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A2 Unit 2 - Crime and Deviance

3) Subcultural Theories

Subcultural theories build upon the work of Merton. They say that deviance is the result of individuals conforming to the values and norms of a social group to which they belong, if you belong to a social group whose norms differ from those of the main society then you will become a deviant.

Cohen said lower-working-class boys want to achieve the success which is valued by mainstream culture. But due to educational failure and the dead-end jobs that result from this they have little chance of achieving these goals. This results in status frustration, the boys are at the bottom of the social structure and have little chance of gaining a higher status in society. This is similar to Merton’s theory, however Cohen said that instead of turning to crime as Merton said, they reject the norms and values of mainstream society and instead turn to the norms and values of a delinquent subculture. In this subculture the boys can achieve success because the social group has different norms and values from the rest of society. So in this culture a high value is placed upon criminal acts such as stealing and vandalism which are condemned by mainstream society.

In these subcultures the individual who lacked respect in mainstream society can gain it by committing crimes such as vandalism and truancy. Because the crimes reward the individual with respect there is not always the need for a monetary value to commit a crime, so the subcultural perspective explains why people commit non-utilitarian crimes.

Cloward and Ohlin developed Cohen’s theory. They said that there are three different types of subcultures that young people might enter into; criminal subcultures, conflict subcultures and retreatist subcultures.

Criminal subcultures tend to emerge in areas where there is a lot of organised adult crime, here there are criminal role models for young people, and they learn how to commit criminal acts. In these subcultures the young people can climb up the professional criminal ladder by committing more crimes. These subcultures are normally concerned with utilitarian crimes, which yield financial reward.

Conflict subcultures tend to emerge in areas where there is little organised adult crime, so instead of learning how to commit serious monetary crimes the young people instead focus on gaining respect through gang violence.

Retreatist subcultures are for young people who have even failed in the criminal subcultures, these people are ‘double failures’. They tend to retreat to drugs and alcohol abuse to deal with the fact that they have been rejected from other subcultures.

Walter B. Miller said that a deviant subculture doesn’t arise from the inability of the members to achieve success; instead he said that crime is a result of the fact that there is a lower-class subculture with different norms and values to the rest of society. He said these different values mean that for members of this culture there are a number of concerns and things people want to achieve, he called these focal concerns and they include:

Toughness – Miller said that people within the lower-class subculture value toughness as an important trait; however this can manifest itself in assault and violence.

Smartness – This culture also value the ability to outfox each other. This will often lead to people trying to con, pickpocket or steal from each other in ‘clever’ ways.

Excitement – This culture constantly searches for excitement and thrills. This often means gambling, alcohol and sexual adventures.

Miller said this mix of ‘focal concerns’ can lead to a culture which accepts crime and deviance as normal.

David Matza said that delinquents aren’t actually in opposition to society’s norms and values. He said that society has a strong moral hold on them and this prevents them from engaging in delinquent activities for most of the time, he said that the fact that these people often show remorse for their actions later in life support this view. Instead he said these young delinquents are involved in crime only occasionally as part-time law breakers.

Matza said that delinquents convince themselves they are not breaking the law, and this allows them to commit crimes whilst still accepting society’s norms and values. However, Matza said that within mainstream societies values there are ‘subterranean values’ which promote the ideas of acting in the spur of the moment for excitement and thrills. Although the subterranean values are within mainstream societies set of values, they could encourage behaviour which breaks the law and are then seen by mainstream society as criminal or deviant.

Through this theory of ‘delinquency drift’ Matza explains how he thinks young people within a subculture can break the values of society without really recognising that they are doing so, and then later in life drift back into mainstream society as these subterranean values become less important to the individual.


About Sam Cook

A blog set up to help A Level students revise Sociology


2 thoughts on “3) Subcultural Theories

  1. Thank you for your work. 🙂

    Posted by Great North | February 1, 2017, 3:29 pm


  1. Pingback: Subcultures – lockieduffy - April 5, 2017

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