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Violent Subcultures by Ferracuti and Wolfgang

What is Subculture Theory of Violence

In their work on the subculture of violence, Wolfgang and Ferracuti use the earlier work by Wolfgang based on crime rates in the inner-cities of African American neighborhoods especially in Philadelphia (Wolfgang, 1958). They use this to formulate the operational definition of the concept of a subculture. They aimed to scientifically prove the existence of the subcultures of violence through identifying and measuring them. Thus, they proposed the use of the integrated theoretical and the methodological approaches. The integrated method involved getting information from a range of existing criminological theories and insights from the disciplines such as psychology and sociology.

As they explained how a subculture causes violence, Ferracuti and Wolfgang argue out that violence is a result of conformity of a pro-violent subculture that is in direct confrontation or in conflict with mainstream culture. However, the two authors do not suggest that the subcultures are in total conflict with the societies that they are part of. They note that the violence portrayed by these cultures especially in the form of overt use of force, in interpersonal relationships, group interaction is a general view or reflection of the outstanding values of the mainstream society (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967).

The two authors offer no explanation on how the subcultures of violence come to evolve.  However, they assert that the subcultures of violence have a tendency to be isolated groups, racialized, lower-class and masculine phenomenon. The production of violence among these subcultures is believed to stem from a tendency that they have to embrace values and norms that facilitate the use of violence under certain conditions. According to the authors, the group members are allowed by their developed norms and values to use violence when confronted with certain situations (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 2001). What is implied from their study is that the subcultures affiliates and normally uses violence as a central method to maintain and protect their status.

Violent reactions towards the perceived threats to status or honor are culturally prescribed. Failure to react in defense of one’s culture may result in life threatening consequences. Violent values and norms in this kind of society tend to act as a method of social control. The members are required to act in a violent manner in order to propagate their own interests, protect themselves as well as for survival. When they are fully equipped with the norms and values that accept violence to be normal the members of the subculture value violent acts.  Moreover, they can engage in violent acts and justify them. They can be able to engage in violent actions more frequently and guiltlessly even when they are less provoked (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967).

They greatly draw their ideas and insights from the deviance theorists before them. Empirically, Ferracuti and Wolfgang entirely base their theories and ideas from the inferences of the available statistics on murder related acts of the time. Through the use of these statistics especially from Philadelphia, the two authors come up with a conclusion that sub cultural violence is a concept of the males. The mainstream world is composed of an irregular and random pattern of violent behaviors. However, from their point of argument, the kind of violence they explain about is a collective phenomenon. In addition, they argue that the violence manifested is a normal experience for the poor and non-white people majorly, the males (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 2001).

Methodology Used in their Study 

The methodology they used in their study of the subculture of violence is through the identification of prevalent values. The observation of the values provides insights into the norms of the group. This works on the premise that the norms are able to sustain the values through a system of punishing non-conformity and rewarding conformity. The attitudes, perceptions and the actions of every individual are taken into consideration as the central points towards understanding of the general culture of the society.

Wolfgang and Ferracuti go ahead and identify the groups in the society which portray high rates of murder related cases or homicide. They target the most extreme subcultures of violence. Then they plan to examine the value system of the subcultures with the background information of the significance of human life in the level of values, expected reactions to the induced stimulus, perception in the evaluation of it and the overriding personality of the actors in a specific subculture (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967).

After the identification of the extremely violent subculture groups based on the existing statistics, the concentration of violence among the marginalized men and whether the pro-violent values exist are assessed. This is normally done through determining whether there is a collective encouragement, reward or approval when one engages in violent actions. To find out if there exists variance between the suspected sub cultural offenders, social values are measured using ratio scale.

Findings of Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s Thesis on Violent Subcultures

The African American population only accounts for approximately 12% of the whole American population (Wolfgang, 1958). However, they account for more than half of homicide and the robbery arrests carried out (Cao et al., 1997). Furthermore, it was recorded that the leading cause of deaths among the African American males was homicide and blacks robbery rates, which were almost ten times those carried out by their counterparts, the whites. According to Wolfgang, these extremely high rates of crime related acts could be explained in a theory emphasizing the black subculture of violence.

According to him, there existed a myriad of reasons to explain the existence of violence among the African American population. From his point of view, this resulted from the processes of socialization, as a part of their culture which could be deeply rooted in their social systems, specifically culture. He argued that violence could be found in the cluster of values and the interpersonal relationships making up the lifestyles of the black people in the American society (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967). 

From their point of view, Wolfgang & Ferracuti (1967) argue that just like other human behavior that stem from their culture, violent crimes and  homicide must be seen from the cultural contexts from which they spring (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967). Deviance and other crime related acts are not evenly distributed in the entire social structure. They found out that there were a lot of evidences that could be used to link deviant behavior with class, ethnicity, occupational status and other social variables. The highest possibility was that violent acts were predominant in a homogenous group of people in urban areas for example the blacks. They came to a conclusion that the value system of the African American constituted a subculture of violence.

