Subcultural Theory

Consistently in the news we hear of the rise of certain subcultures, the rise of the ‘hoodie culture’ in teens for example. However, what exactly is a subculture, and are they really linked to crime and deviant behaviour as much as society believes? A subculture can be defined as a group of people who have their own culture, with their own norms and values, which differentiates from the larger culture to what they belong. Many sociologists have researched into the links between subcultures and crime and deviance, to try and establish whether those involved are more likely to commit criminal behaviour, as official statistics suggest.

In the early 20th Century, a dramatic social change was taking place in Chicago, and in response to this emerged the University of Chicago, the first ‘parent-school’ of subcultural sociology. These Chicago sociologists were determined to appreciate the wide variety of cultures and lifestyles prevalent in Chicago at the time, due to the wide influx of migrants from all over Europe and Southern USA.

Through their experimental use of, what we now call, participant observation, they wished to observe and note down the sheer variety and dynamism of urban life.

Thanks to this integral research, two important studies were released, Fredric Thrasher’s The Gang(1927) and Whyte’s Street Corner Society(1943). These two research pieces paved the way for future sociologists to investigate into deviant groups, as it was already established that these groups in society had clear norms and values of their own that justified their different behaviour.

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Late on in the 1930’s, Robert Merton (1938), tried to find how deviance fitted in within a functionalist framework, however, Merton himself was not a functionalist.

He decided that crime and deviance were the proof that the individual did not fit into society’s accepted goals and did not agree with the socially approved means of obtaining those goals. He identified this as ‘strain’ between the individual and society, and discovered that the greater the strain, the greater the chance of the individual being either deviant or criminal in their behaviour. Merton argued that all societies, whether in Britain or in the jungles of Africa, set their members certain goals and provided them with socially approved ways to achieve this goal.

Merton considered the fact that not all the individuals in a society share the same goals; he pointed out that in a stratified society the goals were linked to a person’s position in the social structure. Therefore, those lower down the social ladder, had restricted goals. He noted that the system worked well as long as the majority of the population had a reasonable chance of achieving their goals. However, if the majority of the population were unable to achieve their goals, they would become ‘disenchanted’ with society, and sought out alternative, often deviant, ways of behaving.

Merton used Durkheim’s term anomie to describe this situation. One example of Merton’s theory in practice in today’s society, is the notion of ‘The American Dream’. The American Dream, is a notion held by many that through hard work and material prosperity, residents of the United States will be able to achieve their goals in life; for some this is the ability to achieve more material prosperity than would be possible in their country of origin; the chance for their children to get an education; or the freedom of life without class, gender, racial or religious discriminations.

However, for many, this dream is just that, an unachievable dream, and when they realise this, many turn to illegitimate means of money making to help them survive in the materialistic society that is America. Merton identified five different forms of behaviour which could be understood as a strain between goals and means. The first is conformity, in which the individual continues to adhere to both the goals and means, despite the limited likelihood of success, such as the many office workers in New York City, who are living on the poverty line.

Another form identified by Merton is Innovation, where the individual accepts the goals of society, but uses different ways to achieve these goals, so the outcome may result in the person being involved in deviant activity, such as soft drug dealers, who long for the materialistic possessions, yet instead of working legitimately, they get their money through deviant behaviour. The third form is Ritualism, this is when the means are used by the individual, but sight of the actual goal is lost, for example a traffic warden, who is not bothered about earning lots of money, but blindly enforces the law without looking at the nature of justice.

Ritualism, is the fourth form, in which the individual rejects both the goals and means and society, this is most likely to be a person who is dependant upon drugs and alcohol. The final form of strain can be labelled as Rebellion, where both the socially sanctioned goals and means are rejected and different ones substituted; these individuals are often religious extremists, such as Suicide Bombers. Although Merton’s idea of strain has concrete examples in society, many sociologists have criticised his approach to subcultural crime and deviance as being too simple.

They say that there are some people who border on the lines between categories. Also, some believe it is too ethnocentric. Valier (2001), criticised Merton for his stress on the existence of common goals in society. Valier argues that instead of such great social consensus, there are in fact a variety of goals that people strive to attain at any one time. Having been heavily influenced by Merton’s work Cloward and Ohlin (1960) carried out their own research, entitled the Illegitimate Opportunity Structure.

They argued that Merton had failed to appreciate that there was a parallel opportunity structure to the legal one; the Illegitimate Opportunity Structure. This, to them, meant that many subcultures prevalent in society, had found that a career was available, in which illegal means were used to obtain society’s goals. According to Cloward and Ohlin, the Illegitimate Opportunity Structure had three possible adaptations or subcultures.

The first of these was Criminal, which states that if there is a thriving local criminal subculture, there will be successful role models in that area, therefore young offenders can ‘work their way up the ladder’ in the criminal hierarchy. Conflict was identified as the second subculture, and it was noted that this occurred when there was no local criminal subculture to provide career opportunities. Groups and individuals brought up in this environment often turn to violence, usually against other similar groups, for example ‘gang turf wars’, where gangs use violence to determine who owns which ‘patch’.

