No. XIV (1987)

The subculture of violence thesis and explaining violent criminal behavior

Krzysztof Krajewski
Jagiellonian University

Published 1987-10-12


  • subculture,
  • aggressive crime,
  • concept cultural,
  • behaviour,
  • violence,
  • violent criminal,
  • individuals behavior,
  • theory,
  • concept

How to Cite

Krajewski, K. (1987). The subculture of violence thesis and explaining violent criminal behavior. Archives of Criminology, (XIV), 7–42.


This article dears with some problems related to application of Wolfgang’s and Ferracuti's subculture of violence theory explanation of violent criminal behaviour. Wolfgang and Ferracuti adopted in their concept cultural  approach to explanation of crime in general, and violent crime in  particular. Doing so, they rejected openly usefulness in this particular area of Merton’s anomie theory. They adopted so-called normative theory of culture, when means that they understand under the term culture a normative system consisting of values, norms and behavioral patterns, which exert pressure over individuals being under their influence, what results in uniformity of human behaviour. Application of this concept in criminology means that there may exist specific normative systems containing such values and norms which may lead individuals influenced by them to criminal behaviour. In other words it means, that when we observe within certain social group high criminality rates, higher than the average ones in a given society we may explain  them in terms of  the specific features of the culture of this group. This way of thinking is not totally new in American criminological literature. The best example of it constitutes W.B. Miller’s concept of flower-class culture as a generating milieu of gang delinquency. Wolfgang and Ferracuti claim that disproportionately high rates of violent crimes among and members of American lower-class (especially members of ethnic minorities) result from specific subculture existing within this social group, which they call subculture of violence. This subculture is the specific normative system which is characterized by tolerance and permissiveness which respect to the use of violence in interpersonal relations. The use of violence is  perceived by members of such subculture as something normal and natural, they do not consider it as either illegal or immoral. On the contrary, violent people showing physical prowess and readiness of high enjoy many social rewards, high social status and prestige. People who do not conform to the requirements of such subculture face many troubles within their groups, including even possible ostracism.

            Wolfgang's and Ferracuti's concept contains evidently two separate layers. The first one, sociological, deals with subculture of violence as a social phenomenon and the problems related to the existence, functioning and transmission of violence related norms and values within society. The concept of subculture itself plays here a key role. The second one, psychological, deals with psychological consequences for the individuals of being under influence of such subcultural ethos. The main concern here are changes in attitudes and ways of perceiving environment resulting from the adoption of subcultural values, which one observes among violent people. These two layers are connected by very important thesis that aggression and violence constitute learned behaviour deeply internalised in the personalities of individuals. As it was said before subculture of violence thesis was conceived by Wolfgang and Ferracuti primarily to explain excessively high rates of violent crime among members of American lower class. But they point out as well to other examples of such subcultures as for example barbaricino code in Sardinia, customary vendetta in Albanova district in Italy, Colombian violencia or ,,criminal tribes'' in India. All  this means that they treat their concept as a broader integrated criminological theory of violent criminal behaviour not limited to specific American context.     

One can point out to many attempts in the USA at empirical verification of the violent subculture thesis. First of all it is necessary to mention researches done by S. Ball-Rokeach and H. Erlanger. They attempted to verify Wolfgang's and Ferracuti's claims that there must exist significant differences in value systems and attitudes towards the use of violence between violent and non-violent persons, and that people who engage very often in violent incidents enjoy within their communities many social rewards including high status and prestige. The subculture of violence thesis was also used to explain a well-known in the American literature phenomenon of excessively high rates of violent crimes, especially homicides in the southern states. Among attempts at cultural explanations of this phenomenon one can point out first of all to contributions by Hackney, Gastill and Erlanger as well. All mentioned above researches hardly brought conclusive results. They involve many methodological shortcomings' and generally speaking seem to be too simply conceived, using too crude tools to pretend to be real tests of the subculture of violence thesis. This concept still awaits real, comprehensive attempt at empirical verification.

