Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Sociocultural Theories of Violence

  • Russil DurrantEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1822-1



Sociocultural theories of violence focus on how violence can be explained through a combination of features of the cultural environment and aspects of specific social structures and institutions.


Violence in its myriad forms is an endemic feature of human societies. Globally, in 2012 approximately 437,000 individuals were the victims of homicide (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime 2013), just under 40,000 were casualties of armed conflict (Pettersson and Wallensteen 2015), and many more individuals suffered from the consequences of nonlethal interpersonal and collective violence. Rates of violence do, however, vary quite substantially between nation-states, different regions, and different neighborhoods. They also vary over time: violence is more common during some historical periods compared to others (Eisner 2014). One challenge for theories of violence is to explain not only why violence occurs and the contextual factors that make violence more or less likely but also to account for the substantial variation that is found in violent offending in different locations and during different time periods. Sociocultural theories of violence are especially salient for addressing this particular challenge (Durrant and Ward 2015). Very broadly speaking, two different types of explanation have been developed by social scientists to account for regional and historical variations in violent offending. First, cultural approaches focus on how specific beliefs, norms, values, and attitudes might influence the expression of violence. Second, social-structural approaches explore how social-structural characteristics such as poverty, inequality and political legitimacy, and particular social institutions shape the expression of violence in society. In order to keep this review to a manageable length, the focus will be on theoretical attempts to explain interpersonal violence; thus sociocultural approaches to understanding collective violence such as war, terrorism, and genocide will be excluded.

Cultural Approaches

There is no universally agreed upon definition of “culture,” but broadly speaking culture refers to shared patterns of norms, values, beliefs, practices, and institutions that help to distinguish among different social groups. These shared patterns, furthermore, arise through a process of social or cultural learning as individuals who are embedded in particular social groups acquire the relevant values, norms, and practices of those groups during their development. Although clearly developmental outcomes are shaped by both biological and cultural factors and their interactions, many social scientists focus on the way that the acquired values, norms, beliefs, and practices can influence behavior, including the expression of violence.

Social Learning Theory

The central idea of social learning theory is relatively straightforward: humans acquire their specific attitudes, beliefs, norms, and behaviors through a process of social learning. Individuals learn not only from their own experiences with the world but also through the observation of others – or what Albert Bandura (1973) terms vicarious learning. Whether or not a given behavior is learned by an individual depends both on the outcome of that behavior and, for vicarious learning, on the status of the observed individuals (who are referred to as “models”). Behavior is more likely to be learned if it (a) results in (or is observed to result in) positive outcomes for the individual and (b) if the observed individual is high in status and shares similar characteristics to the observer. Social learning explanations have played a prominent role in understanding the development of aggression and violence (Akers 1977; Bandura 1973).

In a classic study in social psychology, Bandura and colleagues demonstrated that when young children observed an adult engaging in aggressive behaviors toward a large, inflatable “bobo” doll, then they were more likely to behave aggressively toward the doll – including imitating the very same behaviors observed in the adults – than were children who had witnessed adults engage in nonaggressive actions (Bandura et al. 1961). These studies and others like them suggest that aggressive acts can be learned through the observation of others’ behaviors. The idea that violence and other criminal behaviors arise through social learning from others also features in several prominent criminological theories. Sutherland’s (e.g., Sutherland and Cressey 1974) idea of differential association is premised, for instance, on the idea that criminal behavior is essentially learned and that individual differences in criminal behavior arise through different patterns of associations with others. Similarly, Akers (1977) argued that crime is learned through social interactions with others such that in social environments where criminal behavior is positively reinforced, it is more likely to be repeated.

A social learning approach to understanding violence has been particularly relevant in explaining how growing up in a family environment with high levels of violence can subsequently elevate the risk for aggressive and violent behavior. The intergenerational transmission of violent offending is now well documented as children who are exposed to violence in the home are more likely to engage in violent offending than those who do not. This suggests that, in part at least, their violent behavior is the result of social learning processes (Van de Wijer et al. 2014; Widom 1989). There is also an accumulating body of evidence that suggests that exposure to violent films, video games, and other violent media elevates the risk for aggression and violence as a result of social learning (e.g., Anderson et al. 2015), although others have disputed this conclusion (e.g., Ferguson 2015) and media effects may be relatively small in magnitude. In sum, the human capacity for social learning is an important characteristic that can help us to understand the development of violent behavior. Social learning theory also provides the theoretical base that other sociocultural explanations rely on to account for variation in offending across time and space.

