Cultural Transmission Theory

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.