Assess the usefulness of subcultural theories in understanding of crime and deviance - Sociology Essay Example

Subcultural theorists argue that delinquents commit deviant acts because they see the world from a different point of view, thus portraying there is something ‘wrong’ with them - Assess the usefulness of subcultural theories in understanding of crime and deviance introduction. It has been argues that delinquents have a ‘distinct set of values’ which shape the way they act, these distinct values within the main society is known as a subculture. Cohen (1955) set out to explain why most deviant acts such as graffiti or vandalism are not motivated by economic rewards.

Cohen concluded that these delinquents felt they had low status among the community and searched for ways to improve their status, this suggestion can be supported by the fact that most delinquents are low educational performers living in deprived areas. The effects of school can be clearly linked to delinquency – high performers receive rewards for their good acts whereas low performers gain no recognition and therefore feel worthless, Willis’ study (learning to labour) of schoolboys shows how fatalistic children carry on their poor behaviour outside of the school, thus affecting their out of school activities.


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With this fatalistic approach the delinquents brand themselves as failures and develop a subculture of their own values. Cohen suggests that for these lower class boys subcultures have two functions, 1. To create an alternative set of values that they can measure their behaviour and compete for status among their peers, and 2. As a means of rebelling and striking back at society. Theft and vandalism can be seen as a way of revenge on society. An important factor in Cohen’s theory is that he argues delinquents are no different from the average adolescent they are only trying to gain status.

It has been suggested that youths turn to deviant acts when society does not provide enough opportunities to attain socially approved goals (Merton) however this view has been criticised by Cloward and Ohlin for ignoring the influence of ‘illegitimate opportunity structure’ which operates on three levels, the first of these being the ‘criminal subculture’, this exists when there is a stable, cohesive working class community with contacts in both the legal and illegal community, where there are successful role models (people who have done well through crime) This type of community allows a career structure allowing movement by age group and through career grades.

The second subculture put forward by Cloward and Ohlin is the ‘conflict subculture’ this is used to explain the frustration of males where there are no careers in crime available and therefore turn to crime, this is the cause of the gang welfare present in slum areas in America. The final level of the opportunity structure is the ‘retreatist subculture’ this is made of double failures who have no success through crime or violence so in turn take drugs or alcohol, to feed these addictions they commit petty crimes. Although this theory considers the emergence of both legal and illegal structures, it still assumes (like Merton) that financial success is what drives the delinquents, another criticism is that the forms of subcultures explained in the this theory do not appear to exist in Britain.

Unlike sociologists like Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin who suggest that crimes in a result of distinctive subcultures. Miller (1962) spoke of six focal concerns of the working class culture that can lead males into crime. Miller argues that crime is an extension of normal working call values not a set of alternative values. The concerns consist of Trouble (people accept life involves violence and so do not run away from fights), Toughness (males expressing ‘manliness’ such as drinking, sport etc), Smartness (‘looking good’ and being ‘sharp’), Excitement (men on the lookout for fun), Fate (believe little can be done about their lives), Autonomy (do not wish to be ‘pushed around’ so resent authority such as the police or a boss)

The ideas of Miller are expressed in Parker’s study ‘View from the boys’ it shows adolescents in Liverpool on a night out were not looking for trouble but should anyone hint they are not manly a fight may well follow. On the nights out the boys attempted to pick up girls often on how they look (smartness). When the boys go out they are wanting to have fun (excitement) but do not know what will happen when they leave their house (fate) but do not wish to be pushed around by bouncers or the police (autonomy). However studies such as Parker’s stress that these values are only found within working class males whereas this may not be case. Research in Britain, however, as found that the factors influencing crime only stress how ordinary delinquents are.

Matza (1964) claimed that delinquents do not posses distinct values neither are they propelled by subcultural forces strong than themselves. Instead he argued delinquents are similar to everyone else in a sense that they hold the same values as the rest of society and show remorse for their acts. Matza pointed out that we all have two levels of values. The values that guide us most of the time (respectable, conventional ones) in which we play the good roles of daughter, teacher etc and the underlying values of sexuality, greed and aggressiveness (subterranean values). Matza’s argument is that delinquents are simply more lily to behave according to subterranean values in inappropriate situations.

The suggestion that delinquents have the same values of everyone else makes it hard to understand why they commit the crimes in the first place. Matza explains this by suggesting they justify their crimes as a one off and make justifications of neutralisation that explain why the general rule can be broken. The final part of Matza’s explanation is ‘drift’. This suggests that youth is a period of ‘no mans land’ leaving youths feeling that they lack any control over their own lives and they long to gain power. This drift period loosens the adolescent from the constraining bonds of society and therefore turns to deviant acts within a peer group.

A heavy criticism of Matza’s theory is that it fails to recognise crime beyond the male working class youth. Although most subcultural studies have been conducted in the USA attempts have been made to apply theories to Britain. Mays work stresses the power of family and peers in socialising adolescents into deviant acts, yet few studies have backed up Mays ideas. A study of working class males in London was conducted by Willmott (1966), he found two explanations for delinquency in working class. The first of these is that were on the look out for fun in their boring lives, this led to law-breaking acts yet rarely planned or motivated by economic reward.

The second, was the fact that working class youths hanging around on street corners were more visible to police than middle-class youths, their activities came into attention simply because they were being observed by the police. Another study within Britain was conducted by Downes who brought about the idea of dissociation. He found within working class people did not hope for or receive satisfaction from their employment, yet neither did they hold resentment about their low school status. Downes used the term ‘leisure values’ which were similar to ideas of Matza’s subterranean values. The youths in this study tended to focus more on their leisure values than middles class youths.

Studies by Patrick and Parker showed how the subcultural theory could be split into positivistic and Marxist strands. Patrick’s ‘Glasgow gang’ study gave an in depth inside perspective of why people commit crime. By using covert observation Patrick was able to find a presence of tightly organised gangs formed around a strong psychotic leader. Whereas Parker’s study suggested that a structural Marxist analysis was needed to understand the situation and views that lead youths to boys. Many Subcultural studies have followed a positivist approach, studies which adopted this approach found that no one single variable that is the cause of crime but a number of ‘shifting’ variables differed within each individual, this became known as the multi-casual approach.

A study by West and Farrington found five factors as possible sources of delinquency, these are low family income, large family size, comparatively low intelligence, having a parent with a criminal record or having parents considered to be unsatisfactory in rearing children. Youths who are subject to these conditions are likely to commit a number of deviant acts. It has been suggested that it is far more beneficial for children to come from a bad family living in a good neighbourhood rather than a good family in a poor neighbourhood, this can be used to criticise the findings of West and Farrington by suggesting the environment is much more influential than the youths family.

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