Subcultural strain theory

Subcultural strain theories

Cohen focuses on the deviants among working-class boys. He found that the educational system is extremely middle-class. Take English Literature for example, do you remember those times when teachers would be talking about different books they have read like David Copperfield and Great Expectations? Do you also remember how teachers expected you to have read these types of books? For those of us that have been privileged to have access to these books, we manage on all right but there are also people who are culturally and materially deprived and haven’t been given opportunities to access the type of reading. This is what Cohen means when he says the working class are in a middle-class dominated school system. The deprivation felt by working-class poor is gives them a very low status within education and because of the importance of education in the real world, their low status transfers into wider society. When this happens Cohen argues that it creates status frustration. The boys will reject mainstream middle-class values by forming or joining a delinquent subculture.

Status frustration = it is when you are frustrated with your current status whether it is your fault or the fault of others

The values of the subculture would be an inversion (the complete opposite) of mainstream values. So bad was good; good was bad. The boys would have made an illegitimate opportunity structure in which the boys’ status within the group can be improved by delinquent actions. Think of when a group of friends dare you to do a naughty thing and if you do it you are seen as brave but if you don’t you’re a coward.

Small critique: like Merton, Cohen assumes that working class people all strive for middle-class success goals – some don’t really care.

Cloward and Ohlin: three subcultures

Cloward and Ohlin agree with Cohen that when people face strain they can turn to subcultures as a way of responding to it, but Cloward and Ohlin try to explain why different subcultures respond to strain in different ways. They argue that it is not just unequal opportunities in a legitimate society but unequal opportunities to enter an illegitimate subculture. Depending on the neighbourhood you went to, there were different opportunities to start a criminal career. This created three deviants cultures:

The criminal subculture – this occurs in neighbourhoods that have a long-standing and stable criminal culture with a hierarchy of professional adult crime where young people can become apprentices for a career in utilitarian crime. A very good example is the Italian mafia. (I strongly suggest readers watch the Godfather and/or this video on the Gambino Family)

The conflict subculture – when there are a lot of people in an area it is hard for stable, professional criminal career networks to develop so all that is left on loosely organised gangs. They used violence to release their status frustration and improve peer status by winning or protecting turf from rival gangs. Think of the postcode wars in England and street wars in America.

The retreatist subculture – members of the subculture have failed in trying to achieve their goals legitimately but have also failed at trying to have an illegitimate career. Therefore they “dropout” society and become alcohol abusers, drug abusers, vagabonds…

Durkheim and his theory on crime

Durkheim argues that crime is inevitable for two main reasons:

  1. Everyone is socialised differently and some people may not be effectively socialised. Poor socialisation means that they do not accept the shared norms and values of mainstream society which can make them deviant.
  2. Modern society is also very complex, and especially large cities, there are many people with many different cultures and lifestyles in a concentrated area. This causes the formation of subcultures and the subcultures may have norms and values that do not agree with the norms of mainstream society. For example, in some African cultures it is acceptable to eat with hands but if an African was residing in Europe, mainstream European society may see this as deviant.

Durkheim also believes that there tends to be anomie (normlessness) in modern society caused by the special division of labour. Everyone does their own thing and that leads to a weakened social solidarity and value consensus and Durkheim believes this leads to high levels of crime and deviance.

The functions of crime

It is common belief that Functionalists would argue that crime is bad for society because it can lead to the breakdown of it. Imagine a society where everyone ran by their own rules and there was no control whatsoever. However Durkheim shows that, yes, to much crime is bad but too little crime is also bad for society. He highlights the two functions of crime within any society:

  1. Boundary maintenance – the whole purpose of the law and justice system is to “dramatise evil” in order to act as a warning to the law-abiding citizens. Do you remember the huge media frenzy about Anders Breivik? He was so big thatthey had to make a special court just for him! It’s aim is to reaffirm the good values within them which increases social solidarity.
  2. Adaption and change – when individuals challenge or go against the norms of their society, at first they are seen as deviants. However challenging the norms of a society is what allows it to adapt and grow so that society can meet the functions of its members. Think of the Suffragettes who challenged patriarchy in order to create society that was in support of women. If society is very controlling then it does not allow this adaption to occur causing it to stagnate. A good example is China which is very oppressive towards anyone that challenges its ideologies and beliefs.

