Critically Examine the Subcultural Approach to Crime and Deviance - Sociology Essay Example

Subcultural theories share the common belief that people who commit crime usually share different values from the mass of law-abiding members of society - Critically Examine the Subcultural Approach to Crime and Deviance introduction. However, crime committing people do not live in complete opposition to mainstream values; rather they have ‘amended’ certain values so that this justifies criminal behaviour.

As a way of structuring this particular discussion of sub-cultural theories, it is useful to distinguish between two main types of sub-culture; Reactive and Independent. A “reactive sub-culture” is one in which the members of a particular sub-cultural group develop norms and values that are both a response to and opposition against the prevailing norms and values that exist in a predominantly middle-class or conventional culture. In this respect, this form of sub-culture is sometimes called “oppositional” rather than reactive.


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Durkheim claimed that a state of anomie was occurring in modern society, where norms and values within society were becoming confused thus people do not know what to expect from one another which leads to deviant behaviour.

Robert Merton adopted Durkheim’s basic Functionalist position in relation to law and crime and refined the concept of anomie as a means of attempting to understand the conformity and non-conformity to social rules at the level of individual / group behaviour.

A study made in the context of reactive / oppositional sub-cultures is one in which a link to the work of Merton is made; In this respect, Merton altered the general focus of Durkheim’s use of the concept of anomie, changing it from a condition whereby a state of true normlessness existed, to one in which individuals could experience anomie if they were unable to follow the dominant norms in any society. In this sense, Merton is arguing that individuals can experience anomie not because normative guide-lines do not exist, but rather because they are unable (or unwilling) to behave in ways that conform to such norms.

In his work, Merton explored the idea that, in American society, there existed a lack of fit between the socially-produced goals for people’s behaviour and the means through which they could achieve these desirable ends. In effect, what Merton was arguing was: People were encouraged, through the socialisation process, to want certain things out of life. In simple terms, they were socialised into the “American Dream” of health, wealth, personal happiness and so forth. And secondly that American society was so structured as to effectively ensure that the vast majority of people could never realistically attain these goals – the means that American society provided – such as hard work – were simply not sufficient enough to ensure that everyone could obtain the desirable goals they were socialised to want.

In this respect, whilst American society placed a high social value upon “success” in all its forms, the means to gaining legitimate success were effectively closed to all but a few – the vast majority of people would never achieve such goals by working…

As Merton argued, if people are socialised into both wanting success and needing to be successful by working – yet they are effectively denied that success through such means, strains develop in the normative structure of society.

On the one hand, you have people being socialised into actively desiring success and on the other, you have a large number of potentially very unhappy people when they discover that the supposed means to such success do not deliver the goods.

In such a situation, anomie occurs because there is a tension between what people have been socialised to desire and what they are able to achieve through legitimate means. Merton argued that the disjunction between wanting “success” and the relative lack of legitimate opportunity for success did not mean that people simply gave-up wanting to be successful. This was not possible because the whole thrust of their socialisation was geared towards the value of success. In a situation whereby people desired success – yet were effectively denied it – he argued that people would find other, probably less legitimate, means towards desired ends. Merton’s argument does two significant things, sociologically:

It provides a theoretical reason to explain why people conform / deviate (the concept of anomie and the idea that social strains push people into different forms of behavioural response to anomie). And secondly it outlines a number of different types of potential deviance, based around the particular experience that the individual has of the social world.

Merton argues that different social classes, social groups, sub-cultural groups etc. socialise their members in slightly different ways, depending upon their particular social circumstances. Whilst he does not explore this idea in any great depth, a classic distinction between working-class and middle class socialisation is made.

Merton saw the working classes as being heavily involved in criminal behaviour and this observation was confirmed by Official Statistics about crime. The reason for this, he suggested, was that the socialisation of this group tends to be less rigid in relation to their acceptance of – and conformity to – conventional means of gaining desired ends. In this sense, the socialisation process acts a sub-cultural channel for deviant behaviour whereby the individual is socialised into deviant norms, which increases / decreases the likelihood of different forms of adaptation to social strains (anomie).

In the above respect, the second study that usefully considers the context of reactive / oppositional sub-cultures is one in which an explicit link to Mertons’ theories is made. In his book “Delinquent Boys”, Albert Cohen was particularly concerned to explain two main ideas: Firstly, the predominance of young males in statistics relating to criminal / delinquent behaviour and Secondly, the cause of “non-economic” forms of crime (crimes of violence, sexual crimes, hooliganism etc.), that Merton, for example, did not attempt to confront in his elaboration of strain theory.

