Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures Research Paper

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Subcultures consist of norms, values, interests—and artifacts associated with them—that are derivative of, but distinct from, a larger referential culture. The term also is sometimes used loosely to distinguish individuals, groups, or other collectivities based on their demographic characteristics (e.g., age, ethnicity, and regional location) or pattern of behavior (e.g., occupation or commitment to particular activities—birdwatching, stamp collecting, a delinquent or criminal behavior pattern, etc.). The critical element in defining a subculture, however, is the extent to which the shared values, norms, and identities associated with a membership category or a behavior pattern distinguishes the category or pattern of behavior from the larger, more inclusive, social and cultural systems with which it is associated.

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Criminal or delinquent subcultures thus consist of systems of norms, values, interests, and related artifacts that support criminal or delinquent behavior. The extent to which delinquent and criminal behavior is ‘‘supported’’ by subcultures varies a great deal, as does the involvement of the many behaviors specified in law as criminal or delinquent. Some subcultures support particular criminal acts or a limited set of such acts (see Inciardi). Some criminal subcultures are simply opportunistic, embracing virtually any criminal opportunity (e.g., subcultures of ‘‘hustlers’’; see Anderson, 1978; Valentine). To a large extent this is also the case with delinquent subcultures, where specialization is rare. In contrast, ‘‘professional criminals’’ 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 authorities (Sutherland).

Subcultural Theory

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. Workingclass 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 middleclass 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 workingclass 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 workingclass 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.

American Society As Seen from Ground Zero

The transformation of American cities, from an economy based on manufacturing to one of service and high-tech industry, and the impact of an increasingly global economy has left many people in the inner city in the lurch. The result has been the emergence, in some inner city areas, of an urban underclass (Wilson). Residents in these areas suffer not only the grinding effects of poverty, but of alienation as well. Many are convinced that the agents and agencies of social control are firmly against them and others of their communities, and have come to see racism as one of the important facts of daily life. Such profound alienation is exacerbated by market forces that take well-paying jobs from inner cities and replace them with less well-paying, dead end, service jobs that must compete with illegal means of livelihood that appeal especially to those who are alienated. Trinkets such as cars, gold, and designer clothing are dangled in front of people as signs or accessible symbols of status in a highly circumscribed environment with very limited opportunities. In these circumstances, such symbols acquire special significance, particularly when they become associated with highly exaggerated notions of personal worthiness, status, and respect.

This problem is especially evident among inner-city black Americans—at ground zero— where neighborhood effects of poverty are most intense and prolonged and where there is an extremely strong desire for direct evidence of social well-being but with few legitimate employment opportunities available that would allow innercity residents to improve their lot or make a decent living. And community residents easily see a racial connection in their plight. For instance, the citizenship of U.S. blacks antedates all but native Americans among minorities in the United States, yet they remain at the back of the job queue, competing not only with new immigrants but with overseas workers whose low wages attract manufacturers. Those at ground zero have little standing, and often feel they and their communities are largely written off by the authorities. The most desperate residents, including many decent people, then feel they are on their own, particularly in matters of personal security, and have to do what they can to survive. For many, especially the youth, this situation encourages profoundly alienated subcultural themes that are generally associated with crime and violence, particularly in the media. In response, the wider society readily defines inner-city residents as violent and crime prone, and not worthy of association, thus providing a rationale for further isolating them. A vicious cycle is thereby set in motion that has had a significant impact on the major metropolitan areas of the United States.

It is important to recognize that not everyone who lives in the inner cities is poor and alienated. Overwhelming numbers of people are poor but civil and decent to their neighbors. As indicated above, in order to protect themselves, ‘‘decent’’ parents and children must mimic the tough behavior of the alienated, showing all who enter their presence that they are capable of defending themselves and their loved ones, an extremely important value in the local community. Strikingly, such an accommodation to the conditions of the neighborhood often results in the ‘‘streeting down’’ of the community, that is, more and more people, out of self-defense, adopt a ‘‘street’’ demeanor simply to let others know in no uncertain terms that they are not to be trifled with. With such widespread isolation from mainstream institutions and culture, local groups of young men and women are encouraged to form street gangs, which at times become criminally or quasi-criminally active gangs.

A major difference between blacks and other ethnic groups in the United States is that alienation, inequality, and racialized crime have existed for so very long. This fact, together with the general sense of how remote prospects for advancement in mainstream society are, only heightens the significance of immediate gratification, particularly among the youth.

Moreover, such alienation diminishes the relevance of the wider society’s values and the impact of its sanctions (Anderson, 1999). Those who engage in criminal activity may feel less constrained by the hopes, aspirations, and dreams that might be realized in mainstream society, and so they are freed to commit violence toward their fellow citizens. The angriest and most alienated people develop a heightened sensitivity to slight when disrespected by others, and are often required to defend their honor and ‘‘get back respect’’ in order to survive socially in the neighborhood and, too often, violence is the result. This critically important reality must be appreciated if the violence of young inner-city poor African Americans is to be understood.

