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Understanding Cultural Deviance: Exploring the Link Between Culture and Crime

The Cultural Deviance Theory Explained

Crime is a complex phenomenon that is influenced by various factors, including societal norms, cultural values, and individual circumstances. To better understand the underlying causes of crime, criminologists have developed several theories.

One such theory is the Cultural Deviance Theory, which focuses on the impact of cultural values and norms on individuals’ propensity to engage in criminal behavior. In this article, we will delve into the definition, origins, and key elements of the Cultural Deviance Theory.

1. Definition and Explanation of Cultural Deviance Theory

Crime cannot be understood in isolation from the society in which it occurs.

Each society has its own set of cultural values, norms, and expectations, which shape individuals’ behavior and interactions. The Cultural Deviance Theory posits that crime is a result of the clash between the dominant cultural values and the values of subcultures.

Subcultures are groups within a society that have their own distinct norms, beliefs, and practices, often differing from those of the broader society. The Cultural Deviance Theory suggests that individuals who belong to subcultures that deviate from mainstream cultural values are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.

This theory emphasizes that criminality is not inherent to individuals, but rather a product of the cultural environment in which they grow up and live. It argues that individuals who feel marginalized or excluded from society’s norms are more inclined to engage in crime as a means of seeking status, identity, or acceptance within their subculture.

2. Origins of Cultural Deviance Theory

The Cultural Deviance Theory can be traced back to the University of Chicago sociologists Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, who developed the Social Disorganization Theory in the early 20th century.

This theory focused on the impact of neighborhood characteristics on crime rates. Building upon this work, criminologist Walter B.

Miller proposed the Cultural Deviance Theory in the 1950s. Miller argued that the lower-class subculture had its own unique values and norms, which may differ significantly from those of the middle and upper classes.

He identified six focal concerns that are prominent within the lower-class subculture and influence individuals’ behavior: trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. These focal concerns shape individuals’ worldview and can lead to delinquent behavior.

3. The Six Focal Concerns of Cultural Deviance Theory

3.1 Six focal concerns identified by Walter B.


– Trouble: The lower-class subculture places a high value on toughness and the ability to handle and navigate trouble. This concern revolves around individuals’ ability to handle conflicts and challenges in their daily lives.

– Toughness: Being tough and resilient in the face of adversity is highly valued within the lower-class subculture. This concern leads individuals to prioritize physical strength and toughness as a means of survival and protection.

– Smartness: The ability to outsmart others in various situations is another focal concern within the lower-class subculture. This emphasis on street smarts and cunning can lead individuals to engage in illegal activities to gain advantages over others.

– Excitement: The lower-class subculture seeks excitement and thrills, often through risky behaviors. This concern can lead individuals to engage in delinquent or criminal activities to satisfy their need for excitement.

– Fate: The lower-class subculture often views life as being dictated by fate or luck. This concern results in individuals feeling that they have limited control over their lives, leading them to engage in impulsive behaviors and take risks without considering the long-term consequences.

– Autonomy: The lower-class subculture values independence and autonomy. This concern can lead individuals to reject mainstream societal norms and engage in criminal behavior as a means of asserting their independence and autonomy.

3.2 Impact and Relevance of the Six Focal Concerns

The six focal concerns identified by Miller significantly contribute to the development and perpetuation of delinquent behavior within the lower-class subculture. By prioritizing trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy, individuals within this subculture often engage in behaviors that are considered deviant or criminal by the broader society.

For example, the emphasis on toughness can lead to physical confrontations and acts of violence as a means of asserting dominance or defending oneself in the face of challenge or threat. The focus on smartness can lead individuals to engage in fraudulent activities or schemes to outwit others and gain personal advantages.

The pursuit of excitement can prompt individuals to participate in illegal drug use, vandalism, or other risky behaviors. The cultural norms and values within the lower-class subculture shape individuals’ choices and decision-making processes, often prioritizing short-term gratification over long-term consequences.

