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Study Notes

Cohen: Status Frustration (1955)

AS, A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 31 Aug 2020

Cohen set out to develop Merton's strain theory and particularly to address questions about why groups commit crimes and why people commit non-utilitarian crimes. In doing so he developed a theory about subcultures.

The key to subcultural theories is that actually deviants conform to norms and values, they just happen to be different norms and values from the rest of society.

Cohen argued that working-class boys often failed at school resulting in a low status. A response to this was the formation of subcultures or gangs with values that were largely the reverse of mainstream values. What was deemed taboo or deviant in mainstream society was praiseworthy and good in the subculture. Likewise what was considered praiseworthy in mainstream culture was deviant and discouraged in the subculture.

Cohen's theory sought to explain delinquency among particular groups in society (young, working-class males) and non-utilitarian crimes. Crimes like vandalism or fighting can be explained by the subcultures inverting the values of mainstream society, turning socially deviant acts into ones that are praiseworthy and a way of achieving status within the group.

Evaluating Cohen

Cohen's suggestion that members of these delinquent subcultures consciously invert the norms and values of mainstream society has been criticised. When someone decides to smash up a bus shelter, it seems unlikely that they have consciously thought that mainstream society would consider this act unacceptable, and so praiseworthy in their subculture. Post-modernist sociologists like Lyng and Katz argue that it is more likely the individual is influenced by boredom or is seeking a "buzz". However, it could be countered that delinquents can be conscious of how deviant acts might provide an access to rewards and status within their group without individually inverting mainstream values every time they deviate.

Cohen specifically says that this is a phenomenon relating to "working-class boys" and yet makes very few links between his theory and either social class or gender. Why do working-class boys particularly struggle to attain status at school or in mainstream society? Other sociologists, like Paul Willis, attempt to address that question, but Cohen does not. Furthermore, why boys? Indeed, if the reason for deviance is frustration at low status, many feminists would suggest that, in 1950’s America, you would expect girls to be the ones forming the deviant subcultures. Therefore, while Cohen describes the real situation (in 1950’s America delinquent subcultures were mostly made up of working-class boys), he only goes some way towards explaining why this is the case.

Finally, a point in Cohen's favour is that he does successfully develop Merton's strain theory to provide an explanation for non-utilitarian crimes. Therefore, taken together, Merton and Cohen offer a functionalist explanation for a wide range of deviant behaviour.

Subcultural Theories of Crime & Deviance | Albert Cohen | A Level Sociology

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