Dr. Marvin Wolfgang’s black subculture of violence theory has been the most cited explanation of violence among African-Americans in criminological literature. It has also been among the most controversial. In this paper, after giving a brief biographical sketch of Dr. Wolfgang and his accomplishments, I present the basic tenants of this model. I then discuss how the model has been altered in the thirty years since Wolfgang formulated it. Finally, I discuss its current popularity and usage as well as criticisms of the theory.


Dr. Marvin E. Wolfgang was considered to be a pioneer and world leader in quantitative and theoretical criminology. He was one of the world’s most-cited authors in criminology, and his research and critical commentaries appear in more than 30 books and 150 articles.

Wolfgang’s research interests included homicide, penology, criminal statistics, and delinquency criminology. At the time of his death, he was involved in a longitudinal cohort birth research of juvenile delinquency project in Wuhan, the People's Republic of China (The Wharton School, 1998).

Wolfgang was born November 14, 1924, in Millersburg, PA. During World War II, he served in the Army in Italy. After the war, he received his B.A. from Dickinson College in 1948, and taught for a while at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. From 1952 until his death of pancreatic cancer on April 12, 1998, he was a Professor of Criminology, Legal Studies and Law at the Wharton School, at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time of his death, at the age of 73, he had been at the University for nearly a half a century, beginning with his enrollment there as a graduate student. He received his M.A. in 1950, and his Ph.D. in 1955, both from the University of Pennsylvania (The Wharton School, 1998).

He was a true leader in his field, and held numerous positions, including: Director of the Sellin Criminology Center for Studies in Criminology and Criminal Law, from 1962 until his death; President of the American Society of Criminology; President of the American Academy of Political and Social Science; Elected Member of the American Philosophical Society; Associate Secretary General of the International Society of Criminology; Consultant to the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice; Member of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Panel on Social Indicators; Director of Research for the Presidential Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence; Member of the Advisory Committee on Reform of the Federal Criminal Law; and Member of the National Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (The Wharton School, 1998).

He was the recipient of many awards, including: two Guggenheim Fellowships; a Fulbright Scholarship; honorary doctor of law degrees of the City University of New York and the Academia Mexicana de Derecho Inter-nationacional; the Dennis Carrol Prize from the International Society of Criminology; the Roscoe Pound Award of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency for distinguished contribution to the field of criminal justice; the Hans von Hentig Award of the World Society of Criminology; the Edwin Sutherland Award of the American Society of Criminology for Outstanding Contribution to the Field of Criminology; the Beccaria Gold Medal for outstanding contribution to criminology from the German, Austrian and Swiss Society of Criminology; the August Vollmer Award (ASC) for Distinguished Research in Criminology entitled Patterns of Criminal Behavior; and was the first recipient of the Guardsmark Marvin E. Wolfgang Award, for Distinguished Achievement in Criminology (The Wharton School).


In 1967, Wolfgang, along with Franco Ferracuti, published The Subculture of Violence, in which they presented their hypothesis that, based upon research conducted in inner-city Philadelphia. In the mid-1950s, violent values are uniquely widespread among African-Americans.

Subcultures in general

E. B. Taylor (1871:1) was probably the first to define the term "culture". He defined it as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." The term "subculture", though not the concept, was not commonly used in social science literature until after World War II. Wolfgang credits Albert Cohen with "the first and most fertile theoretical statements about the meaning of subculture" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 97).

A subculture is "a normative system of some group or groups smaller than the whole society" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967:103). This "implies that there are value judgments or a social value system which is apart from and a part of a larger or central value system". But a subculture is only partly different from the "parent" (i.e., larger) culture, and cannot be totally different from the culture of which it is a part, otherwise it is what Wolfgang termed a "contraculture" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 99-100). This implies that the subculture has some major values in common with the dominant parent culture (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 104).

The subculture follows a set of "conduct norms", which are rules governing "the various ways in which a person might act under certain circumstances . . . the violation of which arouses a group reaction" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 101). If some form of punitive action was not taken by the group in response to a violation of one of these conduct norms, the group would lose its separate identity.

By excluding, sending away, ostracizing, ‘kicking out’ the norm violator, the subcultural group is using sanctions similar to exile, banishment, deportation. The very adherence and involvement of the individual in the subculture make enforcement of these sanctions relatively easy, occasionally easier and more effective than law enforcement in larger societies. (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 106-107).

