Cultural Transmission Theory

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.

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