The final adaption is known as Retreatist, and this tends to be an individual response which occurs when the individual has no exposure or opportunity to be involved with the other two subcultures of Criminal and Conflict. The result therefore, is a retreat into alcoholism or drug dependency. A good example of Cloward and Ohlin’s theories into these subcultures is Dick Hobbs’ book ‘Bad Buisness’ (1998), in which Hobbs interviewed successful criminals and demonstrated how careers in crime are possible, given the right connection and exposure to this subculture.

This explanation of criminal deviance is useful and, alongside Hobbs’ work, shows that for some people crime can be a career choice. But the approach is not completely correct, it shares similar weaknesses to Merton’s Strain Theory. One criticism which is shared with Merton, is the categorisation of individuals; there are many people who may be sat on the border of two categories, and also, it is difficult to except the three categories, as there is no reference to people who break free from this subculture.

Furthermore, many argue that both theories fail to recognise female deviance, as this often follows a slightly different pattern and is not as easy to define. Albert Cohen (1955) drew upon both Merton’s ideas of strain and also on the ethnographic ideas (form of observational research) of the Chicago School of Sociology. He was particularly interested in why crime was carried out, and he discovered it was more for the thrill of the act, rather than for the money involved.

Many modern day sociologists believe this is as true today as it was in the 1950’s, for example, joyriding has increased, yet the cars are burnt, not sold on, so there is not an economic reasoning behind the crime, it must just be committed for the thrill. Cohen believed that lower-class boys wanted to excel middle-class values and aspirations, but lacked the means to obtain this success. This lead to a sense of personal failure and inadequacy, which Cohen called status frustration. This resulted in the rejection of the acceptable behaviour in which they could not succeed.

He suggests that school therefore, is the key area for the playing out of this drama, as lower-class children are much more likely to fail and feel humiliated in the classroom. To counteract this and gain status, they ‘invert’ traditional values and behave badly, engaging in a variety of antisocial behaviour. They may often resort to being the ‘class-clown’, who fools around and disrupts the lesson, as they feel this is the way to climb up the social ladder. However, many have criticised Cohen, least of all Feminist Sociologists.

As with Cloward and Ohlin and Merton, there is no discussion of female deviancy, his study is solely based on males. Also, Cohen failed to prove that school really was the environment in which success and failure are demonstrated mainly. But the major criticism of his work is that he assumes the young delinquents must be brilliant sociologists to work out that they are lower-class, to work out the middle-class values and then invert them to gain status. Many believe Cohen is correct, he has just missed the fundamental point that these individuals are children.

Another subcultural sociologist was writing in the 1950’s, Walter Miller. He developed an approach to crime, which expanded on Cohen’s class based theory. Miller suggested the deviancy was linked to the culture of the lower-class males; suggesting that they have six focal concerns which are likely to lead them to delinquency. The first was smartness; that the individual must look good and also be witty with a ‘sharp repartee’. Also, the concern of trouble; the culture of ‘I don’t go looking for trouble it finds me’, it’s never their fault, they didn’t start it.

Focal concern number three links to Cohen and his discovery that crime was committed for the thrill, yet Miller says that lower-class males feel it is important to search out these thrills and so calls this concern excitement. Toughness is the fourth concern, the individuals must not only demonstrate this, but they must be physically stronger than the others. The fifth concern is Autonomy, it is important for the individual not to be pushed around by the others in the gang.

And the final focal concern outlined by Miller is Fate; individuals have little chance to overcome the fate that awaits them, the fate of a deviant career for example. Therefore, according to Miller, young lower-class males become delinquents due to the implicit values of their subculture. Yet, Miller provides little evidence of these specific middle class values. Box (1981) highlights that the values could equally apply to males right across the class structure. Also, female deviancy is not considered again!

One consistent criticism of subcultural theories is that there is little evidence to demonstrate this distinct set of antisocial values. Even if there are subcultures, why would they respond to certain middle or working class values? Matza bonded these criticisms together to attack subcultural theory. He argued that instead of subcultures having different values, we all share a set of subterranean (hidden) values. The key thing is that most people control these deviant desires, they may rarely emerge, say at the office party, yet when they do we use techniques of neutralisation to provide justification for our deviant actions.

Some examples include the denial of responsibility- it wasn’t me, it was the alcohol; or denial of injury- victim wasn’t hurt, often used when justifying stealing from a company rather than individual. Matza is therefore arguing that the difference between a persistent offender and a law-abiding citizen is simply the frequency and environment in which our subterranean values appear to the public. Matza’s critique of subculture is deemed by many as devastating. He is saying that all of us share deviant ‘subcultural values’ and that it is not true that there are distinctive groups with their own values, different from the rest of us.

Carl Nightingale took yet another approach towards deviance, and his subcultural theory does not focus on crime, but that black youth are marginalised, often driving them towards deviance; the Paradox of Inclusion. For his book On The Edge(1993), Nightingale studied young Black youth in inner-city Philadelphia. He discovered that subculture derives from the desire to be part of mainstream US culture, that is to say that subcultures occur due to the rejection and marginalising of youth by society.

