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Why are some people more successful than others? Why do some people commit crimes while others don't? These are the kinds of questions that criminologists spend a lot of time thinking about. A number of different theories have been proposed to explain the occurrence of delinquency, which is the same thing as criminal behavior.
Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin were two criminologists who wrote about these questions in the 1960s. Their work focused on how access to opportunities shapes life chances and influences the degree to which young people end up committing crimes. Let's talk about their theory of delinquency and opportunity.
Cloward and Ohlin were particularly concerned with why young people commit crimes. At the core of their theory is opportunity. American culture generally advances a notion that if we work hard and are smart and capable, we will find suitable employment, but Cloward and Ohlin noted that this isn't always the case. There aren't always enough jobs for everyone, our school systems don't prepare students equally, and we don't all live in neighborhoods that provide us with opportunities.
The opportunities we have available to us determine in many ways if we will turn to delinquency or conform to more legitimate paths. According to Cloward and Ohlin, young people turn to delinquency when they have been boxed out of more legitimate opportunities. An example is when working class young people cannot find a good paying job or achieve middle class status, and they turn to delinquency in an effort to create a better life.
Cloward and Ohlin believed that this lack of money causes strain. Criminologists think about strain as some type of societal force that compels people to commit crimes. So according to this perspective, individuals commit crimes because they aren't able to fulfill expected roles (for example, working an honest job), which creates strain. Hence, their term 'strain theory.'
So where do young people who do not have any legitimate opportunities turn? According to Cloward and Ohlin, many turn to subcultures.
Before we get into Cloward and Ohlin's theory, we should note that a subculture is basically a culture within a culture. Subcultures have values and ideals that are different, and often in conflict with, the broader, or majority, culture. Cloward and Ohlin came up with three subcultures related specifically to delinquency. Let's talk about those now.
Criminal subcultures are found in areas where there is already quite a bit of criminal activity present. In areas where many adults are committing crimes, young people have a model of how to commit crimes. They learn from this and often go on to engage in criminal activity as adults. The crime in this subculture tends to be focused on earning money, and there are ranks that young people can climb as they commit more crimes. For example, a highly organized car theft ring focused on yielding financial reward is a criminal subculture.
Conflict subcultures form in areas where there isn't a lot of organized adult crime. In this scenario, young people do not have a model of organized crime and tend to be involved in things like gang fighting. For example, a poor neighborhood without opportunities to make money might lead young people into gang violence because there are few opportunities to gain respect in other, more legitimate, ways.
Retreatist subcultures are a kind of subculture that exist when young people don't have access either to criminal subcultures or conflict subcultures. Young people in retreatist subcultures don't have access to legitimate means of achieving status or to the kind of criminal activity that could help them gain material wealth or the respect of their peers, so they tend to do things like abuse drugs and alcohol. Young people here feel rejected from the other subcultures and cope with this by retreating from society.
Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin were criminologists writing in the 1960s about why young people commit crimes or turn to a life of delinquency rather than pursuing more legitimate paths. For Cloward and Ohlin, this is all about opportunity. Young people who lack access to more legitimate paths feel strain, hence the name 'strain theory,' or pressure to become involved in delinquency, which is the same thing as criminal behavior.
Often, these young people join subcultures, or cultures within a culture, that form when other opportunities are lacking. Cloward and Ohlin identify three. Criminal subcultures are highly organized, and they form when young people have many adult criminal role models. Conflict subcultures occur where there is a lack of organized crime; gang violence falls into this category. Retreatist subcultures form when young people haven't been able to access work through legitimate means and they have also failed to access other types of subcultures. These young people often retreat to using drugs and alcohol.
Cloward and Ohlin were interested in how the opportunities we have or don't have will lead us on different paths, either to seek the legitimate types of work that society expects of us, or to commit crimes.
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Back To CourseTopics in Sociology
8 chapters | 89 lessons
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