Subcultural Theories of Deviance

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 04, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Subcultural theories argue that crime is rooted in criminal subcultures, and criminologists must identify the cultural codes and common values that exist in these groups.
  • There are numerous subcultural theories that developed in the 20th century. The most notable of these are those of Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin.
  • According to Albert Cohen’s status frustration theory, working-class deviant subcultures emerge because people within the working class are denied status in society. These delinquents band together and devise their own values contrary to those of greater society.
  • Cloward and Ohlin proposed that there are three types of deviant subcultures that emerge due to varying social factors: criminal, conflict, and retreatist subcultures.
  • Walter Miller’s cultural deviance theory proposes that the lower classes have different sets of values altogether from those of higher social strata. These values have been established over and passed down for many generations.
  • Matzo counters many of the underlying assumptions of subcultural theories by suggesting that all people, regardless of class or deviance status, have similar cultural values. Deviants, in Miller’s view, are differentiated from others in their ability to justify their deviance.

Introduction to Subcultural Theories

Subcultural theory, developed by Al Cohen (1955) and others, argues that criminologists must understand criminal behavior as being rooted in the collective reality of a criminal subculture.

As a result, criminologists must define the cultural codes and traits that define that subculture such as codes of speech and conduct, styles of dress, shared emotions, and common problems — and, in turn, investigate the ways in which criminality within the subculture can offer members of the subculture a solution to a shared problem.

Subcultural theory emphasizes how criminals in their own view do not act criminally. As members of subcultures, criminals have different behavioral requirements and values and norms than those of mainstream society. These criminals conform to their own subculture.

Thus, what is considered deviant or criminal for one person can be normal for another, even necessary, as it is prescribed by one's own system of values and norms.

Because deviant behavior is a result of conformity, subcultural theories believe that deviation from mainstream society is inherently more common in some groups than others.

Subcultural theory emerged from two distinct sociological traditions (Williams, 2011). These sociological traditions had five notable thinkers:

  1. Albert Cohen, who devised Status Frustration Theory;
  2. Cloward and Ohlin, who describes three types of deviant subcultures;
  3. Walter Miller, who wrote on the focal concerns of the working class;
  4. Charles Murray, who studies the underclass and crime.

Albert Cohen: Deviant Subcultures emerge because of Status Frustration

Albert Cohen (1955) argued that working-class subcultures emerge because people within the working class are denied status in society. Cohen believed that working-class boys wished to emulate middle-class values and aspirations, but lacked the means of achieving success.

Status frustration, or more specifically, a sense of personal failure and inadequacy, emerged as a result. Many boys, Cohen argued, respond to this sense of personal failure and inadequacy in the face of middle-class standards by rejecting socially acceptable values and patterns of acceptable behavior.

Because this feeling of rejection and inadequacy extends to large groups of people, adolescents band together and form delinquent subcultures, which counter the norms and values of mainstream culture through offering status to those who are the most deviant.

This deviance can extend from malicious behavior to intimidation, the breaking of rules in institutions within schools, and even crime. This pattern of deviance begins in school before rising in severity later on, as deviants become truant or possibly involved in gangs.

The status frustration theory has received a large amount of pushback. Roach and Gursslin (1965) argued that there was little empirical support for the hypothesis, and that the theory itself is traced to the tendency of academic literature to obscure the actual characteristic of the lower-class.

Rather than considering status deprivation to be the principal characteristic of the lower class, Roach and Gursslin argued, material deprivation should be.

Cloward and Ohlin’s Illegitimate Opportunity Structures

Cloward and Ohlin propelled Cohen’s subcultural theory further in proposing that there are three types of deviant subcultures. These subcultures can emerge in response to the “illegitimate opportunity structure” available to the deviant subcultures.

These are criminal subcultures, conflict subcultures, and retreatist subcultures.

Criminal Subcultures (socialise young people into criminal activity)

Criminal subcultures involve crimes carried out for practical purposes, such as theft. These subcultures, according to Cloward and Ohlin (2017), develop in stable working-class areas where there is an established pattern of crime.

Crimes such as theft give young criminals learning opportunities and a career structure, as well as a means of entering the legitimate job market by providing a means of achieving financial stability.

For example, a young adult who steals valuable car parts or smartphones may find a way of financing education or vocational training. Adult criminals in this subculture exercise social control over the young to prevent them from carrying out non-utilitarian delinquent acts — such as vandalism — which could attract the attention of the police.

Conflict Subcultures (where there is little social cohesion)

Conflict subcultures, meanwhile, emerge in socially disorganized areas where there is high population turnover and thus a lack of community or social cohesion. This lack of social cohesion prevents the formation of stable adult criminal subcultures.

Both legal and illicit means of achieving mmainstream goals are limited, and young people express their frustration at the lack of opportunity through street crime and obtaining status through following the values of their peer subcultures.

Crimes in conflict subcultures are often characterized by violence, gang warfare, and violent robbery (Cloward & Ohlin, year).

Retreatist Subcultures (those who fail to gain access to the other two subcultures)
Retreatist subcultures emerge among lower-class youths who fail to succeed both in mainstream society and in crime and gang cultures. This results in, according to Cloward and Ohlin (2017), escapism through drug addiction and alcoholism, financed by petty theft, shoplifting, and prostitution.

Walter Miller’s Cultural Deviance Theory

Walter Miller (1958), following Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin, revived interest in delinquency as a product of alternative values. He posits that the underclass is responsible for the majority of street crime.

