Legal Cynicism and (Subcultural?) Tolerance of Deviance: The Neighborhood Context of Racial Differences

Article excerpt

We advance here a neighborhood-level perspective on racial differences in legal cynicism, dissatisfaction with police, and the tolerance of various forms of deviance. Our basic premise is that structural characteristics of neighborhoods explain variations in normative orientations about law, criminal justice, and deviance that are often confounded with the demographic characteristics of individuals. Using a multilevel approach that permits the decomposition of variance within and between neighborhoods, we tested hypotheses on a recently completed study of 8,782 residents of 343 neighborhoods in Chicago. Contrary to received wisdom, we find that African Americans and Latinos are less tolerant of deviance-including violence-than whites. At the same time, neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage display elevated levels of legal cynicism, dissatisfaction with police, and tolerance of deviance unaccounted for by sociodemographic composition and crime-rate differences. Concentrated disadvantage also helps explain why African Americans are more cynical about law and dissatisfied with the police. Neighborhood context is thus important for resolving the seeming paradox that estrangement from legal norms and agencies of criminal justice, especially by blacks, is compatible with the personal condemnation of deviance.

Over three decades ago, David Matza (1964) argued that "subculture" was the central concept of the prevailing sociological view of delinquency. Indeed, much classic criminological theory takes as a starting point the concept of social conflict over values, beliefs, and norms that govern behavior (e.g., Sutherland 1947; Cohen 1955; Miller 1958; Cloward & Ohlin 1960). This conflict is thought to allow for the emergence of subcultures composed of individuals who, by not sharing in the beliefs of the dominant ideology, are freed from societal constraints. Subcultures are thus alleged to turn tables on society-delinquency is itself normative and law is viewed with cynicism.

Although the concept of subculture has been the subject of many debates in criminology, attempts to verify directly the existence of subcultural values and beliefs are rare and have yielded inconsistent results. Typically subcultures are inferred from behavioral patterns, and in American criminology this procedure has most often produced the notion of a subculture of violence in the inner city (Wolfgang & Ferracuti 1967; Curtis 1975). Blacks and low-income residents of the so-called underclass, in other words, have been posited to evince a cultural tolerance of violence. Moreover, there has been a tendency to conflate individual attitudes favorable to deviance with a system of what Merton called "normlessness" and Durkheim called "anomie." Perhaps most important, extant research focuses primarily on individual and demographic attributes rather than situating the study of norms in a larger structural context. As Claude Fischer (1995:547) observed in a recent assessment of 20 years of research on the matter, subcultural theory is, at core, an ecological theory about places, not a theory of persons.

We capitalize here on a recent multilevel study of 8,782 residents of 343 Chicago neighborhoods in order to highlight sociodemographic and neighborhood sources of variation in tolerance of deviance (including violence) and attitudes about the legitimacy of law. We argue that "anomie" about law-what we call "legal cynicism"-is a concept distinct from subcultural tolerance of deviance. Our basic premise is that orientations toward deviance and its control are not subcultural in origin in the sense envisioned by traditional theory, nor are they solely attributable to the aggregated characteristics of individuals (social composition). We hypothesize that an important source of variation lies in the differential social-ecological structure of neighborhoodsnotably, in levels of concentrated disadvantage, residential instability, and immigrant concentration that reflect larger inequalities in American society (Sampson & Wilson 1995). …