Homicide and other crime rates among the blacks in America were highest among the male residents, young adults and the non-whites. From a sample of 588 homicide criminals in Philadelphia, non-white male residents ranging from the age of 20-24 years were 92 for every 100,000 as compared to 3.4 whites based on similar rating (Wolfgang, 1958). Non-white females rated at 9.3% as compared to 0.4% for the whites (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967). They went ahead and claimed that by identifying the groups with the highest rates of homicide and major crime rates, there was the possibility to identify the group comprising of the subculture of violence.

The basic tenet of the theory of the subculture of violence holds that overt violence practiced by a certain subculture is a major reflection of the outstanding values upheld by the parent culture. The overt and often illicit violence constitute the normative beliefs of the people as a part of the psychological traits of those members making the subculture (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 2001). Any derogatory remark, jostle or the presence of a weapon in the hands of an adversely are differently perceived and interpreted by both whites and blacks.

Wolfgang and Ferracuti argue that violence is highly valued among the blacks in American society. According to them, this leads to the high cases of homicide among the groups as compared to the rest of the population. It is an integral component of the African American society. An individual in an ordinary culture is normally punished for deviating from the norms of the other group members. Likewise, any member in the subculture of violence who refuses to portray the violent behavior is treated with disdain or indifference. Wolfgang claims that it is not an improbable idea that a subculture can embrace violence as a part of its values, encourage its people to adhere to it and to a great extent punish those who deviate from it. He adds that the more people stay in such a culture, the more they are expected to embrace the culture which becomes an integrated part of his/her values which becomes their personality (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967).

The general tenets laid out in Wolfgang & Ferracuti’s theory of subculture of violence regard culture as a part of value system embraced by the society. Firstly, the two authors state that when people indulge in violent acts in these kinds of subcultures, there is no need of feeling guilt. Secondly, imparting violence in the subculture involves differential learning, identification and association. Thirdly, violent behavior results to punishment. Fourthly, the practice of violence cuts across all the age groups but common during the late adolescent stages to the middle age. Fifthly, the willingness and capability to act violently under different circumstances forms the basis through which the culture diffuses and penetrates among the members. Sixthly, to establish the existence of a subculture of violence does not necessarily require that members act violently in all situations. Lastly, no subculture can be totally different from the central or the parent society which it forms part of (Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 2001).

Criticisms of Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s Thesis on Violent Subcultures

Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s theory of the black subculture of violence has its fair share of critics. There are considerable grounds to argue out that thesis presented by Ferracuti and Wolfgang is circular in reasoning (Ball-Rokeach, 1973). There is an assumed link between the violent values and actions. There is the importance of assessing the individual data regarding their values to verify the validity and applicability of the information contained in the thesis.  The material presented by Ferracuti and Wolfgang is highly stereotypic to the African American males. This has been caused by the failure to look into the possibility of the emergence of subcultures that are ignorant of social structural factors that can lead to the prevalence of the violent behaviors among some of its members and not necessarily all the members.

Another limitation that can be seen in this theory is that researchers ought to engage in researching a heterogeneous population than a homogenous one. There are dynamics that dictate how people relate to one another if they share the same origin and this might be different if heterogeneous groups are studied. For example, involving students at school in a research.

Ellison (1991) uses the data from the General Social Survey of 1983, came up with the conclusion that the appreciation and support of violent acts are highly related to the regions where people come from and not necessarily the race. To him, more whites were more likely to approve some forms of violence as methods of retaliation (Ellison, 1991).

Other studies have recently been carried out to test the hypothesis developed by Wolfgang and Ferracuti. Most have showed support for parts of the theory but not the theory in its entirety.

Smith (1979) used interviews and survey method to study the rates of violence among the hockey players in Toronto. He found out that the hockey players possessed values and attitudes that could permit them to be more violent than the non-players. This supports the idea of Ferracuti and Wolfgang. However, he does not support the idea of subculture violence in its entirety. He only supports the proposal that there is a relationship between violence and pro-violent values and attitudes (Smith, 1979).


In conclusion, Wolfgang and Ferracuti have greatly contributed in the study of the theory of subculture violence theory. Their study was majorly informed through the use of criminal related and behavioral theories of both sociology and psychology. Their conclusion shows that there is a high degree of prevalence of pro-violence values and norms among the African American which makes them more prone to violence. Their studies have also been criticized especially on the basis that they seem to make serious stereotypes on the black race. However, thesis developed the fact that it has been able to spark a great interest among other upcoming researches to start their researches. It is a unique platform to form further research on pro-violence and criminal behavior among the population.

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