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Subcultural Strain Theories
Topic 1
Main Theorist(s): Key Word(s):
 Cohen Opportunity Structure
 Cloward and Ohlin Utilitarian Crime
 Messner and Rosenfeld Anomie
 Downes and Hansen Cultural Deprivation
 Savelsberg Status Frustration
Delinquent Subculture
Status Hierarchy
Outline of subcultural strain theories:
Subcultural strain theories see deviance as the product of a delinquent subculture
with different values from those of mainstream society. They see subcultures as
providing an alternative opportunity structure for those who are denied the chance to
achieve by legitimate means- mainly those in the working class.
Cohen: Status Frustration:
Cohen (1955) agrees with Merton that deviance is largely a lower class
phenomenon. It results from the inability of those in the lower classes to achieve
mainstream success goals by legitimate means such as educational achievement.
However, Cohen criticises Merton’s explanation of deviance because; Merton sees
deviance as an individual response to strain therefore, ignoring the fact that a lot of
deviance is committed in or by groups, especially among the young. For example,
the Stephen Lawrence murder case. Also, Merton focusses on utilitarian crime
committed for material gain, such as theft or fraud. He largely ignores crimes such as
assault and vandalism which may have no economic motive.
Cohen focuses more on deviance among working-class boys. He argues that they
face anomie in the middle-class dominated school system. They suffer from cultural
deprivation and lack the skills to achieve. Their inability to succeed in this middle-
class world leaves them at the bottom of the official status hierarchy.
As a result of being unable to achieve status by legitimate means, the boys suffer
from status frustration. They face a problem of adjustment to the low status they are
given by mainstream society. In Cohen’s view, they resolve their frustration by
rejecting mainstream middle-class values and they turn instead to other boys in the
same situation forming or joining a delinquent subculture.
Alternative Status Hierarchy:
According to Cohen, the subculture’s values are characterised by spite, malice,
hostility and contempt for those outside it. For Cohen, the subculture’s function is
that it offers the boys an alternative status hierarchy in which they can achieve.
Having failed in the legitimate opportunity structure, the boys create their own
illegitimate opportunity structure in which they can win status from their peers
through their delinquent actions.
Strengths of Cohen’s theory:
 Offers an explanation of non-utilitarian deviance among the working class;
and
 His ideas of status frustration, value inversion and alternative status hierarchy
help to explain non-economic delinquency such as vandalism, fighting and
truancy.
Weaknesses of Cohen’s theory:
 Assumes that working-class boys start off sharing middle-class success
goals, only to reject these when they fail; and
 He ignored the possibility that they didn’t share these goals in the first place
and so never saw themselves as failures.
Cloward and Ohlin: Three Subcultures:
Cloward and Ohlin (1960) take Merton’s ideas as their starting point. They agree that
working-class youths are denied legitimate opportunity structures to achieve ‘money
success’, and that their deviance stems from the way they respond to this situation.
They note that not everyone in this situation adapts to it by turning to ‘innovation’.
Different subcultures respond in different ways to the lack of legitimate opportunities.
The subculture Cohen describes resorts to violence and vandalism, not economic
crime, while other subcultures centre on legal drug use.
Cloward and Ohlin attempt to explain why these different subcultural responses
occur. In this view, the key reason is not only unequal access to legitimate
opportunity structures, as Merton and Cohen recognise but unequal access to
illegitimate opportunity structures.
Cloward and Ohlin argue that different neighbourhoods provide different illegitimate
opportunities for young people to learn criminal skills and develop criminal careers.
Criminal subcultures:
 Provide youths with an apprenticeship for a career in utilitarian crime;
 Arise in neighbourhoods where there is a longstanding and stable local
criminal subculture with an established hierarchy of professional adult crime;
 Role models are available; and
 Opportunities of employment on the criminal career ladder.
Conflict subcultures:
 Arise in areas of high population turnover;
 High levels of disorganisation and prevents a stable professional criminal
network from developing;
 The only illegitimate opportunities available are within loosely organised
gangs; and
 Violence provides a release for young men’s frustration and their blocked
opportunities, as well as an alternative source of status that can earn by
winning ‘turf’ from rival gangs.
