Criminal and Delinquent Subcultures

A subculture is derivative of, but different from, some larger referential culture. The term is used loosely to denote shared systems of norms, values, or interests that set apart some individuals, groups, or other aggregation of people from larger societies and from broader cultural systems. Common examples include youth subcultures, ethnic subcultures, regional subcultures, subcultures associated with particular occupations, and subcultures that develop among people who share special interests such as bird-watching, stamp collecting, or a criminal or delinquent behavior pattern.

Neither membership in a particular category (age, ethnicity, place of residence, occupation) nor behavior (bird-watching, stamp collecting, crime, or delinquency) is sufficient to define a subculture, however. The critical elements are, rather,

(1) the degree to which values, norms, and identities associated with membership in a category or types of behaviors are shared, and

(2) the nature of relationships, within some larger cultural system, between those who share these elements and those who do not.

In these terms, criminal or delinquent subcultures denote systems of norms, values, or interests that support criminal or delinquent behavior. The many behaviors specified in law as criminal or delinquent are associated with many criminal and delinquent subcultures. The norms, values, or interests of these subcultures may support particular criminal acts, a limited set of such acts (e.g., a subculture of pickpockets vs. a subculture of hustlers). ‘‘Professional criminals,’’ for example, take pride in their craft, organize themselves for the safe and efficient performance of the crimes in which they specialize, and generally avoid other types of criminal involvement that might bring them to the attention of the authorities (see Sutherland 1937; Cressey 1983). Not all criminal subcultures are this specific, however. Some are simply opportunistic, embracing several types of criminal behavior as opportunities arise. So it is with delinquent subcultures, where specialization is rare.

While delinquent subcultures typically are associated with a broad range of illegal behaviors, among delinquent groups and subcultures there is great variation in the nature and strength of group norms, values, and interests. Moreover, the extent to which delinquent behavior is attributable to these factors is problematic. Much delinquent behavior of highly delinquent gangs, for example, results from the operation of group processes rather than group norms per se (see Short 1997). The normative properties of groups vary greatly, but even the most delinquent gang devotes relatively little of its group life to the pursuit of delinquent behaviors. Further, when gangs do participate in delinquent episodes, some members of the gang typically do not become involved. This is so, in part, because subcultures typically consist of collections of normative orders—rules and practices related to a common value (Herbert 1998)—rather than norms oriented around a single value (such as being ‘‘macho,’’ ‘‘cool,’’ or exceptionally gifted in some way). In addition, individuals who are associated with a particular subculture tend also to be associated with other subcultures. Simply being associated with a subculture thus is unlikely to be a good predictor of the behavior of a particular individual.

For analytical purposes it is important to distinguish between subcultures and the particular individuals and groups who share the norms, values, and interests of the subculture. While members of a delinquent gang may be the sole carriers of a particular subculture in a particular location, some subcultures are shared by many gangs. Conflict subcultures, for example, are shared by rival fighting gangs among whom individual and group status involves values related to the defense of ‘‘turf’’ (territory) and ‘‘rep’’ (reputation) and norms supportive of these values. Subcultures oriented to theft and other forms of property crime vary in the extent to which they are associated with particular groups. Some types of property crimes require organization and coordination of activities in order to be successful. Some also necessarily involve the efforts of others, such as ‘‘fences,’’ in addition to members of a criminally organized gang (see Klockars 1974). Others, such as mugging and other types of robbery, may be carried out by individual offenders, who nevertheless share a subculture supportive of such behavior. Most drug-using subcultures tend to be less oriented toward particular groups than are conflict subcultures because the subcultural orientation is toward drug consumption, and this orientation can be shared with other drug users in many types of group situations. To the extent that a subculture is oriented to experiences associated with a particular group, however, a drug-using subculture may also be unique to that group.

As this analysis suggests, cultures, subcultures, and the groups associated with them typically overlap, often in multiple and complex ways. To speak of 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. Terry Williams’s (1989) 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 1994; also Fagan 1996; Hagan, et al. 1998). 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 upperclass 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.

The nature of relationships between delinquent subcultures and larger cultural systems is further illustrated by Mercer Sullivan’s study of cliques of young men in Brooklyn, among whom 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’’ (1989, p. 249). In other words, crime becomes meaningful to young men when they interact with one another and when they participate in youth culture, with its highly commercialized messages. The research literature on criminal and delinquent subcultures is devoted largely to describing and accounting for these types of varied and complex relationships.

