around the role of social control mechanisms in inhibiting violent behavior. Robert Bursik and Harold Grasmick articulated a systemic model of social organization in the tradition of a social structural position that in essence viewed the persistence of violence as a concomitant product of the persistence of weak social ties and ultimately ineffective public, private, and parochial social controls within communities. Of course, an analogue to their view is that violence is sustained because the cultural conditions underlying it persist. As the tenets of structural accounts became subject to empirical tests, the somewhat limited extent of their explanatory power was revealed.

The trend of anti-subcultural sentiment within the field has since shown signs of reversal. Indeed, the limits of social structural resources in explaining patterns of crime has forced criminologists to reevaluate the conceptualization of nonconventional culture, its relationship to the reality of structural circumstances in urban America, and the precise nature of the link between normative cultural standards and the commission of violent actions. One fact drives the newfound interest in culture: Certain social settings are persistently beset by extraordinary rates of serious crime, whereas other settings do not experience a high volume of crime even though they lack strong social organization (e.g., suburbs) that is predicted to drive high rates of crime.

A current trend in criminology is to treat culture as an adaptation to the social structure and to consider behavior as endogenous to both factors. Early subcultural models of the Chicago School were in fact criticized for assuming a deterministic order because they implied that the causal chain flows one way, from value systems to action, yet a culture-as-adaptation perspective fails to recognize the independent causal force of cultural symbols. In response to this limitation, researchers have moved away from a subcultural strategy (i.e., values and ends) and have focused on how culture is responded to, mobilized, and re-created through individual choice situated within spatial milieus. The benefit of this perspective is that it recognizes the power of culture to re-create itself through behavioral representation (or modeling) and through cognitive learning. An emerging perspective describes culture metaphorically as a “toolkit” that provides strategies of action enabling actors to navigate their unique social landscape.An assumption of this model is that actions cannot be accomplished without the proper toolkit, and certain actions are more probable if the symbolic means are available. Applied this way, violence is practical to implement as a means if one’s toolkit contains the requisite resources, and violent events may be difficult to avoid if repertories are unavailable that direct one’s strategy to do so. Between-person variation in the symbolic resource of the toolkit represents the diversity in socialization experiences between people, part of which is provided by their local ecological setting.

See also:


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  19. Wolfgang, M. E., & Ferracuti, F. (1967). The subculture of violence. London: Tavistock.

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