Subcultures of Violence Theory

If violent behavior is, in part, socially learned from interactions with others, it follows fairly straightforwardly that some social environments may promote the development of violence more than others. In particular, social environments in which violence is more frequent and in which attitudes toward violence in particular situations are more positive should foster the development of norms, values, and behaviors that are favorable to the use of violence. According to Wolfgang and Ferracuti’s (1967) subcultures of violence theory, there exist certain social groups or subcultures in society which differ from the culture of mainstream society. In these social groups – which are typically more socially disadvantaged – violence can be viewed as a legitimate or even obligatory response to particular social situations, especially those that entail the maintenance of respect or social status. The development of these subcultures of violence is strongly shaped by prevailing social-structural features of society but is subsequently acquired by members of the subculture through social learning processes.

The subcultures of violence theory have been further developed in the work of Elijah Anderson (1994, 1999) who argued that the high rates of violence among, in particular, socially disadvantaged African-American males can be attributed to their inculcation into what he refers to as the “code of the streets” “which amounts to a set of informal rules for governing interpersonal public behavior, including violence” (Anderson 1994, p. 82). Of particular note is the way that this “code” dictates (or, at least, socially endorses) the use of violence in response to threats to status or “face”: individuals inculcated into the code of the streets learn to adopt a tough, no-nonsense, persona and the willingness to use violence to resolve disputes and to respond to social threats. Why has this “code” developed and how might it potentially be “adaptive” in particular social contexts? According to Anderson (1999), the specific set of attitudes, norms, and practices relating to violence emerges as a response to social-structural contexts characterized by high levels of poverty, low unemployment, and a lack of reliable third-party reinforcement of social norms (e.g., the police). As a result, status becomes a precious commodity, and individuals are required to resolve their own disputes and conflicts. The threat and use of violence, thus, becomes an effective method of obtaining status and resources. Because children develop in this particular cultural milieu, they come to learn rules, norms, and beliefs that are conducive to the use of violence in particular contexts, thus perpetuating this subculture of violence.

Support for Anderson’s subculture of violence theory has come from a number of studies. Stewart and Simons (2010), for example, conducted a longitudinal study of African-American youth and their caregivers in low-income neighborhoods in Iowa and Georgia. The self-reported violence of youth was measured at two time points along with a measure of neighborhood street culture completed by caregivers which tapped into the key constructs of Anderson’s “code of the streets” (e.g., “When someone disrespects, it is important that you use physical force or aggression to teach him or her not to disrespect you,” and “People will take advantage of you if you don’t let them know how tough you are”). The results largely supported Anderson’s thesis: individuals who lived in neighborhoods where the code of the streets was more strongly endorsed were more likely to report aggressive and violent behavior, after controlling for other relevant factors. Interestingly, although the code of the streets was initially developed in the specific context of disadvantaged African-American communities in the United States, it has since been extended to other cultural contexts such as street children in the Ukraine (Naterer 2015) and socially disadvantaged communities in Scotland (Holligan 2015). This suggests that something like the set of values, norms, and behaviors that are reflected in the “code of the streets” may be a fairly robust human (especially male) response to a particular set of social contexts such as those characterized by a weak criminal justice system and a lack of legitimate routes to obtain status. A very similar idea is presented in culture of honor thesis developed by Nisbett and colleagues (1993; Nisbett and Cohen 1996).