The Staging Area

The combination of concentrated urban poverty, social isolation, and historical circumstances has contributed to a unique kind of area frequented by the poor and alienated. Young people in particular fill the vacuum left by societal neglect by congregating in places that allow them to act out roles that give them esteem and status among their peers. It is here, in staging areas, that street-oriented groups thrive and their members look for identity (Anderson, 1999).

The staging area, or as described by participants, a ‘‘hangout,’’ is a public place where activities occur that set the stage for other activities, which may be played out either on the spot in front of all who have congregated there or (depending on the circumstances) in less conspicuous locations. A thought of burglary or robbery might materialize into a plan. A verbal altercation in a park may be settled with a fight, for example, down a side street. People gather here at all times of the night and day, ‘‘profiling’’ and ‘‘representing’’ the image of themselves by which they wish to be known: they try to present the most valued notion of who they are and how they stand in relation to others. Competition can be fierce, and consequential. Hence, boys and girls, and some ‘‘grown’’ people too, stand around, taking the measure of one another, ‘‘looking things over,’’ as they say. In this hangout, ‘‘watch your back’’ takes on literal meaning. Friends bond and reassure one another (‘‘I got your back’’), for there are always people in the vicinity looking for opportunities to violate others or simply ‘‘to get away with something.’’ In such settings public displays of decency get little respect, and ‘‘looking hard’’ or being taken as meaner than the next person becomes the dominant issue.

Apart from the school, which is in a category by itself (as will be discussed below), three types of staging areas can be distinguished. One is quite local, revolving around neighborhood establishments such as carry-outs, liquor stores, and bars. The staging area may be inside, on a street corner outside, or at a house party with little or no adult supervision (Short and Strodtbeck). Alcohol and drugs are available. A second type consists of business strips where stores cater to street-oriented working-class and poor people. Buzzing with activity, people are drawn from a larger area. The third type—multiplex theaters, sporting events, and concerts—brings together large crowds from throughout the city. These are the most volatile, especially at places such as roller-skating rinks or dances where music, alcohol, and drugs combine with rough crowds of young people inclined to ‘‘act out’’ what they have seen or heard others do, either in films, on recordings, or in person. Some young people are highly suggestive. People from other neighborhoods, outsiders, who come to a staging area and present themselves are said to be ‘‘representing’’ both who they are and the ‘‘world’’ or ‘‘hood’’ from which they hail.

To actively represent, one may be required to fight in public, in an effort that inevitably reflects on one’s ‘‘name’’ or the reputation one is building. Moreover, to represent is to place one’s area of the city on the line, to say to outsiders, ‘‘Hey, this is what’s to me [what I am made of] and my neighborhood,’’ compared with other neighborhoods of the city. At sporting events, a school’s prestige may be on the line. It is at the staging area that the subculture of the street germinates and grows, nurtured by the tough conditions of this space, including the audiences that live by it, and thus are required to support it. For the boldest young people, it is sometimes necessary to in effect put a chip on one’s shoulder and dare others to knock it off, to wage a campaign for respect, but with the added elements of dare and challenge. There are often enough young people in the staging area to provide an audience as well as the critical mass of negative energy necessary to spark violence, not just against people like themselves but also against others present in the staging area, at times creating a critical flashpoint for violence.

In staging areas around streetcorners and carryouts, where many drug dealers and corner boys hang out, because of the array of status symbols and their meanings, would-be aggressors are generally inclined to know who is who, who ‘‘can fight’’ and who cannot, who has nerve and heart and who is a chump. Around these settings, in various social arenas, and on the streets more generally, the chump gets little or no respect, and those who resemble this model most often get pushed around, picked on, tried or tested, and ultimately most often become frequent victims of robbery and gratuitous violence, serving a purpose for those who would campaign to stand superior.

Material things serve as profound symbols, playing an important and complicated role in establishing self-image while representing. Youths typically place a high premium on eyewear, leather jackets, expensive sneakers, and other items that take on significance as status symbols. An impoverished inner-city youth who can acquire these material things is able to feel big and impress others, who may then attempt to relieve him of his property in order to feel big themselves and to impress still others. The wise youths of the neighborhood understand that it is better not to opt for the more expensive items, because they realize that by doing so they make themselves into targets for theft and robbery. Not only must the young person display something of value, but he must also be able to hold on to it. Hence, simply visiting the staging area can be both satisfying and risky. One goes to the ‘‘block,’’ the strip, or the concert to see the latest trends, what is happening, who is doing what with whom, who did what to whom, and when.