The transmission of subcultural values involves a learning process that establishes a dynamic lasting linkage between the values and the individuals (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 107). But also important to Wolfgang’s subculture of violence theory is the notion that people may be born into a subculture. (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 99-100). Examples of subcultures include the Amish, Mormons, delinquents, prison inmates, ethnic groups, and social classes (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 100).

The subculture of violence theory

Shihadeh & Steffensmeier, (1994) summarize the modern problem of urban black violence:

the mean rate of black adult robbery is nearly ten times higher than the nonblack rate (2,553.1 vs. 278.3 per 100,000), and the average urban homicide rate among blacks (87.1) is roughly six times greater than the rate of nonblack homicide (13.7) (Shihadeh & Steffensmeier, 1994: 737).

Homicide is the leading cause of death among urban black males, and black robbery rates are roughly ten times higher than white rates (U.S. Department of Justice 1985). Although blacks represent only 12% of the population, they account for more than one-half of all robbery and homicide arrests (U.S. Department of Justice 1990:Table 43)" (Shihadeh & Steffensmeier, 1994: 729).

Wolfgang thought that these disproportionately high rates of violence among blacks could be explained through a theory emphasizing a black subculture of violence. He proposed that among blacks in the U.S., there is a subculture of violence, in which there is "a potent theme of violence current in the cluster of values that make up the life-style, the socialization process, the interpersonal relationships of individuals living in similar conditions" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 140).

A brief summary of the black subculture of violence theory.

"Like all human behavior," Wolfgang wrote, "homicide and other violent assaultive crimes must be viewed in terms of the cultural context from which they spring" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 150). Deviant behavior "is not evenly distributed throughout the social structure. There is much empirical evidence that class position, ethnicity, occupational status, and other social variables are effective indicators for predicting rates of different kinds of deviance" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 151).

"Homicide is most prevalent, or the highest rates of homicide occur, among a relatively homogeneous subcultural group in any large urban community [i.e., blacks]. . . The value system of this group, we are contending, constitutes a subculture of violence". Homicide and other serious crime rates are highest among males, non-whites, and young adults. A study of 588 criminal homicides in Philadelphia (Wolfgang, 1958) showed that non-white males aged 20-24 had a rate of 92 per 100,000 compared to 3.4 for white males aged 20-24 (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 152). Non-white females had a rate of 9.3 compared to 0.4 for white females (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 152).

Wolfgang proposed that "by identifying the groups with the highest rates of homicide, we should find in the most intense degree a subculture of violence" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967: 153).

Basically, the subculture of violence theory holds that the overt use of violence is generally a reflection of basic values that stand apart from the dominant, the central, or the parent culture. This overt (and often illicit) use of violence constitutes part of a subcultural normative system that is reflected in the psychological traits of the members of the subculture (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967:158).

[T]he significance of a jostle, a slightly derogatory remark, or the appearance of a weapon in the hands of an adversary are stimuli differently perceived and interpreted by Negroes and whites, males and females. Social expectations of response in particular types of social interaction result in differential ‘definitions of the situation.’ (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967:153)

They argue that the black subculture actually values violence and that it is "an integral component of the subculture which experiences high rates of homicide". Just as the dominant society punishes those who deviate from its norms, deviance by the comparatively non-violent individual from the norms of the violent subculture is likewise punished, either by being ostracized, or treated with disdain or indifference. According to Wolfgang, "[i]t is not far-fetched to suggest that a whole culture may accept a value set dependent upon violence, demand or encourage adherence to violence, and penalize deviation". Also, the more a person is integrated into this subculture, "the more intensely he embraces its prescriptions of behavior, its conduct norms, and integrates them into his personality" (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 155-156).

Interestingly, and without much explanation, Wolfgang declines to speculate as to how a subculture of violence originates (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967:163).

The theory includes the following corollaries:

(1) No subculture can be totally different from or totally in conflict with the society of which it is a part.

(2) To establish the existence of a subculture of violence does not require that the actors sharing in these basic value elements should express violence in all situations. (Otherwise normal social functioning would be "virtually impossible".) Members of groups having a subculture of violence might need to carry weapons for protection against others. But they say that the very act of carrying these weapons "becomes a common symbol of willingness to participate in violence, to expect violence, and to be ready for its retaliation".

