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Sub Cultures From Which Criminal Behaviour Arises Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2969 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Clarke et al. describe culture as the way social relations of a group are constructed, acknowledged and interpreted by its members. A subculture differs in its focal concerns but will also share some things in common with the culture from which it derives; also known as the parent culture. Subcultures must exhibit a unique structure focused on certain activities, beliefs and so on, that visibly distinguish them. Nevertheless, as they are sub-sets, there must be significant things that bind them with the parent culture. For example, the Kray twins were part of a criminal subculture and the working class culture in East London. Subcultures can be characterized by a distinctive language, music taste, dress sense, hairstyle and lifestyle understood and shared by its members. Examples include rockers, Rastafarians or punks. Criminal subcultures on the other hand, may share most of these characteristics, but will hold an alternative value system that accepts delinquent behaviour. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin state that ‘a delinquent subculture is one in which certain forms of delinquent activity are essential requirements for the performance of the dominant roles supported by the subculture’ (1960: 7). Criminal subcultures are normally found among lower class young males from large urban areas (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Croall, 1998). This essay will look at a brief history of Robert Merton’s work and the input of the Chicago School and associated theorists such as Edwin Sutherland to provide an understanding of how and why American subcultural theories developed thereafter. These approaches will be looked upon in assessing the works of Albert Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960). Other works will be discussed such as Gresham Sykes and David Matza (1957) and Walter Miller (1958) to critique American subcultural theories. Finally, this shall be followed by work that emerged from Britain including David Downes and the Birmingham University Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). Other key factors influencing the nature of subcultures will be raised in order to provide a substantiated conclusion.

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Croall (1998) and Newburn (2007) both argue that American subcultural theory emerged from research carried out by the Chicago School in the 1930s on cultures, street life and delinquent gangs in Chicago. It was found that certain subcultures in society have different values and attitudes that contribute towards crime and violence. Influential theorists such as Edwin Sutherland (1937) aimed to explain the nature and development of youth subcultures by suggesting that crime is a learned behaviour that takes place in specific groups with different behaviours, attitudes and peer group pressures. He argued further that those exposed to more criminal than non-criminal values were more likely to adopt criminal values learnt through a process of differential association. This includes the techniques of committing a crime, motives, drives and rationalizations associated with crime. This differential association may differ in terms of frequency, duration, priority and intensity. Individuals therefore become criminal due to an increased number of definitions favourable to breaking the law over definitions unfavourable to violations (Fulcher & Scott, 2003; White & Haines, 2004; O’Brien & Yar, 2008).

On the contrary, Robert Merton developed the Strain Theory (1938) to expand upon the concept of anomie first argued by Durkheim who suggested that anomie is a state of normlessness in society. Merton attempted to explain the breakdown of cultural and social structure that accompanied the Great Depression of 1930s America (Burke, 2005). Social institutions such as the mass media, education system and the state stressed that middle class material rewards and success of the American Dream were achievable goals for individuals who worked hard to attain them, as argued by Merton. Unfortunately, working class male youths had different institutional means available to them. Moreover, they were ill prepared as they were not socialized to succeed in a middle class environment. They experienced strains associated with inappropriate structural opportunities to achieve culturally defined goals. For that reason, these blocked opportunities lead some people to form a delinquent subculture as a collective solution to pursue alternative criminal avenues. Merton’s theory therefore indicates that strains do not reside within the individual but are produced by wider social processes and structures (Croall, 1998, Bilton et al. 2002). Merton developed five different ways in which individuals respond; conformism- people accept the culturally defined goals and institutionalized means of attaining them; innovation- individuals accept the culturally defined goals but lack the institutionalized means to attain them and therefore resort to crime; ritualism- people accept the naturally defined goals but cannot sustain them but continue to pursue institutional mean regardless of the outcome; retreatism- people reject both the culturally defined goals and institutionalized means of attaining them and retreat from society in different ways such as substance abuse; and rebellionism- people substitute their own cultural goals and institutionalized means in place of the conventional goals and means of achieving them (White & Haines, 2004; Burke, 2005; Newburn, 2007). Merton is criticized for accepting the status quo and assuming that there is a consensus amongst everyone to pursue the middle class cultural goals of ambition, success and achievement, rather than acknowledging how powerful people define society and its goals. Also, the focus is merely upon working class crime thus Merton accepts the official recorded crime statistics which suggest that crime is mostly committed by the working class. This suggests that the strain theory fails to consider structural inequalities for example how the capitalist system marginalizes and labels lower classes and criminalizes their activities. In addition to this Merton ignores other crimes like white collar or corporate crimes which are equally or even more damaging to society. Finally, though there may be some strain underpinning criminal behaviour, Merton does not fully explain why some individuals respond with delinquent behaviour and others do not (White & Haines, 2004, Fawbert, 2013).

