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Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures - Subcultural Theory

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No general theory has emerged, despite many efforts to define the notion as a theoretical construct (but see Yinger, 1960; 1977). A large body of research documents an enormous range of subcultures. On the basis of illustration and analogy drawn from this research, several principles of subcultural formation have been identified.

The first principle is that culture is adaptive (see Sills, ed., entries under "Culture"). It follows that subcultures also are adaptive; and, as is true of social life in general, subcultures change in response to changing technologies and fashions and ecological, political, and economic conditions (see Shover).

A second fundamental principle is that "social separation produces cultural differentiation" (Glaser, p. 90). Groups or categories of persons that are socially separated from one another inevitably face different problems of living; hence, culturally different solutions to such problems also emerge. Social separation is not sufficient to explain subcultural adaptations, however. Albert Cohen, theorizing about "the delinquent subculture" argued that a "crucial condition for the emergence of new cultural forms is the existence, in effective interaction with one another, of a number of actors with similar problems of adjustment" (p. 59). "Similar problems of adjustment," of course, may involve quite conventional people whose special interests require communication and interaction with others who have these same interests (e.g., stamp collectors). However, Cohen viewed this condition as especially appropriate to subcultures associated with such nonutilitarian delinquent behaviors as vandalism and general "hell raising."

Observing that this type of behavior occurs most frequently among working-class boys, Cohen hypothesized that this type of delinquent subculture was formed in reaction to status problems experienced by working-class boys in middle-class institutions such as schools. Many working-class boys are inadequately prepared for either the educational demands or the discipline of formal education. As a result they perform poorly, and are evaluated accordingly, in terms of the "middle-class measuring rod" found in elementary and secondary schools. Working-class girls, who are subject to closer controls in the family and judged according to traditional female role expectations, experience less pressure in such middle-class contexts.

For some working-class boys, Cohen argued that the solution to status problems is to reject the performance and status criteria of middle-class institutions—in effect, turning middle-class values upside down. Cohen's theory did not seek to account for the behavior of individual delinquent boys, or for the behavior of all working-class boys. Most of the latter do not engage in serious delinquent or criminal behavior. Alternative adaptations are available for most young people, for example, the underachieving but essentially nondelinquent "corner boys" or the high-achieving "college boys" described in William Foote Whyte's classic book, Street Corner Society (1943).

The processes associated with alternative behavioral adaptations are not completely understood. There is ample evidence that working-class and lower-class boys and girls tend to be devalued and marginalized in middle-class institutional contexts, despite often well-intentioned efforts on the part of schools and other institutions. Institutions also develop subcultural adaptations in dealing with young people. Some of these are counterproductive, in effect enhancing the behaviors they are designed to control (see Devine). Marginalization of delinquents and criminals is even greater than that of persons who are devalued by virtue of their social class position. This is particularly true of persistent delinquents and criminals and those who commit serious crimes, in contrast to those who only rarely transgress the law and with little consequence. When marginality is reinforced by labeling, stigmatization, or prejudicial treatment in schools and job markets, "problems of adjustment" magnify. The common ecological location of many delinquents, in the inner-city slums of large cities, and their coming together in schools, provides the setting for "effective interaction."

These principles converge, theoretically and empirically, in recent scholarship. Based on extensive research, William Julius Wilson argues compellingly that a permanent underclass—the "truly disadvantaged"—emerged in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Social isolation and concentration effects are especially evident among the ghetto poor who are African Americans. Both have increased at a time of unprecedented affluence in the larger society, exacerbating problems in every institutional sector and leaving in its wake a host of social ills, including poverty, drug abuse, crime, and delinquency.

Although criminal and delinquent subcultures have a long history in industrialized societies (Cressey; Schwendinger and Schwendinger), they continue to change in response to changing social and economic conditions. Among these subcultures, the emergence of a truly youth subculture has been a major influence. Coleman and colleagues trace this development to events occurring in the United States following World War II: the "baby boom" and increasing affluence, which combined to create a huge youth market; extension of formal education of the young; delaying labor force participation by young people; increased numbers of women entering the work force, further separating mothers from children in homes and neighborhoods; increased employment of adults in large organizations where young people were not present; and expansion of the mass media, increasingly focused on the youth market, catering to and shaping their fashions. Each of these broad social changes increased greatly in scope as the twentieth century drew to a close.

Thus, socially isolated from mainstream society, the young people of the underclass are nevertheless subject to the blandishments of youth fashion and its expensive artifacts. Mercer Sullivan, studying cliques of young men in Brooklyn, New York, observed that among these young men the "cultural meaning of crime was constructed in . . . interaction out of materials supplied from two sources: the local area in which they spend their time almost totally unsupervised and undirected by adults, and the consumerist youth culture promoted in the mass media" (p. 249). The result is a volatile mix of macro-level deprivation, individual concerns with status and survival, and group and interpersonal relationships that set the stage for violence.

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