Cohen’s work in relation to sub-cultural theory can be said to have a characteristic idea, “status deprivation”. Cohen argued, that “status” was a desirable, valued, social commodity However, for certain groups of people, status was unachievable to them because they lacked the means to achieve socially-approved forms of status like educational achievement and high-status work. In particular, Cohen argued that young, working-class, males were effectively denied the opportunity to achieve status because:

a. They invariably failed in the education system.

b. This failure lead to eventual failure at work, insofar as they moved into low-skill, low-pay jobs after finishing their education.

This seems to contradict Merton’s claim that social order is based upon a number of fundamental, shared, values. In this respect, Cohen argued, it didn’t really matter what specific form status took (for example, whether it was approved by authority or, as was usually the case, disapproved of by those in authority); what mattered was that an alternative social setting was created whereby young, working-class, males could define status on their own (group) terms. In conclusion to Cohen’s argument:

1. Delinquent sub-cultures arise as a response to status denial. If status is not denied, such sub-cultures do not arise. In this respect, the “solution” to the behaviour of delinquent boys would have to address structural problems relating to the organisation of education, work and so forth, rather than focus upon “abnormalities” in the psychology, cultural background or whatever of the delinquents themselves.

2. Delinquent sub-cultures have two main functions: The “personal” where they represent an alternative social setting for status achievement. And The “social or collective”: where they provide a means for both “coping” with and “getting back at” society (as represented by those in authority).

3. Although Cohen’s work was carried-out in the 1950’s in America, more recent studies have tended to demonstrate much the same sub-cultural forms of response amongst working class boys in Britain.

However, the response to this is that the working classes, by definition, are the least successful members of any society. They are the class to whom conventional means to success have least meaning. In this respect, the experience of working class adults (the fact of their failure by following conventional means) leads them to socialise their children in ways that will give them the greatest possible advantage in their adult lives (the greatest possible chance of achieving desired ends) – and this means adopting illegitimate / deviant means.

This form of sub-cultural response involves the presence of three main conditions:

a. A stable, cohesive, working class community: In this respect, the potential criminal will be able to develop contacts within both the mainstream working class culture and the criminal sub-culture (for example, stolen goods can be easily distributed through a wider mainstream culture that doesn’t ask too many questions…).

b. Successful role models: In this sense, there needs to be people of standing in the community who have “done well” out of crime. The young criminal can begin to model themselves upon such people – they represent tangible evidence of the fact that crime does pay and that crime is a potential route out of poverty, deprivation, low social status and so forth.

c. A career structure for aspiring criminals: The importance of a stable community within which criminal enterprises can develop and flourish is significant here, since if a criminal sub-culture is to develop as a form of “illegitimate opportunity structure” it has to be organised in some way. In effect, it has to provide people with the opportunity for advancement (“promotion”) as an alternative to the legitimate job market, for example.

2. Conflict Sub-cultures: Where this form of stable, working class, community / criminal sub-culture doesn’t exist, Cloward and Ohlin suggest that a second form of sub-cultural response is possible. Young males in particular, denied financial rewards, status and so forth in the legitimate job market and unable to join a criminal sub-culture responds by forming gangs, for example. This form of sub-cultural response tends to be highly-organised around specific criminal objectives (drug-dealing being an obvious example).

3. Retreatist sub-cultures: Finally, for those who fail in both the legitimate and illegitimate job markets , the only further option, according to Cloward and Ohlin, is a retreat into drug-abuse, alcoholism and so forth (with all its attendant forms of petty criminality).

Cloward and Ohlin’s form of sub-cultural theorising does have some merit and is similar to the work of Merton. It locates criminal behaviour within some form of organisational framework that is created and conditioned by people’s experiences of – and within – the social world. In this respect, criminal behaviour is seen to be a rational response to various forms of deprivation (physical, emotional and so forth), rather than simply seeing criminals as isolated, “evil”, people who behave in a motiveless, destructive, fashion. It also goes some way towards an explanation as to why people develop different forms of deviant behaviour and identity.

