Cultural Transmission Theory of Deviance

Key Takeaways

  • Criminologists beginning in the mid-20th century, have examined how environmental factors can influence criminal behavior. Early theories painted deviance as a result of a clash of values between classes and as a means to obtain conventional success.
  • However, in the latter half of the 20th century, criminologists shifted their attention away from the impact of middle-class attitudes on others and toward the culture within the lower class. Criminologists developed concepts such as “street code,” to explain values systems conducive to crime.
  • Cultural transmission theory is an idea of the Chicago School that, in cities, natural areas emerge which, because of immigration patterns, are isolated from the mainstream of the rest of society.
  • As a consequence, the inhabitants develop their own knowledge, beliefs, and forms of behavior that make possible specific forms of deviant behavior.
  • Within each of these areas, the cultures are transmitted to the next generation. Thus it is areas of a city, not their populations, which demonstrate stable patterns of criminal behavior.
  • As populations move out to the suburbs the transmission of the deviant sub-culture is broken.

Cultural Deviance Theory

Cultural transmission theory posits that all behavior is learned from the society or culture surrounding a person. These behaviors can be prosocial or antisocial.

For instance, the celebration of certain holidays or lifestyle habits can be passed between generations and friends. Behaviors can also be culturally transmitted from childhood to adulthood.

Overall, from a social science perspective, cultural transmission is a means of learning information in a one-directional way. The criminological version of cultural transmission theory is cultural deviance theory.

In essence, cultural deviance theory argues that crime is caused by being in the presence of (and influenced by) deviant people. Criminologists stress that the people that someone sees on a regular basis, such as peers, family, and neighborhood residents, convey how one is supposed to relate to illegal behavior.

These groups establish norms. How someone reacts to verbal threats, responds to economic distress, and adherence to formal legal mandates are symptoms of the system of norms that govern that person’s daily life (Berg and Stewart, 2009).

In the first half of the 20th century, sociologists began to study deviance through the lens of positivism, which seeks to discover law-like structures that govern social interactions.

Early theorists in one positivist school, the Chicago school, concluded that rates of delinquency remained stable across neighborhoods. These theorists believed that this marked stability in where crime was located suggested that neighborhoods had specific value systems that either espoused or disincentivized criminal behavior.

Historically, those who study cultural transmission theory have done so through the lens of subculture. Subcultures are, in this context, cultural groups — often defined by factors such as age, race, or economic status — who have beliefs or interests that are different from those of the wider culture.

The mid-20th century saw a complexification of this model, as theorists found limitations in this so-called ecological subcultural theory and sought to expand on their strengths.

Cohen’s Cultural Transmission Theory

Albert Cohen’s cultural transmission strain theory argued that by socialization into working-class families, youth are poorly-equipped to abide by the criteria of middle-class existence, such as self-reliance, the exercise of forethought, manners, and sociability.

These structural deficits of the working class, according to Cohen, also translated into cultural deficits because middle-class cultural standards are used by everyone to evaluate one’s worth.

These deficits produce a psychological and societal strain, and a reaction results as working-class youth come together to reject middle-class values. Deviant subcultures emerge because of status frustration.

These groups devise an alternative status system contrary to the values of the middle class. Instead, respect and status are conferred on those who are physically aggressive and disregard middle-class standards.

Because these groups run contrary to the conventional culture, members of the delinquent subculture depend on this system for identity (Cohen, 2015).

Ultimately, Cohen’s focus on the social interactions and hierarchies that create deviant behavior addressed a fundamental problem in strain theory: its neglect of larger social systems on behavior. However, Cohen was not without challenges.


Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (2013) questioned the idea that the rejection of middle-class values by the lower classes resulted in violence. Instead, these sociologists developed the opportunity theory of subcultures, which posits that youth facing strain seek out illegal solutions in their own social environment that allow them to attain conventional success.

This theory distinguished itself from Cohen’s subcultural theory in the idea that the circumstances of an actor’s neighborhood determined the availability of illegal income-generating opportunities and ultimately one’s ability to achieve success by elicit means.

Thus, the ability for a neighborhood to transmit criminal values depends on how entrenched crime is in the neighborhood. Thus, if the opportunities for crime wane over time, the sanctioning of crime also wanes and thus the behavior that is being sanctioned.

A prominent model that focused on subcultures was created by Walter Miller in the 1950s. According to Miller, the lower-class cultural system is distinctive from those of higher classes in their symbolic content, or focal concerns.

These focal concerns are synonymous with values and can include concepts such as trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy (Miller, 2011).

These focal concerns can be transmitted through what Miller calls the “adolescent street corner group,” single-sex social conglomerates that provide emotional and material resources in lieu of the two-parent household.