(3) The potential resort or willingness to resort to violence in a variety of situations emphasizes the penetrating and diffusive character of this culture theme. The degree and extent to which an individual resorts to violence in response to provocation is dependent upon the degree to which he has adopted the cultural values associated with violence.

(4) The subcultural ethos of violence may be shared by all ages in a subsociety, but this ethos is most prominent in a limited age group, ranging from late adolescence to middle age.

(5) The counter-norm is nonviolence. The violation of normative violence is likely to result in sanctions imposed by the group, including ostracism.

(6) The development of favorable attitudes toward, and the use of, violence in a subculture usually involve learned behavior and a process of differential learning, association, or identification.

Not all persons exposed--even equally exposed--to the presence of a subculture of violence absorb and share in the values in equal portions. Differential personality variables must be considered in an integrated social-psychological approach to an understanding of the subcultural aspects of violence. . . [A]ggression is a learned response, socially facilitated and integrated, as a habit, in more or less permanent form, among the personality characteristics of the aggressor.

(7) The use of violence in a subculture is not necessarily viewed as illicit conduct and the users therefore do not have to deal with feelings of guilt about their aggression (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967:159-160).



Since Wolfgang and Ferracuti first specifically used the subculture of violence model to explain the disproportionately higher rates of murder and other violent crimes among blacks, it has altered considerably. It has since been used to explain the influence other factors such as being male, being lower class, gun ownership, street youths and living in the south, have had on rates of violence.

The southern subculture of violence theory

Most of the studies that have tested the subculture of violence theory have tested the model’s hypothesis regarding southern violence. Race, when it is analyzed, is usually only examined as a control variable (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:368).

The southern subculture of violence theory suggests that individuals socialized in the South learn to approve of violence in a wide range of situations and to view violence as important in enhancing their honor or reputation (Ellison, 1991: 1224). (Both per capita homicide and firearms ownership rates are higher in the South than in other regions of the U.S. (Ellison, 1991: 1223).)

Ellison (1991)

Using data from the 1983 General Social Survey, Ellison (1991) tested the hypothesis that there are regional differences in levels of individual support for violence. His findings support Dixon and Lizotte’s (1987) conclusion that whites are more likely than nonwhites to approve of certain types of violence, especially in response to defensive or retaliatory situations. Interestingly, his findings suggest that the southern subculture of violence is linked to certain aspects of southern religion (Ellison, 1991:1234).

Southern religion is distinguished by its strong preoccupation with the attainment of individual salvation from punishment at the hands of a wrathful God. Popular southern theology stresses the themes of moral judgment and divine punishment prominent in the Old Testament . . . These images may legitimize interpersonal violence in defense of the less powerful or in retaliation for deliberate affronts (Ellison, 1991: 1233).


Even thirty years after it was published, Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s The Subculture of Violence remains the definitive argument for society’s role in creating violent criminal behavior. Even critics agree that the theory is among the most cited in sociological and criminological literature. (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:367)

The subculture of violence theory might be even more relevant today than it was when it was first published, especially with regard to juvenile crime. It seems to be a common fear that adolescents today are more violent and lacking in empathy than those of only a generation or two ago. In fact, shortly before his death, Wolfgang himself had recently observed that today's juvenile offenders probably do about three times as much serious crime as did the crime-prone boys born in the 1940s and 1950s, and he feared that they could represent a new and especially challenging subculture of violence. (Wolfgang, 1997).

Use of the model to explain delinquency

Felson, R. B., Liska, A. E., South, S. J., & McNulty, T. L. (1994)

The authors studied 2,123 boys in 87 public high schools. Respondents were asked a series of questions that were designed to measure whether they approved of nonaggressive responses to some type of provocation. Questions consisted of a series of personal values, and respondents were asked whether certain acts were "good thing[s] for people to do". Disagreement with these values were deemed to indicate a high score on the subculture of violence scale (Felson, Liska, South, & McNulty, 1994: 159).

Based on their findings, the authors argue not only that "[a]ggregates based on race or class, and regions, may not provide the necessary conditions" for a subculture of violence to develop, but rather, that "[t]o a large extent, the effects of the subculture of violence appear to reflect the more general effects of a subculture of delinquency" (emphasis added). Therefore, they argue that the subculture of violence theory should be broadened so as to include a subculture of delinquency (Felson, Liska, South, & McNulty, 1994: 168).

