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Subcultures And Social Control Theory

 This week’s reading provides overview of the research on the formation of subcultures and social control theory. After reviewing the reading for week 3, as well as the week 3 discussion articles in the lesson for this week, discuss/debate with your classmates your position on which factors you feel play a greater role pertaining to middle-class delinquency and its relation to gangs. 

Note: The discussion questions have been designed so that a response of approximately 500 words is typically needed to fully address the subject.  Students should provide supporting materials (references/citations) to demonstrate/acknowledge the source of the information utilized to formulate the response. At least 2 references.  

Introduction: Subcultures

“Sports carried me away from being in a gang or being associated with drugs. Sports was my way out.” – LeBron James Social control theory differs from other theories regarding criminology in that the focus is not on why individuals choose to act criminally but provide the reasons for their actions. It involves looking at how and why some choose behavior that tends to conform to the expectations of society and others choose not to conform to society’s expectations. Reflection of the above quote by LeBron James perhaps hints at the reason, not sports, but subculture.

You may be asking the question, “What is a subculture?” A formal explanation would be something like, a subculture is a subdivision within the dominant culture that has its own norms, beliefs, and values. Makes sense, right? Not really. Yes, it is that, but a subculture is a lot more. A subculture is about belonging and alliance building among peers within a larger group (like LeBron and sports). A subculture, as the name implies, is part of a bigger culture; it exists within a larger society, not apart from it.

A subculture’s members are usually expected to have more loyalty to its members than others within the larger society – even if it means being unethical or criminal. In other words, those who subscribe to the values and beliefs of the subculture are expected to look out for each other’s welfare (have each other’s back, so to speak), no matter the consequence.

Subcultures are typically described using various titles or terms that reflect an association to a larger society. For example, terms such as brotherhood, chapter, or sets are a few of the terms that are used. A subculture does not necessarily denote a criminal connotation; however, subcultures, criminal in nature or not, do signify a discontinuity of sorts or a difference in the norms, beliefs, and values of the larger group.

Another example would be in sports – there are typically a lot of elbows being thrown in the midst of “fighting” to get the ball in a basketball game. This is anticipated and expected by the players. It is not referred as criminal as it is part of their subculture. However, throwing elbows to just get your way is not acceptable action in society, the greater culture.

Unspoken Alliance

Now, let’s return our focus to subcultures within the realm of law enforcement and criminal activities.

Did you know that a subculture may be created via unspoken alliances or expectations? In other words, there may be individuals within the larger group that gage their loyalty to others in the group based solely on their membership to the group, thereby creating an unspoken subculture. An example may be a form of bias-based policing that occurs when a police officer stops another police officer for a traffic violation. Keep in mind that bias-based policing is illegal in most states and the federal government.

Even if the two officers have never met before, an unspoken alliance may exist. This is especially true if the officer making the traffic stop subscribes to the belief or value that all police should have each other’s back no matter what. Use of their police discretion lets the other law enforcement officer (the driver) go without a citation based solely on their affiliation with law enforcement.

This unspoken alliance is sometimes described as the police brotherhood, brotherhood of police, or the “blue wall.” Some police officers describe it as an unspoken bond between officers. Even though, this subculture is not criminal in nature, it is nevertheless a subculture. Those in law enforcement are part of a large group, the police, which in turn, are part of an even larger group, American society.

As previously stated, a subculture is as the name implies, part of a bigger culture. It exists within a larger society, not apart from it. As in the example of police, those working in law enforcement in America are also citizens of the United States and they too are subject to the same laws as everyone else in the United States. Those in law enforcement exist within American society, not apart from it.

Criminal Subculture

Now let’s look at those subcultures that are criminal in nature. First, in order to have a better understanding of subcultures and the bonds formed, let’s take a brief look at subcultural theory as it relates to delinquency and crime. The first item that comes to mind usually when one thinks of delinquency and crime is youth gangs. However, were you aware that the correctional system helped the spread of gangs across the United States and helped contribute to their growing numbers?

In the 1960s, the California correctional facilities were overrun with inmates associated with different gangs. This led to constant disruptions of gang violence in the facilities, making them extremely difficult to manage. The California Board of Corrections decided the best solution to the gang violence problem was to transfer the various gang leaders to other correctional facilities across the United States.

While this did temporarily alleviate the gang violence problems in the California correctional system, it also had an unforeseen result. The gang leaders once transferred immediately began member recruitment and began to establish sets or chapters in the various states they were sent. In doing so, various gang locations and their membership numbers grew significantly across the nation.

Okay, let’s get back on track by discussing more about subcultural theory as it relates to delinquency and crime. As mentioned earlier, subcultures speak to why individuals within a larger society or culture, not apart from the larger society or culture, band together (like in the above example of California gangs). Various theories have been formed as to why this occurs, especially pertaining to delinquent youth. If you take the time to read the different theories you may notice some common themes pertaining to economic influences and lower, middle, and upper-class status.

Value systems come into play when looking at the types of behaviors displayed in subcultures. Studies have shown that in some delinquent youth subcultures, violence and the use of force is the norm and is not considered anti-social behavior. This type of value system is also found pertaining to inmate populations in correctional facilities. This occurs when there are little to no social control influences.

The lack of social control influences may be observed in some poor inner-city neighborhoods across the United States. In such areas, children are exposed to poverty and cultural value systems favorable to crime, especially when youth role models are comprised of criminals associated with delinquent or adult gangs. These role models consist of gang members wearing expensive clothing, expensive jewelry, driving expensive automobiles, and flashing a lot of cash. Economically disadvantaged youth see these individuals and their criminal lifestyle as the only means to obtain status and acquire similar material wealth.

Delinquent Gang

Other influences for a youth to join a delinquent gang may include households where one or both parents are rooted in the gang culture whereupon gang membership becomes an expectation passed from parent to child. In some delinquent youth gang subcultures, a youth being sent to juvenile detention is considered a rite of passage to gang membership.

There are also those youth who join a delinquent gang for a sense of belonging, wishing to build social bonds. Other youth seek a means to achieve a sense of protection in that some inner-city neighborhoods are extremely violent and those who are not a members of a gang may be victimized by gang members. This victimization is blamed on a lack of an active concerned external control structure (strong law enforcement presence) coupled with the lack of an active concerned strong internal control structure consisting of family, school, and other noncriminal social groups to provide the sense of belonging and protection sought.

In review, subcultures exist within a larger society, not apart from it. A subculture’s members are usually expected to have loyalty to its members – having each other’s back no matter the consequences. Subcultures also emerge when people in similar circumstances find themselves isolated from the mainstream and band together for mutual support, such as a sense of belonging or sense of protection in addition to social economical influences and role models.

Subcultures are typically described using titles such as brotherhood, chapter, or sets. Subcultures may or may not be criminal, but regardless, they do signify a discontinuity of the expected norms, beliefs, and values of the larger society. In addition, a subculture is frequently created via spoken or unspoken alliances created within the larger society based on the self-interests of the subculture’s own perceived benefits by its members.

Lastly, social control theory involves looking at how a subculture develops and why it has particular characteristics. Social control theorists focus on the reason why an individual would choose a delinquent subculture, thereby leading to a broader understanding of criminals and criminal behaviors.

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