8. Sociological Theories of Crime

8.4 Delinquency as a Subculture

Dr. Sean Ashley

Albert Cohen’s theory of delinquent subcultures offers a different way of understanding crime from the classical rational-choice theories and Merton’s strain theory. It is a complementary theory that helps explain crimes that are “non-utilitarian, malicious and negativistic”—that is to say, crime that does not have any rational goal but is done simply for “the hell of it” (Cohen, 1955, p. 25-26). For Cohen, the explanation for juvenile delinquency of this sort is cultural in nature. Juvenile delinquency represents a particular type of subculture. Children learn to become delinquents by being socialised into youth gangs, where they learn the beliefs, values, codes and tastes of the group (Cohen, 1955).

As with many early criminologists, Cohen saw juvenile delinquency primarily as a working-class, male phenomenon. This is because working-class youth are taught the democratic ideal that everyone can become rich and successful, but in school they encounter a set of distinctly middle-class values against which their behaviour is measured. These class-specific values are framed as universal, making it much easier for middle-class youth to achieve recognition in school for behaving “correctly.” This leads to feelings of inferiority, which last as long as the working-class boys cling to that particular worldview (Cohen, 1955).

The delinquent subculture presents young boys with a new set of values and a means of acquiring status within a different cultural context. These new values are an inversion of the middle-class standards that working-class boys are judged by in school. For example, while the middle class places value on controlling aggression and respecting property, the culture of the gang legitimates violence and group stealing (Cohen, 1955). While the act of theft may bring material benefits, for Cohen it also reaffirms the cultural cohesion of the group and the status of its members. It is a joint activity that derives its meaning from the common understandings and common loyalties of the group.

For Cohen, the juvenile delinquent is a “rogue male” (Cohen, 1955, p. 140). What about young females? Do they not also engage in group delinquency? In this area, the theory of delinquent subcultures reflects gender stereotypes of the 1950s. Cohen (1955) argues that females do not get involved with gang activities because their status is determined primarily by their relationship to males, and therefore they do not suffer the same forms of status inferiority as their male counterparts. Because their status is so tied to males, Cohen argues that most female delinquency tends to be “sexual delinquency” (Cohen, 1955, p. 144). Whether or not this explains the cause of female delinquency, it certainly represented society’s reaction to the behaviour of young girls during this period. From 1914 to 1937, 600 girls aged eight to eighteen were incarcerated at the Provincial Industrial School for Girls in Vancouver for the crimes of “incorrigibility, vagrancy, and association with a criminal” (Chapman, 2016, p. 21) rather than engaging in criminal activity themselves.

Cohen’s theory has been useful for researchers, but it does not explain why most delinquents eventually turn to more conventional, law-abiding pursuits to attain status in adult life. Why would this way of attaining status be particularly attractive to youth? Perhaps, as Bordua (1961) suggests, they are just out there looking for fun. Also, if juvenile delinquency is the result of working-class status frustration, how do we account for the growing phenomenon of middle-class gangs in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia today (Kane & Smart, 2019)?


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Sean Ashley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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