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Deviant Subcultures: Juvenile Delinquency and the Causes and Effects

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This paper explores what causes juvenile delinquency through explaining different theories. It explores Feud’s Id, Superego, and Ego to understand the development of the juvenile as well as exploring Merton’s Strain Theory, Cloward and Ohlin, The Chicago School, Albert K. Cohen’s Delinquent boys and the subculture of gangs and commercial growers. It looks into the communities and argues more towards nature and environment of the juvenile than nature. It also looks into the culture of the American dream and how conformities and expectation to set to a certain bar in life. It discovers how the American dream has become a form of social control in our society and how it’s become the definition of our success. Our view of success is a question if it for our benefit or if we find happiness in how our society views us? Why in our society drives deviance and what we can do to solve this issue? This paper concludes through juvenile programs, changing our attitudes in schools and education and having government involvement.

Deviant Subcultures: Juvenile Delinquency and the Causes and Effects From the time we are little we are taught rules of what is right and wrong and to obey to those rules to remain socially acceptable, and of the consequences of not obeying. We are taught to stand out, be successful, creative and to attain an American dream but only under certain guidelines. Humans are built with this sense to find purpose, and society seems to offer the definition of that purpose. We are told our purpose is the American dream; to gain money, cars, houses, stability, respect and power and be successful at it. If we do not attain these certain things either by no means or ill equipped goals we are looked down upon and become non-functional in our society. Each culture is equipped with certain social norms just like America and each one may be entirely different from the next one. So if there is no baseline for what is a “normal” and socially acceptable then why do we conform to it? Conformity sets a bar that could set us up for failure and lead to formal deviance later on especially if untreated during the development years of our lives. If we could prevent juvenile delinquency while children are developing there is a better chance for success. This is why juvenile delinquency and deviance are so important in our criminal justice system.

Social deviance, especially through juvenile delinquency, is related to class struggle. By becoming more aware of this problem and addressing it through the school system, people can better understand social deviance among juvenile delinquents. To understand why deviance is present in juvenile delinquents we must understand that juvenile’s brains are still being developed, which holds their human psyche. In order to understand what drives how our feelings and our thoughts are organized we’ll use Feud’s Id, Superego, and Ego. The simplest drive is the id, which is only really concerned with fulfilling its own pleasure and is the irrational and emotional part of the mind. The id is selfish and only wants immediate self-gratification and is often compared to newborn babies. The ego tries to meet the need of the id but understands and takes into account the real world. The ego understands that actions have repercussions and tries to balance out thinking before carrying out decisions/actions.

The last is called the super-ego and it’s based upon moral principles instilled there by training these moral/ethical restraints by caregivers. Someone who is healthy will have developed the strongest ego to keep the id and superego in check. An individual, who either cannot control their id, has broken ego, or someone who has an immature super-ego can lead to deviance. Based on this theory, it would seem like the id is inevitable and is the natural side to us. The nurture, however, would seem as though the ego and superego are based upon relationships and other people, due to the fact that the ego is the realization of other people in the world and the superego is a result of training of a caregiver. In juvenile delinquents, one would argue that the relationship between the child and parents and/or guardian is imperative for their success in life. The parents’ or the guardian’s role in society and their means and goals often reflect the chances and set an example for the child for success. To better understand the parent’s role and attitude towards life as a guide we’ll explore Merton’s Strain Theory and how it’s recuperated by the child through Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory.

Merton Strain Theory states that everyone has the same dream but unequal opportunity. According to Merton’s Strain Theory, there are four results that can occur in an individual as a result of wanting a better means in life and their results in their current situation. The first one is one is the conformist, who has accepted their life and the means they were given and tries to attain their goals by society’s guidelines. Conformists tend to not only follow the rules, but they actually believe in the rules being given. They tend to follow the crowd and, if they commit a deviant act outside of societies guidelines it’s on pure accident. They value responsibility and being altruistic. The second is the innovationist who may look like your everyday law abiding citizen and might run a business or obtain employment but still may run short of means to attain their goals in life, which leads to criminal activity. For example, Jose may own his own body shop but may run a chop shop undercover at night and participate in criminal activity to attain the means to be successful.

