Albert K Cohen's Theory of Gangs & Deliquent Subculture

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Albert K.Cohen was the first person that attempted to find out the process of beginning of a delinquent subculture. His perspective has been referred to an integrating theory of several sociological theories such as the Chicago School¡¯s sociologist¡¯s work, Merton¡¯s strain theory, cultural conflict theory and Sutherland¡¯s differential association theory.

In Cohen's book ¡°Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gangs,(1955) it was quite apparent that his work was a product of the 1950's. Having won World War 2 and with the country gradually returning to normalcy, Americans were once again obsessed with the ¡°American Dream.¡± People believed that a prosperous future could be attained by education and employment. Middle-class values that emphasized ambition and material success became dominate, anything otherwise was not accepted as ¡°normal.¡± However, behind this promising climate, the great fear of delinquency was lurking and rising.

During the period of World War 2, juvenile delinquency became one of the most important ¡°home front¡± public issues. This label ¡°juvenile delinquency¡± applied to youthful misbehavior, mostly to lower class and immigrant children. The separation of the ¡°we-they¡± led the middle class to see itself as a far more superior class. Cohen¡¯s subculture theory was one of the post war studies of delinquency. He believed that the history of a deviant act is the history of an interaction process, of which the problem of delinquency is mainly a male phenomenon. Cohen assumed that the subculture was found in the lower class where social control was not strong enough to constrain the delinquency and that lower class boys in particular have not been equipped to deal with the competitive struggle that takes place in middle class institutions. Crime culture existed in certain social groups and the individual learned the values of deviance through participation in gangs. Since delinquent boys rejected all middle class standards, some acts considered to be ¡°wrong¡± by the middle class may not be wrong by the delinquent boy¡¯s standards. For example, a child fostered in the subculture that did not respect the law was prone to temptation of deviance. This theory explains why crime rate is so high in inner city and rural areas.

In a democratic society, children are not evaluated against others of their own group but against ¡°all corners¡± and measured by ¡°the middle-class measuring rod,¡± whereby all children are measured to determine their social class standing. Whether one was a lower class boy or middle class boy, Cohen contended, he could not be indifferent to the middle-class norms because the middle class norms were the norms represented every part of our society and the achievement of their criteria could guarantee a respectable position in adulthood. In a nutshell, Cohen believed that schools are primarily run by people from the middle class. He was referring to the administrators, teachers, and counselors. Some of the children that attend these schools are not from the middle class and do not exhibit the kinds of behaviors which the middle class expects to see and approve. They have not learned the type of behavior that will contribute to their success, and therefore are not comfortable in these institutions. Children who do not measure up to these standards develop status frustration and as a result, begin to act out. Acting out takes the form of reversing the very middle class values against which the lower class children were measured. The lower class children are conditioned to be disadvantaged when meeting this criterion by two factors.

First, the lower class children are surrounded by cultural settings that do not exemplify the middle class norms. The parents of lower class children tend to possess less ambition for job and income and they do not emphasize the planning and foresight for the goals. Paying little attention to learning opportunities for the future is displaced by the principle of ¡°good luck.¡± In opposed to the middle class ¡°ethic of individual responsibility,¡± they instead are ready to ask for aid from others and draw on their resources without a feeling of guilt. They are not good at controlling of emotion and are apt to express their aggression.

Secondly, the lower class children are unfavorable in terms of training grounds. The middle class parents have aspiration for their children¡¯s achievements of the middle class norms; hence, this motivates the children to meet what their parents expect them to do. Moreover, the middle class parents supply educational facilities like books and toys for their children to encourage activity in gaining knowledge. They have more control of their children¡¯s lives. In contrast, lower class children are less constrained in terms of parents control and so are allowed to contact any peer group freely. Their socialization progresses more independently. Lower class children are less likely to be influenced by their parent¡¯s expectations. The middle class parents motivate their children to conform to their expectations through parental love and support, which is to be given only when the children meet parent¡¯s expectations. In contrast, the lower class parents depend frequently on physical punishment rather than parental love. It does not have a lasting effect on children, rather the lower class children is dependent on the expectations from their peer groups.

Cohen sought to account for the emergence of delinquent subculture among juveniles by showing the problems of adjustment were strongly related to the social class of juveniles. Although lower class children did not necessarily confront problems of adjustment more than middle class children did, he argued that it was probable that there was correlation between the kinds of problems, which the lower class children had.

