Subcultural theory and deviance

Notes on Cohen, Cloward & Ohlin and underclass theory

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Structural and subcultural theories of deviance
Subcultural theorists believe that crime arises out of the conformity of people to the values of
subcultures within society that they belong to subcultures which may reject the dominant
values of society and as such could give members rewards for deviant and criminal
Cohen: the delinquent subculture
Cohen made his two criticisms of Merton's approach his starting point to an analysis of
1. He firstly criticised Merton's view that turning to crime is an individual response
as a way to try and deal with the lack of success through legitimate means, and
instead views it as a collective response of some elements of the working class.
2. while believing that the pursuit of success goals goes a long way to explaining
professional crime he does not see it as an adequate when it comes to
nonutilitarian crime which does not provide a monetary reward such as
vandalism and joyriding
Cohen starts a similar point to Merton arguing that the status frustration of some working
class men that stems from a lack of good jobs, education and cultural deprivation however
he deviates from it in that he takes the position that instead pf criminals pursuing dominant
success goals through illegitimate means they instead adopt alternative values systems and
success goals to those of mainstream society, thus crimes such as joy riding can be
explained through the alternative success goals of `having a laugh' or `thrill seeking', as
could offences such as drug use. This forms into a delinquent subculture as individual
criminals find others who share the same or similar deviant values and decide to organise
into a specific social group which can include a complex system of rewards and punishments
both in terms of material goods (money) and more importantly prestige or `street rep' within
the group and, if especially successful, amongst other deviant subcultures.
Evaluation: There have been a number of criticisms that have confronted Cohen's theory.
Box (1981) believes that instead of turning to crime as a response to feelings of shame due
to their failure in mainstream society young (working class) people do so as an active form
of rebellion and rejection of the values of teachers and middle class students who look down
on them. Secondly Bordua has argued that he selectively applied his own concepts to
certain aspects of his theory, such as using working class subculture to explain education
failure however he neglected to apply it further with regards to similar issues such as youth
offending. David Matza's research into gangs also cast doubts on the way on Cohen's claim
that most delinquent youths reject mainstream values. Matza studied working class youths in
the US who were involved in gangs however he found that many accepted mainstream
values such as the importance of family and striving for competition however few were
heavily involved in criminal activity and most viewed the gang as a form of kinship group.

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Cloward and Ohlin ­ delinquency and opportunity (1961)
Cloward and Ohlin set out in their study to build on the work of Merton by arguing that
working class people had greater societal pressure to turn to deviance because there was
less chance for them succeed through legitimate means and they intended to try to explain
what they see as the illegitimate opportunity structure which they saw as a way to explain a
gap in Merton's research, why some criminals focus on different forms of crime.…read more

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This criticism however seems weak as there is a lot of evidence that
the pursuit of wealth and success is a primary goal for some people and therefore it would
be reasonable to assume that would include those who engage in illegal as well as legal
activities.…read more

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UK much of the criticism that has been made against underclass theory
has specifically challenged that of Murray. Henrik Tham has pointed out that despite having
a vastly more generous welfare system in Sweden the increase in crime has been less than
that of Britain, demonstrating that in his mind it is inequality that breeds crime rather than
welfare payments.…read more


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