TOPIC 2: Strain and subcultural theories

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Strain and subcultural theories

Robert Merton (1938):

  • Crime and deviance = evidence of poor fit/strain between goals
  • Resulting strain = led to deviance
  • Not everyone shared same goals - stratified society: goals linked to person's position in social structure

1) Conformity = continue to adhere to goals/means
2) Innovation = accepts goals of society, uses different ways to achieve goals
3) Ritualism = sight of actual goal lost
4) Retreatism = rejects goals/means, e.g. dependent upon drugs/alcohol
5) Rebellion = socially sanctioned goals/means rejected, different ones substituted

Criticisms of Merton:

  • Criticised for assuming there is value consensus in society
  • Too deterministic = fails to explain why people who experience effects of anomie do not become criminals/deviants
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The illegitimate opportunity structure

Cloward and Ohlin:

  • Merton failed to consider illegitimate opportunity structure
  • E.g. thriving adult criminal subculture in one area but may not exist in another area
  • Greater pressure on members of working class to deviate --> less opportunity to succeed by legitimate means

1) Criminal subculture = thriving local criminal subculture, 'work way up ladder' in criminal hierarchy
2) Conflict = no local criminal subculture, people likely to turn to violence --> e.g. violent gang 'warfare'
3) Retreatist = no opportunity/ability to engage in other subculture --> resulting in retreat into alcohol/drugs

Evaluation of Cloward and Ohlin:

  • Ignore female deviancy
  • Assume everyone is committed to goal of achieving wealth = much greater variety of goals, some social groups have made conscious choice to reject goal of financial success
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Status frustration


  • All boys regardless of social class desired to achieve success in life
  • Working class boys 'lack the means'
  • Status frustration = sense of personal failure/inadequacy
  • Working class reject middle class values --> e.g. behaving badly, anti-social behaviour

Miller (1962) - focal concerns:

  • Smartness = should look good, be witty with 'sharp repartee'
  • Trouble = 'I can't go looking for trouble, but...'
  • Excitement = important to search out thrills
  • Toughness = good to be physically stronger than others --> important to demonstrate this
  • Autonomy = important not to be pushed around by others
  • Fate = little chance to overcome wider fate
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Applying SC theory: The British Experience

  • Downes = young working class males detached from mainstream values, more concerned with 'having fun' than getting jobs

Subterranean values:

  • Matza = no distinctive subcultural values
  • All groups in society used shared set of subterranean values
  • People control deviant desires --> rarely emerge
  • Difference between persistent offender and law-abiding citizen = how often/what circumstances subterranean values emerge, justified by techniques of neutralisation

Techniques of neutralisation:

  • Denial of responsibility
  • Denial of victim
  • Denial of injury
  • Condemnation of condemners
  • Appeal to higher loyalties
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Subculture: the paradox of inclusion

Carl Nightingale (1993):

  • Subculture emerges from desire to be part of mainstream US society that has rejected/marginalised them
  • Black children consume US culture by watching TV with emphasis on consumerism - still excluded economically/racially/politically from participating in culture
  • Response = overcompensate, acquiring articles with high-status trade names/logos
  • High-status goods possessed = often obtained through violence in USA, expressed in violent gangs/high crime rates

Philip Bourgois (2002):

  • El Barrio study - looked at lives of drug dealers/criminals in New York
  • Believe in 'American Dream' of financial success
  • Values of subculture little different from mainstream values --> difference: deal drugs in order to get money to pursue all-American lifestyle
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Contemporary alternatives to subculture - 1

Maffesoli (1996):

  • Better to think of subcultures in terms of 'fluidity, occasional gatherings and dispersal'
  • Neo-tribes = states of mind and lifestyles, very flexible/open/changing
  • Deviant values less important than stress on consumption/suitably fashionable behaviour/individual identity, can change rapidly

Connell (1995):

  • Hegemonic masculinity = males conspire with/aspire to
  • Similar to Miller

Winlow (2004):

  • Values best seen within context of changing economic social structure
  • Traditional/working-class male values fitted physical work undertaken by men in industrial settings
  • Values inappropriate for contemporary employment
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Contemporary alternatives to subculture - 2

Marshall et al (2005):

  • 3 types of gangs:

1) Peer groups/'crews' = unorganised, hang around together, offending behaviour is incidental, does not reflect any great enstrangement from society

2) Gangs = focus on offending/violence

3) Organised criminal groups = most serious, heavily involved in serious crime, clear hierachy, illegal activities comprise occupation

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BONUS STUDY: Owen Jones (2011)

  • Being able to make brutal/sub-racist remarks about working-class = one acceptable form of discrimination left
  • Gap between rich/poor increased = growth in negative stereotyping of working-class
  • E.g. feckless, stupid, having too many children, not wanting to work
  • Social mobility has declined = far smaller proportion of parliament/media come from working-class backgrounds
  • Much less understanding of those permanently in low-paid work/less education
  • Working-class = object of fear and ridicule
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