However, it is possible for innovationists to participate in an informal type of deviance which is not illegal to attain their goals, such as Jose selling Mary Kay. Due to Jose is a male, it goes against social norms and is therefore considered deviance but it is not illegal. Third is ritualism, which is an individual who is simply just “going through the motions” and has no desires or goals in life. Although they are law-abiding citizens they are completely content where they are and reject society’s goals for them. Although some would call this normal behavior since there is no criminal activity or behavior evident, it would be considered deviant to someone who worked at a supermarket to get through college to become a doctor as opposed to someone who worked at the supermarket their whole life. And the fourth is the retreatist, which is an individual who shows that they have no respect for themselves and most likely lives out a life of drug abuse and homelessness. Finally the last is the rebel, who has rejected all illegitimate cultural goals and means. They set up and make their own set of goals and attempt to achieve them by their own means.

One of the notable critics of Merton was sociologists Cloward and Ohlin. Although they agreed that the working-class are more tempted to deviate due to lack of opportunity, they criticized Merton for not explaining the reasons behind different types of criminal behavior. The basis of their theory was that just as there is an opportunity for legitimate means there is also an opportunity through illegitimate means as well. Illegitimate opportunities available to potential delinquents would produce different types of crimes. For example, if a Johnny lives around an area that already has existing criminal activity, such as drugs and drug addicts, he would have the means to sell drugs and make money off of an already existing clientele in his neighborhood. However, if Johnny lived in an area where there is no criminal culture present he would most likely resort to another type of criminal behavior. Therefore, because the delinquent acts occurs whether there is a presence of criminal activity or not Cloward and Ohlin developed three possible responses to this problem of what seemed to be a dead end. The first is criminal subculture, where the young delinquent has access to a criminal subculture and there is already predominately organized adult criminal activity.

The adults in the criminal subculture then become role models for the child and give opportunity if successful to climb up the criminal hierarchy, which often results in financial reward. The second is conflict subculture, where there is no criminal subculture or opportunity to gain criminal role models. These areas usually only have temporary residents and population and no community spirit. Due to the fact that there is no opportunity to succeed by legitimately or illegitimately, it often results in gang violence out of anger and frustration. The last is the retreatist subculture, which has the same characteristics of the conflict subculture when it comes to having no opportunity but reacts differently instead of violence through drug used to escape. The Chicago school used what Fredric Clements by analogy used it to compare the individual and community. An individual is born, lives, matures, and then dies but these communities that the individual lives in still continue and grows and exhibits the same characteristics for the cycle to continue.

These communities can change from either one of these subcultures. Social learning theory is defined as a perspective that states that people learn within a social setting or community. It is studied through concepts of modeling and observing people, especially children that learn from their environment and seek acceptance through influential role models. Albert Bandura performed his experiments done from 1961 through 1963 using an inflatable clown known as a Bobo doll in order to test modeling behaviors in children. The children were split up between three groups and of those groups one was exposed to an adult model showing an aggressive example towards the Bobo doll through verbally and physically attacking the doll and the other a more passive example playing peacefully with it. The third group was the control and wasn’t exposed to the adult model. Once the children were allowed to play the results showed to those who were exposed to the adult model who physically and verbally attacked the doll were more likely to imitate what they had seen and behave in the same manner.

The results found that boys were four times more likely than girls to show physical aggression but the amount of verbal aggression was the same between both genders. In human development children will often look up to the same gender parent or role model and imitate their behavior. If a child at home is put in a certain setting, the child will learn these particular behaviors from their parents. For instance, a parent or guardian who has a retreatist perspective and is an alcoholic or a drug addict, according to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics children of these addicted parents are more at risk for alcoholism and other drug abuse than are other children. Children from good homes and conformist parents do have a better chance than a child from the drug abuse or alcoholic home. However, due to the conformists values of responsibility the child may find the responsibility too overwhelming and may deviate away and reject all sets of behaviors and values.