This focus on immediate gratification and the belief in fate can result in impulsive behaviors, such as theft, drug use, or engagement in violent crimes. Conclusion:

The Cultural Deviance Theory provides valuable insights into the relationship between cultural values, subcultures, and criminal behavior.

By understanding the impact of cultural norms and values on individuals’ propensity to engage in deviant acts, we can develop targeted interventions and social policies to address the root causes of crime. However, it is important to recognize that the Cultural Deviance Theory, like any theory, has its limitations and cannot fully explain the complexity of crime.

Further research and interdisciplinary approaches are necessary to gain a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of crime and its underlying causes. 3.

Related Theories and Examples

3.1 The Theory of Cultural Capital

In addition to the Cultural Deviance Theory, another relevant theory in understanding the impact of culture on behavior is the Theory of Cultural Capital. Developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, this theory highlights the importance of cultural knowledge, skills, and resources in determining individuals’ success and social mobility.

Cultural capital encompasses not only formal education but also cultural practices, tastes, and values that are typically passed down through socialization processes. According to the Theory of Cultural Capital, individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds often possess cultural capital that aligns with the dominant cultural values of society.

This cultural capital provides them with advantages in navigating social institutions, accessing resources, and achieving upward mobility. On the other hand, individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may lack cultural capital that aligns with the dominant culture, limiting their opportunities and reinforcing their marginalized status.

3.2 Real-life Examples Illustrating Cultural Deviance Theory

Cultural Deviance Theory can help explain various real-life examples of deviant behavior within subcultures. For instance, ethnic gangs in urban areas often exhibit distinct cultural values and behaviors that may deviate significantly from those of the broader society.

These gangs may prioritize violence, loyalty, and territory as focal concerns, leading to criminal activities such as drug trafficking, extortion, or even acts of violence. To address this issue, organizations like the Chicago Area Project have implemented community-based initiatives that aim to divert at-risk youth from engaging in gang activity.

By understanding the cultural values and norms of these subcultures, these initiatives can effectively provide alternative pathways for individuals to seek acceptance and belonging without resorting to criminal behavior. Additionally, honor killings in certain cultural contexts can be examined through the lens of Cultural Deviance Theory.

In some societies, the preservation of family honor is considered paramount, and individuals who are perceived to have violated cultural norms or challenged traditional gender roles may be subjected to violence or even death. Cultural Deviance Theory helps us understand how deeply ingrained cultural values and norms can shape individuals’ behavior, even when it results in serious criminal acts.

4. Advantages of Cultural Deviance Theory

4.1 Comprehensive Analysis of Delinquency

One of the key advantages of the Cultural Deviance Theory is its ability to provide a comprehensive analysis of delinquency.

While other theories, such as the social disorganization theory or strain theory, focus on specific factors contributing to criminal behavior, the Cultural Deviance Theory recognizes the complex interplay between cultural values, subcultures, and individuals’ propensity to engage in delinquent acts. By acknowledging the cultural context in which individuals grow up and live, this theory expands our understanding of the multifaceted nature of criminal behavior.

4.2 Portability and Applicability to Various Cultural Settings

Another strength of the Cultural Deviance Theory is its portability and applicability across different cultural settings. While some theories may be more limited in their scope, the Cultural Deviance Theory recognizes that cultural norms play a significant role in shaping individuals’ behavior, regardless of their specific culture or society.

This theory’s focus on cultural values and subcultures allows for a more nuanced examination of criminal behavior within diverse communities, highlighting the importance of context and cultural factors in understanding crime. 4.3 Solution-oriented Approach

The Cultural Deviance Theory also lends itself to a solution-oriented approach to addressing criminal behavior.

By identifying the cultural values and norms that contribute to deviant behavior, this theory provides actionable insights for intervention and prevention strategies. Drawing from theories like the routine activities theory, which emphasizes the role of guardianship and opportunities for crime, the Cultural Deviance Theory can inform community interventions that aim to disrupt the cultural factors that perpetuate criminal behavior.

