Cohen’s subcultural theory assumes that crime is a consequence of the union of young people into so-called subcultures in which deviant values and moral concepts dominate. Subcultural theory became the dominant theory of its time.
Cohen’s basic assumption is that most juvenile criminals are members of delinquent subcultures. Subcultures are defined as subsystems or antisystems of society with their own attitudes and norms that often contradict the moral concepts of majority society.
According to Cohen, the union of young people into subcultures is the result of adjustment and status problems of their members caused by the inequality of the existing class society.
For example, a boy from the lower classes always strives to adapt to higher social strata, but is confronted with expectations and goals that he cannot fulfil due to his social background or cannot achieve due to rigid social structures. In direct comparison with middle-class boys, he has to recognise his own low status, poor prestige and little chance of success in business and society. The resulting problems of self-respect ultimately lead to the merging of several such boys into alternative subgroups, which are defined by their demarcation from the unattainable middle class.
According to Cohen, these delinquent subcultures are characterized above all by their deviant values and morals, which enable their members to gain prestige and recognition. The behaviour that is displayed within the subculture is fundamentally different from that outside the subculture because of these new norms. For society as a whole, they seem deviant, often criminal. As an alternative status system, however, subculture justifies hostility and aggression towards non-members, thereby eliminating possible feelings of guilt.
Delinquent subcultures are, according to Cohen (see: Downes & Rock, 2007):
- nontutilitarian (the deviant actions are not committed on the basis of economic rationality)
- malicious (the purpose of delinquent acts is to annoy or even injure others)
- negativistic (criminal acts are committed precisely because of their prohibition in order to consciously reject conventional values)
- versatile (in the sense of various delinquent behaviours that occur)
- hedonistic (the focus is on the momentary pleasure)
- resistant (to external pressure of conformity and loyal towards their own goup members, values and norms)
Subcultural theory is not an actual learning theory, but rather a hybrid of learning, anomie and other theories. Another special feature is that subculture theory only deals with juvenile delinquency, but not with criminal behaviour in general.
Cohen later dealt with other forms of subcultures. Other authors also developed a number of other theories on the phenomenon of delinquent subcultures. However, all these concepts have in common Cohen’s basic theses:
Socially unequally distributed social structural conditions lead to the development of subcultures as expressions of social differentiation. Their diverging norms entail behavioural expectations that are perceived as deviating by society as a whole, but are regarded as normal within the subculture.
Implication for criminal policy
Like anomie theories, subcultural theories criticize social inequalities in stratified or class society, which are responsible for individual pressure and adaptation problems. According to Cohen, a good criminal policy would be a good social policy. In fact, at the time when subcultural theories were being developed in the USA, political projects such as the “fight against poverty” were at the forefront of criminal policy. With regard to the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency, social policy would have to be expanded, for example, by promoting the schooling of young people from lower classes.
However, Cohen himself did not make precise criminal policy demands, and the fact that Cohen’s subculture theory is one of the only known theories of crime according to which deviating norms lead to deviating actions is interesting and not without political significance. The idea of resocialization would thus be applied here to good education with sustainable transmission of values and morals.
Critical appreciation & relevance
Cohen’s subcultural theory draws attention to the fact that criminals, in their view, do not act criminally at all. As members of subcultures, they are subject to different behavioural requirements based on values and norms that deviate from those of mainstream society. The behaviour shown is a conforming behaviour within the subculture and thus also for the actor. From this, something can already be deduced that actually only found its way into the criminal sociological discussion much later: The different definition of deviation and conformity for the same behaviour within the framework of different socio-structural conditions leads to the equally simple and important thesis: what is considered deviant or criminal for one person can be normal and conformal for another, perhaps even absolutely necessary, since it is prescribed by one’s own system of values and norms.
Subcultural theories are therefore to be appreciated for their understanding that deviation in certain groups is common. By also incorporating the idea of anomie theory of status and adaptation problems, the approaches show themselves as early attempts to use both learning theory and social-structural conditions to explain deviant behaviour patterns.
However, Cohen’s theory has a decisive weakness in its own limitation to juvenile delinquency. Empirically, Cohen’s theory is based solely on studies of North American street gangs and youth gangs. Subsequent attempts to extend it to crime in general have failed because it is obviously absurd to attribute any criminal activity to the existence of male delinquent subcultures. White-collar crimes cannot be explained, nor can crimes by the middle class or, for example, by women.
Some critics also doubt whether these gangs of young people and gangs actually represent such postulated subcultures with fixed structures and deviating norms. Quite a few studies have shown that many youth groups are rather loose and unstructured connections. In addition, there is criticism of the underlying determinism of Cohen’s subcultural theory. From today’s perspective, a subcultural normative attitude is not an either-or. Representatives of the neutralization thesis doubt, however, that subcultural values that deviate from those of mainstream society can actually be developed and completely internalized.
- Cohen, A. K. (1955). Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York: Free Press.
- Cohen, A. K. (2016) Kriminelle Subkulturen. In: Klimke, D. & Legnaro, A. (Hrsg.) Kriminologische Grundlagentexte. Springer VS: Wiesbaden. S. 269-280.
- Cohen, A. K. (1957) Kriminelle Subkulturen. In: Heintz, P. & König, R. (Hrsg.) Soziologie der Jugendkriminalität. Studien zur Sozialwissenschaft. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag. S. 103-117.
- Cohen, Albert K. and Short, J. (1968). Research in Delinquent Subcultures. In: Journal of Social Issues, S.20–37.
- Downes, D.M. & Rock, P. E. (2007). Understanding Deviance: A Guide to the Sociology of Crime and Rule-breaking (5th ed.). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
- Miller, Walter B. (1958): Lower class culture as a generating milieu of gang delinquency. In: Journal of Social Issues, 15, S.5-19.
- Thrasher, Frederic M. (1927). The Gang. A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Chicago [u.a.]: University of Chicago Press.
- Whyte, William F. (1943): Street Corner Society. Chicago [u.a.]: University of Chicago Press.
- Yablonski, Lewis (1959): The delinquent gangs as a near group. In: Social Problems, 7, S.108-109