Convincing explanations for group offending

Do subcultural theories offer convincing explanations for group offending by young men and women today? Are there any other theoretical perspectives which you may consider to be useful and relevant? Young people have always been targets from the criticism of their elders. Their alleged 'wild moral values' have resulted in the definition of young people as a social problem, 'particularly since the end of the Second World War with the adolescent working-class males, especially, being portrayed as a 'folk devil'' (Brake 1980: 1).

The 1950s saw the start of what is now the one of the highest priorities on the political agenda: juvenile delinquents. Icons such as James Dean in his leather jacket were regarded as 'out of control'. American street gangs developed their own dress code, language, engaged in drug use and fight for turf. Britain has seen the Teddy Boys from the immediate post-war period, followed by the Mods, Rockers, Skinheads and Punks. Thus, a delinquent subculture can be described as a way of life that has somehow become traditional among certain groups in American society.

These groups are the boys' gangs that flourish most conspicuously in the 'delinquency neighbourhoods' of our large American cities. (Cohen, 1955: 13) Chicago sociologists focused on the motivations of delinquents. They argued that there is nothing 'wrong' with delinquents – they simply perceive the world in a different mode and act accordingly. The question arises of how and why subcultures exist. Albert Cohen first explicitly used the concept of subculture. Cohen questioned why economic ends did not motivate most delinquent acts. For example, vandalism and graffiti are of no economic benefit to the perpetrator.

Cohen's solution was that most delinquents are motivated by status frustration. This is because working class children have to live up to the 'middle class measuring rod', and they fail to live up to these standards, developing feelings of 'deprivation and frustration and strong incentives to find other means to the achievement of status and its symbols' (Cohen 1955: 35). Unable to attain their goals by lawful means, these disadvantaged segments of the population are under strong pressure to resort to crime, the only means available to them.

(Cohen 1955: 35) Those who are most likely to commit deviant acts are generally do not achieve academically at school, live in the most economically deprived areas and have the worst chances in employment. Cohen states that school has a major influence on delinquents. This is where they are awarded (or denied) status (Moore 1996: 51). Cohen saw status frustration as providing the key motivation for young people forming subcultures, the subcultures as providing to the problem of status frustration.

Aware of being branded failures, Cohen notes that delinquent boys develop their own subculture with its own set of values as a collective response to status denial. These values are based on a deliberate reversal of accepted forms of behaviour. So, actions such as stealing, rudeness and violence that are condemned in the dominant society are elevated to a central position in the boys' subculture (Moore 1996: 51). Once established, the subculture takes on an identity of its own, often including styles of dress, language, behaviour and sometimes hierarchies.

As it can be seen above these young men were labelled as criminal. It is conventional wisdom that those who break the law will labelled criminal. However, Becker looks at the inadequacy of this, noting that the innocent are sometimes falsely accused and more, importantly, that only some of those who violate the criminal law are eventually arrested. Frank Tannenbaum (1938) looks at the impact of being defined as subculture, where a community first defines the actions of the individual as evil 'administering specialised treatment to 'punish' or 'cure' the evil' (Burke 2001: 142).

Tannenbaum notes that this leads to further isolation and he eventually will 're-define his self image in line with the opinions and expectations of others in the community and thereby come to perceive himself as criminal' (Burke 2001: 142). Following on from Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin (1961) attempted to link Merton's concept of anomie with subcultural theory. Merton had suggested that individuals turn to crime, drug addiction and violence when society provides too few opportunities to achieve socially approved goals by legal means.

They actively seek out and join with others who face he same problem (Burke 2001: 115). However, Cloward and Ohlin felt the Merton ignores the existence of an illegitimate opportunity structure, running parallel to the legal one and operating on three levels: criminal subculture, conflict subculture and retreatist subculture (Burke 2001: 116). Firstly, the criminal opportunity structure exists mainly in the lower class neighbourhoods where the successful criminal in not only visible to young people, but is willing to associate with them.

Not having any conventional role models of success, these youths access criminal success models instead. Secondly, the conflict subculture exists where the above conditions are absent and there is no career in crime available to young men. They may convey their frustration at certain failure in both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures by turning to violence. Finally, the retreatist subculture is the last level of the illegal opportunity structure. The 'double failures' can be found here, who have been unsuccessful in crime and violence.