The Culture of Honor Thesis

Regional differences in homicide rates in the United States are well recognized. In particular, homicide is more prevalent in the Southern, compared to the Northern states. Why might this be the case? Various factors have been proposed over the years including differences in poverty, income inequality, temperature, and the legacy of slavery. However, according to the culture of honor thesis, the difference in homicide rates can be largely accounted for by cultural factors (Nisbett 1993; Nisbett and Cohen 1996). The culture of honor thesis rests on three key foundations. First, although the human capacity for aggression and violence may be the result of evolutionary processes, its expression is strongly shaped by specific ecological contexts. Of particular relevance to the culture of honor thesis is the idea that individuals whose livelihood is primarily based around the herding of domestic animals like sheep, pigs, and cattle are more likely to use violence and the threat of violence to maintain their status and reputation compared to individuals who primarily engage in farming. Because the wealth of herders is invested in their livestock, they face a greater risk of their livelihood being stolen by others. They are also more likely to live in regions that are sparsely populated and hence not readily subject to the rule of law. This means that herders need to be able to resolve their own disputes and, ideally, prevent theft from others by cultivating “a posture of extreme vigilance toward any act that might be perceived as threatening in any way, and respond with sufficient force to frighten the offender and the community into recognizing that they are not be trifled with” (Nisbett 1993, p. 442). Farmers, on the other hand, according to Nisbett and Cohen (1996), are more likely to form tight knit and cohesive communities involving the sharing of resources and to live in regions where the effective rule of law is more likely to be in place.

The second component of the culture of honor thesis rests of the particular pattern of immigration from the United Kingdom to the United States. The Northern states of the Eastern Seaboard were primarily settled by farmers from England, Holland, and elsewhere, while the Southern states attracted more settlers from Scotland and Ireland whose economy was largely based on herding. These settlers relocated to southern and western frontiers and continued a livelihood largely based on herding and hunting (Nisbett 1993). These different settlement patterns meant that cultural values relating to violence and honor also differed in the different regions: in the American South, a culture of honor persisted, whereby individuals (mainly men) believe that violence is the appropriate – perhaps expected – response to threats to the reputation of the self or family. The third component of the culture of honor thesis rests on the assumption that these particular values, norms, and beliefs are more common today in the American South as a result of their ongoing socialization in subsequent generations.

The culture of honor thesis, then, predicts that certain forms of violence, and norms related to violence in particular contexts, will be more common in Southern regions of the United States. In particular, it is argued that dispute-related homicides (as opposed to purely instrumental homicides such as might occur in robberies) will be more prevalent. What evidence is there in support of this idea? Generally speaking it appears that regional patterns in dispute-related homicide support this hypothesis. Such homicides are more prevalent in Southern states and in locations where there is a relatively greater proportion of white men who were born in the South and hence likely to be inculcated with the culture of honor (e.g., Ousey and Lee 2010). Moreover, counties with a greater proportion of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century have higher rates of dispute-related homicides (Baller et al. 2009). Experimental research also supports the idea that Southern men possess different norms regarding the appropriate response to insults and threats and demonstrate more aggressive behavior in response to such threats along with heightened physiological arousal (Cohen et al. 1996).

Although the culture of honor thesis was developed to explain regional differences in the use of violence in the United States, the underlying mechanisms that account for the different use of violence are likely to be more widely applicable. The use of violence can often be a viable strategy for obtaining desirable outcomes, but it also entails risk. Individuals who are more likely to use violence also place themselves in contexts where they are more likely to experience harm themselves from the retaliation by others. Thus violence is a context-dependent strategy: to the extent that values, norms, and beliefs regarding violence shape its use, these should be more common in certain contexts rather than others. According to a recent model developed by Nowak et al. (2016), honor cultures reliably emerge in particular social contexts: when institutions that regulate third-party conflicts (e.g., an effective criminal justice system) are absent. Under such contexts, the use of violence is effective despite the costs that it might entail to individuals. The culture of honor thesis, thus, might reflect more general processes that emerge in a range of different cultural contexts even though the main focus has been in explaining regional differences in the United Sates (also see Daly 2016, for a thoughtful critique of the culture of honor thesis as applied to differences in homicide rates in the United States).

The Civilizing Process

The prevalence of violence also varies – and various quite substantially – over time. This is most evident from the precipitous fall in homicide rates in Europe over the last 500 years, from an average of around 30 homicides per 100,000 people in the fifteenth century to a mean of around 1 per 100,000 in the twentieth century – a 30-fold decline (Eisner 2014). Homicide rates have also fluctuated quite dramatically in many Western countries over the last 50–60 years. In the United States, for instance, homicide rates that were low in the 1950s gradually increased in the 1960s and 1970s, reaching a peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s before declining again (e.g., Farrell et al. 2014). If we accept that homicide rates are a pretty reliable general indicator of the overall prevalence of violence in society, then it is clear from the historical record that violence is more common in some historical periods compared to others.