Therefore, they would adapt according to Merton’s Strain Theory’s rebellion and would leave the opportunity for juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior later in life. Albert K. Cohen, who followed Merton’s theory, wrote a book on his version of this type of behavior called “Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang”. Although Cohen is inspired by Merton’s Strain Theory that focuses on all deviants, he instead is focused on lower-class delinquency. According to Cohen, before the child enters the school system he or she has not been exposed to other cultures and is not aware of what the rest of the world looks like. When the child from the lower class family who does not have means and an education is introduced to the school system, they encounter a middle class measuring rod. The child from the lower class family comes into it grossly ill equipped to meet those expectations. Although they may not be able to articulate it, they are at a disadvantage and do not see the potential for their success to be very high, which leaves quite often a view of themselves as failures. They constantly compare themselves to what they view as foreign social norms they are not accustomed to.

In turn they internalize them only to compare themselves to these norms they can’t stand up to. According to Cohen, in order to adapt to the strain they are put under, they lean toward becoming one of three roles which are the college boy, corner boy, and delinquent boy. The college boy is the person that is constantly struggling but striving to meet these middle class expectations. They are constantly taking and receiving rejections, but they still try to be an upstanding citizen, even though they are not. The corner boy realizes his chances that he will not succeed in society and live up to middle class expectations.

However, he buys time and does not peruse any material goals but instead in sex, alcohol and gambling at a very young age. He eventually grows up and gets a blue collar job and settles down and accepts his station in life. Finally there is the delinquent boy, who goes through a reaction formation and internalizes middle class expectations. However, because he realizes he can’t meet those expectations even though they desire to meet them, with abnormal intensity he rejects what he cannot have. In turn because he cannot conform to the expectation he rebels against those expectations; he does the exact opposite to offend the middle class measuring rod. The delinquents that take on the role of rebelling against these expectations often become gang members.

Gangs are often a result of failure of school, family problems, substance abuse and pattern behaviors which are a result of frustration developed growing up. Why? Juveniles gain identity and recognition which as previously discussed when they feel as though they will never meet the class standard. In communities that have existing criminal activity and especially heavy violence, such as rival gang attacks, they will join together for protection. It also supports retaliation and support in case you are attacked. For an individual who grew up without a role model or parents, but had for an example a cousin or brother in a gang there would be a sense of “brotherhood” or family. Some individuals may not want to join the gang and may resemble Cohen’s college boy role but are forced into gangs because what that individual offers may help the gang in their criminal activity. The last is obvious based upon previous research; gangs are formed because of less opportunity and the means to succeed and individuals join because of financial gain. Sadly, according to the National Crime Prevention Council, recruitment is most serious in public schools. “They may recruit children as young as nine, knowing that the judicial system is more lenient on younger children and that, thus, younger members can be sacrificed on riskier jobs for the gang.” (Council, 2012)

If someone who joins a gang is trying to meet his means and goals another way to gain financial success, what are gangs getting it from and what are the rewards? “The illegal drug market in the U.S. is one of the most profitable, and most violent, in the world. Street-corner drug sales are the financial backbone of the majority of gangs on a national level.” (Matthew O’Deane, 2010) To better understand the drug market I looked into to a study done by Ralph A. Weisheit, who specifically looked into corporate marijuana and interviewed 31 commercial marijuana growers. The study showed that growers were more like entrepreneurs and had been in business for on average 5 years. “The largest operation had over 6,000 plants, and had a median size of operation was 75 plants.” The range that they receive normally could be between $700- $1,500 a pound. If there was a shortage they could sell it for as much as $2,000 a pound. Some of these individuals who grow marijuana and view themselves as business men simply do it for the challenge. It would seem as though without gangs, suppliers wouldn’t make the money that they do, and without the suppliers gangs would end up the same way.

They need each other to co-exist, but in my opinion I believe that the gangs are on the losing end even though they are still making a profit. The gangs are creating a habitat that they have to live in their communities and often see violence over the protection of these drugs. It would seem that the cycle is never ending with substance users committing crimes to either get drugs or because of them. The drug dealers commit the crime by selling to users and the suppliers feeding off the drug dealers. However, as much of a financial gain these gangs have and how tempting it may be to join, we have to include the exception of the child who strives to get out of his community without participating in illegal activity, but fails due to peer pressure. The theory of differential association looks at how peer pressure and the mere existence of gangs can lead them to crime. In order to feel accepted youth that have criminal friends are more likely to offend. If a child or young adult is labeled that he is a criminal and has not broken the law, but after being told, later accepts his role, this is called labeling theory.

