Cultural Deviance Theory states that crime is correlated strongly to the cultural values and norms prevalent in a society.
In other words, individuals may turn to crime not on account of any innate character traits, but because they are influenced by:
- The place they live in,
- The people they are surrounded by, and
- The socio-economic conditions of their micro-environment
Those three elements come together to form a unique subculture influencing the individual and their chances to turn to crime.
Usually, the theory is used to critique immigrant and working-class cultures, making it a highly controversial theory in the 21st Century!
Origins of Cultural Deviance Theory
The theory was born out of the work of University of Chicago sociologists Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay in the 1930s. Shaw and McKay were part of a larger theoretical project to understand social deviance and crime in the rapidly burgeoning immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago during this period.
The theory Shaw and McKay proposed came to be called the Social Disorganization Theory as it attributed delinquency to a disorganization or rupture of traditional societal norms by forces such as immigration and poverty.
The criminologist Walter B. Miller (1958) made significant additions to the work of Shaw, McKay and others. He added his own thesis that certain cultural values in lower-class societies (which were absent among the middle-classes) played a major role in contributing to social deviance or delinquent behavior.
Miller’s thesis came to be known as the cultural deviance theory.
Here are some scholarly definitions of the cultural deviance theory that have been paraphrased and can be used as such:
- Shaw and McKay (1969) proposed that the transmission of cultural norms that result in criminal or delinquent behavior is a cause of delinquent or criminal behavior.
- Miller (1958) suggested that delinquent behavior arose as a result of “focal concerns” or a set of issues that the subjects feel highly emotionally involved with, of “lower class culture”.
Six Focal Concerns of Cultural Deviance Theory
Miller (1958) further identified six cornerstones of lower-class subculture that he called “focal concerns”.
According to Miller, a fixation of lower-class youths with these “focal concerns” led to increased delinquency. These six focal concerns were:
1. Trouble – According to Miller, “getting in trouble” and “staying out of trouble” were major concerns of lower-class youth (with trouble here defined as encounters with the law). This pointed towards a key feature of lower-class subculture in which respect for the law came not out of a sense of morality but from a fear of punishment.
2. Toughness – In lower class cultures, toughness, defined by a disregard for consequences, a contempt for literary, artistic, and scholarly pursuits including education, a pride in displays of unsentimentality, and an objectification of women, becomes a highly valued and desired attribute. Juveniles aspire to be “tough” in the sense described above to gain respect among their peers.
3. Smartness – Smartness, defined as being manipulative and possessing cunning, was said to be another prized attribute among juveniles in a lower-class culture. A “smart guy” is one who gets others to do his bidding without the direct use of violence. Think of the various depictions of “smart guys”, “wise guys”, and “smooth operators” in gangster movies who are always flirting with the law.
4. Excitement – Juveniles in lower-class cultures seem to be chasing the next thrill to overcome the monotony of lower-class culture. This often leads them to activities such joining gangs or doing drugs.
5. Fate – Feeling disempowered, members of the lower-classes may place a greater reliance on fate or luck than those of the middle classes. This may lead to an attitude of recklessness, as actions and their consequences may come to be seen as preordained, and thus beyond the pale of morality. In other words, if what is to be, shall be, then why worry about consequences? For the proponents of the cultural deviance theory, such an attitude can act as an enabler for delinquency.
6. Autonomy – According to Miller, lower classes may display a contempt towards authority, seeing institutions of the state as exerting undue control over their lives. They may seek to resist such control and assert their autonomy. Delinquency or crime can result as a direct result of this attempt to assert their autonomy against the system, manifesting itself through acts of vandalism or petty crime.
Good to Know Information
The cultural deviance theory is often viewed as a part of a larger theory called the social disorganization theory. Social disorganization theory links crime and delinquency to cultural norms of particular locations or residential areas such as those of low-income groups or those with a heavy concentration of poor immigrants.
However, a key difference between the two is that the cultural deviance theory fleshes out in much greater detail the processes that lead to the formation of a unique delinquent subculture and how this may in turn influence youth towards delinquency.
The social disorganization theory on the other hand stresses on ruptures within systems or breakdown of traditional societal bonds as the reason for delinquency.
Another theory viewed within the same grouping is Sutherland’s (1947) differential association theory. All such theories are further classified together under the broad label of Ecological or Socio-ecological theories that give primacy to the role of the social environment upon human behavioral patterns.
List of Real-Life Examples
1. Ethnic Gangs
Much of the fieldwork that resulted in the formulation of the cultural divergence theory occurred among immigrant street corner gangs in Chicago and Boston in the first half of the twentieth century. Many tenets of the cultural deviance theory are applicable to gangs even in the twenty-first century.
For instance, Indo-Canadian gangs in the Vancouver region of Canada composed of Punjabi Sikh migrants from India draw on cultural values of honour, violence, and revenge coupled with poverty to lure many young boys into joining these gangs. Frederick Thrasher, an early contributor to the cultural deviance theory wrote that “an immigrant colony…is itself an isolated social world…the gang boy moves only in his own universe and other regions are clothed in nebulous mystery…he knows little of the outside world.” (Thrasher 1927)
2. The Chicago Area Project
In 1934, Clifford Shaw, one of the early proponents of the cultural deviance theory, set up the Chicago Area Project in the Russell Square Park neighborhood of South Chicago. This neighborhood was then inhabited by newly arrived immigrants from rural Poland who worked in steel factories and clung tenaciously to their traditional way of life while struggling to cope up with life in an industrialized society.
