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May 23, 2013 / C H Thompson

Cohen’s Subcultural Theory

022.jpgAlbert Cohen’s (1955) research on delinquent boys attempted to answer several questions he felt weren’t addressed by Merton’s strain theory.

1. Why does an a substantial mount of delinquency occur in gangs? (Merton’s argument talks about an individual adaptations)

2. Why does so much delinquency occur among working-class males? (Merton’s strain theory spans all social groups)

3. Why does so much delinquent behaviour come in the form of vandalism? (Merton’s argument suggests financial gain is the primary motivator)

For Cohen Merton’s strain theory doesn’t account for the actions of the lower-classes which were largely non-utilitarian. Instead Cohen sought to apply Merton’s idea of there being strains on members of society to achieve success by scrutinising the concept of culture. For Cohen, Merton’s use of the term culture implied a single dominant or monoculture. However Cohen’s point was,  if there is a dominant culture by implication there must be other cultures – what Cohen termed subcultures.

From this Cohen developed the notion of status frustration in preference to Durkheim and Merton’s use of anomie. Cohen viewed working-class gangs as functioning as a collective unit but within a different value system from that shared by Merton’s mainstream monoculture. Instead the delinquent gang operates within its own cultural norms and values. Values such as having a specialised vocabulary, own internal beliefs, as well as different ways of dressing and acting – facets which define a subculture.

By establishing these characteristics Cohen argued delinquent subcultures forthrightly challenged dominant middle-class values; values such as deferred gratification, ambition, achievement and respect for property. These values create what Cohen described as the ‘middle-class measuring rod’ which is the source of strain felt by working-class boys. As a consequence their collective solution is a conscious reaction to the restricted opportunities made available by society ‘the delinquent conduct is right by the standards of his subculture precisely because it is wrong by the norms and values of the larger culture’ (Cohen, 1955, p28).

For these working-class delinquents success comes not from achieving material wealth as Merton suggested but in gaining status. Failing to achieve status by the ‘middle-class measuring rod’ working-class youths are left with status frustration. From this Cohen is able to explain non-utilitarian delinquency such as violence, vandalism and anti-social behaviour. This is because these youths who fail to achieve in relation to the ‘middle-class measuring rod’ gain their sense of status through non-utilitarian delinquency.


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