Community organization and empowerment become key components in addressing cultural deviance and promoting social change. By working directly with communities and engaging individuals in the process, these interventions can help challenge and redefine cultural norms that may contribute to criminal behavior.


The Cultural Deviance Theory, combined with related concepts such as the Theory of Cultural Capital, provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the impact of culture on criminal behavior. By recognizing the importance of cultural values, subcultures, and the clash between dominant cultural norms and those within marginalized groups, this theory sheds light on the complex dynamics that contribute to deviance and crime.

Furthermore, its portability and solution-oriented approach make it a valuable tool in addressing criminal behavior across diverse cultural contexts. Continued research and application of the Cultural Deviance Theory can lead to more effective strategies for preventing and reducing delinquency, fostering community cohesion, and promoting social change.

5. Criticisms and Disadvantages of Cultural Deviance Theory

5.1 Stereotyping and Stigmatizing of Lower-Class Culture

One of the main criticisms leveled against the Cultural Deviance Theory is that it can perpetuate stereotypes and stigmatize lower-class culture.

By focusing on the deviant behaviors and cultural values within subcultures, there is a risk of essentializing and homogenizing the experiences and identities of individuals from these communities. This can lead to negative perceptions and judgments, further marginalizing already disadvantaged groups.

It is crucial to recognize that not all individuals within a particular subculture engage in criminal behavior or subscribe to deviant values. The Cultural Deviance Theory should not be used as a broad brush to label or stigmatize entire communities.

Instead, it is important to adopt a nuanced approach that considers the myriad factors that contribute to crime, including structural inequalities, socioeconomic disparities, and individual agency. 5.2 Overemphasis on the Impact of Culture

Another criticism of the Cultural Deviance Theory is its potential overemphasis on the impact of culture at the expense of other significant factors.

While cultural values and norms undoubtedly shape individuals’ behavior, they should not be viewed in isolation from structural forces and individual agency. It is crucial to recognize the influence of socioeconomic factors, systemic injustices, and the role of individual choices and motivations when examining criminal behavior.

Without considering broader contextual factors, such as poverty, lack of opportunities, or institutionalized discrimination, crime cannot be fully understood. By solely attributing criminal behavior to cultural deviance, the theory may unintentionally shift attention away from addressing the structural forces that contribute to crime and perpetuate social inequalities.

5.3 Limited Applicability to Certain Types of Crimes

The Cultural Deviance Theory has been primarily applied to understanding street-level crimes and delinquency within subcultures. However, it may have limited applicability when examining white-collar crimes or forms of violence such as sexual violence.

These types of crimes are often perpetrated by individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who do not necessarily belong to a distinct subculture with deviant values. Focusing solely on cultural deviance may overlook other important factors contributing to these crimes, such as power dynamics, systemic corruption, or individual psychopathology.

Therefore, it is essential to consider a range of theories and perspectives when studying different forms of criminal behavior to avoid reducing complex phenomena to a single explanatory framework. 6.

Conclusion and Personal Reflection

6.1 Evaluation of Cultural Deviance Theory

The Cultural Deviance Theory provides valuable insights into the impact of cultural values and norms on criminal behavior. It helps us understand how subcultures may shape individuals’ choices and actions, particularly within marginalized communities.

However, it is crucial to approach this theory critically and consider its limitations. The theory should not be viewed as an exhaustive or deterministic explanation for crime, but rather a contributing factor within a broader framework.

6.2 Learning Opportunities and Critical Examination of Theories

The study of theories such as the Cultural Deviance Theory provides us with significant learning opportunities and encourages critical examination. By exploring different theories, we can uncover blind spots, biases, and gaps in our understanding of crime and deviance.

It is important to engage in ongoing dialogue, conduct further research, and incorporate interdisciplinary approaches to gain a more comprehensive understanding of criminal behavior and its root causes. By critically examining theories, we can refine our understanding, challenge assumptions, and develop more nuanced solutions to address crime and promote social justice.

Continuous learning and reflection are essential in advancing our knowledge and striving for a more equitable and inclusive society.

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