Theory and Research

Despite efforts to define the theoretical construct, ‘‘subculture’’—and related constructs—more precisely and to describe and account for the empirical reality they represent, no general theory of subcultures has emerged (Yinger 1960, 1977). Instead, research has continued to reveal enormous variation in subcultures, and theory has proceeded by illustration and analogy, with little progress in measurement or formal theoretical development. Despite this scientifically primitive situation, principles of subcultural formation have been identified, and knowledge of it has advanced.

It is a ‘‘fundamental law of sociology and anthropology,’’ noted Daniel Glaser, that ‘‘social separation produces cultural differentiation’’ (1971, p. 90). More formally, and more cautiously, social separation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the formation of subcultures. To the extent that groups or categories of persons are socially separated from one another, subcultural formation is likely to occur.

Albert Cohen argued that a ‘‘crucial’’ (perhaps necessary) ‘‘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’’ (1955, p. 59). While the notion of ‘‘similar problems of adjustment’’ can be interpreted to include problems faced by quite conventional people with special interests who find themselves ‘‘in the same boat’’ with others who have these same interests (let us say, bird-watchers), this condition seems especially appropriate to subcultures that embrace vandalism, ‘‘hell raising,’’ and other types of nonutilitarian delinquent behavior. Observing that this type of behavior occurs most frequently among workingclass 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, and they are evaluated poorly in terms of this ‘‘middle-class measuring rod.’’ Working-class girls are less pressured in these terms, Cohen argued, because they are judged according to criteria associated with traditional female roles, and they are subject to closer controls in the family.

The solution to their status problems, as some working-class boys see it, according to Cohen’s theory, is to reject the performance and status criteria of middle-class institutions, in effect turning middle-class values upside down. The theory thus seeks to account for the highly expressive and hedonistic quality of much delinquency and for the malicious and negativistic quality of vandalism.

Cohen did not attempt to account for the delinquent behavior of particular individuals or for the behavior of all working-class boys. Most of the latter do not become delinquent—at least not seriously so. They choose instead—or are channeled into—alternative adaptations such as the essentially nondelinquent ‘‘corner boys’’ or the high-achieving ‘‘college boys’’ described by William Foote Whyte (1943).

The forces propelling youngsters into alternative adaptations such as these are not completely understood. Clearly, however, working-class and lower-class boys and girls tend to be devalued in middle-class institutional contexts. Their marginality sets the stage for subcultural adaptations. Delinquents and criminals occupy even more marginal positions. This is particularly true of persistent delinquents and criminals 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.’’ The result often is the formation of delinquent youth gangs, an increasingly common organizational form taken by delinquent subcultures (see Thrasher 1927; Klein, 1995; Short 1997).

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of youth gangs. For theoretical purposes, however, it is useful to define gangs as groups whose members meet together with some regularity over time and whose membership is groupselected, based on group-defined criteria. Similarly, organizational characteristics are group determined. Most importantly, gangs are not adultsponsored groups. The nature of relationships between young people and conventional adults is the most critical difference between gangs and other youth groups (see Schwartz 1987). Gang members are less closely tied to conventional institutions and therefore less constrained by institutional controls than are nongang youth. Group processes of status achievement, allocation, and defense are more likely to result in delinquent behavior among gangs than is the case among adult-sponsored groups.

How do Criminal and Delinquent Subcultures Get Started?

Delinquent and criminal subcultures have a long history in industrialized societies (Cressey 1983). Herman and Julia Schwendinger (1985) trace the origins of adolescent subcultures, including delinquent varieties, to social changes that began in the sixteenth century. Traditional economic and social relationships were greatly altered with the advent of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe, leaving in their wake large numbers of unemployed persons and disrupting communities, families, and other primordial groups. Cut adrift from traditional crafts and communities, thousands roamed the countryside, subsisting as best they could off the land or by victimizing travelers. The ‘‘dangerous classes’’ eventually settled in cities, again to survive by whatever means were available, including crime. Criminal subcultures and organizational networks often developed under these circumstances.

