Title: Sociology- Criminological Concepts (The nexus between criminological concepts of culture and subculture, crime and control)




In 1978, Ruth Kornhauser published Social Sources of Delinquency and her contributions in the field of criminology have had a continual impact in the research and theory (Matsueda, 2012). Kornhauser (1978) established a typology of theories in criminology such as the cultural deviance theory and laid down basic sociological concepts in relation to the theories. In addition, she revived the interest in social disorganization and social control criminological theories thus influencing writers such as Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) and most recently, Kubrin and Weitzer (2003). Her theories fostered vast activities of research that have later come to assist us in grasping the conventional institutional crime control and the rise of delinquency through family life, school as well as community organization.

The subcultural theory for example opined that certain subcultures or groups in a society due to their attitude and values were more probable to be involved in violence and crime. Juvenile delinquency is the prime focus of this theory (Cohen, 1955) as it suggests that the within the subculture, juvenile delinquents are prone to transit into teenage offenders and later habitual criminals in their adult years. Thus, it places a huge significance in understanding how the pattern works in a bid to break the possible transitions into a life of crime (Walter, 1958).

This paper shall explore these theories as coined by Kornhauser and later expounded by other criminologists such as Albert Cohen, Walter Miller, Gottfredson and the immense contribution offered by Jeff Ferrell. Further, it shall seek to establish the inter-relation between these theories and crime as well as how the theories are employed in the understanding of crime and crime control. First, it is important to determine the historical perspective of the developed concepts as well as the theoretical frameworks that arose in relation to them.

Historical and theoretical frameworks

Criminal behaviour is, more often than not, subcultural behaviour.[1]

As Jeff Ferrell (1995) points out, the cultural and subcultural theories were established during the Chicago School interactionist criminology and also by criminologists such as Cloward, Cohen and Ohlin. They pointed out that criminal identities and actions of crime typically emerged within the confines of criminal and deviant subcultures (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960). Jeff Ferrell and Neil Websdale (1999) have attempted to integrate the field of cultural study with criminology. However, they are not the first persons to attempt to view criminology through the spectacles of culture. Like other criminologists, they too have borrowed insights from cultural studies. The term ‘cultural criminology’ that Ferrell coins is argued to trace its origins in 1970s from the British "new criminology" and the British/Birmingham School of cultural studies (Taylor et al 1973). The works of cultural criminologists thereafter, such as Cohen (1980) have shaped the modern understanding of the role of mass media in modelling crime and deviance.

From its infancy in 1970s, the merge between British cultural studies and criminology has had a widespread growth and has led to the establishment of the modern American criminology as we know it today. Still, contemporary cultural criminologists draw a lot of insight from cultural studies and its ventures into sexuality, identity and also social space (Grossberg et al, 1992).

As discussed later in this paper, there are various fields in which culture and crime intersect and this has often led to public controversies which continually shape the way we perceive and experience our daily lives (Ferrell, 1995). Most events and social groups have their foundation in their subcultural style and meaning; thus when they are termed as ‘criminal’, the entire group and event is conceptualized as criminal. This has subsequently caused events and groups perceived as having a cultural background or bound by cultural ties criminalized by public authorities, moral entrepreneurs as well as legal authorities.

Nevertheless, criminal behaviour has often been argued to stem from subcultural behaviour.[2] Criminology, the study of crime thus necessitates that individuals, specific events and groups are examined, and a study conducted to the root of criminality and its foundation. Criminologists therefore have to explore deviant and criminal subcultures as the sites of criminal activity, criminalization as well as legal control (Fraser, 1995, p.291).

Emerging areas of inquiry

The nexus between cultural space, crime and crime control is explained as one of the contemporary areas of inquiry (Ferrell, 2009, p.395). Crime and culture have been substantively interwoven in different sectors. This mutualism is further defined in a dichotomy between culture as crime and also crime as culture. Ferrell also argues that modern scholarship in cultural criminology has sometimes assumed its intellectual foundation or only partly utilized it (Ferrell, 1999). It is through this study that the benefits of the modern scholarship in cultural criminology can be realised.



