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Delinquent Subculture Theory One of the major functions that these inner city youths do not acquire is middle-class societal norms.h[]

Because these boys do not have the ability to succeed, they resort to a process Cohen calls reaction formation. What this reaction formation means is that the subject reacts with extreme response to situations. This subject has no problems in risk taking and breaking the l

Walter Miller published an article in a journal called Lower-Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency. In this article he displayed the lower-class focal concerns, which include six of the following: trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. Trouble, as he states about lower-class communities, is evaluated by how much a person creates it (Miller, 1958). Getting into trouble, as we all know it, is pretty much breaking the law such as fighting. What this does is creates an image for that one subject. So if the subject gets into a fight and wins, his reputation is therefore increased, people will start recognizing and won’t try to fight the subject. On the other spectrum, not being able to fight, our subject will have the appearance of a wimp and therefore be treated with little or no respect. Toughness can explain itself. It’s basically how our subject would want to increase their physical and spiritual strength so that they would not be labeled as weak. Smartness in this world is called street smart. What the subject would want is to be able to make money and survive on the street without consequences. The most important is of course how to outsmart the authorities/law. Excitement is the next on the list and explains how our subject needs to find an activity that is “out of the norm” from his day to day activities. These activities could range anywhere from fighting to sexual adventures. Fate is another one on the list which depicts that people belonging to the lower class believe that their lives are controlled by a great spiritual force. Last but not least we have autonomy. This pertains to our subject being independent, which is actually a requirement and usually leads to gang involvement.

In an article titled The Delinquent Subculture: An Alternative Formulation states that there are many difficulties associated with reaction formation as stated in the theory. It assumes that the delinquent boy strongly values middle-class status or that the delinquent boy is not oriented to status in the middle-class system (Kitsuse & Dietrick, 1958). So the question that comes to mind is how this subject turns to delinquency. Keep in mind that society ay let’s adolescents act like adults but not actually be one in their day to day activities. Kitsuse & Dietrick state that it is because of this impatience from being an adolescent wanting to be an adult that causes the turn to delinquency. They also state that it is easier for an adolescent from the working class to be more restrained to this behavior than working-class adolescents. Compared to a middle-class adolescent, the working-class adolescent is socialized earlier so they are more eager to reap rewards that adults get. As a result, the delinquent subculture on this view is a response to the socially structured disjunction between the goal of adult status and the means by which it is to be achieved (Kitsuse & Dietrick, 1958).

Kitsuse and Dietrick published another article critiquing the book Cohen wrote called Delinquent Boys. In the article they are three major criticisms to Cohen’s Theory on Delinquent Subcultures: the social and cultural bases of the “working-class boy’s problem” are ambiguous and subject to equally plausible alternative interpretations, the working-class boy’s ambivalence towards the middle-class system does not provide the psychological conditions which would warrant the introduction of the concept of reaction-formation, and the reaction-formation thesis raises the question of the independence between the description of the delinquent subculture and the theory which proposes to explain it (Kitsuse & Dietrick, 1959).

Kitsuse and Dietrick also note that Cohen had missed some important points in his Theory. They are as follows: Cohen does not present adequate support, either in theory or in fact, for his explanation of the delinquent subculture, the methodological basis of the theory renders it inherently untestable, the theory is ambiguous concerning the relation between the emergence of the subculture and its maintenance, and the theory should include an explanation of the persistence of the subculture if it is to meet an adequate test (Kitsuse & Dietrick, 1959).

As a result of their empirical research, Kitsuse & Dietrick found a very interesting point. They questioned the existing subculture and when it first came out. Where was it created? Also, among all the males who are in the working-class, who would fit into this subculture? They also state that when this subculture emerged, there needs to be some sort of historical data. As they clearly put it:

“It is not that the working class boy is ambivalent about middle-class values; the theory requires only that at some specified time when the delinquent subculture emerged, the working-class boy was ambivalent about middle-class values” (Kitsuse & Dietrick, 1959).

There are also other problems concerning the research done on Cohen’s theory. Methodologically, the historical method relies upon data concerning the psychological dynamics of a population which are difficult if not impossible to obtain (Kitsuse & Dietrick, 1959). Next are two points concerning the emergence of the delinquent subculture. The emergence of the delinquent subculture is considered either (a) independent of the motivational dynamics necessary for the maintenance of the subculture, or (b) dependent upon in some unspecified relationship (Kitsuse & Dietrick, 1959).

In a book called The Delinquent Solution: A Study in Subcultural Theory, David Downes notices a couple of flaws with the Theory. One of the more important ones is that there is not one but many subcultures both within and outside the dominant culture, and in each of these subcultures there are either positive forces or negative ones. When David compared two different societies such as America and England he notices that England had little organized crime, the working-class was supported, and that unemployment within youths was very low. There was a study made between two cities known for their working class in England. The conclusion to this study was that there were adolescents that were part of groups but they did not label themselves as gangs, and although loud, they had no intent of being violent. This resulted in a finding that there was no criminal subculture. As David puts it:

“Even more striking was the nonexistence of a conflict subculture attributed to London which, when compared to American Metropolitan communities, had a different ecological density, an absence of significant concentration of minority-group members, and the high employability of adolescents” (Savitz, 1967). So status frustration had nothing to do with delinquency. What it did have to do is with dissociation from middle-class-dominated schools, occupations and recreation.


  • Cohen, Albert. Delinquent Boys. New York: Free P, 1955.
  • Kitsuse, J. I., & Dietrick, D. (1958). The Delinquent Subculture: An Alternative Formulation. The Pacific Sociological Review, 1(2), 85.
  • Kitsuse, J. I., & Dietrick, D. C. (1959). Delinquent Boys: A Critique. American Sociological Review, 24(2), 208-215.
  • Mler, Walter. "Lower-Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency." Journal of Social Issues 14 (1958): 5-19.
  • Savitz, L. (1967). [Untitled]. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 372, 197-198.
  • Siegel, Larry J. Criminology: Theories, Patterns and Typologies. 9th ed. Belmont: Thompson Wadsworth, 2007.