The first subcultural explanation for crime came from A.K. Cohen (1955). Cohen was inspired by Merton’s Strain Theory, but where Merton had suggested crime was an individual response to a strain in the social structure, Cohen observed that a great deal of crime and deviance was committed by groups or gangs. He referred to these as delinquent subcultures.
Cohen developed his theory of status frustration to account for these delinquent subcultures. He noticed that most crime was committed by young, working class males and he believed that the problems for this group started in school. Being labelled failures in school gives working-class boys a lower social status, which causes frustration and leads them to forming deviant groups who rebel against the system by inverting traditional ‘middle-class’ values – and gaining status within the group for doing so. This compensates for the status lost through their original failure. For example, a gang of working-class boys gain status amongst each other in school by disrupting classes and playing truant. Outside of school, status may be gained through intimidating other people or engaging in petty crime.
Cohen’s work was influential, because it presented the idea that delinquent youths are not different from anyone else; they just try to gain status in different ways. However, the work can be criticised for only focusing on one group: Cohen ignores females, the middle-classes, or older people. Cohen also assumes that status frustration begins at school, but there is no evidence this is the case. Other influences, such as the family, are not taken into account.
Subcultural theories were further developed by Cloward & Ohlin (1960). Like Cohen, they were influenced by Merton – but they believed that Merton had ignored the existence of an illegitimate opportunity structure, which described the many non-legal ways opportunities people have to achieve their cultural goals. A career as a criminal is therefore just as valid – and done for the same reasons – as a non-criminal career. People access these criminal careers through subcultures. Cloward & Ohlin believed that there were three different forms of deviant subculture, but the type available to particular people will depend on where they live, who they know and what opportunities they have. Criminal Subcultures described those who truly make a living through crime - often a good living (e.g. ‘organised crime’). Conflict Subcultures describe less-organised street gangs, where (mostly) young males let out their frustrations through violence – whereas Retreatist subcultures describe social dropouts; those that cannot achieve goals or status legally or illegally, so turn to drugs, alcohol and petty crime to feed their habits.
Cloward and Ohlin reinforce the idea that criminals are no different from non-criminals; they generally possess similar goals and values but just choose different ways of achieving them. However, their typology of subcultures has been criticised for being too ‘neat’; do these really exist? Can all deviant groups really be fitted into one of these three categories? Many argue that the reality is much more diverse and complex.
Other subcultural theorists, such as Miller (1962) have offered a different explanation. Miller rejected the idea that there were specific values (or ‘inverted values’) that led to crime, instead suggesting that crime was more linked to working class culture. For Miller, the working-class is essentially a subculture and the values (which Miller called focal concerns) that working class males possess (e.g. smartness, fatalism, toughness) can naturally lead them into crime and deviance.
Miller’s ideas can be reinforced by other studies: For example, in the 1970s, Willis found evidence of a distinct working-class culture (different from ‘mainstream’ culture) in areas of Britain, whilst Parker identified similar focal concerns in working-class males in Liverpool. However, it could be argued that this view is outdated, as many sociologists argue the working-class today has fragmented, or become indistinguishable from the middle-classes, therefore do not have different values. On the other hand, Right Realists like Murray might agree with Miller’s theories; Murray believes that most crime originates in the underclass, who he has claimed have different values to the rest of society.
Although they have been influential, and many subsequent perspectives/theorists have discussed subcultures in relation to crime and deviance (e.g. Stan Cohen on mods and rockers, Hebdige on skinheads), there are many problems and limitations with subcultural theories. Most subcultural theories originate from the Functionalist perspective, and the theorists are almost all white, middle-class, male Americans writing in the 1950s-1970s, therefore their worldview and experiences may be limited. Functionalists base their theories on an unquestioning acceptable of official statistics, so their studies may lack validity and focus only on working-class males (who feature so highly in the statistics). Sociologists such as Matza (1964) have completely rejected subcultural theories: Matza claims that crime and deviance among young males is a result of subterranean values that all people share and that rather than forming criminal subcultures, young people drift in and out of criminal behaviour as a result of the challenges, freedoms and uncertainties they face at that time of life: Most of them drift out again just as quickly. For Matza, crime and deviance are basically a normal phase of life and not a subcultural response to social problems, or the product of particular groups having different values to others.
Crime & Deviance
A2 Unit: G673