In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Theories

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ecological Conditions, Culture, And Crime
  • Honor Cultures And Violence
  • Gang Culture And Involvement
  • Prison Cultures
  • The Internet And Subcultural Formation

Criminology Cultural Theories
Thomas Holt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0009


Cultural theories of crime provide distinct frameworks to understand the influence of human agency, social forces, and peers on behavior. The dominant frameworks argue that culture is a set of values, beliefs, and actions that are learned through interactions with others. From this perspective, culture is primarily transmitted to individuals through intimate peer groups and across generations to provide support or encouragement for actions that may be unacceptable in the larger society. In addition, cultural forces demonstrate what behaviors are valued and those that are perceived as unimportant or not supported. Subcultures may form in opposition to the dominant culture and support behaviors that deviate from larger social norms, or stem from differences between social classes, gender, or geographic locations. In some perspectives, the dominant culture may define the behaviors of another culture as criminal or deviant in order to protect their interests or marginalize a minority group. Thus, culture conflicts can lead to the identification or creation of criminal groups. Finally, societal responses to the media can foster the belief that a deviant behavior is rampant and force legislative action to identify and define an act as criminal. Regardless of the accuracy of media claims, larger cultural forces can stimulate the belief that criminal or deviant activities are a threat to safety. Thus, cultural theories encompass a broad spectrum of thought about crime and criminality.

General Overviews

There are a number of general criminological theory texts that provide some discussion of cultural theories. A few popular options include Akers and Sellers 2009, which explores all manner of theory with some focus on social learning theories, while Lilly, et al. 2006 and Williams and McShane 2003 provide a balanced discussion of all theories, including cultural frameworks. The edited works of Cullen and Agnew 2006 and Adler and Adler 2008 also provide key insights into multiple theoretical frameworks and empirical research in this area. These sources can be used as a standalone text for undergraduate courses in either introductory criminology or as the anchor text in more specialized courses in criminological theory. Vold, et al. 2001 gives a broad discussion of all theory, with an emphasis on critical theories, and is appropriate for graduate and advanced undergraduate students. Ferrell, et al. 2004 provides an international perspective on cultural criminology that gives context to the application of these theories.

  • Adler, Patricia A., and Peter Adler, eds. 2008. Constructions of deviance: Social power, context, and interaction, 6th ed. Florence, KY: Cengage Learning.

    Comprehensive edited volume with detailed examinations of cultural theories and empirical research appropriate for all levels of study. This work is an excellent reader for theory and general deviance classes.

  • Akers, Ronald L., and Christine S. Sellers. 2009. Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application, 5th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Extensive examination of criminological theory, with some emphasis on social learning and differential association theories. Appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Cullen, Francis T., and Robert Agnew, eds. 2006. Criminological theory: Past to present: essential readings, 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Comprehensive edited volume with fundamental readings in criminological research, including various cultural theories. This text is an excellent option for theory courses at all levels of study.

  • Ferrell, Jeff, Keith Hayward, Wayne Morrison, and Mike Presdee, eds. 2004. Cultural criminology unleashed. London: Routledge Cavendish.

    Comprehensive reader that provides important international context to the application of cultural theories of crime.

  • Lilly, J. Robert, Francis T. Cullen, and Richard A. Ball. 2006. Criminological theory: Context and consequences, 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

    Comprehensive and balanced examination of criminological theory, with solid discussion of multiple cultural theories. Appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Vold, George B., Thomas J. Bernard, and Jeffrey B. Snipes. 2001. Theoretical criminology, 5th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Extensive examination of multiple criminological frameworks with a deep discussion of cultural conflict theories appropriate for graduate and advanced undergraduate audiences.

  • Williams, Frank P. III., and Marilyn D. McShane. 2003. Criminological theory, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Broad and balanced discussion of multiple criminological theories, including various cultural perspectives.

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