Subcultural Theory Essay

Subcultural theories of deviance emerged in the 1950s and were popular for only 20 years before they were charged with ethnocentrism. Instead of adopting the traditional perspective within criminology that individuals turn to crime because their access to legitimate opportunity structures is limited or nonexistent, subcultural theorists argued that lower-class individuals form completely different, collective views on the nature of criminal behavior, making the class a unique subculture within American society. Access to legitimate opportunity structures is blocked for this group, but since the entire group feels the same frustrations, it forms its own values and norms that make delinquent behavior and membership in gangs acceptable and rewarding. By 1964, critics were arguing that subcultural theories of deviance were the work of middle class intellectual elites who were trying to impose their norms and values upon lower-class groups. Similarly, it was argued that the values attributed to these subcultural groups are not universal or constant either within the group or within any given individual's life experience. Thus critics argued that membership in gangs is transitory, and that the excitement of crime is classless.

Keywords Adherents; Acculturation; Delinquency; Deviance; Ecology; Ethnocentric; Reactive Subculture; Subculture

Subcultural Theories of Deviance


Culture is a complex term with many different meanings, but sociologists studying culture tend to focus on the norms, beliefs, customs, and values shared by a group of likeminded individuals. Culture is transmitted socially between members of a given group as well as to subsequent generations. It is a "majority rule" framework in which dominant values and beliefs are deemed normal and acceptable, and alternative perspectives are viewed on a continuum ranging from mere eccentricism to outright immorality. A subculture, then, is a subgroup within the larger cultural population. It shares some of the norms and beliefs of the dominant group, but it also holds values that are distinctly different from the majority.

Subcultural theories of deviance focused on minority populations that sociologists and criminologists labeled as holding views of crime and delinquency different from those held by the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) majority in American and English society. An articulation of these dominant WASP values drives these societies' criminal laws, along with their social mores about proper behavior. Labeling the dominant cultural values as WASP is intentional, since most of the subcultural theories of deviance focused on lower-class individuals, youth, and minority populations. These subgroups, it was argued, develop their own cultural values, particularly in regard to deviance and crime. Miller (1958), for example, argued that the working-class youth in his study had a different "focal concern" that was pervasive in their subculture around concepts of trouble, toughness, excitement, smartness, fatalism, and autonomy. Because of these different norms or values, high crime rates could be explained as consistent with their subcultural values. Critics of Miller's arguments said that not all working-class youth resort to lives of immediate need-fulfillment and crime, especially women, leading them to conclude that high crime rates cannot be explained by pervasive subcultural values. Subcultural theorists also were criticized for being insensitive to issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, since many of the studies regarded inner-city crime as having a place of value uniformly within a given population.


The Anomie Theory

Subcultural theories of deviance grew out of the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), who laid the foundation for what is called the structural-functionalist perspective on crime. According to Durkheim, since a society in part consists of shared values, the sources of crime and deviance also can be found within that social structure. Durkheim argued that crime is a normal and universal part of all cultures and that it even has some positive functions in a society. Political protests about racial inequality, for example, might move a society to be more racially inclusive and just. In pre-industrial societies, though, the general uniformity of roles and values promoted conformity; although crime existed within the culture, its role was limited. But Durkheim and other sociologists were concerned with industrial times and what they believed was a weaker collective conscience around values, norms, and rules. Specifically, Durkheim argued that normlessness, or anomie, permits crime to flourish because "the disciplines and authority of society are so flawed that they offer few restraints or moral direction" (Rock, 2002, p. 52.). This became known as anomie theory in sociology and criminology.

Strain Theory

Robert Merton (1910–2003) built upon Durkheim's anomie theory to create what is known as strain theory. Merton asserted that there is "a universal aspiration to accumulate material wealth," but because our society is stratified into various classes, those in the lower economic levels do not have an equal opportunity to realize their desires for wealth (Gottfredson, p. 78). Under strain to reach these culturally induced goals, some individuals adapt by turning to crime as a means of material gain. Merton argued further that middle-class values generally conflict with engaging in criminal activities, causing members of the middles class to experience especially high levels of strain should they consider engaging in criminal conduct. In the inner-city where crime is highest, the theory holds that because lower-class individuals do not have the same socialization—or in fact, because their cultural processes hold a different view of crime altogether—they feel less strain when not adhering to dominant cultural values, such as behaving in a law-abiding manner. With subcultural values different from or even in opposition to the dominant norms, these lower-class communities might give law breakers high status because of their material success.

