Strain and Subcultural Theories

Examining strain and subcultural theory as an ideology of why people commit crimes

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Strain Theory

This theory was developed by Merton who tried to work within the functionalist understanding and therefore explored anomie. He concluded that when, for whatever reason, a person can't achieve their 'goals' through socially approved means then they will try other ways to do so which can lead to crime. He identified a number of different behaviours relating to this:

  • Conformity - whereby people conform to both the means and goals of society
  • Innovation - a person accepts the goals of society but uses different means to get the goals (this is usually the criminal bit)
  • Ritualism - the means used by the indivudual but the goal is lost
  • REbellion - both social means and goals are rejected


  • Valier suggests that society does not have common goals and that there are in fact a range of goals that people aim for at any one time
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The Illegitimate opportunity structure

Cloward and Ohlin followed Merton's ideas but suggested that there is in fact two sets of 'means' one legal and the other illegal both of which arrive at the 'goals' according to them the Illegitimate opportunity structure has three subcultures:

  • Criminal - the criminal subculture where young offenders can 'work their way up the ladder' and build a career in crime
  • Conflict - there is no criminal subculture and thus gangs turn to fight each other in gang warfare
  • Retreatist - This is where there is no criminal subculture and no conflict subculture so the person retreats into alcohol and drugs


  • It is difficult to accept such a need distinction into three clear catagories in real life
  • There is no discussion whatsoever about female deviancy
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Status Frustration

Cohen draws also upon Merton's ideas of strain and of the ethnographic ideas of the Chicargo school of sociology. Cohen was particularly interested in teh fact that much offending behaviour was not econmically motivated but instead was motivated by thrill.

He found that lower-class boys tried to immitate the bahaviour of middle-class boys but lacked the means to do so and thus turn to find their own subculture of anti-middle-class ideas such as bad behaviour which creates a self fulfilling prophecy (labelling theory)


  • There is no discussion of females. His research is only fucussed on boys
  • The young 'delinquents' need to be brilliant sociolgosits to wordk out what are middle class values then invert them which makes this approach unlikely
  • Cohen fails to prove that school is really the key place where success and failure are demonstrated
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Focal Concerns

Miller identified a number of concerns which are in fact lead to delinquency in lower-class males:

  • Smartness - A person should be smart in appearance and be witty
  • Trouble - I don't go looking for trouble but...
  • Excitement - searching for thrills
  • Toughness - being physically stronger than others
  • Autonamy - It is important not to be pushed around
  • Fate - people beleive that their lives are pre-planned


  • Little evidence to support claims
  • Box points out that these could be applied to any males not just those of working class backgrounds 
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Subterranean Values & the Paradox of Inclusion

Metza suggests that there are no subcultures in society and that we all share subterranean values which are deviant desires which we can usually ignore and rarely come out. There can come out in some cases however but we use 'techniques of neutralisation' in order to avoid these issues such as a person being drunk etc.

Subculture the Paradox of Inclusion

Both nightinggale and Bourgois' studies both suggest that by attempting to get to the goals within society through illegitimate means which in turn excludes them from society

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Contemporary alternatives to subculture

There are a number of more modern explanations for this type of behaviour within society:

  • Postmodernists suggest that crime is seductive and people get drawn towards it. Lyng explores edgework where people commit crime for the thrill.
  • Masculinity - subcultural theory is overwhelmingly based on males within society. Connell suggests that masculinity links to the older work of Miller and his 'lower-class values'. Winlow however suggests that these values fitted traditional working-class work but these don't fit modern employment
  • Gangs and subcultures - Marshall et al suggest that there are three catagories of youth groups: peer groups or 'crews', Gangs and organised criminal groups which all have distinct characteristics.
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