The subculture of violence hypothesis refers to a theoretical perspective that argues that violence is a result of a system of accepted norms and beliefs that condone violence in interpersonal relationships. This perspective claims that societal groups statistically associated with high rates of violence hold these norms and beliefs. Traditionally, these groups have been minorities (particularly African Americans), the poor, and those who reside in the South.
Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti first articulated this perspective in their 1967 book, The Subculture of Violence. They connected the statistical association between poverty and numbers of African Americans and violence with a subcultural normative system that is reflected in psychological traits, resulting in an individual’s greater likelihood of using violence. Transmitted through cultural learning, this pro-violence normative system appears most prominent among younger men. Although others later applied the subculture of violence thesis to lethal and nonlethal forms of violence, this original research addressed homicide specifically.
In a highly influential analysis, Raymond Gastil and Sheldon Hackney observed an association between violence and southern states. In addition to claiming the existence of a normative acceptance of violence there, they delineated several historical features that shaped this cultural orientation toward violence, arguing that the South showed a greater propensity toward violence even prior to the Civil War. Evidence for this conclusion included the persistence of the duel for settling interpersonal matters, the greater numbers of guns owned, and the notion of defending honor with violence. Further arguments included the institutions of slavery and lynching— both pre- and post-Civil War—as indicators of an acceptance of violence.
Empirical support for the subculture of violence has been mixed. Most research does not find the South more violent. In fact, in recent decades the West has become the most violent region. Poverty continues to be a consistent factor in violence, though the reasons for this association generally lack specificity. Similar findings exist for the impact of race, although here a clear confounding effect of poverty on the race and violence relationship does exist.
Criticism of the subculture of violence thesis occurs on several grounds. First, little strong empirical support for the theory exists from a macroanalytical perspective, due largely to imprecise measures of subcultures of violence using demographic groups as a proxy for a set of subcultural values. It is difficult to state what actually causes the observed associations between poverty, minority groups, and/ or the South and violence. Other explanations such as social disorganization and frustrations because of disadvantage and discrimination are also possible connections. However, there is an indication that institutional legitimization of violence—separate from race, socioeconomic status (SES), or geographic location—does impact violence. Directly examining manifestations of a legitimization of violence offers much stronger support for the connection between institutionalized cultural values accepting violence and the rates of violence. These measures, however, reflect a belief system that is not bound to race, SES, or geographic location. Second, the thesis rests on the premise that the observed associations between violence and minority groups, the poor, and the South have a cultural base. In other words, these demographic groups comprise groups with a shared set of identifiable beliefs and norms that include violence. This led to the presumption that (a) individuals within these groups are more violent, and (b) group membership means an adoption of those violent beliefs. This, however, implies a greater homogeneity among those who belong to a subcultural group than most likely exists. Furthermore, when race and violent beliefs are directly examined through survey data, the research finds that whites, not African Americans, are more likely to espouse beliefs in the use of violence in defensive situations, with no difference in the acceptance of violence as an instrumental strategy to solve problems. Research examining offenders such as batterers and rapists, for example, indicates that a strong relationship exists between an individual’s acceptance of violence and the willingness to use violence. Therefore, violent belief systems may, in fact, help us understand violence, but evidence is lacking that these belief systems occur in greater numbers in the groups identified as violent subcultures.
Currently, researchers continue to test specific tenets of the subculture of violence thesis to further elucidate the mechanisms through which violent beliefs may link to particular subcultural groups and how those beliefs translate into acts of violence. In addition to examining minority groups, the South, and the poor, researchers also examine whites (especially white power and white hate groups) to explore the connections between subculture and violence. The strongest contribution of the subculture of violence perspective has been in its application to direct measures of acceptance of violence, both institutional and attitudinal, that are promising in their contribution to our understanding of the causes of violence.
- Cao, Liqun, Anthony Adams, and Vickie Jensen. 1997. “Black Subculture of Violence: A Research Note.” Criminology 35(2):367-79.
- Gastil, Raymond. 1971. “Homicide and a Regional Culture of Violence.” American Sociological Review 36:412-27.
- Loftin, Colin and Robert Hill. 1974. “Regional Subculture and Homicide: An Examination of the Gastil-Hackney Thesis.” American Sociological Review 39:714-24.
- Messner, Steven. 1983. “Regional and Racial Effects on the Urban Homicide Rate: The Subculture of Violence Revisited.” American Journal of Sociology 88:997-1007.
- Parker, Robert Nash. 1989. “Poverty, Subculture of Violence, and Type of Homicide.” Social Forces 67:983-1007.
- Williams, Kirk and Robert Flewelling. 1988. “The Social Production of Criminal Homicide: A Comparative Study of Disaggregated Rates in American Cities.” American Sociological Review 53:421-31.
- Wolfgang, Marvin and Franco Ferracuti. 2001. The Subculture of Violence: Toward an Integrated Theory of Criminology. New York: Routledge.
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