Social Disorganization Theory

Strain theory argues that individuals in the lower classes are aware of how the dominant culture values material wealth, but are frustrated in realizing this value by acquiring wealth for themselves. Another group of theorists who focus on social disorganization would say that the dominant culture's values have not been instilled in these groups and, therefore, are not an aspiration. Social disorganization theories came out of the Chicago Sociology School that dominated criminology for much of the twentieth century. Working from data on juvenile crime, this school mapped crime rate areas throughout the city of Chicago and discovered that certain zones or areas of the city experience high rates of crime regardless of their communities’ racial or ethnic makeup at any period of time. This methodology, when combined with ecological theories, views "the physical structure of communities as shaping the routine activities of inhabitants in ways that affect the likelihood of crime" (Gottfredson, p. 82). Through the interplay of people and the environment and its resources, the various zones of the city would evolve into diverse, unique areas with the residents sharing similar social characteristics. This process could be said to mirror the evolutionary changes plants and animals undergo as they adapt to the varied ecological niches in a diverse landscape.

Social Control Theory

Because social disorganization theory emphasizes the obligation of the community to train or socialize individuals and then monitor their behavior to ensure lawful actions, it received significant attention from social control theory circles. Social control theorists hypothesize that an individual can turn to crime when his or her connection or identification with the dominant culture is ineffective. In fact, like their social disorganization counterparts, they believe that people find crime useful, profitable, and enjoyable unless they are influenced by larger societal values to forego these returns. Their ideal is to preserve what many would call "WASP" values about lawful personal conduct. To do this, control theorists argue for interventions that control deviance and reorganize communities so that traditional cultural values are encouraged and enhanced. Identification with traditional values instills mechanisms of internal, individual control through a social bond that helps group wellbeing. In addition to policing mechanisms, external social control is exerted through involving...

Top band essay; subcultural explanations of deviance

Assess the strengths and limitations of subcultural theory in explaining deviance

Subcultural theories attempt to find the source of deviance within the forming of groups which exhibit deviant behaviours in our society. Sociologists have long looked at the working class to find answers on this matter as they are the biggest proportion of criminals in the official statistics. Cohen suggests that they feel a status frustration in not being able to gain status the legitimate way and so turn to alternative status hierarchies in deviant subcultures for recognition. Whereas Cloward and Ohlin suggest that it is not just one large working class delinquent subculture but there are different subcultures due to social circumstance. Both build and criticise Merton’s strain theory, which looked at the individual responses to legitimate means and goals and the responses when means are blocked. In this way subcultural theories are good at explaining what Merton could not, but still have limitations.

First Cohen looks at delinquent subcultures and how working class boys feel status frustration about being blocked by deprivation in terms of gaining legitimate goals. This theory argues that the reason there are higher proportions of WC boys who are deviant is because they form together in groups to find status, turning the dominant values on their head and doing the opposite as its the only way to gain. For example, Cohen suggests that they have an alternative status hierarchy, valuing a disrespect for others property and people above the norms of respect in wider society. This way Cohen explains why there is deviance like graffiti and vandalism as it is a form of gaining status illegitimately.

This subcultural theory is valued in that unlike Merton who looks at the individual responses to legitimate structures being blocked, Cohen explains why specifically WC groups are turning to crime and deviance. Merton’s use of the individual is not useful when we want to understand why WC specifically commit more crime than most. Therefore this is a strength of Cohen’s subcultural theory as it explains the already existing official statistics.