Miller focused on gang delinquency in Boston during the 1950s, and asserted that delinquent activity is primarily motivated by an attempt to realize the values of the lower-class community in itself, which relate to toughness, adventure, and autonomy (Carey & McAnany, 1984).

In contrast to other subcultural theories, Miller did not see deviant behavior occurring due to the inability of the lower/working class to achieve success, but in terms of the existence of a distinctive lower-class subculture.

Focal Concerns

Miller argued that, for centuries, the working class possessed their own culture and traditions fundamentally different from those of the higher classes. This culture, Miller suggests, has been passed on for many generations.

In comparison to higher social strata, the lower classes are concerned with:

  • Toughness: a concern for hyper masculinity and finding expression and courage in the face of physical threats as well as a rejection of timidity and weakness. This can, in practice, lead to assault as the group attempts to maintain their reputation.
  • Smartness: the capacity to outwit and deceive others. This can result in crimes such as hustling, conning, pimping, pickpocketing, and petty theft.
  • Excitement: the search for emotional stimulus, as sought by practices such as gambling, sex, and drug and alcohol consumption.
  • Fate: the belief that little can be done to change social status and one’s way of living.
  • Trouble: an acceptance that one’s life will involve violence, and thus involvement in, rather than avoidance of, physical conflict.

Follow-up studies on class attitudes, contrary to Miller’s theory, have not uncovered any alternative set of lower-class values. Some studies that incorporate miller’s concerns in their designs show that all youth, regardless of their delinquency or class status, evaluate conventional images of success equally highly and more highly than delinquent ones (Carey & McAnany, 1984).

David Matza's Delinquency and Drift

David Matza (2018) attacked some of the assumptions on which subcultural theories of crime are based by claiming that delinquents have similar values to those who are not delinquent, and even voice similar feelings of outrage about crime as those in the rest of society.

Matza’s theory also accounts for the way that behavior is adaptable and flexible, involving dimensions of choice and free will. According to Matza, delinquents are committed to the same values and norms as the rest of society, and society prevents them from being delinquent most of the time.

When delinquents commit crimes, they express regret and remorse, and disapprove of crimes such as mugging, armed robbery, and fighting with weapons. In Matza’s words, these deviants drift into deviant activities through spontaneity and impulsiveness.

Although delinquents, in Matza’s theory, do not approve of crimes, they use techniques of neutralization to justify their own criminal behavior. These can include denial of responsibility, denial of the victim, denial of the injury, condemnation of those who accuse them, and an appeal to higher loyalties, such as not believing it right to abandon one’s friends during a fight (Matza, 2018).

Everyone also, according to Matza, has a set of subterranean values — such as greed and aggressiveness — which are generally controlled, but may appear in particular situations. These subterranean values contrast with traditional values and roles, such as one’s place in one’s family or one’s occupation.

The last element of Matza’s (2018) subcultural theory of delinquency is drift, which provides a justification for why only some people commit crimes. Matza argues that drift is a period in adolescence where an adolescent’s bonds from society are loosened, making them more susceptible to suggestions of deviant acts from their peer group.

This loosening of ties occurs as youths feel as though they lack control over their own lives and long to gain autonomy. Thus, to show that they have control over their lives, adolescents may commit a delinquent act without necessarily committing themselves to a life of crime. Matza’s subcultural theory has received numerous criticisms.

One of these is its lack of attempt to group delinquency in a wider framework of economic and social circumstances that drive certain groups — such as male working-class boys — to commit more crimes than others.

Taylor, Walton, and Young (2013), additionally, raised doubts about the view that those who use the techniques of neutralization are not challenging the dominant views in society, and Steven Box (1987) suggests that evidence that criminals are remorseful may not be sincere.

Charles Murray’s Underclass Theory of Crime

Most recently, the American new right sociologist Charles Murray (2005) created the underclass theory of crime. This underclass refers to a group of people in America who were unemployed over the long-term and effectively dependent on government assistance.

Murray believed that the children of this underclass would be essentially cut off from ordinary social life, and thus not constrained by the ordinary norms and values of workers. Murray believed that participation in the underclass is a lifestyle choice and pathological.

Murray argued that the culture transmitted by the underclass would result in high crime rates and low participation in the labor force among future generations, as the underclass had and could never be socialized and taught basic conditioning.

Murray’s underclass theory of crime has proven contentious in sociology, with some researchers claiming that it has sparked “welfare politics” (Prideaux, 2010).

Subcultural theory vs. Cultural criminology vs. Social Control Theory

Cultural criminology is an approach to the study of crime that sees crime as a product of the culture in which it occurs. The people who commit and control crimes, in this view, use the meaning of established cultural practices as justification for the committing and controlling of crimes.

Subcultural theory has many similarities too, and is a subset of, culture criminology. Like cultural criminology, it critiques criminological models that ignore or assume the subtleties of how meaning and symbolism shape criminal subcultures.

In contrast to social control theorists, however, subcultural theorists believe that the pull of the peer group causes people to commit crime, rather than a lack of attachment to family or other mainstream institutions.

Subcultural theory also confers an advantage in describing crimes such as vandalism and “playing chicken” that cannot be explained by strain theory. Deviance, within criminal subcultures, is a cooperative response to marginalization.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 04). Subcultural theories of deviance. Simply Sociology.


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