The social class of a certain child¡¯s family determined the problems and experiences that he would have in society. However, children have no choice but to accept their ascribed social classes because their classes are dependent on their families¡¯ status. Children have knowledge of social class system through perception of the class status of their family when they reach adolescence.

Though it is true that Cohen was an advocate of Merton¡¯s theory and contributed much to the elaboration of the anomie perspective, he attempted to account for other characteristics of delinquency subculture that the traditional anomie theory disregarded. He viewed the adaptation of a deviant act to strain as a tentative and gradual process between similar people in similar situations suffering the same problem. Cohen contended that all human action was an effort to solve problems that a person encounters living in a society, and these problems were generated by the two factors: 1) ¡°frame of reference¡± and 2) the ¡°situation¡± the person confronts. Everyone is surrounded by different situations that may be limited to what one can do which results in conflicts. When one recognizes the situation in different ways because Cohen sees the fact is influenced much by subjective factors such as experiences, interests, and fixed ideas.

The morality of what to do and what not to do stems from ones own frame of reference through individual moral standards. Cohen states, in order to solve these problems by satisfying solutions, one must change their frame of reference.

Why delinquency arose? Cohen argued that gangs developed as a result of the class structure of the American society. The lower class children feel ¡°status frustration¡± where middle class values dominate, because while these youth¡¯s posses¡¯ aspirations for intellectual or occupational success, they realize their incapacity for meeting these goals. To solve this status problem, they create a delinquency subculture that rejects all of middle class values and represents their antithesis. A defense mechanism to overcome anxiety as an explanation, called ¡°reaction formation,¡± was to overcome anxiety caused by suffering of status frustration.

Cohen characterized the delinquent subculture as ¡°non-utilitarian, malicious, and negativistic.¡± He exemplified gang stealing; juvenile delinquent stealing does not have any utilitarian consideration of gains, they steal ¡°for the hell of it.¡± It is malicious in that the gangs express malice, scorn and rebellion toward the society from which they are apart. Abandoning the middle class value system, gang members achieve their own status by doing what they do best such as standing up for themselves and showing their toughness. It holds a rule that is opposed to the norms of a larger culture even though the delinquent¡¯s conduct is right by their own standards. The nature of the culture is versatile because it does not specialize in particular deviance unlike many other adult gangs. Cohen also mentions ¡°short-run hedonism.¡± Gangs tend to just hang around street corners without long-term goals instead they go about their activities and follows the impulsive desire to have fun. The members emphasized group autonomy or intolerance of restraint except from the informal pressures within the group itself. Usually there are strong ties and united relationships, whereas they resist the regulation from outside groups such as home, school and other agencies.

Subcultures are defined as subdivision within the dominant culture with own norms, values and belief system. According to Cohen, subcultures are communities that have values that are opposition to those of the dominant culture. A subculture emerges when individuals in similar circumstances find themselves isolated by mainstream society. They group together for mutual support. Cohen thought that these children would respond to mainstream society one of three ways simplified: Corner Boy, College Boy, and Delinquent Boy. Corner Boy just hangs out on the streets with the rest of his members, tries to get a job and become part of the mainstream but fails. College Boy tries the hardest but fails. He falls the hardest because he had the highest expectations. Last is the delinquent Boy, which says, ¡°If society rejects me, than I am going to reject society.¡± The delinquent subculture offers to the lower class children new norms whereby they are no longer inferiors to the middle class. Rather, they are superior to them. Group or gang activity legitimizes and supports aggression against the middle class norms. Cohen argued that these children reacted to the situation by hostility in order to defend newly established norms. The collective support of the group is important if he persists in delinquent activity, because he is not convinced, at least not consciously, that his hostile reaction is normal. As long as the group supports his actions, he continues to blame the external middle class institutions and ward off feelings of inadequacy.

In order for the subculture to work well, as a solution to the status problem, it should be adopted as a group solution. Whether the boys are motivated to follow the new norms depends on the availability of their new reference groups. In addition if a delinquent boy is to perfect his solution to the status problem, he must reject other groups that do not share his subculture. Accordingly, the members become more dependants on their own group, and they establish solidarity among the members

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