However Cohen’s focus on WC and their rejection of dominant values can be argued false. To explain Miller argues that this subcultural theory is wrong to assume that WC boys reject values, as the the implication would be that they want the same but can’t get them legitimately. Miller argues that the WC already have their own values, he calls this focal concerns, and so they are not rejecting the dominant values but over conforming to their own. For example values of resentment for authority, lack of respect for others and their property ect. Therefore this is a weakness of this subcultural theory as it could be seen to to wrongly assume that dominant values are held by the WC and rejected. Alternatively Cohen might argue that regardless whether the working class had these values before or after they still suffer from status frustration and want to gain it, the only way they can is illegitimately. Therefore Cohen’s ability to explain the WC over-representation in official statistics and the way Cohen might refute Miller out weights Millers initial claim that WC have their own focal concerns.

Although it could also be argued that Cohen’s theory doesn’t investigate the differences in delinquent subcultures and just assumes they all form the same way and act in the same manner. Whereas other subcultural theorists like Cloward and Ohlin would suggest that there is a difference in delinquent subcultures and they are not all the same. In fact there are three.

Cloward and Ohlin see the hole in Cohen’s theory in suggesting that there is only type of ‘delinquent subculture’ when there are many illegitimate opportunity structures out in the world. Cloward and Ohlin suggest that there are three due to difference social circumstance. The first is a criminal subculture; where a community already has a adult criminal illegitimate opportunity structure which values criminal deviance above lower forms of deviance such as vandalism. The second is a conflict subculture where a community faces high population turn over where the structure from the first subculture response cannot be enforced. Petty crimes, muggings and gang warfare take over. The third is a retreatist subculture similar to Merton’s retreatist individual response. This group has failed both legitimately and illegitimately and so turns to drugs and small crime. This helps explain what Cohen can’t in that there are many subcultural responses not just one.

Therefore this is a strength of this subcultural theory in that it explains what both Merton and Cohen can’t about the differing groups, and thus the differences in crime in the official statistics. Although, it could be argued that regardless of this sociologists say that Cloward and Ohlin over-exaggerate the difference between the three subcultures. For example, utilitarian crimes like dealing drugs for money is found in all three subcultures, so maybe there isn’t such a difference in the ones being put forward. This would further not explain the diversity in subcultures.

Both Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin are very deterministic in that they assume because of being blocked by deprivation that all working class people will become deviant and even criminal. Whereas this is simply not the case. Cohen might argue that they don’t feel status frustration and so do not form into groups as they don’t fit with the illegitimate opportunity structure. But Cloward and Ohlin’s retreatist subculture would fit them as they failed both illegitimately and legitimately, and that group commits crime. But as stated not all WC do commit crime, so they don’t fit into Cloward and Ohlin’s group either as they may not automatically use drugs either. So the working class who are blocked and do not do drugs are not included in the mainstream or subcultures, where do they go? This determination does not work as the non-devaint working class are still blocked but are not deviant. So these theories are less useful because they cannot explain this, or do not try to.

On top of this, Merton, Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin as well as other criminal theorists ignore the crimes of the wealthy of those who are not in the working classes. For instance subcultural theories focus on WC people, especially boys and so ignore other types of crime. However it can be argued that the WC represent a huge proportion of crime compared to corporate white collar crime and so these theories are useful in that aspect. Although when comparing to other theories like Interactionist’s labelling theory we could see that potentially it is not a formation of delinquent subcultures which cause deviance and so there is more deviance because of focal concerns, but that the police stereotype and label the working class as deviants and 'catch’ them being more deviant. This is a weakness of subcultural theory as it assumes the official statistics and in deed other reports of crime are correct, and that working class do take up a lot and are caught vandalising and committing deviant acts. Whereas in actual fact these working class subcultures may not commit deviant acts to the same scale, but are just assumed to. So trying to use subcultural explanations of crimes and deviance that doesn’t exist is not useful at all as it is explaining phenomena that isn’t there.

In conclusion subcultural theories explain deviance in two ways, through status frustration and through three diverse subcultures. Even if both do explain what Merton and other theorists cannot about the WC in official statistics the limitations far outweigh the strengths. The most dominant limitation would be that these theories assume that the working class do commit more crime as a whole, but they may not, they could just be labelled and seen to do so. If they do not actually commit more crime, then these theories are useless. Although subcultural theories have been useful if we do take the stats are face value in aiding policy making, in that it can target these delinquent groups and provide legitimate opportunities to get them out of crime for good. If we know that the working class face blocked opportunities than unblocking them would prevent deviance.


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