The Schwendingers emphasize that criminal subcultures developed as a result of structural changes associated with capitalist values and their accompanying norms and interests—individualism and competitiveness, acquisitiveness and exploitativeness—and the relationships that developed during this period between capitalists and emerging nation-states. While many of the facts upon which this Marxist interpretation is based are generally accepted, careful historical analysis of economic and political systems and their consequences cautions against any simple or straightforward interpretation (see Chirot 1985). The connection between global phenomena and crime and delinquency always is mediated by historical, cultural, and local circumstances—by the historically concrete (see Tilly 1981).

James Coleman and his associates (1974) identified more recent social changes that were associated with the rise and spread of youth culture throughout the United States: the Baby Boom following World War II and the increased affluence of young people associated with post-World War II economic prosperity combined to create a huge youth market with great economic power. At the same time, young people were spending more time in school and therefore delaying their entrance into the labor force; growing numbers of women entered the work force, further separating mothers from youth in homes and neighborhoods; adults increasingly were employed in large organizations where young people were not present; and mass media, catering more and more to the youth market, were greatly expanded. At the close of the twentieth century, each of these broad social changes was more pronounced—and their influence was more widespread throughout the world—than was the case when these observations were made.

In contrast to accounts of the origins of Western European youth cultures, and of youth culture in the United States, Ko-lin Chin (1996) traces the development of Chinese youth gangs in the United States to ancient secret society traditions, and to the more recent Triad societies that formed in the late seventeenth century in China, and their counterpart tongs in the United States. Formed as political groups representing disfavored Chinese officials and the alienated poor, these groups initially stressed patriotism, righteousness, and brotherhood as primary values. However, their secret nature was conducive to clandestine activities such as gambling, prostitution, and running opium dens. Competition among Triad societies in these activities often led to violence. Failure to achieve political power led to their further transformation into criminal organizations involved in extortion, robbery, drug trafficking, and other serious crimes.

Street gangs comprised of Chinese adolescents did not form in the United States until the late 1950s, but their numbers increased dramatically during the following decade, when changed immigration laws permitted more Chinese to enter the country. Conflict between foreign- and American-born youths led to the emergence of gangs, some seriously delinquent. Chin attributes this development to alienating problems experienced by immigrant Chinese youth in their families, schools, and communities, in dramatic contrast to their American-born counterparts. From the beginning, many Chinese youth gangs have been associated in a variety of ways with established adult secret societies in the United States, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or in all three places. The existence of ‘‘Triad-influenced’’ organizations has been critical to the types of gangs that have emerged in Chinese communities and to the nature of their criminal activities.

While the origins of delinquent subcultures may reside in antiquity, the formation and evolution of modern variations of them can be explained in terms of more immediate macro-level developments. Some of these developments relate primarily to the ongoing activities and interests of gang members rather than to racial or ethnic changes, or to sweeping social changes. The nature of these influences is illustrated by a drugusing group studied by James Short, Fred Strodtbeck, and their associates (Short and Strodtbeck 1965; see also Short 1997, 1998). This gang was observed as it developed its own unique subculture. The subculture of the ‘‘Pill Poppers,’’ as they became known to the research team, evolved from their relationship with a larger, conflict-oriented gang of which they had previously been a part. The Pill Poppers’ preoccupation with drugs and their refusal to participate in the more bellicose activities of the larger gang led to their withdrawal and increasing isolation, by mutual agreement. The researchers were able to observe the evolution of this subculture, which was characterized by normative approval of drug consumption, an elevated value on ‘‘getting high,’’ and mutual interest in the ‘‘crazy’’ things that happened to them when they were under the influence of drugs. The latter, in particular, became legendary within the group, being told and retold with nostalgia and humor when members of the gang were together. The subculture of this gang contrasted sharply with that of other gangs that were participating in a well-developed conflict subculture.

Levels of Explanation of Criminal and Delinquent Subcultures

The theories of criminal and delinquent subcultures are macro-level theories (Short 1998). Their purpose is to identify what it is about political, economic, and other social systems that explain the emergence and the social distribution of these phenomena. Other theories at this level focus on the impact of local and broader community opportunities on delinquent subcultures and on youth subcultures generally. Walter Miller (1958) related lower-class culture to gang delinquency, while Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960) found that different delinquent subcultures were associated with the availability of legitimate and illegitimate economic opportunities in local communities. Gary Schwartz (1987) stressed the importance of local community youth-adult authority relationships in determining the nature of youth subcultures, including the extent and the nature of delinquent activities associated with them. Mercer Sullivan (1989) related gang adaptations to more global economic developments such as the transfer of manufacturing jobs from the United States to other countries and an increasingly segmented labor market, which has resulted in the concentration of low-wage and surplus labor in innercity minority communities (see also Hagedorn 1987, 1998).

