Cultural Transmission Theory


I. Introduction

II. Conceptual Foundation

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.