Consequently, they 'retreat' into drugs and alcoholism, paying for their addictions through petty theft, shoplifting and prostitution (Muncie 2001: 296). This approach has been criticised for assuming that everyone seeks the same goal of financial success. Moore argues, however, that people have a wide variety of goals, so failure cannot simply be dictated by lack of financial success. Secondly, Moore highlights that there is no evidence the idea of subcultures as described by Cloward and Ohlin for the illegitimate opportunity argument. These do not appear to exist in Britain (Moore 1996: 52-53).

Unlike Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin, who suggested that crime is the result of distinctive subcultures which provide alternative guidelines to action from the mainstream culture, Walter B Miller (1962) argued that 'offending is the product of long established traditions of working-class life'. Therefore, it was the very structure of working-class culture that generated offending behaviour, rather than response to conflicts with middle-class values (Burke 2001:114). The focal concerns are as follows: trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate and autonomy, which combine in several ways to produce criminality.

Most subcultural approaches have two main characteristics: emphasis on the idea that subcultures have a distinct set of values to those held by the dominant culture; and that delinquents are driven into their actions by subcultural forces stronger than themselves, a view known as determinism (Moore 1996: 54). However, David Matza comments on positivistic approaches of determinism and differentiation, presented by Miller. Miller suggests that 'lower class youth are virtually unaffected by the wider conventions of American society'.

He argues that these boys are socialized with standards and expectations that insist on behaviour that is unlawful from conventional society. Therefore, their delinquent behaviour is a result of what Miller calls "lower class culture" (Matza 1964: 35). However, this suggests that the socialisation process for the "lower class" boys is completely autonomous and the question arises is how can they be completely autonomous. They must hold some conventional values to go against them. Brake supports this point by arguing that: subcultures share elements of the larger class culture…

but are also distinct from it. Subcultures also have a relationship to the overall dominant culture which, because of its pervasiveness, in particular its transmission through the mass media, is unavoidable. (Brake 1980: 7) Matza progressed to say that delinquents are similar to everyone else in their values and voice similar opinions of outrage about crime as the rest of society. When they are caught, they simply express feelings of remorse and offer justifications for their actions (Moore 1996: 54). Following on from this, Matza primarily argued that we all hold two sets of values.

There are respectable, conventional values that guide us most of the time. However, sometimes subterranean values emerge, such as sexuality, greed and aggressiveness. Matza argues that we all hold these subterranean values but they usually controlled, and we occasionally give 'voice' them. He adds to this by claiming that delinquents are more likely to apply these subterranean in 'inappropriate' situations (Moore 1996: 54). It seems bizarre that delinquents are as much committed to conventional values and convey similar outrage to violence as everyone else, yet it seems bizarre that they commit the same crimes they condemn themselves.

Matza explains this by suggesting that delinquents regard their own crimes as an exception to the rule. He identifies five techniques of neutralisation, which provide justifications for why general rules can be broken. These include denial of responsibility where the culprit argues that it was not his/her fault and that someone made them do it. Denial of victim is where the crime is generally wrong but the victim is said to have deserved it. Denial of injury is where the victim is believed not to be harmed by the crime.

Condemnation of condemners is where the delinquent claims that the accusers are no different from themselves. Finally, appeal to higher loyalties is where the delinquent has claims he or she had to do it because of some general 'moral' standard, such as 'I couldn't leave my mates (during a fight) (Sykes & Matza 2001: 209-11). The final aspect of Matza's explanation for delinquency is drift. The question arises that if we all somehow hold subterranean values, and can justify our actions when required, then why is it that only some young people engage in crime? Matza suggests that it is linked to youth.

He states that during this period, youths feel a lack of control over their lives, and 'they long to gain some control over their destiny'. He argues that this loosens the adolescent from the constraining bonds of society, and this opens them up to influences to deviant acts by the peer group. Eventually, in an effort to show their control over their lives they commit a delinquent act. Matza states that drift stands midway between freedom and control and that the 'delinquent transiently exists in limbo between convention and crime… thus, he drifts between criminal and conventional action' (Matza 1964:28).