William Julius Wilson (1987) provided the most compelling theoretical argument relating economic changes to crime and delinquency among the ‘‘truly disadvantaged.’’ Wilson argued that a permanent underclass emerged in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Research on delinquent subcultures supports this argument and documents related changes in gang membership. Because fewer good jobs were available to poor, minority young men, more gang members continued their association with gangs as they entered adulthood. In the past, gang members typically ‘‘grew out of’’ the gang to take jobs, get married, and often become associated with adult social clubs in stable, ethnically-based communities. These options have become less viable among the poor of all races, but minorities have increasingly become the truly disadvantaged. Gang organization has been affected by this change, as older members assume or continue leadership roles. The result often has been that gang involvement in criminal activities has become more sophisticated and instrumental, and younger members have been exploited in criminal enterprise. Relationships between young people and conventional adults also suffer, as older, stable role models and monitors of youthful behavior are replaced by young adult, often criminal, role models for the young (see Anderson 1990, 1999).

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 Hamilton Park, the white group, were able to find better jobs than were the others at all ages. More important, because ‘‘they had become more familiar with the discipline of the workplace,’’ as they grew older they were able to secure better-quality jobs and to hold on to them, compared to the minority youth studied by Sullivan. Familiarity with the discipline of the workplace is a type of human capital that was made possible by an important type of social capital—the superior personal networks that the Hamilton Park youth shared with the adult community (Sullivan 1989, pp. 105, 226). The minority youth were disadvantaged, with respect to both human and social capital, in the family and in other ways (see Coleman 1988). Thus, while individual human and social capital are acquired through personal experience, communities and neighborhoods also vary in their stock of human and social capital, qualitatively and quantitatively—yet another way in which delinquent and criminal subcultures reflect aspects of their ‘‘parent’’ (larger) cultures.

All macro-level theories make certain assumptions about the individual level of explanation. The most prominent of these assumptions is that individuals learn subcultural norms, values, and the behaviors they encourage, by interacting with others in their environment. The general processes of learning have been well established by research and theory (see Bandura 1986; Eron 1987). The child’s most important early learning experiences take place in the family, but other influences quickly assert themselves, especially as children associate with age and gender peers. With the beginning of adolescence, the latter become especially powerful as young people experience important biological and social changes. It is at this point that youth subcultures become especially significant.

Subcultures are dynamic and ever changing, influenced by both external and internal forces and processes. Substantial knowledge gaps exist at each level of explanation; precisely how they relate to each other is not well understood, however. By documenting the ongoing interaction among gang members and between gang members and others, group processes help to inform the nature of the relationship in ways that are consistent with what is known at the individual and macro levels of explanation. Both intragang and intergang fighting often serve group purposes, for example, by demonstrating personal qualities that are highly valued by the gang or by reinforcing group solidarity (see Miller, Geertz, and Cutter 1961; Jansyn 1966). Gang conflict often occurs when a gang believes its ‘‘rep,’’ its ‘‘turf,’’ or its resources (for example, its share of a drug market) are threatened by another gang. Threats to individual or group status often result in violent or other types of criminal behavior (Short 1997).


The rich research materials that have accumulated regarding criminal and delinquent subcultures suggest two conclusions:

(1) there is a great variety of such adaptive phenomena, and

(2) they are of an ever-changing nature.

Because they both effect social change and adapt to it, subcultures—including criminal and delinquent subcultures—continue to be important theoretically, empirically, and practically (that is, as a matter of social policy). Robert Sampson and his colleagues (1997) find that willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good, together with collective efficacy (social cohesion among neighbors), is associated with lower rates of violent crime in Chicago neighborhoods. This suggests that developing ways to encourage identification of neighbors with each other and encouraging them to help one another in their common interests will enhance local social control and help weaken the influence of subcultures that encourage criminal and delinquent behavior.

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