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Differential Opportunity Theory: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
How does deviance occur among teens? This lesson discusses differential opportunity theory, what it is, what characteristics or subcultures it contains and how sociologists have critiqued it over the years.

Differential Success

Jodie, at eighteen, wanted to succeed no matter what. He had gotten decent grades, but when he tried to get a job after graduation, he couldn't get hired. All the adults he knew worked hard for something they never got. They had low-paying menial jobs, and could barely afford a place to live and food for their families. Their children were left believing that they would have similar problems getting ahead in any meaningful way. So, Jodie had to look at other ways to succeed.

His first opportunity to claim something better for himself happened when a new friend took him to a meeting with some other teens. After questioning Jodie about why he was there, and then swearing him to secrecy about the group, the teens accepted Jodie. Jodie and his new friends joked around for awhile, and then Jodie was told that in order to be a part of the gang, he needed to rob a convenience store a few miles away. Jodie and one of the other teens robbed the store, and for the first time in his life, Jodie had money. After robbing a few more places, Jodie had his first taste of success.

Differential Opportunity Theory

Why did Jodie choose to get involved in crime rather than go to school (trade or college) and try to build a career that way? In the United States, there is opportunity for people to achieve through education, but many do not see it that way. Either they see educational means as unavailable, or as too remote. People want the chance to find a better situation, and sometimes it seems that society's approved means of success are untenable. That is the gist of differential opportunity theory. It is the idea that people (usually teens) from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who have few opportunities for success, will use any means at their disposal to achieve success. The means are generally referred to as subcultures.

Three Subcultures

Differential opportunity theorists, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, determined that there were three paths individuals faced with limited opportunities would use to achieve success. The three subcultures are based on the stability of the environment. They are:

  • Crime - in a neighborhood that is stable, and in which opportunity for crime exists, the individual will turn to crime as his or her alternative. Stability in this instance means that a hierarchy of criminal organization exists, and that the teen is able to move through the ranks to establish himself or herself.
  • Conflict - this subculture is typical of disorganized areas of low socioeconomic opportunity. The area is characterized by a mix of groups trying to establish dominance. Although there is crime against others to fund the various organizations, people within the groups achieve based on their success at conflict. Teens fight to gain territory and prestige for their gang.
  • Retreatist - in some instances, teens are unsuccessful at both legitimate and illegitimate enterprises. In this case, the individual ''drops out'' of society. Status is gained by drug use, or by membership in a separatist gang (examples: teenagers in the Goth or grunge cultures).

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