Access the strengths and limitations of Subcultural Theories in explaining deviance.

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Access the strengths and limitations of Subcultural Theories in explaining deviance.

An official definition of deviance is rule-breaking behaviour of some kind, which fails to conform to the norms and expectations of a particular society or social group. Merton (1968) attempts to explain why deviance arises in the first place and by doing so develops functionalist theory. Merton suggested that our society has a shared consensus around social goals and approved means of achieving them. He says that most people share the same goals in life; we all want our own home and a nice car, a high income, holidays and possessing consumer goods. Most conform to the approved ways of achieving these goals, like getting a good education and then working in paid employment but, in an unequal society Merton argues that not all of us have the same opportunities to achieve these goals and can not conform to the approved mean of realizing them. These individuals face a sense of strain and anomie as their needs do not match up to the dominant rules about how to achieve success and so they respond to their situation in different ‘modes of adaptation’. He argues that people either show the conformity displayed by most people, or they adopt one of the four forms of deviance:

Innovation- Poor education or unemployment means that some people accept the shared goal but do not have the means of achieving them, so they turn to crime as an alternative.

Ritualism- They accept their goals but give up on achieving it, e.g. a teacher giving up on pupils success.

Retreatism- These neither accept the goals or have the means of achieving them so they just drop out, like drug addict and tramps, and give up altogether.

Rebellion- Individuals reject the existing goals in society and substitute new ones to create a new society, like revolutionaries or members of some religious sectors. This is Merton’s strain theory.

While Merton’s strain theory clearly explains deviance as arising from the structure of society, there are a few limitations to his explanation of why deviance occurs. For one he takes a consensus around means and goals for granted. He assumes that most people accept them when in fact some people may not accept goals like financial success but would much prefer, for example, job satisfaction and to be doing a job they enjoy or feels is helping somebody rather than a job they are not happy in just for the financial gratification. Marxists argue that these consensus goals and approved means are imposed on us by the ruling class and that late modern society easily accepts difference, but it labels those that it does not want or who do not conform as deviant and relentlessly punishes and persecutes them. Merton also fails to explain why most people who face strain do not turn to crime or other deviance, as it is only a small percentage that actually do so. If Merton had studied families when explaining deviance he would of probably saw that a large percentage of society is facing some kind of strain in achieving their desired goal, example, a single mom raising her family and working while going to night school so that she can achieve these desired goals, and yet they do not become deviant. Most know that they do not have all the means available to them and this encourages them to work harder and stride towards societies acceptance. And even those in society who are conforming to the society’s consensus have to work hard in order to maintain this standing of living but, this extra pressure of having to stay within the conformity does not drive them to deviance. Also the characterization of some crime as "working class crime" and portraying it as a response to oppression is problematic. It selectively labels crime committed by people simply on the basis of their membership of a class, without engaging in victimology to identify whether any particular class or group is most likely to be the victim of such crime (because many criminals are disinclined to travel far, working class crime is often directed at working class people who live in the same neighborhood). In fact, the social differentiation of crime may vary by age, class, ethnicity, gender, and locality.

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        Whereas Merton focused on crime as an individual response Cohen (1971) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) build on Merton’s work, but they focus on the position of groups in the social structure and how these groups adapt in different ways to the strain they face when in achieving social goals. They deal with juvenile delinquency, crime committed by those under the age of 17, as these young people constitute the largest group of criminals and deviants.  

Cohen argues that working-class youths feel they are denied status in mainstream society, and they experience status frustration. This is due ...

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