Criminology: Subcultures and deviance
Subcultural theories dealing with deviance and crime are linked to Merton's theory based on the structural causes of crime. Subcultural theories explain the cause of crime in terms of the subculture of a group.
The basis of the theory is that groups within society develop values and norms which are different from those held by other, mainstream members of society. Deviance arises because individuals conform to the values and norms of particular groups which have a code of behaviour of their own. For example, some groups might espouse values which encourage and reward criminal behaviour.
It is not that the members of subcultures are completely different from the rest of society; but that their subculture is sufficiently different from the culture of society in general that it leads them to commit acts which may be criminal.
Cohen developed the work previously done by Merton. He was one of the first American sociologists to study subcultures and gangs among youmg working class males. He also criticised Merton on two main grounds. Firstly, Cohen argued that delinquency is a collective rather than an individual response to stuctures within society. Merton, on the other hand saw individuals reacting to their position in society. Cohen believed individuals came together in a collective response.
Secondly, Cohen also criticised Merton for failing to provide an expalnation for non-utilitarian crime which did not have a financial objective. Crimes such as vandalism or joy-riding result in no financial gain. Cohen questioned whether these types of crimes came about as a result of success driven goals of mainstream culture in society. However, he did accept that Merton's theory was 'highly plausible as an explanation for adult professional crime and for the property delinquwncy of some older and semi-professional thieves'.
Cohen analysed the motivations of working class youths and the explanations which could explain why they committed crimes. He accepted that these youths also pursued the success goals of mainstream society, but were unable to achieve those goals because of educational failure which in turn led to low-level jobs. Such failure was due to their position in the social structure of society. Cultural deprivation is the reason for educational failure of members of the working class.
Similar to Merton's theory, Cohen argues that these youths become dissatified and frustrated with their low status in society and, as a result, turn to crime to achieve success. They form subcultures and gangs, and reject the success goals of mainstrean society and replace them with an alternative set of values. Success and status is measured against these alternative values. Out of frustration and failure comes a delinquent subculture.
Futher, Cohen asserts that delinquent subculture not only rejects mainstream culture, its also reverses it: 'the delinquent subculture takes its norms from the larger culture but turns them upside down'. Cohen states that youths in a delinquent subculture take pleasure in other people's disapproval and suffering as a result of their deviant behaviour. Activities such as stealing, vandalism and truancy are highly regarded in that subculture while condemned in the wider society. As Cohen says: 'Throughout there is a kind of malice apparent, an enjoyment at the discomfiture of others, a delight in the defiance of taboos.'
As well as delinquent subculture being an act of defeiance against the values of mainstream society, it also brings prestige and status to the perpetrators of crimes among their peers. According to Cohen, stealing is not so much a way of success in terms of mainstream goals, but 'a valued activity to which attaches glory, prowess and profound satisfaction'.
Through such criminal behaviour, working class youths come to terms with their low status within society and work out their frustration. Success is measured according to the deviant values held by those in the subculture. Such criminal behaviour does not need to result in financial gain and this explains the reason for crimes like vandalism etc.
While accepting Merton's theory that due to unequal access to opportunity, certain groups within society react by resorting to crime in order to achieve success, Cohen goes further by saying that deviant subcultures makes the situation worse by reinforcing the pressure within society to deviate.
Mixing myth with menace as street youths ape their fierce Triad elders
Around the back street of King's Cross station, the names of Triad or Wo-Sing-Wo (WSW) are well known to many of the loitering youngsters, often playing truant from school.
Like Learco Chindamo [jailed for murdering school headmaster Philip Lawrence] some of them are members of the WSW, which has acquired a frocious reputation in the area, some of it rooted in reality and some of it based on urban myths of gangsters, guns and violence.
The question is whether the youth gangs are simply made up of boys trying to emulate Triad heroes, or whether senior Triads have attempted to recruit children. Police are quick to reject suggestions of organised Triad recruitment in schools, although last year, officers in London started an enquiry into such claims.
Other young gangs known to be operating in the area of north London include the Black Dragons and the Latino Lions.
The Guardian 18.10.1996
1. Would you accept that Cohen's theory provides a plausible explanation for youth crime?
2. What do you think Cohen meant when he said that delinquency is a collective rather than an individual response to structures within society?
3. Like Merton, does Cohen argue that there is a dominant value system to which we all subscribe?
4. Can you think of any reasons as to why young female delinquents have been ignored? Could Cohen's theory apply to them?