Explanations of criminal behaviour which make reference to delinquent subcultures can be found amongst the groups of sociologists known as the Chicago School. This school (represented by theorists such as Robert Park, Clifford Shaw and Henry MacKay) also became known as the ecological school because of their concentration upon the effects of the urban environment on individual behaviour. The growth of the modern city was seen to produce distinctive neighbourhoods and life styles and the development of delinquent subcultures.
Shaw and MacKay in “Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas” (1942) divide the city of Chicago into five zones, each one at two mile intervals radiating in concentric circles from the central business district. In a statistical analysis of each zone, Shaw and MacKay discovered that the male rates of delinquency were at their highest in zone one (the area closest to the city centre or central business district) while the lowest rate of deviancy occurred in zone five in the high income outskirts of the city.
When Chicago and other major cities first developed, the business area was surrounded by the elegant houses of the affluent members of society; however, when the business district began to expand the rich moved out, occupying the outside zones. The crumbling property that remained became occupied by poor immigrant workers. When these immigrants became established, some moved to better housing in the city and their place was taken by new immigrants in search of cheap accommodation. Zone one became known as a “Zone of Transition” because of its high population turnover and, for Shaw and MacKay, this explains the high delinquency rate. Social disorganisation caused drug abuse, prostitution, violence and broken families, for social control and socialisation were weak and ineffective. Cultural norms were very different from mainstream American life and hence delinquent subcultures developed.
A main criticism of the subcultural ecological school is that their theory is circular and that Shaw and MacKay repeat the same thing using different words. Crime and deviance are used to illustrate a level of social disorganisation which in turn is used to account for the delinquency rate. Some sociologists also believe that Shaw and MacKay and the ecological school are positivists with human behaviour being seen as being determined by external stimuli. The ecological approach also tended to assume that everybody in a zone of transition would become delinquent. However, Edwin Sutherland, (1966) stated that individuals only became delinquent when they came into contact with an over-abundance of criminal associations at the expense of associations with anti-criminal types.
Sutherland’s theory became known as differential association. Delinquency, for Sutherland, takes place in an environment of disorganisation, yet he did not conceive of deviance as springing naturally from this anarchy. Instead, he believed that delinquency is learned. However this theory lacks an explanation of why certain individuals do not become delinquent even when they are exposed to criminal associations.
Subcultural theory was developed after the ecological school, arguing that certain groups develop distinctive values which deviate from the mainstream culture. Albert K Cohen’s “status frustration theory” is very similar to the functionalism of R K Merton in “Social Structure and Anomie” (1968). Cultural goals are not always matched by institutional means of achievement (according to Merton), leading to a number of adaptations by members of society; the main adaptation being “innovation”, involving a rejection of the normal means of achieving success goals and adopting illegitimate ones.
Due to educational failure and rejection at school, working class youths find themselves at the bottom of the stratification system; their chances of advancement and of gaining the cultural goals of society are blocked, leading to status frustration. Rather than stealing and adopting criminal behaviour in order to obtain middle class lifestyles, the delinquent subculture rejects this mainstream culture and replaces it with an alternative set of norms and values. The working classes are unable to measure up to middle class standards; therefore, they reject them and develop a culture whereby acts of daring, of criminality and disruption, are redefined as ‘normal’ and ‘good’, and a way of earning high status from one’s peer groups.
Another subcultural theorist, W B Miller in “Lower Class Culture..” (1968) is critical of both Merton’s anomie theory and Cohen’s status frustration. The differences of opinion that take place within the subcultural school surround the relationship between the ‘subculture’ and the wider society in which it is located. Both Merton and Cohen view the delinquent subculture as a reaction against the lack of opportunity and failure to attain mainstream goals. Instead, Miller’s theory suggests that working class delinquent subcultures develop independently from the mainstream culture. Distinct cultural activities (such as a concern with toughness, masculinity and the pursuit of excitement), which Miller calls “focal concerns”, develop and are conformed to over a number of generations. Delinquency, for Miller, therefore, does not involve a striving for middle class values but as a process of acting out the “focal concerns” of a working class subculture.
Two other subcultural theorists are R A Cloward and L E Ohlin, who attempt to join together the work of Merton’s anomie theory with Sutherland’s differential association. Unlike Merton’s theory, Cloward and Ohlin’s scheme concentrates upon the collective subcultural response, rather then individual adaptation. Cloward and Ohlin were specifically interested in explaining the diversity in particular forms of deviance, which they explain by pointing to three different working class subcultures. A criminal subculture exists for the pursuit of monetary rewards through theft, extortion and organised crime, usually in stable slum neighbourhoods.
The value system of these areas tends to legitimise crime and a “criminal career structure” develops, an apprenticeship beginning with petty theft and resulting in the development of professional criminals. Secondly, a conflict subculture develops in those areas where stable neighbourhoods are replaced by social disorganisation, with high rates of geographical mobility. Adult criminality is low and here little crime is passed on to youngsters. Lacking both legitimate and illegitimate structures, the subculture members turn to violence and gang warfare. The final group for Cloward and Ohlin, is retreatist subculture, which deals with those youths who have failed in both criminal and conflict cultures and tend to withdraw or retreat into illegal drug use and alcoholism.
By the 1970’s, subcultural theory was under increasing criticism, although it has never been totally rejected; social theories that have followed have used at least some of the concepts employed by subculturists. However one of the most persuasive arguments presented against subcultural explanations has been from D Matza. According to Matza, most deviance is quite normal. All individuals, whatever their social class, have deviant values lying just under the surface and, occasionally, ‘drift’ in and then out of deviancy.
Few differences are emphasised (by Matza) between deviants and conformists – and there is certainly little evidence of the existence of a permanent deviant subculture. Studies of the justifications for criminal activity by delinquents show that individuals are affected by the values of the dominant mainstream culture. Techniques of ‘neutralisation’ are adopted by a delinquent in order to justify his or her actions: for instance, denial of responsibility e.g. joyriding, which is explained as a search for fun rather than stealing. Subculture theory is accused, therefore, of overestimating and overemphasising the amount of delinquent activity.