The authors cite as support for this argument their unexpected finding that, "[a]pparently, students are more likely to engage in delinquency when their schoolmates are academically oriented, controlling for their own delinquency". They hypothesize that

the competitive climate in schools in which academic values are important may lead some students to turn to delinquency. The finding is consistent with strain theory, which suggests that young men may turn to deviant or criminal activities when it is relatively difficult for them to achieve conventional success (Merton 1957). A normative climate valuing academics may decrease delinquency to the extent that students internalize these norms; it may also be a source of frustration that increases delinquency (emphasis added) (Felson, Liska, South, & McNulty, 1994: 169).

Street youth violence

Baron (1998)

Baron proposes that there exists a street youth subculture of violence. The author predicted that "those street youths who spend more time with criminal peers will engage in more violent behavior". He tested this hypothesis with four specific types of violence--robbery, aggravated assaults, group fights, and simple assaults, and hypothesized that group fights, because they have a "collective character", may be explained by the street subculture of violence theory (Baron, 1998 :6).

Based on qualitative data obtained via a self report given to 200 male street kids in Edmonton, Alberta, he found the presence of group norms regarding protection and guardianship, vengeance of the victimization of friends, and group rivalries, including disputes over the group’s territory. "The idea that these youths would bind together and do battle for each other again suggests certain normative expectations concerning violence for group members" (Baron, 1998 :11).

Nevertheless, he also found that poverty was consistently an important predictor of violence among these street kids, and reiterated Parker’s (1989) argument that the subculture of violence theory may not have all the answers, especially when there are such strong socio-cultural factors (such as poverty) involved.

Respondents lacking financial resources were more likely to have high robbery, aggravated assault, common assault, group fight, and overall violence totals. . . Therefore, conditions regarding a street subculture of violence should be tempered somewhat by the acknowledgment that a number of the described violent behaviors are the result of living under negative economic conditions (Baron, 1998:13-14).

Nevertheless, he concluded that the culture of violence theory is still a useful tool, provided that it is used in conjunction with other methods.

Although the street subculture, economic deprivation, and violent victimization are elements in the explanation of street violence, our research has shown that no single explanation will suffice for several different types of violence. . . [For example,] elements of a culture of violence acquired from experience with violence in the home and on the street are more applicable to group fights and serious assaults. . . Because violence itself is not uniform, neither are its explanations (Baron, 1998 :17).

Athletes and acquaintance rape

Benedict (1998)

One unique and contemporary application of Wolfgang’s subculture of violence theory is found in Jeffrey R. Benedict’s (1998) argument that there exists a sports subculture of sexual violence. According to this theory, college-level and (especially) professional athletes, along with the groupie women who frequently engage in promiscuous sex with them, form a sort of sub-culture of sex (Benedict, 1998: 17).

Although the indiscriminate sexual behavior of many athletes may be in conflict with the mainstream culture’s norms, it is not illegal. Nevertheless, "such frequent participation in one-night stands erodes a player’s ability to discern consent and ultimately facilitates opportunities for incidents of rape" (Benedict, 1998:21).

Consistent with Wolfgang’s hypothesis of how a subculture’s values are acquired (i.e., by learning), "[t]he expectation of sex that some athletes come to acquire is consistent with research suggesting that ‘rape-supportive attitudes are socially acquired beliefs’ (Koss & Gaines, 1993)". The fact that athletes who rape may actually believe that the sex is consensual, even though it might involve physical force, is also consistent with Wolfgang’s theory that often, the member of the subculture won’t see his behavior as deviant, and therefore feels no guilt behaving that way (Benedict, 1998:3).


Erlanger (1974)

Until recently, Erlanger (1974) was the only investigator to directly test Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s black subculture of violence model (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:368). Erlanger found that there is no major difference among blacks with regard to personal approval of interpersonal violence. In fact, he found that poor white males aged 21 to 64 are more likely to fight than poor blacks in the same age group (Erlanger, 1974: 285).

Cao, Adams, & Jensen (1997)

The black subculture of violence theory was more recently challenged by Liqun Cao, Anthony Adams, and Vickie J. Jensen (1997). This study examines beliefs in violence among African-Americans and tests Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s hypothesis that violent values are widespread among African-Americans (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:369).

