Subcultural Explanations for Crime


Cohen's Theory

Members of society are socialised into mainstream goals and legitimate means of achieving them

Lower classes experience blocked opportunities – they are less likely to be successful via legitimate opportunity structures

Lower classes are less successful in education for reasons of cultural deprivation so feel anomie

Status in school is determined by middle class standards, success in education – examinations and achievement of qualifications 

Lower class boys are judged, experience feelings of guilt, shame, and resentment

The result is status frustration because of their (relative) educational failure

1 of 11


Lower class boys respond to status frustration by creating a delinquent subculture

The delinquent sub culture creates status within a gang by providing a source of recognition Inverting the mainstream goals and means

The Delinquent sub culture places a high value on challenging the authorities, bunking off school, vandalism and petty theft

It stands in opposition to the mainstream standards of behaviour

It is more than an act of defiance – it is a source of recognition and acceptance and provides an alternative lifestyle

2 of 11


The delinquent subculture is  only one source of adaptation

Some (possibly those who achieve some minor education success) may continue to conform 

Some who against the odds achieve educational success find themselves valued in school and become upwardly mobile – reinforcing their commitment to the mainstream goals and means of achieving them through continuing education and occupational attainment

3 of 11


It explains non-utilitarian crime (vandalism/anti-social behaviour), which other theores ignore

It recognises that there can be collective adaptations to blocked opportunities

Stimulated significant level of research interest

4 of 11


The empirical research stimulated by Cohen’s argument produced little support for his theory

Cohen applies the idea of cultural deprivation to explain the educational failure of lower class boys but does not use the concept to directly explain their delinquency which it could do

He assumes that the lower class boys are socialised into the mainstream culture and only adapt and create a delinquent sub culture when they experience blocked opportunities. It is possible they were socialised into an alternative sub culture (a la Miller) on an inter-generational basis

He relies too heavily on the pattern of criminality suggested by the official statistics which may distort the reality of crime

5 of 11

Cloward and Ohlin's Theory

Cloward and Ohlin suggested there were 3 types of illegitimate opportunity structure:

A criminal sub culture

A conflict sub culture

A retreatist sub culture

6 of 11

Criminal Sub Culture

Neighbourhoods with limited legitimate opportunities – education, employment

Existence of stable adult criminal enterprises provide opportunities – recruitment, training, support – for involvement in criminal behaviour

Status based on success in the criminal enterprises – becoming a good criminal; some may not be successful and fall out (pushed out) of the criminal sub-culture

Some neighbourhoods with limited legitimate opportunities may also lack criminal sub cultures

7 of 11

Conflict Sub Culture

Failure in the criminal sub culture, or the absence of a stable criminal sub culture,  increases strain on individuals which might lead them into a conflict sub culture

Tendency to move into gangs focusing on the defence of territory through violence (offensive as well as defensive) – turf wars

Status in gang based on achieving ‘respect’ through fear (in wider society and within the gang)

Gangs highly unpredictable

Success dependent on ability and willingness to provoke fear

Some not ‘cut out for violence’, can’t be successful within the conflict sub culture, or opportunity structure may not exist in an area

8 of 11

Retreatist Sub Culture

Retreatist sub cultures represent a withdrawal from society

They primarily attract triple failures - those who have failed in the legitimate opportunity structures and the illegitimate opportunity structures of criminal and conflict sub cultures

Some may move directly to retreatist sub cultures from failure in legitimate opportunity structures or from either illegitimate opportunity structure

Retreatist sub cultures are based around alcohol and/or drug taking

9 of 11


1. Influenced by Merton and A.K.Cohen

2. Introduced idea of illegitimate opportunity structures

3. Appears to admit existence of inter generational sub cultures – though they only become available once legitimate opportunity structures have been blocked off

4. Combines collective adaptation explanation for a wider variety of types of crime than Merton, and A.K. Cohen

10 of 11


1.Like Merton and A.K. Cohen assumes everyone initially socialised into mainstream norms and values, goals and means;

2.Some argue lower class boys never socialised into mainstream culture, rather socialised into alternative lower class subculture transmitter inter- generationally

3.Like Merton and A.K.Cohen they appear not to recognise there may be other success goals in the mainstream culture, besides material goals

4.Again, like Merton, Cloward and Ohlin appear to accept uncritically the pattern of crime revealed by the official statistics

11 of 11


No comments have yet been made

Similar Criminology resources:

See all Criminology resources »See all Subcultural Theories of Crime resources »