Functionalist, strain and subcultural theories

  • Created by: Oohla
  • Created on: 12-05-15 20:13

Durkheim - The inevitability of crime

Socialisation and social control are two key mechanisms which allow social solidarity to occur in society. 

Functionalists see too much crime as destablising society.

They also see crime as inevitable and universal - Durkheim "crime is integral part of all healthy societies".

There are 2 reasons C&D are found in all societies - 1. Not everyone is equally effectively socialised into the shared norms and values. 2. Different groups develop their own subculture and what members of the subculture see as normal, could be seen as deviant to mainstream culture.

Durkheim also discusses that in modern societies there is a tendancy towards anomie (normalessness). The diversity of modern society means the collective conscience (shared set of beliefs) is weakened, and this results in higher levels of C&D

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Postive function of crime - Adaptation..

For indivduals that want to change, there must be a scope for them to challenge and change existing norms and values = deviance. However, in the long run their values may rise to a new culture and morality. 

If those with new ideas are suppressed, society will fail to develop and be unable to make nessecary adaptive changes

Thus, for Durkheim neither a very high or very low level of crime is desirable. 

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Evaluation of Functionalism - Criticisms.

Durkheim doesn't explain how much of crime is needed for society to function properly.

Functionalism looks at how crime serves society as a whole and ignores how it may affect different indivduals or groups within society - is solidarity (mutual unity or agreement) reinforced with the victim? - fails to ask 'Functional for Whom?'

Crime doesn't always promote solidarity. It may have the opposite effect of making people feel isolated. e.g. forcing women to stay inside for fear of attack.
                   elder people not going out due to street crime.

Marxist - Not explaining differences for deviant's treatments. Middle class get off more lightly and working class arrested

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Durkheim - Boundary Maintenance example..


'Delhi gang ****'.

"The men were convicted to death by hanging, and one of them broke down in tears as the verdict was announced." - Functional for Whom??

"Protesters outside the court had demanded that the four men should be hanged." - Unites members against the wrongdoer!!

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Hirschi: 'Control Theory'..

Developed Durkheim's theory of shared values into the idea of speacil bonds.

There are 4 type of social bonds:
1. Attachment - we can about others?
2. Commitment - what we lose?
3. Involvement - has time for crime?
4. Belief - believes in obeying rules?

If these shared bonds are not strong, it will lead to C&D.

The family is crutial in developing the strengths/weaknesses of social bonds. This was reinforced by the study conducted by Farrington and West. They carried out a longitudinal study on working class males 1953-late 80's
There was a direct correlation between crime and poor parenting, with the parent more likely poor and single. 

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Merton's Strain Theory

Strain theory argues that people engage in deviant behaviour when they are unable to achieve socially approved goals by legitimate means. Merton adapted Durkheim's concept of anomie to explain deviance. Merton's explanation combines two elements:

  • Structural factors- society's unequal opportunity structure.

  • Cultural factors- the strong emphasis on success goals and the weaker emphasis on using legitimate means to achieve them.

For Merton, deviance is the result of a strain between two things; 1. The goals that a culture encourages individuals to achieve. 2. What the institutional structure of society allows them to achieve legitimately.

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Merton - American Dream


The ideology of the 'American Dream' tells Americans that their society is a meritocratic one where there is opportunity for all. However, in reality many disadvantaged groups are denied opportunities e.g. inadequate schooling.

  • The resulting strain produces frustration and this in turn creates a pressure to resort to illegitimate means such as crime. Merton calls this pressure to deviate, the strain to anomie. The pressure to deviate is further increased by the fact that American culture puts more emphasis on achieving success at any price that upon doing it by legitimate means.

  • To summarise, the goal creates a desire to succeed, and lack of opportunity creates a pressure to adopt illegitimate means, while the norms are not strong enough to prevent some from succumbing to this temptation.

"Winning the game becomes more important than playing by the rules."

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Merton's adaptations to strain

Merton argues that an individual's position in the social structure affects the way they adapt and respond to the strain to anomie. Logically, there are five different types of adaption:

  • Conformity- Individuals accept the culturally approved goals and strive to achieve them legitimately. This is most likely amongst the middle class.

  • Innovation- Individuals accept the goals of money success but use ‘new’, illegitimate means such as theft to achieve it. E.g. cheating in an exam

  • Ritualism- Individuals give up on trying to achieve the goals, but have internalised the legitimate means and so they follow the rules for their own sake. E.g. dead, routine job.

  • Retreatism- Individuals reject both the goals and the legitimate means and become dropouts. E.g. tramps or addicts.

  • Rebellion- Individuals reject the existing society’s goals and the legitimate means, but replace them with new ones in a desire to bring about revolutionary change and create a new kind of society. E.g. Terroists.

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Merton Evaluation - Criticisms

  • He explains patterns shown in official crime statistics; e.g. most crime in property crime because American society values material wealth so highly.

  • His theory is criticised as it takes official statistics at face value. These over-represent working-class crime, so Merton sees crime as a mainly working-class phenomenon.