In America, Black children avidly consume US culture by watching television with its emphasis on consumerism and the success of violence, yet at the same time they are excluded economically, racially and politically from participating in the mainstream society they idolise. This is seen in England through the Chav culture. Those individuals dress how they see on television in music videos, so they can fit in, yet by doing so, they ironically become individuals which society fears, and therefore marginalises.

These individuals begin to identify themselves through acquiring clothing with high-status labels, such as Nike or Adidas. Once again, drawing upon Merton’s ideas, the subculture reflects the belief that it is not so much how these high status goods are obtained rather the fact of possessing them, which is often through crime and violence. This links with Phillip Bourgois’ study of El Barrio. He looks at the lives of drug dealers and criminals in the deprived areas of New York. He wanted to study the underground econmy, everything ranging from babysitting to hard drug dealing, in this marginalised society.

He realised they were marginalised for many reasons, particularly racial and due to their high poverty lifestyles, society excluded them. He discovered that the severe abuse of drugs and alcohol prevalent in El Barrio, was due to the marginalisation and alienation from mainstream American Society, which many residents encountered daily. The change of drugs and scale which Bougois monitored was widespread and dramatic, with everyone in the society involved. However, although they did not share the same means as mainstream America, they shared the same goals, as in to achieve the American Dream.

Bourgois noted that the legitimate economy mirrors the illegitimate economy, there is a hierarchal system in place, which all obey, just like legitimately. He decided that the pressure of the American Dream is what caused many to deviate into criminal activity, as this way they could obtain the needed money to pursue their dream. His main finding was that crime makes economic sense, why would these people surviving on the bread line want to work in an office, earning the minimum wage, when they can earn ten times as much on their own doorstep?

And this attitude is shared all over the world by many living in poverty. Since 1998, there has been the introduction of ASBO’s; Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, but there has been much dispute as to whether these actually prevent deviant behaviour. Many believe that by labelling delinquent youths as Anti-Social, they accept this label and it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the youngster feels they must live up to this reputation. Others believe that ASBO’s are seen as labels to be had and are worthy of respect.

Many of the approaches outlined above seek to explain deviant behaviour through rational reasoning as to why subcultures have developed. Some recent postmodern approaches reject this explanation for behaviour. Katz (1988), argues young men get drawn into crime, because it is seductive and thrilling, echoing Cohen. This is not dissimilar to Lyng (1990). He said that young males like taking risks and engaging in what he refers to as ‘edgework’; going to the extremities of acceptable behaviour and flirting with danger.

Using the example of neo-tribes, Maffesoli (1996) introduced a postmodernist innovation in understanding subculture. He was unhappy with the idea that the idea of subculture had been transformed from a concept based on values, more into a concept of consensus. He believed subcultures should be though of in terms of ‘fluidity, occasional gatherings and dispersal’. Neo-tribes then referred to states of mind, that were flexible, open and changing. Deviant values are less important than a stress on consumption, suitably fashionable behaviour and individual identity that can change rapidly.

As previously noted, subcultural theories are very masculine orientated. However, as Collison (1996) points out, sociologist may well have missed the significance of studying male behaviour in such detail. He said that in order to explain male offending behaviour, it is important to explain the nature of being male in our society and the links masculinity itself has to crime. Collinson’s work on masculinity links closely to that of Connell (1995), who sees the existence of a hegemonic masculinity, in which males both conspire with and aspire to, and believes this drives them to deviance.

This emphasis on hegemonic masculinity is very similar to Miller’s earlier works on lower-class values. However, Winlow argues these values are most obvious when the economic social structure is changing. He suggests that the traditional working class values fitted alongside physical work, which is now in decline, so they are restless and desperate to prove their masculinity. These values have dispersed due to the rise of office work. He further suggests that these problems greatly affect young males who are out of employment.

So, to conclude, there are many different approaches to explaining subculture and its place in society, all of which are as valid today as they were when the original research was carried out, from studying the British ‘Street Corner Groups’ in the early 1900’s, to the participant observation of crack dealers in New York City, all of these theories are still relevant to the gang culture of today. However, looking at the theories, the one society can relate to most is Metza and Subterranean Values.

This is very obviously prevalent in society today, from photocopying body parts at the office party and blaming it on the alcohol, to the men who get cleared of rape, claiming the victim isn’t a victim as she was wearing clothes which led the man on. Whether subcultures do or do not share common social values will be disputed for many years, yet Maza’s techniques of neutralization will be evident in society always, therefore, I believe I identify most with this theory, as it seeks to explain natural patterns of behaviour, not seek to infiltrate gang culture and lifestyles.

Having said this, I am particularly interested in Bourgois’s El Barrio research as I agree with him and the dealers, crime makes economic sense, why work a nine-to-five for minimum wage, when you can earn enough money on your doorstep? Perhaps, if I had access to a criminal subculture, I would become involved as Cloward and Ohlin said, yet unfortunately my future is even bleaker according to them, a retreatist lifestyle involving drugs or alcohol, good job I believe Merton and feel I am a conformist, adhering to both the socially accepted goals and means.

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Subcultural Theory. (2017, Sep 01). Retrieved from

Subcultural Theory
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