Subcultural Theory

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Subcultural Theory

Subcultural theory focuses on explaining why young working-class people commit crime. Known as juvenile delinquency; it is often malicious in nature and not linked to material or financial goals. Subcultural theory also tries to explain why juvenile delinquency has a collective or subcultural character – it is committed as part of a larger group or gang. Merton’s ideas are very good at explaining crimes for profit, but many crimes do not produce financial gain. Antisocial crimes such as vandalism, graffiti, joyriding and violent behaviour need to be considered using different concepts, and the key idea is the gang or subculture.

 Early Studies and gangs

US Studies

Cohen was one of the earliest subcultural theorists. He, liked Merton, argued that  delinquent behaviour was most likely to develop among working-class boys by a strain between cultural goals and the institutional means of achieving them. He argued that they suffered from status frustration. These boys feel alienated and angry at the low status that schools and society allocate them. They recognised that achieving status through academic success would be very difficult for them. Thus, these boys are placed in the bottom sets and consequently are unable to acquire the knowledge and status enjoyed by students in the higher sets.  Instead they could gain status from their peers by being good at delinquent behaviour such as stealing, fighting and vandalism. Thus, they respond by developing gangs or subcultures of like-minded boys who reverse the norms and values of the dominant culture and award one another status on the basis of anti-school and delinquent behaviour.

He argues that these experiences result in low self-esteem. These boys feel alienated and angry at the low status that schools and society allocate them.

 Evaluation of Cohen

  • Willis concludes that the working-class youths in Cohen’s study of working-class underachievement didn’t share the same definition of status as middle-class boys. They defined educational failure as ‘success’ because qualifications were not necessary for the types of factory jobs they wanted.
  • Most working-class boys actually conform at school despite educational failure.
  • Cohen ignores female delinquency.
  • He neglects the role of agencies of social control in the social construction of delinquency. For example, people stereotyping of working-class youths might mean they are more likely to be stopped and searched.

Cloward and Ohlin developed Cohen’s ideas. They argue that the type of crime committed by young people depends on the type of illegitimate opportunity structure that is available to them in their area. They identify three illegitimate opportunity structures that produce three types of subcultures:

  • In some areas, there are established patterns of illegitimate opportunity in which people experience criminal ‘careers’. These organised types of criminal subcultures mirror legitimate businesses, in that employees have specific roles and can be promoted upwards to managerial or executive status.
  • Some inner-city areas may be dominated by conflict subcultures, which engage in highly masculinized territorial or respect-driven violence. Pitts found that local youth in inner-city London found it difficult to resist


kirsty burrows


Nice evaluations on theorists. Copied from AQA A2 Sociology textbook (p247).

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