Retreatist subculture:
 Those who aspire to be a professional criminal or a gang leader actually
succeeds;
 ‘Double failures’; and
 Based on illegal drug use.
Evaluation of Cloward and Ohlin:
Ignore crimes of the wealthy;
Too deterministic;
Over-predicts the extent of working-class crime;
Ignore the wider power structure;
Draw boundaries too sharply between the different types of subcultures;
Does not allow delinquents to be part of more than one subculture;
Assume that everyone starts off sharing the same mainstream success goal;
Miller argues that deviance arises out of an attempt to achieve own goals instead of
mainstream; and
Matza claims that most delinquents are not stongly committed to their subculture.
Provide an explanation for different types of working-class deviance in terms of
different subcultures; and
Merton’s ideas play an important part in left realist explanations of crime.
Recent strain theories:
They have argued that young people may pursue a variety of goals other than
money success. These include popularity with peers, autonomy from adults, or the
desire of some young males to be treated like ‘real men’. They argue that failure to
achieve these goals may result in delinquency. They also argue that middle-class
juveniles too may have problems achieving such goals, thus offering an explanation
for middle-class delinquency.
Institutional anomie theory:
Messner and Rosenfeld’s (2201) theory focusses on the American Dream. They
argue that its obsession with individual money success and its ‘winner-takes-all’
mentality, exert ‘pressures towards crime by encouraging an anomic cultural
environment in which people are encouraged to adopt and ‘anything goes’ mentality’
in the pursuit of wealth. They conclude that in societies based on free-market
capitalism and lacking adequate welfare provision are inevitable.
Downes and Hanses (2006) offer evidence for this view. In a survey of crime rates
and welfare spending in 18 countries, they found societies that spent more on
welfare had lower rates of imprisonment. This backs up Messner and Rosenfeld’s
claim that societies that protect the poor from the worst excesses of the free market
have less crime.
Savelsberg (1995) applies strain theory to post-communist societies in Eastern
Europe, which saw a rapid rise in crime after the fall of communism in 1989. He
attributes the rise to communism’s collective values being replaced by new western
capitalist goals of individual ‘money success’.
Check your understanding: Examine the role of access to opportunitystructures in causing crime and
deviance (18 marks).

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Subcultural strain theories

  • 1. Subcultural Strain Theories Topic 1 Main Theorist(s): Key Word(s):  Cohen Opportunity Structure  Cloward and Ohlin Utilitarian Crime  Messner and Rosenfeld Anomie  Downes and Hansen Cultural Deprivation  Savelsberg Status Frustration Delinquent Subculture Status Hierarchy Outline of subcultural strain theories: Subcultural strain theories see deviance as the product of a delinquent subculture with different values from those of mainstream society. They see subcultures as providing an alternative opportunity structure for those who are denied the chance to achieve by legitimate means- mainly those in the working class. Cohen: Status Frustration: Cohen (1955) agrees with Merton that deviance is largely a lower class phenomenon. It results from the inability of those in the lower classes to achieve mainstream success goals by legitimate means such as educational achievement. However, Cohen criticises Merton’s explanation of deviance because; Merton sees deviance as an individual response to strain therefore, ignoring the fact that a lot of deviance is committed in or by groups, especially among the young. For example, the Stephen Lawrence murder case. Also, Merton focusses on utilitarian crime committed for material gain, such as theft or fraud. He largely ignores crimes such as assault and vandalism which may have no economic motive. Cohen focuses more on deviance among working-class boys. He argues that they face anomie in the middle-class dominated school system. They suffer from cultural deprivation and lack the skills to achieve. Their inability to succeed in this middle- class world leaves them at the bottom of the official status hierarchy. As a result of being unable to achieve status by legitimate means, the boys suffer from status frustration. They face a problem of adjustment to the low status they are given by mainstream society. In Cohen’s view, they resolve their frustration by rejecting mainstream middle-class values and they turn instead to other boys in the same situation forming or joining a delinquent subculture. Alternative Status Hierarchy: According to Cohen, the subculture’s values are characterised by spite, malice, hostility and contempt for those outside it. For Cohen, the subculture’s function is that it offers the boys an alternative status hierarchy in which they can achieve. Having failed in the legitimate opportunity structure, the boys create their own illegitimate opportunity structure in which they can win status from their peers through their delinquent actions.
