Subcultural Theories of Deviance Research Paper Starter

Subcultural Theories of Deviance

Subcultural theories of deviance emerged in the 1950s and were popular for only 20 years before they were charged with ethnocentrism. Instead of adopting the traditional perspective within criminology that individuals turn to crime because their access to legitimate opportunity structures is limited or nonexistent, subcultural theorists argued that lower-class individuals form completely different, collective views on the nature of criminal behavior, making the class a unique subculture within American society. Access to legitimate opportunity structures is blocked for this group, but since the entire group feels the same frustrations, it forms its own values and norms that make delinquent behavior and membership in gangs acceptable and rewarding. By 1964, critics were arguing that subcultural theories of deviance were the work of middle class intellectual elites who were trying to impose their norms and values upon lower-class groups. Similarly, it was argued that the values attributed to these subcultural groups are not universal or constant either within the group or within any given individual's life experience. Thus critics argued that membership in gangs is transitory, and that the excitement of crime is classless.

Keywords Adherents; Acculturation; Delinquency; Deviance; Ecology; Ethnocentric; Reactive Subculture; Subculture

Subcultural Theories of Deviance


Culture is a complex term with many different meanings, but sociologists studying culture tend to focus on the norms, beliefs, customs, and values shared by a group of likeminded individuals. Culture is transmitted socially between members of a given group as well as to subsequent generations. It is a "majority rule" framework in which dominant values and beliefs are deemed normal and acceptable, and alternative perspectives are viewed on a continuum ranging from mere eccentricism to outright immorality. A subculture, then, is a subgroup within the larger cultural population. It shares some of the norms and beliefs of the dominant group, but it also holds values that are distinctly different from the majority.

Subcultural theories of deviance focused on minority populations that sociologists and criminologists labeled as holding views of crime and delinquency different from those held by the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) majority in American and English society. An articulation of these dominant WASP values drives these societies' criminal laws, along with their social mores about proper behavior. Labeling the dominant cultural values as WASP is intentional, since most of the subcultural theories of deviance focused on lower-class individuals, youth, and minority populations. These subgroups, it was argued, develop their own cultural values, particularly in regard to deviance and crime. Miller (1958), for example, argued that the working-class youth in his study had a different "focal concern" that was pervasive in their subculture around concepts of trouble, toughness, excitement, smartness, fatalism, and autonomy. Because of these different norms or values, high crime rates could be explained as consistent with their subcultural values. Critics of Miller's arguments said that not all working-class youth resort to lives of immediate need-fulfillment and crime, especially women, leading them to conclude that high crime rates cannot be explained by pervasive subcultural values. Subcultural theorists also were criticized for being insensitive to issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, since many of the studies regarded inner-city crime as having a place of value uniformly within a given population.


The Anomie Theory

Subcultural theories of deviance grew out of the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), who laid the foundation for what is called the structural-functionalist perspective on crime. According to Durkheim, since a society in part consists of shared values, the sources of crime and deviance also can be found within that social structure. Durkheim argued that crime is a normal and universal part of all cultures and that it even has some positive functions in a society. Political protests about racial inequality, for example, might move a society to be more racially inclusive and just. In pre-industrial societies, though, the general uniformity of roles and values promoted conformity; although crime existed within the culture, its role was limited. But Durkheim and other sociologists were concerned with industrial times and what they believed was a weaker collective conscience around values, norms, and rules. Specifically, Durkheim argued that normlessness, or anomie, permits crime to flourish because "the disciplines and authority of society are so flawed that they offer few restraints or moral direction" (Rock, 2002, p. 52.). This became known as anomie theory in sociology and criminology.

Strain Theory

Robert Merton (1910–2003) built upon Durkheim's anomie theory to create what is known as strain theory. Merton asserted that there is "a universal aspiration to accumulate material wealth," but because our society is stratified into various classes, those in the lower economic levels do not have an equal opportunity to realize their desires for wealth (Gottfredson, p. 78). Under strain to reach these culturally induced goals, some individuals adapt by turning to crime as a means of material gain. Merton argued further that middle-class values generally conflict with engaging in criminal activities, causing members of the middles class to experience especially high levels of strain should they consider engaging in criminal conduct. In the inner-city where crime is highest, the theory holds that because lower-class individuals do not have the same socialization—or in fact, because their cultural processes hold a different view of crime altogether—they feel less strain when not adhering to dominant cultural values, such as behaving in a law-abiding manner. With subcultural values different from or even in opposition to the dominant norms, these lower-class communities might give law breakers high status because of their material success.

Social Disorganization Theory

Strain theory argues that individuals in the lower classes are aware of how the dominant culture values material wealth, but are frustrated in realizing this value by acquiring wealth for themselves. Another group of theorists who focus on social disorganization would say that the dominant culture's values have not been instilled in these groups and, therefore, are not an aspiration. Social disorganization theories came out of the Chicago Sociology School that dominated criminology for much of the twentieth century. Working from data on juvenile crime, this school mapped crime rate areas throughout the city of Chicago and discovered that certain zones or areas of the city experience high rates of crime regardless of their communities’ racial or ethnic makeup at any period of time. This methodology, when combined with ecological theories, views "the physical structure of communities as shaping the routine activities of inhabitants in ways that affect the likelihood of crime" (Gottfredson, p. 82). Through the interplay of people and the environment and its resources, the various zones of the city would evolve into diverse, unique areas with the residents sharing similar social characteristics. This process could be said to mirror the evolutionary changes plants and animals undergo as they adapt to the varied ecological niches in a diverse landscape.

Social Control Theory

Because social disorganization theory emphasizes the obligation of the community to train or socialize individuals and then monitor their behavior to ensure lawful actions, it received significant attention from social control theory circles. Social control theorists hypothesize that an individual can turn to crime when his or her connection or identification with the dominant culture is ineffective. In fact, like their social disorganization counterparts, they believe that people find crime useful, profitable, and enjoyable unless they are influenced by larger societal values to forego these returns. Their ideal is to preserve what many would call "WASP" values about lawful personal conduct. To do this, control theorists argue for interventions that control deviance and reorganize communities so that traditional cultural values are encouraged and enhanced. Identification with traditional values instills mechanisms of internal, individual control through a social bond that helps group wellbeing. In addition to policing mechanisms, external social control is exerted through involving...

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