According to the authors, "[t]he subculture of violence thesis is perhaps one of the most cited, but one of the least tested, propositions in the sociological and criminological literature"(Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:367).

This study was different from the ones which have been conducted since Wolfgang first developed the subculture of violence theory in that it: (1) examines blacks, instead of nonwhites; (2) uses direct measures (i.e., surveys) of subcultural values; (3) uses a nationwide representative sample to test the thesis, and (4) includes the key variables identified by Wolfgang and Ferracuti (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:369).

To test the black subculture of violence theory, the authors used indexes of violent offensive and defensive values from the General Social Survey (1983-1991). A total of 3,218 people were asked whether or not they would approve of violence in response to certain hypothetical scenarios, some involving offensive situations, others involving defensive ones (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:370).

They found no difference between black and white approval of violence in response to offensive situations, which is contrary to Wolfgang’s theory. However, they also found that whites are significantly more likely than blacks to express their support for the use of violence in defensive situations, which is also contrary to the subculture of violence theory (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:373).

In sum, the authors found that being black does not imply a greater probability of embracing a subculture of violence as measured by individuals’ beliefs and attitudes. Therefore, they rejected the subculture of violence theory, insofar as it applied to African-Americans in the United States (Cao, Adams, & Jensen, 1997:376).

The authors of the following final two studies argue that Wolfgang and Ferracuti erred in trying to explain the disproportionately higher rates of violence among blacks through the subculture of violence theory. They instead suggest that the true cause of the violence is the structurally disadvantaged role occupied by blacks in the U.S.

Parker (1989)

Parker disagrees that there is a subculture of violence that leads to increased homicide rates among blacks. Rather, he found that poverty is the most important predictor of homicide, and therefore argues that socioeconomic theoretical models of the causes of homicide are preferred to subcultural ones (Parker, 1989: 1000).

[T]he structurally disadvantaged position of blacks in U.S. society can be seen as the root cause of black violence, and . . . the same causal chain results in violence among whites as well. Conceptually and empirically, the time has come to reject the use of demographic categories as adequate measures of a concept such as the subculture of violence (Parker, 1989: 1002).

His criticisms of the black subculture of violence model are many:

First, the use of global indicators describing an entire class of people, southerners or blacks, assumes that these communities are homogeneous in values and lifestyle, an assumption that is clearly false for any group as large as these groups. Second, particularly in the case of blacks, it entails an implicit pejorative indictment of urban minority residents and communities, which is unfair and racist in nature. Finally this approach ignores the role of institutionalized racism itself in producing a link between violence and racial composition (Parker, 1989: 985).

Shihadeh & Steffensmeier (1994)

The authors of this study used race-dissaggregated rates of violent crimes in 158 U.S. cities to examine the structural conditions they believe is at the root of urban black violence, specifically family structure and the effects of income inequality (Shihadeh & Steffensmeier, 1994: 735).

They found that "inequality in U.S. cities is considerably greater among blacks than in the overall city population". Blacks not only experience higher rates of violent crime, they also suffer greater economic hardship and family disruption (Shihadeh & Steffensmeier, 1994: 737).

These findings led them to argue that the black urban violence problem is best explained, not through the "kinds of people" analysis employed by Wolfgang and Ferracuti, but rather, by the use of a community-level perspective (i.e., one that focuses on the "mediating dimensions of community social organization (e.g., family structure)") (Shihadeh & Steffensmeier, 1994: 746).


Wolfgang’s subculture of violence theory has had its share of critics. Erlanger (1974), Parker (1989), Shihadeh and Steffensmeier (1994), and Cao, et al. (1997) are just a few of the investigators who have failed to find the theory useful in explaining subcultural violence. Ball-Rokeach (1973:748) scoffs that "the subculture of violence thesis, at best, is incomplete and at worst invalid as an explanation of violent behavior". But perhaps this blanket criticism is unfair.

Other authors have found that the sub-culture of violence theory is a useful model, particularly when it is used along with other theories (see Felson, et al. (1994), Benedict (1998), and Baron (1998). Kennedy and Baron (1993:107-108) call for such an integrative approach, and assert that often, different theories may complement one another.

Finally, still other researchers continue to rely upon the model. These authors, including Dixon and Lizotte (1987) and Ellison (1991), believe the model useful in its own right.



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