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Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures - Conclusion

social youth example capital

Among delinquent groups and subcultures there is great variation in the nature and strength of group norms, values, and interests. Much, however, remains unknown. The extent to which delinquent behavior is attributable to group norms, values, or special interests is itself problematic, inasmuch as delinquent behavior of some highly delinquent gangs appears to result from the operation of group processes as much as from group norms (Short, 1997). Observations of street gangs suggest that, among even the most delinquent groups, relatively little of group life involves delinquent behaviors; and, when such groups participate in delinquent episodes, some members typically do not become involved. Subcultures consist of "collections of normative orders"—sets of rules and practices related to a common value (Herbert)—rather than norms oriented around a single value (such as being "macho," "cool," or exceptionally gifted in some way). Individuals typically associate with more than one subculture-witness the "decent" youth observed by Anderson (1999), for example. Simply being associated with a subculture thus is unlikely to be a good predictor of the behavior of any particular individual.

Cultures, subcultures, and the groups associated with them overlap, often in multiple and complex ways. To speak of a youth culture, for example, is to denote a subculture of the larger adult-dominated and institutionally defined culture. Similarly, delinquent subcultures contain elements of both youth and adult cultures. Williams's lower-class, minority "cocaine kids," for example, were entrepreneurial, worked long hours, and maintained self-discipline—all important elements in the achievement ideology of the American Dream (see Messner and Rosenfeld; also Fagan; Hagan, et al.). Most saw their involvement in the drug trade as a way to get started in legitimate business or to pursue other conventional goals, and a few succeeded at least temporarily in doing so. The criminal subculture with which they identified shared a symbiotic relationship with their customers (including many middle-and upper-class persons), who shared subcultural values approving drug use but who participated in the subculture of drug distribution only as consumers. For the young drug dealers, selling drugs was a way to "be somebody," to get ahead in life, and to acquire such things as jewelry, clothing, and cars—the symbols of wealth, power, and respect.

Sullivan's study of groups and young males in three Brooklyn communities—black, predominantly Latino, and white—is particularly significant in this regard. The young men in Mercer Sullivan's white group were able to find better jobs than were the black and Hispanic youth at all ages. Their stock of human capital had been reinforced by experience with the discipline of the workplace, while their social capital was enhanced by their ability to secure better-quality jobs as a result of the superior personal networks that they shared with the adult community (Sullivan). The minority youth were disadvantaged, with respect to both human and social capital, in the family and in other ways (see Coleman). Both human and social capital are acquired through personal experience, and communities and neighborhoods vary in their stock of both, qualitatively and quantitatively.

Subcultures are dynamic and ever changing, influenced by both external and internal forces and processes. Substantial knowledge gaps exist at each level of explanation, and precisely how they relate to each other is not well understood. Subcultures both effect social change and adapt to it, and for this reason they are important theoretically, empirically, and as they reflect and influence social policy. The report by Robert Sampson and his colleagues that Chicago neighborhoods with higher scores on "collective efficacy" have lower rates of criminally violent behavior, for example, suggests that developing ways to encourage identification of neighbors with each other, and willingness to help one another in their common interest, will enhance local social control and help to weaken the influence of subcultures that encourage such behavior. Many such examples might be cited.

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