There have been many attempts to explain patterns of violence (and other types of crime) over time, with no widely accepted set of explanations (see Eisner 2013, 2014; Pinker 2011). It is likely that there are many factors relevant to understanding temporal patterns in violence, but the sociologist Norbert Elias’ (1939/2000) theory of the “civilizing process” provides a useful starting point. The main interest of Elias was to account for changes in “civilized” behavior such as those relating to manners and personality over time, but the key processes that he emphasized are also broadly relevant for understanding shifts in the use and acceptance of violence.

The starting point for the shift in violence in Western society is linked to two key social-structural changes (Eisner 2014). First, the expanding power of the state meant that increasingly disputes were resolved by legitimate third parties rather than individuals and their families, reducing the need for individuals to take matters into their own hands. Second, the expansion of trade and the market economy created dense networks of exchange that encouraged reciprocal interdependencies among people. In turn, these changes promoted the importance of self-control and a growing distaste for the use of force to resolve conflicts. For Elias, these changes first occurred among elites. Then, as others imitated the beliefs and practices of high-status individuals’ relevant norms, beliefs and attitudes spread throughout the population, leading to wholesale shifts in violent-related norms, values, and beliefs and a decline in violent crime. Although such shifts are theorized to occur relatively slowly to account for the decline in homicide in Europe since the fifteenth century, changes in cultural values may also occur more rapidly and can potentially account for the fluctuations in violent crime witnessed in many Western countries over the last 50–60 years (Eisner 2014; Pinker 2011).

Social-Structural Approaches

There is an extensive amount of research that has examined the social-structural correlates of violence, with a particular focus on homicide. In an early study conducted in the United States, it was found that resource deprivation, population structure (size and density of population), and divorce rate significantly predicted variation in homicide rates across states, cities, and metropolitan areas (Land et al. 1990). Subsequent research has uncovered a range of social-structural correlates with poverty and income inequality, the ones that most reliably predict variation in homicide rates (e.g., Nivette 2011), although a range of other factors such as population structure and growth are also important (Nivette 2011). Two prominent theoretical traditions in criminology – social disorganization theory and strain theory – have been employed to account for these findings and are useful in helping us to understand the social-structural factors that contribute to violence in society.

Social Disorganization Theory

According to the central tenets of social disorganization theory, neighborhoods and communities in which there is significant social disadvantage and a high turnover of residents, which are ethnically diverse, tend to be less socially cohesive because there is a lack of agreement over appropriate norms and values for the informal control of behavior. Crime rates remain high over time even in the face of substantial changes in the population of such communities as, via social learning, individuals acquire the norms, attitude, and values that are characteristic of such communities. Robert Sampson’s (Sampson 2012; Sampson et al. 1997) theory of collective efficacy represents the most prominent contemporary approach within the social disorganization tradition. The term “collective efficacy” was developed to characterize the degree of social cohesion that is found within a given community. Communities that are high in collective efficacy are characterized by individuals who share certain norms, values, and beliefs about behavior and are willing to enforce these in order to maintain social control and to reduce violence. Thus, “the differential ability of neighborhoods to realize the common values of residents and maintain effective social controls is a major source of neighborhood variation in violence” (Sampson et al. 1997, p. 918).

The theory of collective efficacy can, therefore, in principle, help us to understand some of the variation in violent offending that is found between neighborhoods or communities. A number of studies in the United States and elsewhere have largely supported the underlying assumptions of collective efficacy theory (Armstrong et al. 2015; Mazerolle et al. 2010; Sampson et al. 1997; Sutherland et al. 2013). For example, Sampson et al. (1997) conducted a survey of over 8700 residents in 343 neighborhoods in Chicago measuring participants’ perceptions of both collective efficacy and the frequency of violence in the neighborhood in which they reside. Results indicated that neighborhoods varied significantly in terms of perceptions of collective efficacy which, in turn, was significantly associated with the prevalence of neighborhood violence. In a more recent study by Sutherland et al. (2013) involving 60,000 individuals in 4700 neighborhoods in London perceptions of neighborhood collective efficacy significantly predicted police recorded rates of violence crime, although the relationship was relatively small in magnitude. It is reasonable to conclude at this stage that a community’s level of social cohesion or collective efficacy does appear to have an influence on the prevalence of violence in that community and can potentially explain variations in the prevalence of violence that is found among neighborhoods and communities. Sampson (2012) has also argued that shifts in collective efficacy over time can also account, in part, for changes in the rate of violent crime over time and may be one factor that is implicated in the overall decline in violent offending in the United States since the early 1990s.

