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Cohen's Subcultural Theory

In his book Delinquent Boys (1955) Cohen was concerned to answer a number of questions about delinquency that he felt were not satisfactorily dealt with by Merton's strain theory. These questions sought to investigate:

What examples of crimes and acts of delinquency can you think of that might be considered as 'mindless' and further what type of people tend to be the greatest perpetrators of such activities?

The concerns just raised allude to the problem of functionalism, which is evident in Merton's work. As with Durkheim, Merton points to particular underwritten features of social order as providing the source of, and explanation for, deviance. As Durkheim would contend, 'social facts' exist and these need to be appreciated if a full understanding of disorder is to be achieved. For Merton, the 'social fact' that provides the underpinning of his theory of strain is that of consensus with regard to cultural goals, what is constituted by the 'American Dream'. Yet Cohen pointed to expressive forms of deviance and crime that appear to have little to do with self-advancement, acquisition and display of material wealth. Violence, vandalism and criminal damage seemed apparently irrational, given Merton's contention that the objective of deviance was to obtain an improvement in the material wealth. Furthermore, such behaviour might be interpreted as suggesting that not every member of society subscribed to the American Dream. Instead of all members of society subscribing to a consensus as to cultural values, Cohen was aware of what he referred to as subcultural values which, unlike Merton's proposition, were shared and expressed by groups, most notably amongst working class male youth.


Thus Cohen sought to offer an explanation of forms of delinquency that seemingly had little purpose or might appear mindless. Applying Merton's idea that there are strains upon members of society to achieve success, Cohen produced a more refined version of strain theory. Cohen offered a more detailed analysis of 'culture'; as Downes and Rock (2003: 144) write: 'the first systematic use of the concepts of culture and subculture in the explanation of delinquency occurs in the work of Albert Cohen'. Rather than the more generalised cultural values depicted by Merton, Cohen identified what he saw as the principles that underlined a 'dominant' culture. That there exists a dominant culture implies that there exist other cultures or what Cohen referred to as subcultures. Thus in contrast to Merton's suggestion that society is monocultural, one where members of society subscribed to the same values, Cohen accounted for the existence of different cultural values.

Even though Cohen contended that more than one culture exists, he suggested that it is a response to the dominant culture that subcultures are motivated. In this sense deviant subcultures are generated as a reaction to the dominant culture. The tension between dominant culture and the stimulation of subcultures, according to Cohen, is most focused in the school since it is here that the values extolled by the dominant culture clash with the structural positions of those from the working class. Merton, as discussed in the previous chapter, suggests that the source of the strain stems from the media which, through advertising, reinforces the materialism of the consumer society and which is exerted generally upon society. For Cohen, however, strain is most pronounced upon the youth, and more specifically, working class youth. It is at school where the disparity between working class and middle class is brought into focus.

According to Cohen, the cultural values and norms that dominate American culture are those from the middle class. Boys are judged in relation to middle class values such as ambition, constructive use of leisure, cultivation of skills, individual responsibility and postponement of immediate gratification for long term gain. These values constitute what Cohen described as the 'middle class measuring rod' and it is this that presents the source of strain for working class boys who are ill prepared to compete on these grounds. As Jones (2006: 179) writes:

Most boys who have been socialised in lower-class families are inadequately prepared to perform successfully in a middle-class setting...They are less likely to have grown up in an educationally stimulating environment and are thus more likely to have restricted aspiration.

The key variable upon which strain depends for Cohen is not success at achieving material wealth, as Merton suggested, but success at gaining status. Unfortunately, working class values and norms mean that boys coming from this class are at a distinct disadvantage to gain status according to the 'middle class measuring rod'. As Cohen (1955: 110) writes:

In the status game, then, the working-class child starts out with a handicap and, to the extent that he cares what the middle-class persons think of him or has internalised the dominant middle-class attitudes toward social class position, he may be expected to feel some 'shame'.

Failing to achieve status, the youths are left with 'status frustration' where they suffer a 'problem of adjustment' caused by failure at school. This problem of adjustment is 'solved' by fellow struggling pupils coming together and upturning the dominant middle class values by subscribing to 'the delinquent subculture', as Cohen called it. Those who failed to succeed against the values bestowed by 'the middle class measuring rod' were able to solve this problem by subscribing to values that countered or subverted them:

Lower-class youths, thrown together in high density urban neighbourhoods and saddled with a common problem, find a common solution in embracing values that provide both the chance to gain status and the psychic satisfaction of rejecting respectable values that lie beyond their reach. (Lilly, Cullen and Ball, 2002: 55)


It is here, then, where Cohen was able to explain 'expressive' or non-utilitarian forms of delinquency, which appear to be malicious and negativistic, such as violence, vandalism and forms of what today might be referred to as anti-social behaviour. Such behaviour provides the means by which unsuccessful youths could gain their sense of status amongst others who have also experienced failure to achieve status according to middle class values. Thus:

Faced with problems of adjustment caused by school failure, the rejected evolve the delinquent gang solution as a means both to acquire status in a more accessible form and to hit back at the system that has branded them as failures. The gang takes the rules of respectable society and turns them upside down. (Downes and Rock, 2003: 146)

It is important to point out, as Cohen's quote above alludes, that initially working class boys had 'internalized the dominant middle-class attitudes' and therefore sought to compete according to them to achieve status. Faced with failure, youths experienced a 'reaction formation' which:

Describes a situation where the individual who is denied something they desire, reacts by disparaging it to excess. In the context of Cohen's study the denial of status leads some to seek out others who shared the same 'problem of adjustment'; the resultant subculture develops an exaggerated hostility towards middle-class values. In effect, it is contra-culture within which middle-class norms and values are inverted; now an activity is 'right' because mainstream culture says it is 'wrong'. (Tierney, 1996: 102)

Given that delinquent youths are understood as first having internalised middle class values and norms which are seen as culturally dominant, Cohen's theory like Merton's, can be characterised as functionalist. It would seem that subcultures would not have come into existence if it were not for the initial attempt by youths to compete for status according to middle class values, which we might understand to equate to what Durkheim might point to as a 'social fact'. As Cohen (1955: 137) writes, 'the problems of adjustment to which the delinquent subculture is a response are determined, in part, by those very values which respectable society holds most sacred'. However, where Cohen's work differs from Merton's is where the latter suggests deviance is an individual response; for Cohen it is a collective solution:

The crucial condition for the emergence of new cultural forms is the existence, in effective interaction with one another, of a number of actors with similar problems of adjustment. (Cohen, 1955: 59)

Consider how Cohen's thesis might relate to the theory of cultural transmission used by the Chicago sociologists.

If you have considered the above question, which relates to Sutherland's theory of differential association that was applied by the Chicago sociologists in their research, ask yourself the following questions. Given Cohen's theory, and that of differential association, can delinquents, even though they associate in subcultural gangs, also conform to accepted norms and behave responsibly? If youths become submerged within subcultural activities, then what explains their discontinuance of such behaviour in the face of structural and cultural pressures, as they get older? Why is it that most people who live in impoverished, run down and economically deprived areas (such as depicted by the zone in transition by the Chicago sociologists) do not violate the law?

These questions, and implied criticisms, were raised and commented upon by Matza (1964; 1969) who posed the basic question: are criminals or delinquents really that different from law-abiding people? This significant question relates to the query as to whether delinquency is 'a way of life', or something which people indulge in intermittently and without conviction?

As a way of dealing with the criticisms of Cohen's theory and illustrating other subcultural theories, we shall briefly consider the work of Matza (1964, 1969) and Sykes and Matza (1957), Cloward and Ohlin (1960), Miller (1958) and Downes (1966).