A different argument is provided by Albert Cohen in Delinquent Boys (1955) who developed the subcultural theory of Status Frustration. He criticized Merton for focusing on acquisitive property crime alone. Cohen argues that lower-class boys fail to attain the middle-class standards of success, suffer cultural deprivation, unemployment, educational failure and broken homes. For Cohen, the school was where lower class youth understood their choices were constrained by society (White & Haines, 2004). As a result, they experience status frustration and reject mainstream goals. A delinquent subculture is formed as a collective response to these social problems. Individuals ‘invert’ middle class values and therefore engage in negativistic malicious crimes such as vandalism in search for status rather than material success (Bilton et al. 2002; Terpstra, 2006, Fawbert, 2013). This notion is supported by Paul Willis’ study ‘Learning to Labour’ (1981). Walter B. Miller disagrees with Cohen’s view that delinquents value middle class beliefs and invert them by acting out their frustration via negativistic crime. Miller developed the lower-class cultural theory (1958) that focused on gang delinquency and argued that the lower class “has a separate, identifiable culture distinct from the culture of the middle class.” (p.27). He argues that it has its own value system which naturally produces crime, thus a young person who conforms to lower-class values automatically becomes criminal. According to Miller (1958) lower-class culture is characterized by ‘focal concerns’; toughness, smartness, autonomy, excitement, fate and trouble. Therefore, a criminal subculture stands independently from middle-class culture and draws its beliefs and practices from its parent lower class culture (Glick, 2005; Terpstra, 2006).

Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960) criticize Albert Cohen for failing to explain why different types of delinquency take different forms. They argue that all classes share the same societal goals of success and wealth, however, the working class is deprived of gaining these goals. Illegitimate opportunity structures will arise in situations where the cultural goals are still pursued, but legitimate opportunities are lacking. Cloward and Ohlin therefore accept Merton’s view that denied legitimate access to available opportunities results in working class criminality. Cloward and Ohlin stress that “delinquents have withdrawn their support from established norms and have invested officially forbidden norms of conduct with a claim to legitimacy in the light of their special situation” (1960: 19-20). Cloward and Ohlin suggest working class youth will share their own delinquent subcultural values dependent on different environments that provide different opportunities for crime (White & Haines, 2004; Burke, 2005; Glick, 2005, Shildrick, 2006). Cloward and Ohlin (1960) provide three different types of subcultures which are a form or adaptation from the blocked opportunities given by the dominant social order. First is the criminal subculture found in areas with a pre-existing criminal culture whereby prestige is allocated to those who attain material success via illegal means of securing income such as property theft. To succeed within this subculture, one should ‘cultivate appropriate connections…and…promote an apprenticeship …with older and successful offenders’ (1960: 23). Second is the conflict subculture found in areas with high gang warfare and where the aim ‘is to acquire a reputation for toughness and destructive violence’ (1960: 25). The manipulation of violence allows for individuals to gain status and prestige amongst their peers. The third type is retreatist subculture and it involves those that have failed to succeed both legitimately or otherwise; a double failure. Individuals or groups engage in a hedonistic existence and are ‘culturally and socially detached from the life-style and everyday preoccupations of members of the conventional world’ (1960: 25). Alcohol or drug consumption becomes a way of life. All three subcultures are alike in that norms that guide behaviour are opposite to the norms of mainstream society. Cloward and Ohlin accept that these subcultures may sometimes overlap one another but overall their theory shows how working class delinquency is not due to material gain only (Croall, 1998; Newburn, 2007; Fawbert, 2013).

