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Cloward and Ohlin - Delinquency and Opportunity

Cloward and Ohlin's (1960) explanation of delinquency and subculture, as well as extending and refining some of Cohen's arguments, contests aspects of it. By explicitly drawing on Merton's idea of strain, they argued that American culture socialised people into believing that those with ability ought to expect to be successful in life. However, social advancement is not based on meritocracy alone; for one reason, of course, as Cloward and Ohlin observed, there are an insufficient number of suitable jobs for the number of qualified applicants. So despite applying oneself conscientiously to their education an individual may find that they are unsuccessful in getting a job that they feel they are suitably qualified for. Hence the strain to succeed is blocked by limited legitimate opportunities.

1196023_business_man_1Opportunity provides a key variable in Cloward and Ohlin's theory since they felt that the type of opportunity available would influence whether youths might find themselves able to conform to social expectations or become delinquent. Yet, as with Cohen's theory, those from the lower working class, even if they had successfully completed their educational studies, found themselves disadvantaged when competing with middle class applicants for the limited number of jobs available. Potential employers faced with a surplus of equally qualified applicants would defer to criteria other than ability, for example class, religion or style of dress, thereby discriminating against the working class. Feeling aggrieved at their inability to secure a job commensurate with that which they had expected given their educational attainment, such lower working class boys are likely to withdraw their support for conventional legitimate norms and instead turn to delinquency.

Here then Cloward and Ohlin differ from Cohen, in that for Cohen it was the working class boys who failed to succeed at school who turned to delinquency to resolve their predicament. For Cloward and Ohlin, delinquency occurs amongst those lower working class boys who were successful at school but who eventually experienced failure in the job market. Such boys experience a sense of alienation. Thus the source of the strain in Cohen's explanation is the school whereas for Cloward and Ohlin it is blocked legitimate opportunities. Cloward and Ohlin criticised Cohen for placing too much emphasis upon the school as generating delinquent subcultures. Deferring to Merton, Cloward and Ohlin also believed, in contrast to Cohen, that 'money success' rather than 'status' was the overall source of strain since it was through securing a better-paid job that one truly found satisfaction of middle class values.

Cloward and Ohlin also parted company with Cohen in that they suggested Cohen had failed to account for the degree of specialisation that subcultures can take. 'To account for the development of pressures toward deviance', Cloward and Ohlin observed, 'does not sufficiently explain why these pressures result in one deviant solution rather than another' (1960: 34, cited in Lilly, Cullen and Ball 2002: 56). Drawing on Sutherland's theory of differential association, Cloward and Ohlin depicted three types of delinquent subculture: the criminal, conflict and retreatist. Which subculture one finds themselves engaged in will depend upon the cultural transmission of delinquent values. For instance, the criminal subculture was felt to exist in more stable working class areas whereas the conflict subculture, which is characterised by high levels of violence, rather than property crime as with criminal subculture, existed in less stable populations. The retreatist subculture would support values surrounding, for instance, crimes associated with the use of drugs. As Jones (2006: 187) writes, the retreatist subculture 'exists for the 'double failures'. These are the people who have neither criminal opportunities nor the ability to compete in a conflict group'. Hence opportunity is an important feature of Cloward and Ohlin's theory because it relates to the availability of either legitimate or types of illegitimate opportunities available to the potential delinquent.


Cloward and Ohlin's opportunity theory then was important in that it stressed:

That strain theory was incomplete without a systematic explanation of why people solve their problems in one way and not another. The issue of selection of adaptations, they believed, could be answered only by focusing on how the illegitimate opportunity structure regulated access to different forms of crime/deviance for people located at different points in society. (Lilly, Cullen and Ball, 2002: 57)

Tierney (1996) points out a weakness of this argument, that working class boys learn criminal/delinquent values through the transmission of them in accordance to the particular delinquent subculture - criminal, conflict or retreatist - that exists in the area they live. The problem stems from the belief, held by both Cloward and Ohlin and Cohen, that working class boys must have at some stage accepted and internalised middle class values and norms for them to experience the strain to which delinquency provides a solution where there is failure. As Tierney (1996:108) writes:

The dispute between cultural transmission theorists and strain theorists essentially boils down to the issue of whether those living in the so-called criminal area become delinquent because they conform to the norms and values of the area, or because they have been rejected by a middle-class value system which, to a significant degree, they have internalised. The question is: Do lower-working class lads typically desire, then are denied, middle class status?

This question is addressed and resolved, to some extent, by Miller and Downe's studies of youth subculture - discussed in the next section.