Assess the usefulness of functionalist and subcultural theories of crime and deviance for an understanding of why working class people commit crime (21 marks)

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Assess the usefulness of functionalist and subcultural theories of crime and deviance for an understanding of why
working class people commit crime (21 marks)
There are a number of theories that attempt to understand why people commit crime, with many aiming to
answer why working class people commit crime. 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. These both build on and criticise Merton's theory.
The first strain theory was developed by the functionalist Robert K. Merton (1938), who adapted Durkheim's
concept of anomie to explain deviance. Merton's theory explanation combines two elements; Structural and
cultural factors. Merton uses the strain theory to explain some of the patterns of deviance found in society. He
argues that an individual's position in the social structure affects the way they adapt or respond to the strain to
anomie. Logically, there are five different types of adaptation, depending on whether an individual accepts,
rejects or replaces approved cultural goals and the legitimate means of achieving them. Merton shows how both
normal and deviant behaviour can arise from the same mainstream goals. Both conformists and innovators are
pursuing money success, one legitimately and the other illegitimately. He explains the patterns shown in official
statistics; most crime is property crime, because American society values material wealth so highly, that those of
the working class are more likely to commit crime in the property field in order to gain. Lower class crime rates are
higher because they have the least opportunity to obtain wealth legitimately. However the theory is criticised on
several grounds. It takes official crime statistics at face value. These over represent working class crime, so Merton
sees crime as a mainly working class phenomenon. It is also too deterministic; the working class experience the
most strain, yet they don't all deviate. Marxists argue that it ignores the power of the ruling class to make and
enforce laws in ways that criminalise the poor but not the rich.
Albert Cohen (1955) agrees with Merton that deviance is a largely lower-class phenomenon. It results from the
inability in those of the lower classes to achieve mainstream success goals. However, Cohen criticises Merton's
explanation of deviance on two grounds. Merton sees deviance as an individual response to strain ignoring the
fact that much deviance is committed in or by groups, especially among the young. Merton only focuses 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 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 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 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 by forming or joining a
delinquent subculture.
Like Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) take Merton's ideas as their starting point. They agree that working-class
youths are denied legitimate opportunities to achieve `money successes, and that their deviance stems from the
way they respond to this situation. They suggest that there is an illegitimate opportunity structure and that it is in
three levels. Criminal, conflict and retreatist.
The criminal subculture tends to develop in areas where there is a well-established pattern of adult crime. This
provides an illegitimate opportunity structure. Youths are presented with role models from who they can learn
tricks of the trade. They are given the opportunity to climb the professional criminal hierarchy to become
`successful' by participating in crime which brings monetary gain, which creates deviance in attempting to gain by
legitimate means. The conflict subculture tends to develop in areas where an illegitimate opportunity structure is
absent. These areas usually have a high turnover of population and a low level of social cohesion ­ this prevents
established patterns of adult crime from developing. The retreatist subculture tends to emerge among those who

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`double failures' sometimes form retreatist subcultures based on illegal drug use.
This structure is a response to the lack of status and respect they receive from the wider society. Working-class
adolescents develop their own subculture, their own forms and values which differ from those of mainstream
society. Anti-social and criminal behaviour, which are condemned by the wider society, are valued by the
delinquent subculture. And, most importantly, they provide a means by which `failed' working-class young people
can solve the problem of status frustration.…read more


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