Other functions of crime

  • Davis and Polsky – crime such as prostitution and pornography protected nuclear family as it provides a safe way to release sexual frustrations and desires (assuming neither partner gets caught…)
  • Cohen – crime is a warning for when lead institution is failing. For example, a rise in truancy may be warning that the education system is not meeting the needs of all its members
  • Erikson – the role of agencies such as the police and courts is to maintain a certain level of crime rather than rid crime completely. They also manage and regulate deviants rather than prevent it. For example, young people’s crime may go unpunished as it may be a way of dealing with the transition to adulthood. (A great excuse…)


  • Durkheim doesn’t state which level of crime is the right amount
  • Just because crime has a function in society does not necessarily mean that society is deliberately creating crime in order for the functions of it to be prevalent.
  • It doesn’t focus on how crime affects individuals or groups in society
  • It also doesn’t recognise that crime can weaken solidarity and increase isolation – most women stay in at night due to the fear of rape.

Merton: Strain theory

Merton is a functionalist and a study of the American dream led to the creation of strain theory. Merton argues that the American dream is solely based on monetary success and the belief that the American society is meritocratic – if you work hard enough you can all be successful and rich. However Merton argues that society is not like that in reality, factors such as age; ethnicity; sexuality and class can put people at a disadvantage in society. Here he highlights the basis of strain theory:

“Strain occurs when there is a gap between the goals society encourages and how this can be achieved legitimately”.

For example, in society encourages everyone to have a car and a home with a white picket fence but discrimination society means only those of the white upper-middle-class can achieve this, the disadvantaged group will then turn to crime to reach the goal.

The characteristic of the American dream that Merton discovered was that it laid more emphasis on becoming successful then doing so legitimately. It was more important that you played the game rather than playing it by the rules. This led to a rise in utilitarian (practical) crimes such as fraud and theft and Merton refers to this as the strain to anomie.

Responses to strain

Merton realises that not everyone in society will respond strain in the same way. He argues that a person’s social position can affect the way they respond to strain. Merton has identified five reactions to strain in society:

  1. Conformity – members of this group will accept the goals of society and the need to do so legitimately. This is more likely to occur in the upper classes but it’s typical of most Americans.
  2. Innovators – they accept the goal of society but have created “new” illegitimate ways of achieving these goals. More likely to occur within the lower classes or any disadvantaged group within society
  3. Ritualism – members of this group have rejected the goals of society but have accepted the need for legitimate behaviour. Think of people who are in dead-end jobs. They work because it’s the right thing to do but they have no aspirations.
  4. Retreatism – these people have completely rejected because the society and its legitimate behaviour and they, in effect, dropout from society. Examples of this are chronic drunks, tramps, drug addicts, vagabonds etc
  5. Rebels – rebels reject the goals society because they want to replace them with new ones. They want to cause a revolution and create a better society for all. A good example would be hippies or eco-warriors.

Criticisms of Merton

  • This video is a really good critique of the American Dream the theory’s based on: TYT;
  • He takes official statistics on crime at face value. These stats are biased and present a working-class phenomenon of crime but it may simply be the fact that upper-class crime is not easily discovered rather than in not existing.
  • Merton can only explain utilitarian crimes such as fraud and theft that obviously help to improve one’s monetary status, but it does not explain state crimes such as genocide or smaller scale crimes such as rape and GBH.
  • His theories also to deterministic – not everyone will respond as he said
  • It ignores the power of the ruling class to criminalise the poor
  • And it assumes that everyone believes in this value consensus of shared goals but some may reject it and therefore feel no strain