The theory of differential opportunities combines learning, subculture, anomie and social disorganization theories and expands them to include the recognition that for criminal behaviour there must also be access to illegitimate means.
On the one hand, the approach is based on Sutherland, starting from the assumption that criminal motives, techniques and rationalizations are learned through criminal associations. On the other hand, Cloward and Ohlin share with Merton and Cohen the notion that deviant behaviour is a consequence of the stratum-specific pressure to adapt, or more precisely of blocked access to legitimate means, and that this adaptation (according to Cohen) typically takes place collectively through interaction processes in groups.
Cloward and Ohlin see the answer, which is why not all persons suffering from adaptation problems become criminals, in the fact that access to illegitimate means can also be blocked for criminal action – the opportunities differentiate. For example, drug trafficking is more difficult to access in some parts of the city than in others. A person who intends to become a drug dealer not only requires drug suppliers, but also a customer base and a street corner where he can sell his drugs. Access to these means, however, is not open to everyone. It requires relationships with experienced people who are willing to share their knowledge and professional network.
The opportunity to break into cars also depends on the social situation of the environment, the car owner and the presence of possible accomplices. Socially disorganized neighbourhoods thus, according to Shaw and McKay’s theory, offer more access to criminal behaviour than others.
However, the theory of differential opportunities can also be applied within subcultural structures. So it seems obvious that delinquent gangs can only commit crimes if they have the means to do so.
At both the macro-social and subcultural levels, after Cloward and Ohlin, it can now happen that an individual has neither legitimate nor illegitimate means at his disposal. Since in such a case neither the legitimate nor illegitimate means are available to an individual, the authors speak of double failures.
According to Cloward and Ohlin, members of subcultures in such a dilemma react with random violence and intensified territorial expansion.
Altogether it can be said that Cloward and Ohlin aim more at the crime opportunity and less at the motivation for the crime. Crime is only possible if society, certain neighbourhoods, or delinquent subcultures provide illegitimate means. A certain kinship cannot be ignored with routine activity approach where, for example, the presence of an alarm system prevents the opportunity to commit a crime.
Implications for Criminal Policy
Just like the theory itself, the political demands and conclusions are a mixture of different approaches.
According to the theory of differential opportunities, rehabilitation is achievable by learning to conform to behaviour, good social policy, moral education, the resolution of problematic neighbourhoods, but also, to a certain extent, deterrence and situational crime prevention.
Above all, Cloward and Ohlin demand more education and improvement of the economic conditions for the US underclass in order to enable cultural and financial success for all members of society. This includes the establishment of social and political structures within vulnerable or socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Critical Appraisal & Relevance
Cloward’s and Ohlin’s theory shares some strengths as well as some weaknesses of their related theories, which, however, are partly resolved by their combination.
What remains in any case is the criticism that not every offence needs specific opportunities or certain illegitimate means to be executed. Pure violence or kleptomaniac behaviour is obviously always and everywhere possible. The basic assumption of Cloward and Ohlin that criminal acts are in principle always reactions to status and adaptation problems is and remains debatable. Merton, Cohen and others have already been accused of this narrow view.
Nevertheless, the theory of differential opportunities succeeds in making clear the illegitimate means necessary for most crimes. This underlines situational elements in the criminological discussion on the one hand, and on the other hand plays with the idea of whether everyone would not end up acting criminally if they had the necessary access to it.
- Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd E. Ohlin (1960). Delinquency and opportunity: a theory of delinquent gangs. New York: The Free Press..