Deviance and Crime as Culture

To speak of cultural criminology means acknowledging that there in a minimum content of culture and subculture in crime and deviance (Websdale, 1999). From the discussions above, it can be noted that cultural criminologists argue that crime is a result of collective behaviour, whether conducted by a single individual or a group. Organization and instigation of crime usually happens in a subcultural group (Ferrell, 1999). Membership of groups may vary from group to group, so does the level of commitment; however the subcultures remain the prime human associations through which individuals commit crime. Some of these subcultural networks as listed by Ferrell are Hustler, Pimp, Biker, Prostitute, all which identify the group as well as individual identities.

Criminal subcultures are collectively organized within networks of rituals, symbols and also a shared meaning. Such cultures incorporate and are thereby defined by elaborate conventions of appearance, argot, aesthetics and stylized self-presentation (Ferrell and Websdale, 1999). Thus, a criminal subculture does not only entail an association of persons but also networks of meanings, symbols and knowledge (Ferrell, 1995). Collectively, members of a subculture negotiate and learn drives, motives, attitudes and rationalization as well as develop conventions of language (Sutherland and Cressey, 1990). Their language of symbolic communication has been discussed by Ferrell as a universe that may transcend space and time (Ferrel and Websdale, 1999). Graffiti writer, computer hackers and drug runners are in the contemporary society defined rarely by face interactions, rather by symbolic codes (Gelder and Thornton, 1997).

Aesthetics play a significant role in the making of a subculture. The identity, action and meaning of a subcultural group and in particular a criminal subcultural group is often organized around a collective style (Sanders, 1994). Not surprisingly, it is this collective style that often defines deviance and crime for participants in a subculture and other involved persons. Katz’ research (1988) has shown that aesthetic is interweaved with criminality. Through the study of appearance, clothing, walking, talking, self-presentation of criminal identity, Katz has been able to establish the deviant culture in which members of the subculture participate. Bikers are for example recognized by their motorcycle activities, graffiti writers by their street writings and images and skinheads through the provocative music they listen to. Participation in a criminal subculture means participation in its collective aesthetics, style as well as symbolism. Therefore, in order to comprehend the criminal acts of a subculture, it is necessary to also observe and study its collective aesthetic.

Culture as Crime

Similarly, social activities of fashion, music and art are often engaging in deviance and crime. These activities have stirred up controversies in relation to the deviance of public decency, morals and through the influence of the popular culture (Ferrell, 1995). The producers of the artistic works sometimes spur the controversies in a bid to to promote the consumption of their products thus increasing their sales. Religious fundamentalists on the other hand promote the cultural controversies to promote their theo-political agendas. This conflicts not only spur up controversies but also influence the consumption, distribution and production as criminal as well as criminogenic.

Incorporation of criminalization and controversy in the music industry in Great Britain dates back to 1970s during the emergence of punk music (Ferrell, 1995). Malcolm McLaren for example organized for the establishment of the Sex Pistols Punk Band which intentionally employed a very controversial style of music which was both confrontational as well as disturbing (Henry, 1989). Their promotional displays were deemed obscene by police authorities who prosecuted shop owners selling the band’s records. All the band members had criminal records and thus came under public scrutiny and vicious attack from the same.

Meanwhile, similar music controversies were spurring up in the U.S. The Black rap group of the 1990s was indicted for obscenity charges. Record shops including one owned by Black rap group had their material confiscated for obscenity. All this is evidence of the interrelation between culture and crime and thus the establishment of cultural criminology which studies cultures and subcultures to understand the involvement of persons in crime as discussed above.

Contemporary application and the future of cultural criminology

It is inevitable to discuss cultures and subcultures under cultural criminology since the concept of cultures and subcultures stems traditionally and academically from criminology (Frith, 2004). Cultural criminologists base their research on modern sources as well as the academic findings of former criminologists in the post-subcultural theory period. Nevertheless, they find that the issues in cultural criminology today are far much uncertain and intense than the issues that challenged the 1970s Birmingham School. Hayward (2004) attributes this risen intensity to the desire for consumption which is not only pervasive but universal as well. Furthermore, the modern society is often bombarded and lured with aspirational messages.