  • 2. Strengths of Cohen’s theory:  Offers an explanation of non-utilitarian deviance among the working class; and  His ideas of status frustration, value inversion and alternative status hierarchy help to explain non-economic delinquency such as vandalism, fighting and truancy. Weaknesses of Cohen’s theory:  Assumes that working-class boys start off sharing middle-class success goals, only to reject these when they fail; and  He ignored the possibility that they didn’t share these goals in the first place and so never saw themselves as failures. Cloward and Ohlin: Three Subcultures: Cloward and Ohlin (1960) take Merton’s ideas as their starting point. They agree that working-class youths are denied legitimate opportunity structures to achieve ‘money success’, and that their deviance stems from the way they respond to this situation. They note that not everyone in this situation adapts to it by turning to ‘innovation’. Different subcultures respond in different ways to the lack of legitimate opportunities. The subculture Cohen describes resorts to violence and vandalism, not economic crime, while other subcultures centre on legal drug use. Cloward and Ohlin attempt to explain why these different subcultural responses occur. In this view, the key reason is not only unequal access to legitimate opportunity structures, as Merton and Cohen recognise but unequal access to illegitimate opportunity structures. Cloward and Ohlin argue that different neighbourhoods provide different illegitimate opportunities for young people to learn criminal skills and develop criminal careers. Criminal subcultures:  Provide youths with an apprenticeship for a career in utilitarian crime;  Arise in neighbourhoods where there is a longstanding and stable local criminal subculture with an established hierarchy of professional adult crime;  Role models are available; and  Opportunities of employment on the criminal career ladder. Conflict subcultures:  Arise in areas of high population turnover;  High levels of disorganisation and prevents a stable professional criminal network from developing;  The only illegitimate opportunities available are within loosely organised gangs; and  Violence provides a release for young men’s frustration and their blocked opportunities, as well as an alternative source of status that can earn by winning ‘turf’ from rival gangs.
  • 3. Retreatist subculture:  Those who aspire to be a professional criminal or a gang leader actually succeeds;  ‘Double failures’; and  Based on illegal drug use. Evaluation of Cloward and Ohlin: Ignore crimes of the wealthy; Too deterministic; Over-predicts the extent of working-class crime; Ignore the wider power structure; Draw boundaries too sharply between the different types of subcultures; Does not allow delinquents to be part of more than one subculture; Assume that everyone starts off sharing the same mainstream success goal; Miller argues that deviance arises out of an attempt to achieve own goals instead of mainstream; and Matza claims that most delinquents are not stongly committed to their subculture. Provide an explanation for different types of working-class deviance in terms of different subcultures; and Merton’s ideas play an important part in left realist explanations of crime. Recent strain theories: They have argued that young people may pursue a variety of goals other than money success. These include popularity with peers, autonomy from adults, or the desire of some young males to be treated like ‘real men’. They argue that failure to achieve these goals may result in delinquency. They also argue that middle-class juveniles too may have problems achieving such goals, thus offering an explanation for middle-class delinquency. Institutional anomie theory: Messner and Rosenfeld’s (2201) theory focusses on the American Dream. They argue that its obsession with individual money success and its ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality, exert ‘pressures towards crime by encouraging an anomic cultural environment in which people are encouraged to adopt and ‘anything goes’ mentality’ in the pursuit of wealth. They conclude that in societies based on free-market capitalism and lacking adequate welfare provision are inevitable. Downes and Hanses (2006) offer evidence for this view. In a survey of crime rates and welfare spending in 18 countries, they found societies that spent more on welfare had lower rates of imprisonment. This backs up Messner and Rosenfeld’s claim that societies that protect the poor from the worst excesses of the free market have less crime. Savelsberg (1995) applies strain theory to post-communist societies in Eastern Europe, which saw a rapid rise in crime after the fall of communism in 1989. He attributes the rise to communism’s collective values being replaced by new western capitalist goals of individual ‘money success’. Check your understanding: Examine the role of access to opportunitystructures in causing crime and deviance (18 marks).