For example, a police officer knocks on Johnny’s door and is later seen by his neighbors being put in the back of the police car. The neighbors assume, even though they do not know the situation, that Johnny was arrested, even though Johnny could just be helping the police solve a crime as a witness. Johnny later shows up at his baseball game and one of his friends who is one his teammates is passing out birthday invitations, but Johnny does not get one because they have already labeled him. The other parents treat him differently and do not allow him to hang out with his friends because they do not want their children to associate with Johnny. Johnny then comes to accept that if he is being treated that way that he must be a criminal and later on in life has problems with the law. In conclusion, it is my personal belief after my research that the heart of juvenile delinquency is the community, schools and education, and a lack of government support. Although some questions are unanswered about juvenile delinquency I believe the community the child is raised in, whether it is lower class, middle class, or upper class, can have an effect on the child’s attitude and interaction with the world.

We see the American dream almost everywhere we go and people will do whatever it takes to succeed no matter what class you’re in; in my opinion this is a form of social control. What makes the American dream so great? Some would say it gives you happiness, but why? There are some that say they have it all but it doesn’t mean anything at all to them. Are we gaining money, power, and respect because it makes us happy or are we gaining it because it makes us happy to feel accepted because we’ve conformed to a social norm in our country? Although it is deviance to stray away from the American dream I believe that conformity is leaving us empty. I believe that if we give opportunities to let kids achieve what makes them happy and pursue what they are passionate about by opening doors and offering the right attitudes and programs in schools, as well as government support in funding in our juvenile systems, we would be providing success on their own terms. I think if parents in the lower-class and middle-class communities saw a way to go back to school or better themselves they would reach for the opportunity and set an example to their children.

If we put in incentives to strive to keep them in school and put in place programs to help them succeed financially and in the classroom it would be successful. I think whatever programs are put in place education and the expectations of conforming to this bar need to be addressed. There is something disconcerting about a child who grew up wanting to escape their environment but is not able to. It is a shame to let a child who wants to be successful by becoming a doctor but feels impossible because of their feelings of inadequacy to meet our school standards or that money for education would stop them. I believe our school system needs to be fixed by starting at a young age. When there’s a steady interaction between the teacher and the student it often has a positive outcome. If the teacher finds the student struggling, then she or he should be able to solve the problem by teaching it to them in a way that would interest them, such as social media or field trips.

If the student does get trouble with the law I believe that there should be something put in place to allow prevention, and that The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which was passed originally in 1974 and allows funding to states to make improvements to their juvenile justice systems and prevention programs, needs to be put back in place. It also allows states not to put aside the issue and requires them to address the over-incarceration of minority children. Another idea to solving learning issues is to have after school programs or summer camps that are geared towards children’s interests and show how reading math and science are integrated. I believe the federal government has not done enough to stop gangs and, in fact, has let it grow to where it has become problematic and needs to be addressed before true progress can be made. However, I think we could reach some through these programs which would allow peer acceptance through programs that have team-building games and interaction. I believe that it is a big problem and with every big problem there is never an easy solution, but I believe instead of conforming to what we are used to we can problem solve outside of our box.


Adler, P. A. (1994). Constructions of Deviance. In Social Power, Context and Interaction (pp. 545-558). Interaction Thomson Publishing. Council, N. C. (2012, December 2). National Crime Prevention Council. Retrieved from Gangs and Your Child:
http://www.ncpc.org/topics/by-audience/parents/gangs-and-your-child Macionis, J. J. (2012). Sociology. J. J. Macionis. (pp. 194-216) Pearson Education, Inc. Matthew O’Deane, P. (2010, November 5). Gangs & Drugs. Retrieved from Law Officer: http://www.lawofficer.com/article/gangs-drugs (1973) Second Edition: Deviance The Interactionist Perspective . In E. R. Weinburg. The Macmillian Company.

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