Further, the staging area is also a densely populated place where young people hang out and look to meet members of the opposite sex. Here young men and women out to be ‘‘with it’’ or ‘‘hip’’ smoke cigarettes or drink ‘‘forties’’ or other alcoholic beverages, or perhaps they are there to get high on ‘‘blunts’’ (drug-laced cigars). Young men may taunt others by joking with them, saying directly, ‘‘Now, start something!’’ as though they are ready for anything. At an event with large crowds from all over the city, heterogeneous groups vie for social position. People can become touchy, and a fight can start over seemingly minor incidents; but what may happen is hardly minor: an injury or death may result, the social order of groups may be altered, and the stage may be set for payback-inspired feuds. With so much at stake a person can easily feel disrespected by another who looks at him or her for ‘‘too long,’’ or by simply being cut off in the concession line. Such a ‘‘cut,’’ which might also be viewed as an advance at someone’s girlor boyfriend, may be taken as a ‘‘statement.’’ Challenging the statement creates a ‘‘beef,’’ and a confrontation can erupt. As the situation deteriorates, it may be very difficult for either party to back down, particularly if members of the audience have, or are understood to have, a significant social investment in who and what each participant pretends to be.

Staging area matters often involve retribution, or ‘‘payback,’’ and to be prepared for anything, some people carry ‘‘equalizers’’ or ‘‘shit’’— firearms or other weapons—to staging areas. Because of formal security, most will leave their shit elsewhere, hidden in accessible places to be retrieved when the need arises. A young man with a publicly known beef will feel there is a chance that he will have to go get his shit. His life does not have to be in immediate danger; pride, how he feels about his homies, low feelings, or having gotten the bad end of an altercation may be enough for him to prepare to settle things in order to avenge an earlier beating, or answer a perceived threat.

Although staging areas are often the places where beefs develop and fights to settle them occur, the code of the street germinates, emerges, and grows on the streets, in the alleys, and on the playgrounds of the inner-city neighborhood, where in the interests of social survival small children begin early in life their campaign for respect (Anderson, 1999).

The School As A Staging Area

In the toughest urban neighborhoods, the local school serves as an outpost of the traditions of the wider society as well as a focal point for local culture, a place where ‘‘the little traditions’’ of the local neighborhood and the ‘‘great traditions’’ of the wider society come together. Racially segregated and situated in an impoverished inner-city community in which violence, drugs, and crime are rampant, and sometimes ignored by the authorities, it is characterized by the street-decent dynamic. Defined by the young people themselves, youths who are viewed as decent are often not given much respect on the street, and those viewed as ‘‘street’’ are generally seen as tough, and therefore to be respected.

During their early years, most of the children accept the legitimacy of the school, and eagerly approach the task of learning. With the passage of time, however, the relentless campaign they wage for respect in their public environment requires that the street code be observed. By the fourth grade, enough children have usually opted for the code of the street that it begins to compete effectively with the culture of the school, and the code begins to dominate their public culture—in school as well as out—becoming a way of life for many, eventually conflating with the culture of the school itself. Under such circumstances, the school becomes a primary staging area for the campaign for respect.

In this process, for largely instrumental purposes, decent kids learn to ‘‘code switch,’’ while street kids become more singularly committed to the street. The difference is strongly related to family background, available peers and role models, and just ‘‘how tough’’ the neighborhood is perceived to be. For many alienated young black people, attending school and doing well become negatively identified as ‘‘acting white,’’ and to do so in this environment is to mark oneself as vulnerable. In an essentially racially black streetworld, there is often a strong need to demonstrate one’s ability to handle oneself socially and physically on the ghetto streets. This is a powerful community value in and of itself. ‘‘Street knowledge’’ is esteemed, and the quest for it and the consideration for those who have it begin to predominate, ultimately competing with and at times undermining the mission of the school.

As these neighborhood conditions persist, with each passing year the school loses ground as more and more students adopt a street orientation, if only for survival and self-defense in the neighborhood. But often what is out on the streets is brought into the classrooms, for largely more expressive purposes. Hence, some of the most troublesome students are then encouraged by peers to act out, to get over on the teacher, to test authority by probing for weaknesses. Particularly during mild weather, many students in the upper grades attend school sporadically or stop coming altogether, because street activities effectively compete for their time. Even while in school, they walk the halls instead of attending class, and their encounters there often mirror those on the street, marked by tension and fights. The most troubled street-oriented kids may fight with teachers, bring guns and knives to school, and threaten people. In this highly competitive setting, deprivation and anger are combined. The most deprived youths, who can easily be made to feel bad, sometimes become envious and jealous of peers. Some compensate by lifting themselves up by putting others down. A common tactic is to ‘‘bust on’’ or ‘‘signify’’ at someone, verbally teasing the person, at times to the point of tears. Sometimes the prettiest girls can get beaten up out of jealousy. From so much envy and jealousy, beefs easily erupt, beginning with ritual ‘‘bumping’’ and ending in serious physical confrontations to settle things. Bumping rights are negotiated, determining who is allowed to bump whom, to pick on whom, and in what circumstances. In this process young people campaign for place, esteem, and ultimately respect.

In this way, the school becomes transformed in the most profound sense into a staging area for the streets, a place where people come to present themselves, to represent where they come from, and to stay even with or to dominate their peers. Violence and threats of violence are very often of an instrumental nature, and always a possibility, for the typically troubled school is surrounded by persistent poverty, where scarcity of valued things is the rule, aggravating an already highly competitive soci

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