Strain Theory

The sociologist Robert Merton (1938) argued that crime, in general, largely emerged in response to particular social-structural and cultural contexts. In particular he highlighted how the cultural values underpinning the “American dream” of economic success and prosperity were not available to everyone in American society as many individuals are impeded from fulfilling this vision due to poverty and barriers to social mobility. As a result, Merton argued, criminal behavior – including the use of violence – can often be viewed as an adaptive strategy to mitigate the strain brought about by the failure to achieve culturally prescribed goals. This basic idea has been subsequently developed by criminologists working in the strain tradition, including Agnew (1992, 2007) and Messner and colleagues (2012; Messner and Rosenfeld 2013).

Agnew’s general strain theory builds on earlier theoretical work in the strain tradition by emphasizing how an individual’s response to strain can vary depending on a range of factors including the nature of the strain (whether it is unjust, its magnitude or impact, and how controllable it is) and their individual perceptions of that strain. For Agnew (1992), although social-structural factors are an important distal source of strain, it is the experience of negative relationships with others that can result in negative emotional states such as anger and frustration which, in turn, can lead to various forms of violent and non-violent offending. Although general strain theory has been employed to explain offending in general, Agnew (2007) has also argued that it can account for both individual and community variation in violent offending. More recently, Agnew has expanded the scope of his theory to other forms of violence, including terrorism (Agnew 2010).

Messner’s institutional anomie theory following the pioneering work of Merton highlights the way in which American cultural values and the institutional structure of American society reinforce a set of culturally prescribed values focusing on economic success and prosperity while at the same time excluding many individuals in society from their attainment. The relatively high rates of crime that are found in American society thus are the result of “… dominant cultural values that extol the virtues of competitive individual achievement and wealth accumulation at the expense of values that emphasize noneconomic forms of achievement, collective solidarity, and the common good” (Messner et al. 2013, p. 411). Thus, one central idea of institutional anomie theory is that certain types of “institutional configurations” (Messner 2012, p. 11), particularly those that elevate the role of the economy above all else, are more conducive to generating anomie which, in turn, elevates the risk for violence.


Understanding violence requires that we consider a range of different theoretical approaches drawn from different levels of analysis. Ultimately, in order to provide a complete explanation, we need to consider (a) the evolutionary functions and history of violence, (b) how violence emerges during human development, (c) the proximal psychological and physiological mechanisms that give rise to violent behavior, and (d) the specific situational contexts that make violence more likely (Durrant and Ward 2015). Because the prevalence of violence varies quite substantially among different neighborhoods, communities, regions, and countries, over time we also need to consider how features of the cultural and social-structural environment make violence more or less likely. A number of specific cultural and social-structural explanations for violence have been considered in this article.

Cultural approaches to explaining violence focus on how particular norms, values, practices, and beliefs can influence the likelihood of violence. Thus, according to the subcultures of violence hypothesis, some subcultural groups hold norms that are favorable to the use of violence, especially in situations that involve a threat to reputation or status. Similarly, according to the culture of honor hypothesis, regional variations in violence in the United States can be explained, in part, due to cultural differences in beliefs about normative responses to threats to honor and reputation that have their historical origin in herding communities in the United Kingdom. More generally, cultures of honor tend to arise when there is a lack of third-party enforcement of social norms, resulting in the need for individuals to use violence as a way of settling disputes and deterring victimization. Ultimately the cultural factors that can influence violence arise through the social learning on norms, values, and practices from relevant individuals in the community.

Social-structural approaches to explaining violence focus on the particular role of social institutions. Theories that have emerged from the social disorganization perspective highlight the importance of social cohesion or collective efficacy in accounting for neighborhood variation in violent offending. Work in the strain tradition emphasizes the way that social institutions affect individuals in ways that can make offending more likely by increasing strains. Agnew’s general strain theory focuses more on individual differences in response to strains, whereas Messner’s institutional anomie theory attempts to account for the high rates of violent crime in American society by noting the highly competitive, economically oriented nature of America’s dominant cultural values and social institutions.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of CriminologyVictoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Brian B Boutwell
    • 1
  1. 1.Saint Louis UniversitySaint LouisUSA