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Skip to content Ontario. The search for the social causes of violence has been an ongoing preoccupation of criminologists since the early 20 th century, when researchers attempted to look beyond biological and psychological explanations to understand crime. The shift in understanding violence as a social phenomenon, rather than an individual one, emerged from observations that incidents of violence tend to not be evenly distributed within society.
Rather, rates of crime and violence vary spatially and demographically. The endeavour to understand these patterns has generated a range of theories that highlight various social processes, including how crime is learned and taught and how it emerges from social inequalities.
Amongst these various explanations, few have been as durable as the explanation of culture. Cultural explanations for violence first emerged in the works of American delinquency theorists in the s who were attempting to account for the concentrations of crime and violence in poor, urban African-American neighbourhoods in the s.
Sellin , Miller and Cohen were amongst the first of many cultural deviance theorists to develop the concept of a criminal subculture and to link it to social problems such as poverty and inequality. However, it was not until the late s that Wolfgang and Ferracuti launched a distinct and comprehensive subculture of violence thesis. Central to their discussion was the idea that higher rates of violence amongst lower-class and racialized populations could be explained by the fact that these groups have embraced values and norms that are more permissive of violence.
This theorization assumes the existence of distinct subcultural, pro-violent values that develop in opposition to dominant or middle-class norms and values. This literature review will provide a detailed discussion of the subculture of violence thesis and trace its development from the work of Wolfgang and Ferracuti to its more current applications. Though the subculture of violence thesis was originally devised to explain and examine high rates of violence amongst structurally marginalized populations and neighbourhoods, since then, this framework has been applied and evaluated in relation to a variety of other demographics and locales, such as the American South Nisbett and Cohen, ; Hayes, , athletes Smith, , middle schools and high schools within the United States and Iceland Felson et al.
This discussion will explore the implications of these findings and whether there is adequate support to suggest the existence of a subculture of violence. The key objective of their work is to develop a way to identify and measure subcultures of violence in order to scientifically prove their existence.
In order to do so, the authors propose an integrated methodological and theoretical approach, which involves drawing from a variety of existing criminological theories as well as from insights from sociology and psychology. With regard to explaining how subcultures cause violence, Wolfgang and Ferracuti argue that violence is a product of conformity to a pro-violent subculture that is in direct conflict with the dominant culture.
Wolfgang and Ferracuti offer no explanation as to how subcultures of violence evolve in the first place, despite their assertions that they tend to be a lower-class, racialized and masculine phenomenon. The proliferation of violence within this context is believed to result from a tendency amongst subcultural offenders to embrace values and norms that are more permissive of the use of violence under certain conditions. Implicit in this proposition is the concept of disputatiousness, which suggests that violence is a central means for subcultural affiliates to maintain and protect their status.
According to Wolfgang and Ferracuti, violent reactions to perceived threats to reputation or honour are culturally prescribed, given that a failure to react defensively may result in life-threatening consequences. In this sense, violent values act as a mechanism of social control, given that they require members of a subculture to engage in violence for their own protection and survival.
As a result, equipped with the values to justify their violent actions, subcultural offenders engage in violence frequently and guiltlessly, with little provocation Wolfgang and Ferracuti, Though they draw from the insights of cultural deviance theorists before them, empirically Wolfgang and Ferracuti base their theorizations entirely upon inferences from available statistics on homicide at that time, which illustrated a concentration of violent crime in primarily poor, racialized neighbourhoods in Philadelphia.
Through these statistics, the authors deduce that subcultural violence is a uniquely marginalized male phenomenon. It is believed that the observation of values will, in turn, provide insight into the group norms, since the latter sustains the former through rewarding conformity and penalizing non-conformity.
Thus, individual action, attitude and perception are considered to be the key to understanding the collective phenomena of culture. With this in mind, Wolfgang and Ferracuti propose the following:. Although they do not actually apply their methods or test their thesis in The Subculture of Violence , the authors express certainty regarding the potential of their method to identify subcultural offenders, predict who might become a subcultural offender, and ascertain the location of such offenders Wolfgang and Ferracuti, Those who have undertaken evaluations of this framework have pointed out the tautological or circular reasoning that underlies the assumed link between violent values and violent actions and the importance of analyzing individual data on values in order to asses the validity of this thesis Erlanger, ; Kornhauser, Many of the studies that have evaluated the subculture of violence thesis do not test it in its entirety.
