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…


Marxists believe that society is based on capitalism and the class conflict between the bourgeoisie (ruling class) and the proletariat (working class). The working class own the means of production – land, factories, machinary etc – but they need a labour force. This labour force comes from the proletariat. Now, the bourgeoisie are all about profit and Marxists believe the actions of the bourgeoisie are done to maintain or increase their profit levels. So when they hire workers  they will not give them a wage that is equal to what the proletariat’s labour is worth. In other words, if a worker’s labour is worth £500 a week, then their wage may only be £300 a week – the bourgeoisie exploit the labour of the proletariat. You are probably thinking: why do the workers let this happen? To put it simply, they may feel they have no other choice or even be aware that they are being exploited.

You see, capitalism has been able to sustain itself for so long despite the disadvantage  it has on the proletariat because it makes you believe you need it. It creates a consumer fetish. It tricks workers into believing that they need that fancy car or that new iPhone or those purple Converses. I mean, look at this advert for Iceland… It also has the ability to make people numb or unaware to thee negative effect of capitalism. Thousands – if not millions – of people will religiously watch Eastenders or Glee (me!) but all this does is keep our minds on trivial things so that we are less likely to really look at society and question capitalism – we are coerced.

And that is Marxism in a nutshell but here are a couple of key facts to sum up:

  1. It’s a structural theory –  it believes we are shaped and controlled by society, no such thing as free will…
  2. Society is split into 2 independent parts. The whole bit about the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat is known as the INFRASTRUCTURE.
  3. The bit about not knowing about capitalism and being hooked on the trivial things is known as the SUPERSTRUCTURE. It also deals with things like the family, religion…
  4. Working class behaviour is constrained and shaped by class inequality
  5. Karl Marx has predicted that one day the working class will unite to overthrow the ruling class and capitalism will be abolished


  • Still waiting for that revolution…
  • It only sees the conflict in capitalist society – it has done some good, like improved living standards
  • There is an element of economic reductionism – it reduces behaviour simply to class relationships, ignoring other factors.
  • Society has not polarised simply into the rich and poor, we have a significant middle class that lies happily in the middle…