Criminality is found in two levels: the subculture and the structural explanations. The sociological explanations emphasize aspects of societal arrangements that are external to the actor and compelling.
A sociological explanation is concerned with how the structure of a society, its institutional practices, or its persisting cultural themes affect the conduct of its members. Individual differences are denied or ignored, and the explanation of the overall collective behavior is sought in the patterning of social arrangements considered to be both outside the actor and prior to them (Sampson, 1985). Sociological explanations of crime place the blame on something social that is prior to, external to, and compelling of any particular person. Sociological explanations do not deny the importance of human motivation; however, they locate the source of motives outside the individual and in the cultural climate in which they live.
Political philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists have long observed that a condition of social life is that not all things are allowed. Standards of behavior are both a product of our living together and a requirement if social life is to be orderly. The concept of culture refers to the perceived standards of behavior that are learned, transmitted from generation to generation, and somewhat durable. To call such behavior cultural does not necessarily mean that it is refined, but rather means that it is acquired, cultivated, and persistent.
Social scientists have invented the notion of a subculture to describe variations within a society on its cultural themes. It is assumed that some cultural prescriptions are common to all members of society, but modifications and variations are discernible within the society. A subculture, like a culture, is relatively enduring. Its norms are termed a style rather than a fashion because the former has some endurance while the latter is evanescent. The quarrel comes when we try to estimate how real a cultural pattern is and how persistent.
The standards by which behavior is to be guided vary among men and over time. It is in this change and variety that crime is defined. An application of this principle to criminology would find that the roots of crime lie in the fact that groups have developed different standards of appropriate behavior. In complex cultures, each individual is subject to competing prescriptions for action. Another subcultural explanation of crime grows readily out of the fact that social classes experience different rates of arrest and conviction for serious offenses. When strata within a society are marked off by categories of income, education, and occupational prestige, differences are discovered among them in the amount and style of crime.
Further, differences are usually found between these social classes in their tastes, interests, and morals. It is easy to describe these class-linked patterns as cultures. This version of the subcultural explanation of crime holds that the very fact of learning the lessons of the subculture means that one acquires interests and preferences that place him in greater or lesser risk of breaking the law. Others argue that being reared in the lower class means learning a different culture from that which creates the criminal laws.
The lower-class subculture is said to have its own values, many of which run counter to the majority interests that support laws against serious predatory crimes. One needs to note that the indicators of class are not descriptions of class. Proponents of subcultural explanations of crime do not define a class culture by any assortment of objective indicators or rank, such as annual income or years of schooling. The subcultural theorist is interested in patterned ways of life which may have evolved with a division of labor and which are called class cultures. The pattern, however, is not described by reference to income alone or by reference to years of schooling or occupational skill.
The pattern includes these indicators, but it is not defined by them. The subcultural theorist is more intent upon the varieties.