However, there are also clear problems involved with this particular type of sub-cultural theory:

1. It assumes that everyone has the same basic goals in life (a fairly standard form of Functionalist assumption).

2. It doesn’t really allow for the idea that people may have a variety of goals in life, some of which they manage to achieve and others which they fail to achieve. A major problem with this form of analysis is that it doesn’t adequately theorise the role of ideology in the creation of goals (and its place as a means of rationalising personal failure).

3. A much more damning criticism, however, is the question of whether or not “criminal sub-cultures” actually exist outside of mass media fantasies (the “Only Fools and Horses” scenario). In Britain, for example, little evidence has been found to support the ideas that:

a. Criminal sub-cultures exist.

b. That they are founded within and supported by some form of stable, working class, community / culture.

4. And finally, in relation to “retreatist sub-cultures”, it is important to recognise that “drug-abuse” takes many forms – ranging from the relatively communal use of drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy and the like, to the rather-more individualistic use of drugs such as heroin. In this respect, it’s by no-means clear that drug-abusers, alcoholics and so forth are necessarily marginalised within society – alcoholism, for example, may take many forms ranging from the classic “down-and-out” alcoholic to the businessman who simply drinks as an extension of their working / social life.

In this form of sub-cultural grouping the members of the group are held to adopt a set of norms and values which are effectively “self-contained” and specific to the group. Where these values, in particular, differ from those of the wider culture within which the sub-culture exists, they may not necessarily be in opposition to such values. However, what such sub-cultural values represent is an “independent” product of – and solution to – the problems faced by people in their everyday lives.

An example of this type of argument is provided by Walter Miller in his article “Lower Class Cultures as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency”, 1962. As the title suggests, Miller rejects the idea that delinquent sub-cultures arise as some kind of “reaction” to the pervasive, dominating, influence of “middle class value systems”.

In its place, Miller argues that we should see delinquent sub-cultures as an independent cultural phenomenon that develops as an extension of lower – or working class – culture (as an American, Miller tends to use the term “lower class” rather than “working class”).

Miller basically says two things: Firstly, that it is possible to identify at least two distinct cultural groups; middle class and lower class. Each has its own distinctive set of basic values, beliefs, norms of behaviour and so forth, although it is evident that there must be some correspondence between the two – although what this might be is not specified. Secondly, that lower class culture has certain values which do not exist within middle class culture. These he identifies as a number of “focal concerns” and it is from these that Miller argues the distinctive behaviour of lower class boys can be explained.

Miller identifies six “focal concerns” of lower class culture and by looking at each in turn it should be possible to see how they may be applied to the study of delinquent behaviour.

1. Trouble: Lower class life tends to involve individual acts of violence. The lower class boy, therefore, quickly learns to identify “trouble” and how to handle it.

2. Toughness: The ability to handle “trouble” (perhaps to see violence as a means of resolving problems) clearly requires the need for toughness – the ability to “take care” of both yourself and your mates. Miller argues that the everyday experience of trouble and the need to exhibit toughness in your dealings with people is a basic characteristic of the lower class male experience.

3. Smartness: The ability to “look good” (especially on a night out) is a significant component of self-identity – if you look good then you feel good. There are perhaps two further aspects to this meaning of smartness:

a. It represents a way of impressing people (especially women).

b. It can be used as an exaggerated form of mockery in relation to middle class cultural values. The “Teddy Boy” phenomenon in Britain in the late 1950’s, for example, involved the adoption, by working class boys, of an exaggerated, deliberately distorted, code of dress that reflected middle class norms and, by so doing, mocked such norms.

4. Excitement: The idea of “having fun” is significant mainly because Miller argued that, through their working lives lower class males were effectively denied much sense of self-expression. Only through their leisure activities could life become pleasurable, hence the emphasis by lower class males on “having a good time”.

Whilst in conclusion all of these theories on subculture approaches towards crime and deviance provide some kinds of explanation, there are a number of reasons for not viewing them as particularly convincing: They tend to assumes that people share similar ends. They see the socialisation process as being the crucial variable in relation to conformity / deviance and the particular form that an individual’s deviation takes. There is, for example, little or no sense of the deviant making a conscious choice. Or they assume that the social reality portrayed through Official Statistics on crime is a valid one in relation to criminals / non-criminals:

It’s by no-means a clear-cut distinction that can be made between, on the one hand, criminals and, on the other, non-criminals.

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