Subcultures of Violence Essay

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Subcultures of violence are generally characterized by identifiable values, norms, or shared expectations for interaction that dictate the use of violence in some situations. Subcultures are not totally distinct from a broader culture in which they are embedded. Rather, the subcultural adherents subscribe to many behavioral expectations of the dominant culture and adhere to a subset of norms and values that are not condoned by the broader culture. Among those adhering to the tenets of a subculture of violence, the use of violence in particular situations is not simply tolerated, but expected. This expectation implies that it is a conduct norm, meaning that negative sanctions (such as being ostracized) may occur if violence is not used in a situation in which subcultural norms call for it. Subcultures of violence are said to be maintained by a process of intergenerational transmission and social learning of the relevant norms and values. The two most widely discussed subcultures of violence are the Southern subculture of violence and the Black subculture of violence, both said to be found in America.

Southern Subculture of Violence

The Southern region of the United States, particularly the geographic area encompassing the former Confederate States, is said to harbor a region-specific subculture of violence. The evidence for this is found in the inordinately high rates of murder (compared to the other regions of the country) that have characterized the South from its earliest settlement through the beginning of the 21st century. The ultimate source of this apparent proclivity for murder was contested for many decades. Some have simply argued that the frontier conditions of the rural South and the concomitant absence of formal authority bred a culture of self-reliance and violent retaliation. Others have suggested the legacy of slavery and the routine use of violence this institution required may account for the regional disparity. Scholars have also implicated an ethic of honor that prescribes violence for slights, insults, and direct or even indirect threats to individual or family honor. A body of literature critical of the subcultural perspective argues that the structural conditions long characteristic of the South (i.e., poverty, inequality) are the sources of the regional disparity. This countervailing perspective argues that accounting for these features essentially explains the regional difference. All of these explanations, however, have their fair share of skeptics.

The most recent and comprehensive scholarship on the issue takes a long historical view and locates the roots of Southern violence in the Northern British and Celtic fringe region of the British Isles, including the Scottish lowlands and highlands (the borders), and Northern Ireland. This region was long characterized by clan and tribal warfare and a culture valuing boasting and bragging, as well as placing inordinate emphasis on personal honor. Most major analyses of this group emphasize the centrality of violence as part and parcel of the cultural worldview.

The substantial Scots-Irish migration of the middle 18th century (1717–1775) was significantly larger than that of the other major culturally distinct British migrations (Puritans, Quakers, and Royalists) and ultimately left a lasting imprint on American society. The two largest points of entry for the Scots-Irish were Pennsylvania and Virginia. In both places, the North Britons quickly took to the backcountry in the Appalachian mountains and Shenandoah valley and ultimately spread throughout the southern piney woods region. The terrain was well adapted to their herding and pastoralist lifestyle, and the remoteness of the region dovetailed with their independence and distrust of formal government. For nearly 300 years, this region of the United States has remained the most violent in the country and is particularly distinguished by its level of lethal violence, the amount of violence in small towns and rural areas, and the amount of violence committed by Whites. This region was characterized by significant violence well before the Civil War, and for a long time was notable for the degree of violence committed by social elites (e.g., dueling). Some have argued that conservative Protestant Christianity, which prevails throughout the South, may have served to maintain some of the norms and values supporting the use of violence over the centuries by way of its emphasis on hierarchical God images, individual salvation, and retribution.

Black Subculture of Violence

In addition to the regional disparity, urban Black populations have long had inordinately high rates of violence, although recent research reveals a similar disparity in the rural context. The Black experience has led some to suggest the existence of a unique Black subculture of violence, in which a small subset of the Black population adheres to normative expectations that are uncannily similar to those found in the Southern subculture of violence. Although recent empirical research using individual-level survey data finds no support for the notion that Blacks are more tolerant of violence, at least one recent analyst has intriguingly argued that Black violence is a cultural phenomenon resulting from 200 years of immersion in the Southern culture of violence, and carried out of the South with the great migration in the first half of the 20th century. This hypothesis thus bridges the gap between these two subcultures, which until recently were treated as wholly distinct from one another.

Other Subcultures of Violence

Although these two are the most widely discussed in the academic literature, analysts have advanced that subcultures of violence may exist in other social settings. These include among contemporary street gang members, in prisons and related correctional settings, among the Corsicans of Spain, in isolated communities in Italy, and among participants in organized crime. Although apparently radically different from one another, all of these groups (and more) share the essential features of expecting the use of violence in some situations that members of the broader culture in which they are embedded do not, while simultaneously subscribing to numerous other norms and values that characterize the prevailing culture.


  1. Cao, L., Adams, A., & Jensen, V. (1997). A test of the black subculture of violence thesis: A research note. Criminology, 35, 367–379.
  2. Ellison, C. G., Burr, J. A., & McCall, P. L. (2003). The enduring puzzle of southern homicide. Homicide Studies, 7, 326–353.
  3. Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  4. Sowell, T. (2005). Black rednecks and White liberals. San Francisco: Encounter.
  5. Wolfgang, M., & Ferracuti, F. (1982). The subculture of violence: Towards an integrated theory in criminology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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