  • Marxists argue that it ignores the power of the ruling class to make and enforce the laws in ways that criminalise the poor but not the rich.

  • It assumes there is value consensus- that everyone strives for ‘money success’ – and ignores the possibility that some may not share this goal.

  • It only accounts for utilitarian crime for monetary gain, and not crimes of violence, vandalism etc.

  • It explains how deviance results from individuals adapting to the strain to anomie but ignores the role of group deviance, such as delinquent subcultures.

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Cohen - Status Frustration..

Cohen agrees with Merton that deviance is largely a lower-class phenomenon. However, Cohen criticises Merton’s explanation of deviance on two grounds:

  • 1. 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.

  • 2. Merton focuses on utilitarian crime committed for material gain. He largely ignores crimes such as assault, which may have no economic motive.

Cohen focused on deviance among working class boys and argued that they faced anomie because of a middle class dominated school system. Their inability to succeed in this middle class world leaves them at the bottom of the status hierarchy.

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.

This offers an alternative status hierarchy - rewarded for their bad behaviour.

  • The delinquent subculture inverts the values of mainstream society- turns them upside down. The subculture praise what society condemns.

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Cohen Evaluation..

Cohen’s ideas of status frustration, value inversion and alternative status hierarchy help to explain non-economic delinquency such as vandalism.

  • However, Cohen assumes that working class boys start off sharing middle-class success goals, only to reject these when they fail.

  • He ignores the possibility that they didn’t share the goals of the middle class and so never saw themselves as failures.

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Cloward and Ohlin: three subcultures..

Cloward and Ohlin agree with Merton that working class youths are denied legitimate opportunities to achieve ‘money success’, and that their deviance stems from the way they respond to this situation.

Cloward and Ohlin attempt to explain why different subcultures respond in different ways to a lack of legitimate opportunities. In their view, the key reason is not only unequal access to the legitimate opportunity structure but unequal access to illegitimate opportunity structures.
They argue that different neighbourhoods provide different illegitimate opportunities for young people. They identify three types of deviant subcultures that result:

  • Criminal subcultures - provide youths with an apprenticeship for a career in utilitarian crime. They arise in neighbourhoods where there is a longstanding and stable local criminal culture with an established hierarchy of professional adult crime.

  • Conflict subcultures - arise in areas of high population turnover. This results in high levels of social disorganisation and prevents a stable professional criminal network developing. Its absence means that the only illegitimate opportunities available are within loosely organised gangs.

  • Retreatist subcultures- ‘Double failures’- those who fail in both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures. According to Cloward and Ohlin, many turn to a retreatist subculture based on illegal drug use.
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Cloward and Ohlin Evaluation..

They agree with Merton and Cohen that most crime is working-class, thus ignoring crimes of the wealthy. Their theory is too deterministic and over-predicts the extent of working class crime. They ignore the wider power structure, including who makes and enforces the law.

They provide an explanation for different types of working-class deviance in terms of different subcultures. However, they draw the boundaries too sharply between the different types. In Cloward and Ohlin’s theory, it would not be possible to belong to more than one of these subcultures simultaneously e.g. some ‘retreatist’ users are also drug dealers making a living from this utilitarian crime.

Strain theories have been called reactive theories of subculture. This is because they explain deviant subcultures as forming in reaction to the failure to achieve mainstream goals. Such theories have been criticised for assuming that everyone starts off sharing the same mainstream success goal.

Matza claims that most delinquents are not strongly committed to their subculture, as strain theories suggest, but merely drift in and out of delinquency.

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Matza - 'Drift theory' and Subterranean Values..

Everyone has subterranean values (bad temptations that we have the potential to do). Matza is a critic. He states that through subterranean values, individuals justify themselves:

  • Appeal to higher loyalties- e.g. appeal to religion

  • Denial of responsibility- when you refuse to take responsibility.

  • Denial of the victim- doesn't deserve to be a victim.

  • Denial of injury- when you justify yourself.

  • Condemnation of condemns- condemning someone who is wrong e.g. serial killer.

Drift theory - Young people feel like they lack control. They do not feel the constraining bonds of society. At this stage, young people will drift in and out of crime. They are susceptible to peer pressure. It doesn't mean you'' have a deviant career and settle into normal jobs and become less law abiding adults.

Evaluation of Matza: Why do youth commit crime to gain control? Other actions? What about working class dominance? Sincerity about guilt doubtful? Difficult to prove 'drift' and too deterministic.



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British Studies

  • Wilmott- studied on working class London. He looked at young people and tried to find a subculture but found none. He explained crime because individuals were bored and visible.

  • Downes- conducted his study in East London (deprived area). His study was based on adolescents and he found no evidence for subcultures but found evidence to support Matza's idea of leisure values. Leisure values- young people are in the stage of life when they want to have fun.

  • Both of these criticise subcultural theorists.

  • USA vs. UK criticisms- Little evidence in Britain to support American subcultural theories. Both structural strain between deviant minority and mainstream majority & terms of culture ad behaviour. Finally, later studies reject subculture anyway and move towards Marxist approaches.

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