The Russell Square Park neighborhood had a very high rate of petty crime such as theft and vandalism committed by juveniles who had organized themselves into a number of gangs.
Conventional “top-down” approaches to control delinquency such as punitive policing did not seem to work. So Shaw suggested a “bottom-up” approach based on his theory that the cause of the delinquency was cultural norms that were being adopted and transmitted by the gangs in an environment of deprivation, poverty, and isolation.
Shaw suggested a three-pronged approach to tackle the problems of crime, theft, and vandalism. This included:
- Organizing the community, and
- Providing services to the neighborhood through volunteers.
With these three approaches, Shaw attempted to alter the culture of the gangs and change the perception of gang members about which cultural values were to sought and pursued. The idea was to promote productive values (e.g. getting a job, being a law-abiding citizen), and make others undesirable (e.g. committing acts of vandalism).
3. Honor Killings
Honor killings among immigrants from South Asia and West Asia are a form of violence in which a female, usually a sister or a daughter, is murdered by men of her own family for the perceived act of bringing dishonor to her family. It usually occurs when she is accused of associating with a man outside of her community. Such killings in the West have been documented mostly among newly arrived immigrants working blue collar jobs.
The motivation for such crimes is cultural notions of honor, masculinity, and ethnic/tribal pride coupled with a lack of access to education. Additionally, perpetrators of such acts see their own cultural code as being above the law of the land.
Further, as in Walter Miller’s classic formulation of the cultural deviance theory, notions of toughness in some cultures result in an objectification of women, and in turn, violence against them.
Miller (1958) argued that these supposed cultural traits of the working classes represented the formulation of a unique working-class subculture. This was due primarily to an absence of strong male figures during childhood, and was the cause of high rates of delinquency among lower class youth.
Advantages of Cultural Deviance Theory
1. It’s Comprehensive
The cultural deviance theory combines elements of the social disorganization theory of Shaw and McKay and the strain theory of Robert Merton (1938) to present one of the most comprehensive analyses of delinquency.
While the social disorganization theory focused only on the breakdown of institutions, the strain theory posited a strain or conflict between an individual’s desires and their means as the reasons for crime. While the first misses one crucial step in explaining how disorganization leads to crime, the second focuses too much on individual reasons. The cultural deviance theory combines both.
2. It’s Portable
Although designed initially to examine delinquency in American cities, the cultural deviance theory, with a few tweaks, can be applied to many other cultural settings. The “focal concerns” identified by Miller were specific to the setting of his research but can be adapted to other cultures.
3. It’s Solution-Oriented
The cultural deviance theory not only claims to explain the causes of delinquency, it also provides a blueprint for solving the problem. Many theoretical models in the social sciences often remain limited to merely explaining a problem, without providing any actionable insights.
With the cultural deviance theory however, once the “focal concerns” of a culture have been identified, a solution can be devised based on reorienting the cultural norms of delinquents through community intervention, providing services, and community organization.
Criticisms and Disadvantages of Cultural Deviance Theory
1. Stereotyping and Stigmatizing of Lower-class Culture
The classic definition of the cultural deviance theory rests on the delineation of certain “focal concerns” such as toughness, smartness, trouble, etc. that it attributes to a “lower class culture”.
However there is no definitive evidence to support that such attributes are limited only to lower (or working) class cultures. Middle-classes too might identify with such “focal concerns” without having to face the scrutiny of academics and governments trying to ‘fix’ them.
2. Overemphasizing the Impact of Culture
Cultural Deviance Theory relies a little too heavily on the impact of culture on the individual, without accounting for the individual’s own agency in negotiating their way through the structural forces in their lives.
3. Applicable only to Explanations of Certain Kinds of Crimes
The cultural deviance theory can only be used to explain certain classes of crimes such as theft, vandalism, etc. that have a higher rate of prevalence among the working classes. It does not apply to white collar crimes such as fraud, money-laundering etc that are carried out by highly educated individuals or groups of people from the middle or the upper-middle classes who may not belong to working-class and immigrant communities.
Similarly it does not apply to acts of sexual violence that cross class and ethnic barriers. The cultural deviation theory’s assumptions such as a fear of punitive action rather than a sense of morality being the driver of the lower classes fail to hold in such cases as white-collar criminals too show little regard for precepts of morality.
Personally, I find cultural deviance theory creates a ‘deficit’ mindset toward the working-classes and ignores the enormous damage to society caused by the capitalist class. Similarly, it fails to see the positive aspects of the working-classes (such as resilience and their remarkable storytelling traditions).
Nevertheless, this is a sober reflection on the relationship between culture and crime. It remains a worthwhile theoretical lens to examine social problems. But for me, it’s also a learning opportunity to learn how to look critically at a theory and examine its blindspots and biases, of which Cultural Deviance Theory has many.
Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review 3(5), pp. 672-682. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/2084686
Miller, W. B. (1958) Lower class culture as a generating milieu of gang culture. Journal of Social Issues 14(3), pp. 5-19. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1958.tb01413.x
Shaw, C. R. and McKay, H.D. (1969). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sutherland, E. (1947) Principles of criminology Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.
Thrasher, F. (1927) The gang: A study of 1313 gangs in Chicago Chicago: University of Chicago Press.