Alternatively, David Matza 1964 argued that subcultural theory was guilty of over-predicting delinquency and ignoring human agency by providing an over deterministic view of human behaviour as influenced by society. Gresham Sykes and David Matza (1957) developed the Delinquency and Drift Theory that rejects subcultural theories and argues that working class youth subcultures form as a way of expressing particular ‘subterranean values’ such as hedonism, adventure, thrill seeking and risk. Skyes and Matza argue that these are shared with mainstream society but expressed in different contexts. Mainstream society expresses these values and deferred gratification during their leisure time, whereas delinquents express these at the wrong time and place. Subcultures are seen to disregard the work ethic and enjoy pleasures that have not been earned through work (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). Further, similar to Cohen’s view, delinquents do not fully reject middle class goals, but regularly use ‘techniques of neutralization’ or ‘deviance disavowal’ to justify their criminal actions (Shields & Whitehall, 1994). One technique is the denial of responsibility such as suggesting that their action was accidental or blame it on their parents. Second is the denial of the victim by suggesting that the victim deserved it. Third is the denial of injury which involves the criminal refuting that their behaviour caused any real harm and was just for fun. Fourth, is condemning the condemners by suggesting that the police are corrupt for example. Lastly, an appeal to higher loyalties whereby other norms other than legal ones are more important and are worth protecting loved ones even if it means perverting the law (White & Haines, 2004; Glick, 2005; Newburn, 2007; Fawbert, 2013).

All in all, Matza and Sykes suggest that norms and values of subculture allow for criminality but do not demand it, particularly from the lower working class. Mainstream values influence criminals, thus subculture of delinquency is loose-knit as only a few members are full time committed and most drift between conformity and deviance (Fawbert, 2013 and Skyes & Matza, 1957; Croall, 1998; Newburn, 2007). On the other hand, Skyes and Matza are criticized by Newburn (2007) and Downes (1966) for denying that there are distinct groups with their own distinctive values. Instead, they suggest that all people share delinquent ‘subcultural’ values.

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The subcultural theories that have been looked at developed in America and were not always relevant to Britain where violent or criminal gangs were rarer. British work on subcultures developed from the work by Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) established by Richard Hoggart in 1964, which criticized American approaches. The CCCS followed a Marxist perspective and focused on subcultures based around particular styles such as teds, rockers, skinheads and so forth. Rather than individual problems of status, the Birmingham school regarded subcultures as a working class young people solution to the problematic societal conditions. They argued that youth may face the double failure of not being able to achieve the goals of their parent culture or dominant culture as each new generation faces its own problems regarding local economic conditions. For example Stan Cohen (1972) suggested that working class youth subcultures in 1960s and 70s Britain developed due to housing and employment changes that affected the working class as a whole. Communities broke down and many traditional jobs disappeared. Thus he argues that ‘the latent function of subcultures is to express and resolve the contradictions unresolved in the parent culture’ (Clarke et al., 1976, Croall, 1998; Young, 2006).

Croall (1998) argues that David Downes (1966) who carried out work on criminal youths in London found that they did not conform to the image suggested by American subcultural theorists, Cohen and Cloward & Ohlin. Instead, delinquent activities were seen as fun mostly by youth with poor education and they did not display frustration at their lack of success. Rather than being opposed to mainstream values they were ‘dissociated’ from middle class values within school or work settings. These youths formed a subculture where delinquent activities were an appealing solution to a leisure problem that simply occurred in their social circumstances. This is because they could not participate in middle class leisure pursuits (Glick, 2005, Muncie, 2009). In addition to this, Downes also argues that Matza’s model under predicted delinquency.

It appears as though crime is a working class male phenomenon, but this may be because of bourgeois assumptions about criminality. Crime statistics are measured in a positivist way and have shown that the lower working class have a greater tendency to commit crime. Moreover, it is the powerful class that puts pressure on the police and the criminal justice system to create a culture that serves their interest and not attract the label of criminality. One problem with subcultural theories as a whole is that they tend to ignore certain aspects linked to culture such as gender and ethnicity as well as the conflicts between dominant and subordinate groups. In addition to this, Heidensohn also criticizes subcultural theories for determinism, selectivity, conformity and anomie (Fulcher & Scott, 2003; Young, 2006; Newburn, 2007). Other points to consider include the effect of labeling individuals as delinquent which may result in a process of self-fulfilling prophecy. One example of this is Jock Young’s study (1971) which found that 1960s hippie marijuana users, who took drugs as a social activity, developed a subculture that valued drug consumption only after they were labeled and targeted by the police. Regarding the mass media, moral panics are created through the amplified exposure of negative images of subcultures. These too exaggerate the activities of subculture and further reinforce dominant values and beliefs. Nevertheless, these theories have taken away the blame on the individual, as provided by classical theories of crime, and shifted it to social structures. Merton emphasized the strain between goals and means and the way criminal means would be used to attain goals where legitimate means such as education are lacking. Subcultural approaches by Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin, acknowledged the formation of subcultures as a response to a lack of status and opportunities supplied by cultural goals (White & Haines, 2004; Clarke et al, 2006).


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