Rather, most examine elements of this perspective, focusing on specific propositions such as the contention that there is a link between violent behaviour and violent values. This discussion will be followed by a review of some of the more in-depth evaluations of whether the subculture of violence thesis is an appropriate explanation for the high rates of violence amongst poverty-stricken black neighbourhoods in the United States.
Finally, recent studies evaluating the existence of a subculture of violence in the southern United States will be reviewed in detail. Ball-Rokeach conducted one of the earliest examinations of the subculture of violence thesis, focusing specifically on whether individuals who engage in violence hold favourable attitudes towards violence and are committed to subcultural, pro-violent values Ball-Rokeach, Ball-Rokeach tests the hypothesized relationships between violent values, attitudes and violent behaviour through two independent studies.
The first involves assessing the values and attitudes underlying interpersonal violence in a probability sample of 1, adult Americans, and the second consists of examining disparities in values amongst male offenders incarcerated for various violent and non-violent crimes Ball-Rokeach, An additional component of the first study entailed determinations of the degree to which participants in the national sample engaged in violent actions and behaviours. In the latter study, the key objective was to determine whether violent and non-violent offenders do in fact hold differing values towards violence.
The extent to which respondents engaged in violence in the first study was assessed through self-report questions about their participation and experiences in interpersonal violence as both assailants and victims. In the second, engagement in violence was assessed through distinguishing between those offenders who were convicted of violent offences and those who were not.
Ball-Rokeach determined whether participants in the national sample held pro-violent attitudes through their responses to three hypothetical scenarios. Whether those who engaged in violence in both the national and prison samples were motivated by pro-violent values was assessed through a value survey compiled by Ball-Rokeach in an earlier study. For this portion of the experiment, respondents were asked to rank, in order of priority, a list of concepts that are indicative of various human values, as well as a variety of human characteristics they found important or appealing.
The survey did not include values specific to the use of violence for the purposes of protecting or maintaining reputation amongst peers. With regard to the national sample, the researchers found no correlation between participation in violence and attitudes towards violence, leading them to reject the hypothesis that pro-violent attitudes lead to violent behaviour. Respondents who had engaged in violence at one point in their lives were no more likely to approve of the use of violence within the given hypothetical scenarios.
Ball-Rokeach interprets these findings as lending little support to the proposition that violent values are conducive to violent behaviour. Similar findings were apparent in relation to the value comparison experiment amongst violent and nonviolent offenders in the prison sample.
In contrast to the expected correlation between approval of violence and lower-class status, Ball-Rokeach found a more significant relationship between pro-violent attitudes and education Ball-Rokeach, First, Wolfgang and Ferracuti do not suggest that all those who participate in violence have violent values. Rather, they argue that only subcultural offenders hold pro-violent values. This serves as the basis of their assertion that empirical assessments of their thesis should only be conducted on those offenders who are believed to be part of this subgroup.
As noted earlier, Wolfgang and Ferracuti argue that those enmeshed within a subculture of violence are more likely to be low-income racialized men. In her study, Ball-Rokeach employs a random sample of men in the general population, which does not serve as an accurate sample for the purposes of this analysis.
This study does not take the idea of disputatiousness into consideration, which is central to understanding the use of violence within subcultures. Wolfgang and Ferracuti assert that the key difference between subcultural violent offenders and general violent offenders is that for the former group, violence for the purposes of protecting or maintaining reputation is not considered to be wrong.
Rather, it is encouraged. Thus, a more precise evaluation of the subculture of violence proposition regarding the relationship between violent behaviour and pro-violent values should reflect this instrumental understanding of violence. In another early study of the subculture of violence thesis, Erlanger examines structural differences in attitudes towards violence and attempts to go beyond studying the influence of pro-violent values through considering the impact of norms on violent behaviour.
In addition, through a consideration of the influence of norms, Erlanger examines whether those participants who report engaging in violence are motivated by peer pressure, sanctions or a desire to impress their peers. Erlanger relies on data from a survey involving both African-American and white males between the ages of 21 and 64, in which respondents were asked about their participation in violence and their perceived status within their peer group.
He found that racially and economically marginalized men were more likely to participate in violence than white and middle class men were Erlanger, However, Erlanger hesitates to embrace the subculture framework, arguing that his findings are not statistically significant.