As noted from works of earlier criminologists such as Cohen (1995) and modern criminologists (Ferrell, 2006), persons tend to form subcultures for purposes of resistance. As argued by criminologists in the 1970s, most, if not all subcultures were formed to resist the rise of capitalism. Modern criminologists are however of the opinion that class disparities have over time been reduced thus people are less likely to form subcultures for the purpose of resistance in particular resistance against capitalism. In this case, there should be a reduction in cases of deviance.

The new cultural criminology borrows many concepts from the former cultural criminology. For example the CCCs view on the youth delinquency of the working class has been adopted by new cultural criminologists. However, as noted by Hayward, the late modernity’s consumer culture has created an even wider disparity between the rich and the poor. Coupled with new desires and huge expectations from the consumer, the contemporary consumer culture has led to anxiety, dissatisfaction and a distinct social strain (Hayward, 2004).

Another development fostered by postmodern theorists is the idea of modern consumers having power to construct and shape new identities unchallenged by the previous restraints in social structure and class. This has led to the rise of the term ‘neo-tribe’ to substitute the formerly used ‘subculture’ (Maffesoli, 1996). Neo-tribe is favoured because it is argued to capture the identities and lifestyles of late modernity


As earlier noted, membership to a subculture entails not only adoption of its activities but also its meaning and perspective as well. It entails adoption of style, self-presentation, music, appearance and such other behavioural characteristics. Criminal subcultures also own their individual style, appearance, music and self-presentation. Thus a study of subcultures can assist criminologists in groping an individual to a specific subculture and also enhance their understanding on crime within the workings of a group or event. It has been argued that subcultures simply duplicate the lacuna and discrepancies in negotiations. Despite the fact that they solve issues (partly and in an imaginary form), the real and significant issues at the concrete level do not get solved (Clarke et al, 1986). Nevertheless the study of cultures and subcultures in cultural criminology plays a very significant role in understanding crime and thus establishing more efficient ways of controlling it. For criminologists, cultural criminology is a tool for enhancing their understanding of crime from other related fields; whereas persons pursuing cultural, media and sociological studies gain insight on criminalization, crime and their interaction with political and cultural processes. Cultural criminology has widened the scope of criminology to cover related fields such as fashion, art, language and music. It also introduces the concept of crime in these fields. Widening the scope of criminology sharpens the criminologists’ insight on crime, criminalization and its enforcement mechanisms. It is therefore an important tool for of establishing efficient mechanisms for crime prevention.




Cohen, AK. (1955) Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang, Glencoe. IL: Free Press.

Miller, W (1958). "Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency". Journal of Social Issues 14 (3): 5–20. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1958.tb01413

Richard, C. & Lloyd, O. (1960) Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs. New York: The Free Press

Ferrell, J. and Websdale, N. (1999) Making Trouble: Cultural Constructions of Crime, Deviance and Control, NY: Transaction Publishers

William, S. (1994) Gangbangs and Drive-bys: Grounded Culture and Juvenile Gang Violence. Hawthorne. NY: Aldine de Gruyter

Presdee, M. (2000) Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime. London: Routledge

Ferrell, J. (1995) Culture, Crime and Cultural Criminology, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(2) (1995) 25-42. Available at http://www.albany.edu/scj/jcjpc/vol3is2/culture.html

Katz, J. (1988) Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil. New York: Basic Books

Ferrell, J., Hayward, K., Morrison, W., and Presdee, M. (eds.) (2004) Cultural Criminology Unleashed. London: Cavendish/Glasshouse

Lyng, S. (1990) Edgework: A social psychological analysis of voluntary risk taking. American Journal of Sociology 95, 851-86.

Ferrell, J. and Sanders, C.R. (eds.) (1995) Cultural Criminology. Boston: North-eastern publishers

Martin, G. (2009) Crime, Media, Culture: An International Journal. London: Sage

Ferrell, J. (1999) Cultural Criminology. Annual Review of Sociology 25, 395-418.

Henry, T. (1989) Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press

[1] Jeff Ferrell (1995) Culture, Crime and Cultural Criminology, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(2) (1995) 25-42. Available at http://www.albany.edu/scj/jcjpc/vol3is2/culture.html

[2] ibid

£ 10 .00