In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Street Code

  • Introduction
  • Empirical Tests of Anderson’s Street Code Thesis
  • The Sources of the Street Code
  • Code-Related Beliefs and Values
  • Quantitative Studies
  • Qualitative Studies
  • Policy Implications

Criminology Street Code
Timothy Brezina
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0151


Subcultural theorists highlight the role of subcultural norms and values in the etiology of crime and delinquency. Subcultural theorists often emphasize specific conduct norms that define proper behavior in particular contexts or situations. Within criminal subcultures, these conduct norms may develop in opposition to mainstream norms and values. Further, violation of such conduct norms may be associated with severe sanctions. For example, early subcultural theorists highlighted the existence of an “inmate code” that discouraged prisoners from cooperating with prison administrators. Inmates who violate the code risk violence from fellow inmates. Likewise, criminologists have identified “codes of honor” among professional thieves, members of street gangs, and members of organized crime syndicates. Typically, such codes demand loyalty to the in-group and non-cooperation with outsiders (e.g., “don’t squeal on others if you get caught”). In contemporary criminological research, violent street codes are attracting much attention from researchers due, in part, to ongoing public concern over the problem of youth violence. This interest is also fueled by Elijah Anderson’s book, Code of the Street, which is based on an ethnographic study of youth violence in inner-city neighborhoods. According to Anderson 1999 (cited under Contemporary Subcultural Accounts), many disadvantaged young people are influenced by a street culture or code that prescribes violent reactions to interpersonal attacks and shows of disrespect. At the heart of this code is the belief that one must not walk away from a fight; otherwise, one displays weakness to others, which may increase the risk of future victimization. An important element of Anderson’s account is that the street code operates at the level of neighborhood culture and is partly a function of structural disadvantage; it is not simply a reflection of corrupt individual values. Rather, the code is an adaptation to status insecurity and the persistent threat of violence that is present in inner-city communities. In such communities, many young men believe that observation of the code is a necessary aspect of street survival whether or not they agree with the code. They may also believe that adult authorities (parents, teachers, and the police) lack the will or means to protect them, so they have little choice but to adopt the code. Anderson’s “code of the street” thesis represents a particularly rich and detailed example of a subcultural account of violence and is currently the most influential account of violent street codes. Most citations provided in this article relate to Anderson’s work because it currently drives most of the research on street codes.

General Overviews and Key Theoretical Statements

Anderson 1999 (cited under Contemporary Subcultural Accounts) draws on a long tradition of theorizing in criminology, most notably the work of subcultural theorists. There are, however, important distinctions between Anderson’s work and some earlier subcultural interpretations of violent street crime. For example, Anderson’s account highlights the structural sources of the street code as well as the operation of the code, whereas earlier subcultural accounts often failed to account for the origins of violent values, attitudes, and code-related beliefs. The citations listed in this section include selected theoretical statements, both classic and contemporary. This set of readings will expose the reader to the evolution of subcultural accounts as they relate to violent street codes, as well as competing theoretical arguments.

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