            When evaluating Wolfgang's and Ferracuti's concept from the theoretical point of view one has to start from the proposition which seems - as it was said before-to constitute the core of the entire concept: aggression and violence constitute learned behaviour. At this moment it is easy to observe similarity with E. D. Sutherland's differential association theory. Sutherland was speaking about conflict between criminal and non-criminal cultures. Existence of this conflict made it possible for an individual to have contacts with patterns of both criminal and law-abiding behaviour.  Prevalence of one of them in the immediate environment of the individual decided about its future behavior. Very similarly Wolfgang and Ferracuti speak about the conflict between dominant culture (which they call non-violent culture) and subculture (which they call subculture of violence). This conflict makes possible differential association in the Sutherland’s meaning of the term. There is however one important difference. Sutherland, as it is well know, was strongly influenced in his thinking by G. H. Mead’s symbolic interactionism and sociology of Ch. H. Cooley, what resulted in particular attention paid to the primary social groups  and direct interaction. For Sutherland the process of learning criminal behaviour could take place only by means of direct interaction within primary social groups. It is not easy to interpret Wolfgang’s and Ferracuti’s theory with respect to this problem, as they are not very explicit within the subculture. It makes it necessary to  carry out a more detailed analysis of what they understand under the term subculture. They say on the one hand that the concept of subculture is strictly connected with the concept of social group. It seems however that this last concept they understand very broadly, when they say that individuals  sharing certain values, norms and behavioral patterns constitute social  groups. This means that under the term subculture they understand just individuals sharing particular norms and values, at least partly distinct from those existing in the dominant culture. This means as well that such sharing of values does not require direct interaction between individuals. It leads finally to a very important statement that subculture may exist widely dispersed spatially. It is necessary to underline that such understanding of the term subculture is not totally alien even to the contemporary adherents  of symbolic interactionism. An article by A. Fine and S. Kleinman constitutes clear example. The essence of this approach is an attempt to avoid ,,reification’’-as above authors call it-of the concept of subculture, what means equaling it with certain social structure, in other words social group. It seems however that one should not press this point of view to the extreme. Interpretation of the meaning of the term culture in terms of individuals behaviour is quite popular in social anthropology, to mention only R. Linton. But it may lead also to certain consequences absurd from sociological and behaviour point of view. It may mean that if somebody behaves in a certain way, he adheres to certain norms and values of which his behaviour is a result. If not, it means that he  does not adhere to them. In fact, it is a great simplification from the point of view of the mechanisms of human behaviour. In such a situation the concept of subculture lacks clear empirical meaning and loses its explaining potential. It seem  that Wolgang's and Ferracuti's stance results from a very individualistic approach paying attention only to the relation culture-individual, while neglecting a very important one: culture-social group. 

Very helpful in solving presented above problems may be more detailed analysis of the psychological mechanisms of learning. What is interesting is that Wolfgang and Ferracuti do not go into details with respect to this, and mention only eventual usefulness of either Eysenck's or Bandura’s concepts. This lust one seems to be particularly suitable for the purposes of interpreting subculture of violence concept. Bandura's concepts of observational learning, as well as clear distinction between learning and performance, and analysis of the process of learning from three separate points of view, i.e. acquisition mechanisms instigation mechanism and maintenance mechanisms may be here particularly useful. It means that subculture of violence supplies to individual patterns of violence and aggression which are observed, memorized and in this way learned. It is also obvious that these patterns are not supplied by abstract subculture itself, but by behaviour of other individuals in the immediate environment. It is clear however that there are no people who behave constantly violently, what Wolfgang and Ferracuti admit, but do not elaborate on it. Learned violent patterns may result in violent behaviour only sometimes, when they meet necessary instigating stimuli. They may become more consistent and durable behavioral patterns only when necessary maintaining mechanisms come into being. It is obvious that subculture of violence may, serve as the supplier of both instigating and maintaining mechanisms. Especially these last may be very important. Bandura provides a very important distinction between internal and external control of human behaviour .Internal control means rewards, reinforcements coming from the individual's self. Here internalized values and norms come into action and play on important role. Behaviour, being in accordance with them brings satisfaction to the individual. This aspect of maintaining mechanisms constiutes main subject for Wolfgang and Ferracuti. But there is another one: external control, reinforcements, rewards coming from social environment, from social groups. Wolfgang and Ferracuti pay less attention or almost none to this aspect, because to analyse it one has to connect the meaning of the term subculture with the term social group, what they refuse to do. External control can not be an attribute of subculture itself. It is the function of groups. When one recognizes that subcultural system may be analysed only as a normative system of given- social groups, the possible influence of it becomes much broader. In such an interpretation subcultural influence is not limited only to mechanisms of internal control. Individuals may behave violently because they receive many external rewards for such behaviour. Because of this violent behaviour does not have necessarily to bring special satisfaction to the individual. Such behaviour may result from well known in social psychology mechanisms of group pressure and conformity with group standards.   

In sum, it seems to be very profitable to use Bandura’s social learning theory to interpret and to broaden Wolfgang's and Ferracuti’s subculture of violence thesis. It is necesary of course to modify their use of the term subculture and connect it strictly with social structures and groups. In such a situation subcultural influence from the psychological point of view may not be limited to the mechanisms of internal control but extended to the external control by social groups, -what makes possible application of the theory as a theory of violent behaviour in general.


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