MARVIN WOLFGANGS SUBCULTURE OF VIOLENCE THEORY
Dr. Marvin Wolfgangs 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.
Dr. Marvin E. Wolfgang was considered to be a pioneer and world leader in quantitative and theoretical criminology. He was one of the worlds most-cited authors in criminology, and his research and critical commentaries appear in more than 30 books and 150 articles.
Wolfgangs 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).
THE SUBCULTURE OF VIOLENCE THEORY
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.
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 Wolfgangs 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:
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).
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:
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.
HOW THE SUBCULTURE OF VIOLENCE MODEL HAS BEEN ALTERED AS NEW RESEARCH HAS EMERGED
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 models 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).)
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 Lizottes (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).
THE CURRENT USAGE AND POPULARITY OF THE SUBCULTURE OF VIOLENCE THEORY WITHIN CRIMINOLOGY.
Even thirty years after it was published, Wolfgang and Ferracutis The Subculture of Violence remains the definitive argument for societys 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
Street youth violence
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 groups 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 Parkers (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.
Nevertheless, he concluded that the culture of violence theory is still a useful tool, provided that it is used in conjunction with other methods.
Athletes and acquaintance rape
One unique and contemporary application of Wolfgangs subculture of violence theory is found in Jeffrey R. Benedicts (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 cultures norms, it is not illegal. Nevertheless, "such frequent participation in one-night stands erodes a players ability to discern consent and ultimately facilitates opportunities for incidents of rape" (Benedict, 1998:21).
Consistent with Wolfgangs hypothesis of how a subcultures 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 Wolfgangs theory that often, the member of the subculture wont see his behavior as deviant, and therefore feels no guilt behaving that way (Benedict, 1998:3).
CONTEMPORARY CRITICISMS OF THE BLACK SUBCULTURE OF VIOLENCE THEORY
Until recently, Erlanger (1974) was the only investigator to directly test Wolfgang and Ferracutis 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 Ferracutis 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 Wolfgangs 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 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).
His criticisms of the black subculture of violence model are many:
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).
Wolfgangs 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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