In Sociology, the theory of subcultures can be used to provide an explanation for crime and deviance. It develops Robert K. Merton's Anomie Model of Crime, which left three questions unanswered:

  • Why is deviance often a collective rather than individual act?
  • How can we explain deviance not motivated by "money success"?
  • Why do different people commit different deviant acts?

Status Frustration

The use of subcultural theory to explain deviant behaviour was first developed by Albert Cohen, who wished to explain why most delinquent acts were not motivated by money as the anomie model suggests. He concluded that delinquency was not a result of concern for "money success" as Merton claimed but instead a result of the pressures of all dominant values. As working class male adolescents in the inner city fail in school, they begin to feel that they cannot achieve in society by legitimate means and experience a social "status frustration". Merton suggested that they then turn to crime in order to attain wealth. However, Cohen argued that instead they form a subculture that "takes its norms from the larger culture but turns them upside down". Stealing and vandalism are valued within the gangs and so not only provide delinquents with a method of retaliating against the society that rejected them but also provide them with an alternative means of gaining status in the eyes of his peers. This explanation provided answers to the first two questions that result from the anomie model.

The three delinquent subcultures

Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin provided an answer to the first question by suggesting that Cohen had overrated the role of the school in inducing delinquency. They suggested that the route to delinquency involved one of three subcultures:

Criminal Subcultures
This is the manifestation of Merton's anomie theory, in which adolescents use crime for material gain. This subculture usually forms in areas where there is an established organisation of adult crime that provides an "illegitimate opportunity structure" for youths to learn the "tricks of the trade".
Conflict Subcultures
When an illegitimate opportunity structure is not available, delinquents often form conflicting gangs out of frustration at the lack of any available opportunity structures. The Mods and Rockers are an example of one such conflict subculture.
Retreatist Subcultures
Retreatist subcultures, which involve drug use and hustling, are generally found among "double failures" - those that cannot find acceptance in either legitimate groups or the two other subcultures.
Cloward and Ohlin felt that delinquency was not a result of failure in school but was, as Merton suggested, a result of adolescents' frustration at their lack of "money success".

Conflict theories and subcultures

The subcultural theory presented above is functionalist. It assumes that all the individuals in society are initially and consensually driven towards economic success. However, there are also conflict subcultural theories that explain deviance in terms of different and distinct social classes.

Lower class subculture

An American Sociologist, Walter Miller, identified delinquency as being an attempt by adolescents of a particular household structure to conform to a lower class culture. Miller claims that the unskilled working class in the USA adheres strongly to specific values such as a search for excitement, the need for macho masculinity and a fatalistic attitude towards life. Male youths brought up in female-dominated households where there is little reliance on the earnings of men attempt to assert their masculinity by forming gangs. Attempts to live up to the lower class culture results in law breaking - a rebellion against middle class values that the law reflects.

Ritualistic resistance to change

Since the end of the Second World War British capitalism has undergone several significant changes, often resulting in the destruction of working class communities and the growth of commercial markets aimed at teenagers. These changes have caused problems for working class adolescents whose economic situation prevents them from enjoying the benefits of a consumer society. Their efforts to deal with this situation are confounded by the contradictory advice given to them by parents and the mass media: parents emphasising traditional working class values of workplace solidarity and community on the one hand with the media emphasising the importance of consumption. One solution to this confusion is to develop a distinctive subculture.

The various deviant subcultures in British society - Teddy Boys, Mods, Skinheads and so on do not just reflect traditional working class values or provide adolescents with an alternate means of gaining social status. Instead, they represent a resistance to the domination of the working class. The subcultures have various distinguishing characteristics - particular clothing, for example - which acquires a secret meaning and represents their resistance. For example, the Teddy Boys' suits provided a parody of the upper class.

Despite the best efforts of adolescents, the subcultures formed do not achieve much in the "real" world. They do not confront the features of society that cause their problems. For example, skinheads adopted a form of clothing that is dying out as a result of the decline in unskilled manual labour and their collective presence at football matches and so on represents an attempt to perpetuate a disappearing community.

Subcultural Theory developed out of the Social/Symbolic Interationist school of thought which stated that despite the extreme difference between country and city, those living in an urban setting are still able to find ways of creating a sense of community. So it seems logical that instead of allowing ourselves to remain anonymous drones, unable to form real connections with others, urban dwellers will find a way around our circumstances, or rather work within the environmental framework we are given, and form communities in new and different ways.

It was Sociologist Claude Fischer who developed the idea of subcultural theory in the early 1970's, which proposes that the size, population and heterogeneity of cities actually strengthens social groups, and encourages the formation of subcultures, which are much more diverse in nature compared to the general culture as a whole which they are a part of. Fischer defines a subculture as “a large set of people who share a defining trait, associate with one another, are members of institutions associated with their defining trait, adhere to a distinct set of values, share a set of cultural tools and take part in a common way of life” (Fischer, 544). In any other setting, the creation of such subcultures would be nearly impossible, due to lower diversity and number of people.

For Fischer “city life is relatively unconventional—a term that covers a range of behavior from artistic innovation, to expressions of dissenting values, to serious criminality,” and he adds “according to subcultural theory, cities do stimulate unconventionality, but not through breakdown,” as sociologists before Fischer would have us believe. "...The correlation between urban life and unconventionality (is) largely incidental: for various reasons particular types of people—ethnic minorities, the artistic avant-garde, professionals, and so on—come to live in cities and consequently, their lifestyles then typify cities” (Fischer, 544).

Fischer, Claude 1995 The Subcultural Theory of Urbanism: A Twentieth Year Assessment. American Journal of Sociology 101(3), 543—577.

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