Cultural Transmission Theory

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.