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April 12, 2011 / C H Thompson

Subcultural explanations

The theory of anomie as proposed by Durkheim and Merton subsequently provided the building blocks for the development of subcultural theories of delinquent and criminal behaviour. Albert Cohen’s argued Merton’s 5 modes of adaptations failed to account for non-utilitarian crimes, as many delinquents were involved in petty crimes, as opposed achieving material successes. For Cohen the subculture of the gang was a reaction to the dominance of middle-class culture which alienated and discriminated against the working-class because of their class position. In other words working-class youths were frustrated by their status – status frustration.

Status frustration becomes visible in all forms of behaviour whereby future time orientation, deferred gratification and respect for property are rejected in place of present time orientation and instant gratification (education unit). Follow this link for a deeper analysis of Cohen’s theory.

Cloward and Ohlin also saw working-class deviancy as a collective rather than an individual problem. Their version of strain theory identifies how the problem for the delinquent is to achieve a high status. They argued that a criminal subculture develops mainly in lower classes because criminal success is visible to young people who are willing to associate with these gangs. Their willingness stems from the often limited legitimate opportunities to succeed compared to the number of criminal successes. Indeed in more disruptive neighbourhoods conflict subcultures (gangs fighting) are likely to occur because there’s a lack of both legitimate and illegitimate means to succeed. They identified tree types of subcultures; criminal, conflict and retreatist. Which of these three types of subcultures were the Jets?

 Miller (1958, 1959) agreed with Cohen that there was a delinquency subculture, but argued that it arose entirely from ‘focal concerns’ (the lower class way of life directed towards criminality). There was a clear distinction in values between the two social classes. Whereas the middle class ‘focal concerns’ are achievement and social goal oriented, Miller thought that lower class boys are socialised to be tough and street-smart which gave them an incentive to join a gang. Given that their ordinary lives were boring, the excitement of crime was a welcome relief, bringing a sense of autonomy to the monotony of everyday life. For the lower class the same sex peer group or gang is more important than family, work or school because it offers a sense of belonging, and a way to achieve status that they cannot easily achieve in mainstream society. The focal concerns are excitement, fate, smartness, trouble, toughness and autonomy.


Miller, Cohen’s along with Cloward & Ohlin’s argument is seen to be functionalist in nature through the concept of consensus. There’s a clear consensus of shared values between the gang members succeeding (illegitimately), which contrasts between the consensus of wider society of succeeding legitimately (school, college, university, top-job etc).

 Matza questioned the extent to which behaviour is determined by social-class. Matza argued gang members were only partially committed to subcultural norms. Matza argues the delinquent doesn’t form a subculture which stands opposed to main stream norms and values (the established consensus) but instead drifts in and out of crime – delinquency and drift. This is possible because there is no consensus in society – no set of basic and core values but a plurality of behaviours which the delinquent taps into. For example many young people carry out delinquent acts such as drinking or minor vandalism. However because many of these young people have been socialised properly by their parents, when they get into trouble they apply what Matza termed as ‘techniques of neutralisation’ such as blaming the group they were in for “leading them astray” or blaming the shop keeper for selling the alcohol in the first place. 

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