While the relationship between violence and perceived self-esteem was relatively weak, evidence supporting a counter-norm of non-violence amongst the white middle-class participants was also minimal.
In addition, though Erlanger attempts to assess disputatiousness through relating participation in violence to self-esteem, the assumed link between self-esteem and violence in this study is debatable. Given this possibility, questions about self-esteem may not say much about whether participants in violence are under the influence of pro-violent norms.
The following section will review the findings of three studies that were conducted amongst middle and high school students in the United States and Iceland.
All explore the impact of group norms on levels of violence and the presumed relationship between violent values and violent behaviour. While Felson et al. Finally, all three studies raise doubts about the role of socialization processes in the transmission of subcultural violence.
While Ousey and Wilcox point to the importance of considering additional factors such as impulsivity and exposure to violent peers, the other two studies suggest the significance of social control processes in encouraging disputatiousness amongst subcultural affiliates. The degree to which group norms exert an influence on individuals who commit violence has been the subject of more recent evaluations of the subculture of violence thesis.
One of the most widely cited studies in this genre is one conducted by Felson et al. Felson et al. By distinguishing between these two processes, Felson et al.
In the first wave, 2, sophomore males were interviewed. Of the original group, 1, students participated in the second round of interviews. Information on the degree to which research participants engaged in violent or aggressive actions to maintain honour or viewed violence as a legitimate reaction to some form of provocation was obtained through their responses to a variety of hypothetical scenarios.
First, they sought to gain a sense of the degree to which interpersonal violence amongst males varied across the high schools in their sample. Second, they conducted aggregate analyses in order to explore whether any variations in rates of violence between the schools in the sample could be linked to the presence, absence or influence of subcultural values.
Finally, the impact of school context on rates of individual violence was assessed. The purpose of this contextual analysis was to assess the impact of immediate peer group values on individual violent behaviour. First, Felson et al. While some school environments were conducive to this, others were not. Thus, in those schools marked by high rates of violence, it appears as though boys engage in violence to maintain their reputation within their school peer groups.
Based on this finding, the authors question the idea that boys commit violence as a result of their internalization of school-based, pro-violent values. The authors hypothesize that the subculture of violence thesis may be more appropriate as an explanation for concentrations of violence within small groups in which members engage in ongoing social interaction.
Like Felson et al. Ousey and Wilcox examine the influence of individual and aggregate-level pro-violence values on incidents of violent behaviour within a school environment.
The authors replicate Felson et al. They criticize Felson for overlooking two other possible explanations for violent behaviour that are theoretically notable in the literature on crime and delinquency: exposure to violent peers and low self-control. Incorporating elements of differential association theories of crime and delinquency, the authors hypothesize that individuals may model the violent behaviour of their peers, rather than actually embracing pro-violent values or engaging in violence for the purposes of impression management.
In addition, based on the work of Gottfredson and Hirschi , the authors consider the impact of low self-control on the occurrence of subcultural violence. Ousey and Wilcox criticize Felson et al. In challenging the idea that violent values are primarily the cause of violent behaviour within subcultures of violence, they predict the following: 1 Schools with students who appear to hold values that are more accepting of violence will, on average, have higher rates of violent incidents than will schools with fewer students with pro-violent values.
Ousey and Wilcox, 9. Ousey and Wilcox engaged in survey research with 3, seventh-grade students from 65 middle schools in randomly selected counties in the state of Kentucky.
The students participating in the project completed the survey between March and May of
Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews
Wolfgang, Marvin E., and Franco Ferracuti: Subculture of Violence Theory
Forgot your login information? In: Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory. Wolfgang, Marvin E. Edited by: Francis T. Subject: Criminological Theory general. Hanser, R.
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Ferracuti, Franco Overview. Publication Timeline. Most widely held works about Franco Ferracuti. Most widely held works by Franco Ferracuti. The subculture of violence: towards an integrated theory in criminology by Marvin E Wolfgang Book 49 editions published between and in English and Undetermined and held by 1, WorldCat member libraries worldwide This is a reprint of Wolfgang's pioneering attempt to develop a interdisciplinary approach in criminology. It presents a comprehensive survey and analytical discussion of sociological, psychological, psychiatric, and physiological research and theory concerning the values, norms and behavior associated with violence.