Cultural Transmission Theory

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.