As group members desire to reach a high standing in the group, members adhere to the focal standards; however, closely conforming to the norms of the group usually means that the members are in conflict with the conventional values of the wider society.

Rather than being motivated to defy the demands of the middle-class, Miller suggests that lower-class culture is transmitted as lower-class people seek to belong in lower-class social groups, such as the “adolescent street-corner group.”

Empirical Validity

Empirical researchers have found some support for the claims that cultural values come from class. Qualitative studies show that lower-class boys place greater value on displaying a tough-guy reputation and being skilled at fighting than middle-class boys.

Other researchers have used nationally-representative data to discover that youth of low socioeconomic status are more likely to commit violence because they have acquired definitions favorable to violence through interactions with members of their social groups, such as family.

Studies have also revealed that nonconventional attitudes make it easier for class positions to translate into violence.

Cultural transmission theories do not necessarily lean on structural factors as the producers of patterns of violence.

Wolfgang and Ferracuti, for example, interpreted rates of violent crime among groups as evidence that the group holds attitudes that favor violent conduct. This theory of subcultures bridges different patterns of violence among different racial groups with oppositional values.

However, Wolfgang and Ferrracuti stressed that subcultures could not differ fuller from the wider culture – even subcultures remain within the wider culture, albeit in conflict with each other.

Critics of Wolfgang and Ferracuti have suggested that norms favoring violence are causally related with socioeconomic factors. For instance, the concentration of African Americans involved in violent crimes may be a product of wide-spread urban deterioration and economic disparities affecting this population.

Those impacted by impoverished conditions become frustrated and aggressive, and this frustration and aggressiveness passes generationally, until it blossoms into a subculture and violence.

To prevent this cycle of violence, according to this theory, those who carry it should be forcefully dispersed and resocialized into the middle-class system (Berg and Stewart, 2009).

Modern Subcultural Theories

Recent subcultural scholars have focused on how the dynamics of contemporary urban America — such as joblessness, high rates of concentrated poverty, and urban structural decay — contribute to crime.

While early cultural transmission theorists such as Wolfgang and Ferracuti largely avoided the political and social structure. Components of voices, contemporary approaches examine both the normalcy of violence and the social structures, history, and politics that underlie these norms.

Modern urban sociologists believe that norms sanctioning violence emerged in some areas because socially structured cultural processes are less likely to assign negative sanctions to deviant behaviors, thus increasing the probability of violent behaviors.

The identity of those in disadvantaged urban areas is constructed early in life according to the standards of the oppositional culture. According to the sociologist Elijach Anderson, this street culture was brought about by the social alienation that resulted from economic transformation in urban areas.

This social code, according to Anderson, is based on honor. Those who are respected are better equipped to avoid threats of violence, and have a higher sense of self-worth. When an attack occurs, this code dictates that the victim must respond with equal retaliation, or else, the respect of the victim is undermined, inviting future attacks.

This idea of the “street code” has had mixed evidence. Research has found that youth living in disadvantaged neighborhoods and who feel discriminated against are likely to adopt street code, and that the street code predicts violent delinquency.

Similar studies have also shown that retaliatory homicides — those that reflect subcultures that stress honor — are more likely to happen in disadvantaged neighborhoods. However, these subcultural theories of violence have failed to account for the non-uniformity of rates of violent crime across disadvantaged areas.

Newer theories have proposed that violence in low-income communities results from social disorganization and social cultural isolation. According to these theories, social disorganization erodes how information is regulated, and cultural social isolation shapes norms that encourage violent conduct.

Nonconventional norms around behavior are the result of the failure of structural factors to restrain behaviors that represent subcultural preferences. According to this theory, enabling social organization within a neighborhood would diminish the power and transferability of the nonconventional culture among people over time (Berg and Stewart, 2009).

Modern criminology often treats culture as an adaptation to social structure. In response to this view, researchers have moved away from strategies that emphasize the values and ends of deviance and focused on how culture responds to, is mobilized by, and is re-created based on individual choices within a group.

According to this view, violence is practical if someone has the resources to commit violence, and violent events may be difficult to avoid if the resources to avoid violence are unavailable.


Anderson, E. (1994). The code of the streets. Atlantic monthly, 273(5), 81-94.

Berg, M. T., & Stewart, E. A. (2009). Cultural transmission theory. 21st century criminology: A reference handbook, 228-235.

Cloward, R. A., & Ohlin, L. E. (2013). Delinquency and opportunity: A study of delinquent gangs. Routledge.

Cohen, A. K. (2015). Delinquent boys. Criminology Theory: Selected Classic Readings, 133-148.

Miller, S. L. (2011). After the crime. New York University Press.

Wolfgang, M. E., Ferracuti, F., & Mannheim, H. (1967). The subculture of violence: Towards an integrated theory in criminology (Vol. 16). London: Tavistock Publications.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.