There have been many sociological explanations in attempting to understand crime and deviance in our society, some of the earliest being the contributions made by Subcultural sociology and interpretivists. Before Subcultural sociology however, crime and deviance was explained by social control: Durkheim’s state of anomie as well as Etzioni’s communitarianism focused predominantly on a breakdown of social cohesion and changes in the community. These theories centred on how changes in our society produced deviant behaviour.
Subcultural sociology however centres on how those who commit crime hold different values to mainstream society and how these values can ‘justify’ crime. Many subculturalists have adapted different theories but all centre on understanding how deviance is more apparent within white working class boys; based on the national statistics for crime, which at the time (1950+) were seen as accurate. Whilst these theories have their strengths which will be illustrated next, we can also see how they are flawed.
Following on the work of i?? mile Durkheim, Strain Theories have been advanced by Merton (1938), Cohen (1955) & Cloward and Ohlin (1960). Robert K Merton used Durkheim’s notion of anomie to explain how societal ‘strain’ or pressures can result in 1 of 5 collective responses, thus it can be explained as a Subcultural response to crime and deviancy. Its thesis is dependent upon a social structure that holds the same goals to all its members, without giving them equal means to achieve them.
This is best illustrated by the ‘American Dream’ which sees materialism as a measure of success – By everyone sharing the same goals it can produce more ‘strain’ for those unable to fulfil this collective goal. Merton presents five modes of adapting to strain. He did not mean that everyone who was denied access to society’s goals became deviant. Rather the response, or modes of adaptation, depends on the individual’s attitudes toward cultural goals. Conformity is the most common mode of adaptation.
Individuals accept both the goals as well as the prescribed means for achieving those goals and simply downscale their goals in order to achieve them. Individuals who adapt through innovation accept societal goals but have few legitimate means to achieve those goals, thus they create their own means to get ahead. The means to get ahead may be through robbery, embezzlement or other such criminal acts. In ritualism, the third adaptation, individuals abandon the goals they once believed to be within their reach and dedicate themselves to their current lifestyle. They play by the rules and have a daily safe routine.
Retreatism is the adaptation of those who give up not only the goals but also the means. They often retreat into the world of alcoholism and drug addiction. They escape into a non-productive lifestyle. The final adaptation, rebellion, occurs when the cultural goals and the legitimate means are rejected. Individuals create their own goals and their own means, by protest or revolutionary activity. Whilst strain theories assumes all people want the same goals is does attempt to explain why people may turn to crime, it is however too deterministic and has been criticised as such.
Albert K Cohen 1955, who also focussed on strain theories, looked at deviance which wasn’t economically motivated but simply done for the thrill of the act; contemporary example of this are still visible through graffiti and vandalism accounting for 18% of crime recorded. According to Cohen ‘lower-class’ boys in the education system seek to emulate middle class values and aspiration but simply lacked the means to do so. This led to his main thesis of status frustration. The result, the boys rejected the patterns of ‘acceptable’ behaviour and indulged in antisocial acts, not motivated by money but in an attempt to gain status.
In his study on Folk devils Cohen coined the term ‘moral panics’. He was attempting to explain how violence that broke out between two subcultures was amplified by the media; the ‘amplification’ serves to appeal to the public so that they concur with ready-made opinions about the course of action to be taken. Subculture can give an individual identity, collective goals, homogeneity – these qualities may have sparked violence but Cohen is suggesting the media amplification was a major factor for the deviance these groups implemented.
Cohen has been criticised for his gender blindness, there are no discussion of females in his work. Other sociologists criticise his delinquents for knowing what middle class values are. Cloward & Ohlin offer a different explanation, they comment on the illegitimate opportunity structure. Until now, we had assumed that there was one legitimate opportunity structure in our society. Cloward and Ohlin criticised Merton for not noticing a parallel structure that his strain theory didn’t account for.
According to Cloward & Ohlin, this illegal opportunity structure had three adaptations or subcultures; criminal, conflict & retreatists. Criminal subcultures where young offenders can work their way up the criminal ladder, conflict which centres of violence to achieve means and retreatists where the individual has no opportunity to enter a criminal or conflict subculture and retreat to drugs and alcohol. This however shares a lot of Merton’s original weaknesses: no female deviancy and the naive view real life can fit so easily in three broad categories.
Walter Miller in the late 1950’s developed a rather different approach to explain the values of crime when he suggested deviancy was linked to the culture of lower class males. He suggested that working class males have 6 focal concerns that are likely to lead to their delinquency; therefore these males are pushed towards crime because of the values promoted and shared within their subculture. These focal concerns were smartness, toughness, autonomy (not being pushed round by others) excitement, trouble and fate.
These produced negative reactions from the individual, excitement being a key value in later sociologists work. When these focal concerns were not met, these boys turned to crime in order to satisfy them. Miller however has provided little evidence to support these claims in particular, little evidence showing there are in fact lower class values. Indeed as Box 1981 points out, these focal concerns could be linked with many other subcultures right through the class structure. In 1961 however, Matza offered a different view that Subcultural sociologists up to now haven’t considered.
Matza argued that subcultures were so abstract that there was no distinctive subculture in society, rather all groups in society utilised a shared set of subterranean values. This was that most of the time, people control their deviant desires and conform but when they do deviate and their controlled behaviour is turned off, they use techniques of naturalisation to justify their deviant acts. These can be in forms of denial; a belief in a greater good, condemnation of condemners, the offenders feels they’re being picked on. Matza however is assuming all of us have deviant desires which can be evoked at anytime.
This is far too deterministic. He also assumes there are no distinct subcultures in our society which have different values to mainstream. From the evidence so far it’s clear that subcultural sociology offered a variety of explanations to explain crime and deviancy. In conclusion, postmodernists have heavily criticised the concept of the collective believing crime and deviance is an individual response that doesn’t need economic or any other form of motivation. Katz (1988) offers the explanation that crime can be ‘seductive’ Young males get drawn into it, not because of a process of rejection simply that’s exciting.
Lyng further concludes young males like taking risks and being o the edge, meaning being on the edge of acceptable behaviour and flirting with danger. While we can see Subcultural sociologists offer a variety of explanations to explain why young males deviate we must remember much of their work is dated to the era when crime statistics were seen as accurate. Nowadays we know there is a huge amount of crime that isn’t recorded; therefore the national crime stats are a ‘social construct’. This would mean Subcultural sociologists who offer no explanation for female offending is highly flawed.