Sociology of Deviance: Classic Subcultural Theories



These theorists also saw deviancy as primarily a sociological matter, explaining different variations within a culture/social framework - as a kind of examination of problems surrounding individuality. This is one early attempt to pursue an account based on Merton's functionalism which explains deviancy - and lots else - as a result of permanent disjunction between culture and structure in modern societies. This approach faces similar theoretical problems - deviancy as a way of life to be explained (see Downes and Rock 1988).

The background lies in social policy again, in the US context.  It was clear that youth, juvenile delinquency, in US cities at least had become a definite way of life.  Such youths were not anomic as such, lacking cultural norms, but had a culture of their own.  Deviancy was still seen as a normal response - but it arose because youths were fully socialised into a deviant sub-culture.  In many ways, this goes against Merton's work on anomie. There was a different emphasis to Merton, an intention to explain juvenile delinquency rather than professional crime -- and this led to seeing juvenile delinquency NOT as a result of people sharing the goals of  the wider culture while lacking the institutional means to achieve them.  Indeed delinquent goals were the very opposite of shared ‘normal’ goals, an inversion of official values -- hence Cohen's famed characterisation of the values of juvenile delinquency subculture as negative, malicious, fun-oriented, random.  In other ways, though, as Downes (1966) argues very neatly, Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin are still linked to Merton and notions of dominant culture:

(a) They still see such deviancy as response to "strain" - a peculiar response to be sure, one not predicted necessarily by Merton
(b) Subculture itself is actually a tricky notion which  implies all sorts of arguments about cultures too - subcultures operate against background of aspects of mainstream culture. Juvenile culture is mediated through parental culture (largely a class matter for Cohen), and some aspects of this parental culture were preserved (e.g. toughness, street-wisdom), while others were negated,  inverted, reversed - an element of choice. (Why and how all this happens is an issue leading to a Marxist variant too -- the 'double articulation' of youth and class in Hall and Jefferson 1976).  The ‘classic’ variants here are NOT really so very far away from Merton and functionalism, for Downes.  Finally, Downes notes, subcultures vary according to the tightness of boundary around the group - Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin were largely interested in gangs with tight structure, like fighting gangs of New York, while others have used the term ‘subculture’ to refer to much looser groups, recreational, occupational, semi-deviant ones, as we'll see (eg in CCCS work).

Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin compared -- from Downes (1966)

Cohen A
Cloward and Ohlin
Delinquent subculture as a 'way of life', a 'parent subculture with variant sub-subcultures
3 distinct delinquent subcultures --  retreatist, conflict and criminal. Virtually the same as Cohen's 'variants'
'Strain'  arises from middle-class standards applied to the working class. Results in 'status-frustration' ( hence characteristics of negativity, maliciousness etc)
Anomie as in Merton produces 'differential opportunities' for BOTH legitimate and illegitimate means (not everyone is accepted into criminal or conflict subcultures, for example)
'Reaction-formation' explains delinquents' response to dominant culture
Alienation prevents guilt -- instead, social order and a perception of its hypocrisy are blamed
Both agree:
(i) Delinquent subcultures are largely a feature of working-class male urban adolescents (in American terms, of course).
(ii) There are delinquent norms and values etc. to which members of subcultures are committed.
(iii) There are non-deliquent subcultural alternatives - e.g. for working class kids 'college-boy' and 'stable corner-boy' alternatives.
(iv) Official statistics can be used as reliable indicators of delinquency -- (both argue why this is so)
(v) Both operate with loose definitions of 'culture', 'sub-culture' and 'contra-culture').

Elaboration of the arguments

1. Cohen says the parent subculture is a working class one (based on earlier work by Miller etc who argued delinquency as nothing but working class values).  Cohen says some values are retained, e.g. short term hedonism, but others are inverted e.g. altrusism etc.  This gives three sub-variants - conflict, addiction, professional theft and many other "near-groups". Cloward’s and Ohlin’s variants are structured according to available opportunities for criminal development. This structure of opportunities is  itself a product of neighbourhood organisation etc. - available opportunities for professional theft lead to criminal variants, other social opportunities lead to conflict variants etc. Those who are doubly rejected or doubly denied (both normal and deviant opportunities), become retreatists.

2. The formative mechanisms are different.

  1. ‘Status strain’ is the main one for Cohen: his version is very like Merton's only about the compromised status of youths specifically, with less emphasis on the (lack of ) monetary success which strains adults. School values are especially important because status is tied to education for US kids especially. Cohen develops an early closure theory - schools take in all pupils, but measure them using a ‘middle class measuring rod’.  This leads to frustration and a defensive reaction - formation. 
  2. For Cloward and Ohlin, official status is NOT necessarily desired by all youths. Some have their own types of working class aspirations including just acquiring money - an instrumentalism (perhaps like British affluent workers or Willis's lads?). This type of aspiration leads to alienation from school and this can turn into despair when youths come to leave school and experience the frustration of the job market -- delinquent solutions can then become available. Finally, for Cloward and Ohlin subcultures are also NOT needed to assuage guilt - instead they suggest that deviants cope via what looks rather like the symbolic interactionist concept of ‘career’ ( or what Matza was to call 'drift') -- undergoing a gradual severance of ties with straight society and a gradual absorption into subculture. This process is often aided by the obvious social hypocrisy of normal society.

Downes D (1966) The Delinquent Solution; a study in subcultural theory, London