Progressing from Cohen's work, Cloward and Ohlin proposed a theory known as opportunity theory. This suggested (Jacobs, 2006, p. 84-85) that delinquency occurred amongst lower working class boys who did well at school but found they were then deprived of opportunities for employment. This lack of legitimate opportunities for people in their position in society created a sense of alienation which they attempted to solve through delinquent sub-cultures such as gangs.
A study in Central America (Moser and Winton, 2002, p.28) argues that young people do not simply have violent intentions by joining gangs, but that it is more in response to difficult social, economic and cultural factors, identifying unemployment as a major cause in the sense of exclusion that can lead to gang membership. We should also consider the effect of labelling theory. For example (Jacobs, 2006, p. 95) Lemert has suggested a notion of primary and secondary deviation: primary deviation being the largely un-noticed acts that occur in everyday society with secondary deviation pointing to those acts identified or reacted to by society and therefore labelled as deviant.
It is generally recognised that this labelling can have an adverse affect on the labelled individuals causing them to seek out others, for example in a gang, to support each other and reinforce their behaviour leading to an increase or amplification of it. An example from our daily lives could be 'hoodies', which began as a simple fashion statement but has now become the focus for anti-social behaviour of youths in general. These youngsters would often take on board the label, indulge in delinquent behaviour as a group more readily, becoming actors in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
In a speech by David Cameron (2006), leader of the Conservative opposition, he argues that the "hoodies" are seen as a sign of aggression and to some represent all that is wrong with youth culture, but he suggests this to be a misunderstanding. He points to the fact that this reaction demonstrates that there is a pressing need to find a long term solution to the problems of youth crime and anti-social behaviour. Another criminological point of view is suggested by Miller (Jacobs, 2006, p.
86) arguing that gang behaviour does not result from some form of reaction against middle class culture, but more that it is just an exaggerated form of lower working class culture. Furthermore, Cohen's theory is questioned by Matza (Jacobs, 2006, p. 83) who suggests that it over-predicts delinquent behaviour, not taking into account that individuals will often drift in and out of this way of life. As gang members tend to be under 25 years of age, this implies that they move out of the lifestyle as they get older.
It is worth emphasizing that all the theories outlined above have been based on US society, which is similar to the UK in many ways. Except that, in the UK, we do have a more established tradition of class structure and therefore less strain is caused by status frustration. As Downes argues (Jacobs, 2006, p. 86-87), the middle class culture is not dominant in the UK – indeed the working class way of life is often considered a matter of personal pride.
In British society, the problem may stem from a lack of ambition and an acceptance of a mundane life with only the best prospect of a steady low paid job, which means that leisure time may be the only opportunity for youths to express themselves and relieve boredom, which can spill over into delinquency. Webster, Macdonald and Simpson (2006, p. 10) argue that groups of school truants who hang around street corners, a problem seen in many of our urban areas, can be considered as an early predictor of criminality.
It could also be said that these groups of like minded individuals are bonding into a type of informal gang. An alternative approach would be to consider the various control theories (Jacobs, 2006, p. 111-114) which reverse the argument by looking at factors that prevent individuals from forming or joining delinquent gangs, bearing in mind that the vast majority of youths will manage to avoid this way of life. This can be the result of a combination of personal and societal controls and the lack of available opportunities to commit crime or delinquent behaviour.
Where there is an absence of these personal and social controls, Reiss suggests the functional consequence can be a delinquent gang. Nye concluded that the family represented the most important direct form of social control, and it was this that kept the majority of individuals from deviance. Hirschi also considered that the social bonding with family, friends and the like who are involved with legitimate activities and societal norms would help to prevent delinquent gangs to prosper.
In conclusion, Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin all indicate that the formation of gangs is linked to the strains created by our societal structure, particularly within lower working class areas. They suggest that at one point or another youths, particularly boys, in these areas are affected by an inability to achieve internalised middle class values as a result of poverty, status or blocked opportunities. The formation of gangs with like minded individuals is a reaction to the frustration and alienation that they feel.
However, whereas this is a useful starting point, it does not provide a sufficient explanation of gang related activity, particularly in modern UK society. An important consideration in this respect is that these criminological studies are based on US samples in the earlier part of last century. They do not sit comfortably within the UK context with its more heavily structured form of class, as indicated by Downes, where working class values are celebrated by their adherents and middle class values are not necessarily a source of ambition, envy or jealousy.
Indeed, as Downes would argue, boredom is more likely to be a factor in the development of delinquent behaviour in this country. The studies of Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin also indicate that gang membership results from rebellion, but modern society would suggest that status is also a motivation. It is because of this that the likes of Sir Ian Blair, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, (Police identify , 2007) warns against adding to the "allure" of gang culture by overstating its importance.
This neatly links to the dangers of labelling theory, which can increase rather than decrease deviance. Furthermore, strain theory does not explain why the great majority of individuals in these areas do not turn to gang related activity. It is in this context that more study and analysis is required if we are find an appropriate way of dealing with the problem caused by the lack of personal and societal controls for some individuals, using the lessons of control theorists to promote the stability that can be created by a strong family structure.
Also, if as Matza suggests, most individuals are capable of dipping in and out of delinquent behaviour, then perhaps there may be greater opportunities to address the appropriate triggers at each stage of adolescence, which in turn may encourage individuals to work through the points in their lives where gang involvement may be an unfortunate temptation.
As a final point, when assessing these various explanations of the formation of gangs, if we are to hope to further criminological research into the subject for the benefit of society as a whole, we must consider the recent evidence that suggests (Bennett and Holloway, p. 305) that gangs in the UK are increasing in number and size, and are more likely to involve violent and gun related activities similar to those of the stereotypical US gang.
Therefore, if our society follows or mirrors US society, as it so often does, this urban irritation could develop into a major social problem as it has in the US. The present is the ideal time to research this behaviour with the criminological intensity of the last century, but from a more specifically UK perspective. The way forward must be to analyse this gang behaviour further before it is passed on to a new generation of youths and evolves in increasingly undesirable directions.