Accomplishing Femininity Amongst the Girls in the Gangs

Applying American subcultural theories to Britain seem inappropriate, as Britain has its own culture, with its own working class that have developed historical traditions. School has been important as well as local working class neighbourhoods and communities. The social structure in Britain is more class conscious. Subcultural theory developed considerably since the mid-sixties, taking four approaches. First, there is the early social ecology of the working class neighbourhood carried out in the late fifties and early sixties. Secondly, there is the relation of the delinquent subculture to the sociology of education.

Third, there is the cultural emphasis of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. This approach adopts a Marxist framework to consider youth cultures and their style, in terms of their relationship to class, dominant cultures and ideology. Lastly, there are the contemporary neighbourhood studies that look at local youth groups in the light of influence by contemporary deviancy theory and social reaction (Brake 1980: 50). Early British deviant subcultural studies are inclined to follow the US theories discussed above, the main influences being Miller and Cohen.

John Mays (1954) argues that in certain, particular older areas, residents share a number of attitutudes and ways of behaving that predispose them to criminality. Mays argues that criminal behaviour is not a conscience rebellion against middle-class values, but an 'alternative working-class subculture that has been adopted over the years in a haphazard way' (Burke 2001: 123). D. Wilmott's study of adolescent males in a working-class district of London produced little evidence of a delinquent subculture. His study reached similar conclusions as Miller.

He, too, argued that criminal behaviour is a part of working class people. 'Teenagers became involved in petty crime simply for the fun and 'togetherness' of the shared activity experience' (Burke 2001: 124). David Downes (1966) conducted a thorough study of adolescents in East London, and tested American subcultural theories. Here began the shifting the focus from gang delinquency to 'existence and development of youth subcultures in terms of their leisure activities' (Muncie 1999: 163). There was no evidence of the existence of status frustration or of the 'illegitimate opportunity structure' of Cloward and Ohlin.

However, Downes did find strong evidence to support the Matza's contribution. In general, Downes did not find any evidence of structured gangs in Britain (Muncie 1999: 163). The working class delinquents in Downes study were characterised by disassociation from work and aspirations for a career. Employment was merely a means of obtaining money, from which these adolescents neither hoped for, nor received, satisfaction. However, Downes found that they showed no resentment about their low school status (contrary to Cohen), or their lack of employment opportunities (differing from Cloward and Ohlin).

This lack of satisfaction at work led the youths to concentrate on what Downes terms 'leisure values', similar to Matza's 'subterranean values', and also a search for a 'good time', which is dominant through British culture. The youths that Downes studied placed more emphasis on leisure values to their middle-class counter-parts due to a lack of satisfaction at school and then in employment. Thus: they were more disposed to commit petty acts of crime in the process of enjoying themselves; however, they had no commitment to deviant values. (Moore 1996: 57)

Downe's study ended the conventional subcultural approaches. Moore highlights how subsequent studies by James Patrick and Howard Parker could be said to follow the subcultural approach, but they had already moved a long way from its starting point and could be taken to highlight how subcultural studies split into positivistic and Marxist strands. In his study of street gangs in Glasgow, Patrick (1973), confirmed there were indeed tightly organised gangs, 'formed around a particularly strong psychotic leader who maintained the discipline'.

He found this gang to be rather peculiar to Glasgow, as it was such a different picture from the ones presented in subcultural studies. And in Parker's View from the Boys, a group of boys made their living by stealing 'catseyes' (car radios). Moore highlights that Parker found little evidence to support any of the conventional theories and instead suggested that a 'Marxist analysis was needed to understand the situation and the views expressed by the 'boys' in his study' (Moore 1996: 57).

Criticisms of subcultural theory by women have pointed out the absence of girls. This is not surprising, Blake argues, because an examination of the studies reveal that it is a sexist perspective, and Laidler & Hunt (2001) support this by arguing that discussions about young women's involvement in gangs, with a few notable exceptions, have been typically shallow and sexist. They examine the meanings, expressions and paradoxes of femininity as they are understood and experienced by Latino, African American and Asian-Pacific American female gang members.

The 'subcultures traditionally have been a place to examine centrally variations on several themes concerning masculinity' (Brake 1980: 2). However, Cohen highlighted that 'juvenile delinquency and the delinquent subculture in particular are overwhelmingly concentrated in the male, working-class sector of the juvenile population' (Cohen 1955:37). McRobbie & Garber (1976) argued that girls were not necessarily absent from subcultures, but because of their different structural position within the home, they were pushed by male dominance to the periphery of social activity (Muncie 1999: 186).

Women have merely been accessories to fulfil the men's needs, for example, it would be much easier for women to get away with carrying guns and drugs for men the police are less likely to search women as they would men. Another issue that is prevalent in the subcultural theory and other theoretical perspectives is the focus on working class males. This raises the issue of the construction of criminality and maintains the criminal label they have already been given through media portrayals of young men. The subcultural theory simply defines young men's criminality.

It seems a distinct category for young men as opposed to Robert Merton's anomie, which attempts to explain the occurrence of not merely crime, but also wider deviance and disorder. Anomie may be regarded as a theory for the criminality of 'grown ups' and this suggests the autonomy of subcultures as individual categories that can be connected to nothing else. Moreover, the whole issue of race has been overlooked, particularly in Britain. This seems rather surprising in that the media portrayal of 'gangs' consist of young, black men associated with possession of firearms and drugs.

Subcultural theory has shown that subculture style had been commercialised and over-politicised with the teddy boys/mods/rockers/skinheads. These styles were viewed as the basis of new and subversive meanings and as forms of resistance to subordination by the dominant culture' (Muncie 1999: 187). The key aspects for the explanations for the appearance of a distinct culture were 'affluence', 'consensus' and 'embourgeoisement'. The styles were regarded as a form of resistance against capitalism during rapid post war social change (Hall & Jefferson 1976: 21).

Style in its more conservative sense was ignored. However, from this perspective it is unclear exactly who the subcultures resisted. Having punk/rocker/mods/skinhead styles may have had nothing to do with being in a gang. It may just be a statement of identity politics. Brake illustrated this point by arguing that: the style of the subculture allows an expression of identity through a deliberate projection of a self-image, which claims and identity 'magically' freed from class and occupation.

(Brake 1980: 16) In conclusion, subcultural theory does explain group offending by young men. However, what does this say about the construction of criminality? This theory simply maintains the labelling stereotype of the young, working-class, sometimes unemployed man as the criminal. Murdock (1975) also highlights that concentrating on subcultures tends to ignore respectable youth in the same class location (Brake 1980: 71). These young men in the subcultural theory are white men.

The theory completely overlooks race in relation to subcultures as well as gender, and as Blake, Laidler, and Hunt have pointed out the subcultural theory is sexist. The theory has provided with us reasonable explanations to the beginning of subcultures, starting with the nature of post war society that has been criticised in sociological theories lacking in discipline. Throughout the whole subculture theory, there is much emphasis on the whole notion of the subcultures as 'others', as different from the dominant group. This, again, goes back to the whole construction of criminality.


Brake, M, The Sociology of Youth Culture and Youth Subculture, Routledge & Kegan Paul, (1980) Burke, R. H. , An Introduction to Criminological Theory, Willan Publishing, (2001) Cohen, A. K. , Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang, Macmillan, (1955) Hall, S, & Jefferson, T, (eds), Rituals Through Resistance: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, Hutchinson University Library, (1976) Laidler, K. J. , & Hunt, G, 'Accomplishing Femininity Amongst the Girls in the Gangs', British Journal of Criminology, pp656-678, 41, No. 3, (2001)