Albert Cohen

Many have asked the billion-dollar question: why do criminals do what they do?

Albert Cohen Albert Cohen

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Table of contents

    When we think of criminals and delinquents, many of us may have an image of individuals who are self-serving - people willing to steal, hurt, damage or threaten for their own gain. We consider their motivations inherently hostile.

    However, while breaking the laws and rules of society is wrong, the incentives and intentions of those who do so are not always malicious. Criminologists such as Albert Cohen offer alternative explanations of delinquent behaviour and point out that it may be an attempt to find social validation by those who have widely been excluded from society.

    Cohen is a prominent sociologist who has written extensively about why criminals carry out criminal activity. He is a key theorist on the sociology of crime and deviance. We will look at Cohen's work in more detail.

    • First, we will briefly go over Albert Cohen's biography.
    • Then, we will touch on how Cohen's work contributed to and filled the gaps in criminology.
    • We will explore Cohen's subcultural theory, focusing on his concepts of status frustration and reaction formation.

    Albert Cohen: biography and contributions to criminology

    Albert K. Cohen (1918-2014) was an American sociologist and criminologist from Boston, Massachusetts. He is most widely regarded for his subcultural theory of delinquency, which is prominent within the sociology of crime.

    Cohen had a deep academic interest in sociology, earning a Master's in the subject from Indiana University in 1942 and then a PhD from Harvard University in 1951. He studied under noted criminologists Edwin H. Sutherland and Robert K. Merton, and was inspired by both of them (particularly Merton) to specialise in criminological research.

    Albert Cohen, person getting handcuffed in front of police car, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Cohen's interest in criminology, the study of crime and deviance, was sparked during his academic career.

    After graduating, Cohen taught at Indiana University for nearly two decades. In 1965, he decided to work at the University of Connecticut as a professor of sociology, a position he held until he officially retired in 1988.

    Cohen assumed the position of Vice President of the American Society of Criminology in 1984 and stayed for a year. In 1993, he was granted the society's Edwin H. Sutherland Award for his exceptional work in criminology.

    Albert Cohen's subcultural theory

    As mentioned, perhaps the most significant of Cohen's work is his subcultural theory based on research conducted on delinquent boys in 1955. While studying Robert Merton's strain theory, Cohen observed a number of issues that he felt strain theory did not address:

    1. Merton attributes delinquency to individual behaviour, but much of delinquent behaviour occurs within gangs.

    2. Merton's theory attempts to explain occurrences within all social groups, but delinquency is most prevalent among working-class men.

    3. He argues that delinquent behaviour is motivated by monetary gain, but a large percentage of delinquency is non-monetary, e.g. vandalism.

    Cohen took on these issues in his 1955 work Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. He wrote about delinquent gangs, suggesting that their behaviours and attitudes are a result of attempting to "replace" mainstream social norms and values with their own subcultures.

    Let's take a closer look at two components of Cohen's work: status frustration and reaction formation.

    Albert Cohen: status frustration

    A core belief of Cohen's was that the working class generally has the same life goals and aspirations as the middle class. However, working-class boys are much less likely to succeed academically than their middle-class counterparts. Cohen argued that this results from working-class attitudes to education, rather than capitalism or poverty. Therefore, Cohen believed that this was due to cultural rather than material deprivation.

    Their academic underperformance means that young working-class men do not reach the social status they aspire to in mainstream society - this results in status frustration. They feel excluded from wider society and unable to rise within its ranks or obtain material success.

    A boy from a working-class background has been raised to believe that doing well in education is not that important, either because it is a luxury only accessible to the wealthy or because he is likely to end up in a "low-skilled" job. So, he doesn't prioritise studying and isn't pushed/encouraged by those around him, and underperforms in his exams. In contrast, his middle-class and wealthy peers achieve high grades.

    When the boy, now a young man, is older; due to his low grades, he is told off by teachers and ignored by classmates. He does not get good recommendations or internships, and resents the fact that his middle-class friends and acquaintances do and seem to be on track to university and well-paid jobs.

    This is because, even though his family/community does not consider academic success a priority, he was still socialised to believe in material success and wanted to achieve it.

    The young working-class man feels status frustration and does not see a way to obtain the status he wants, since he cannot do it the "conventional" way.

    Albert Cohen: reaction formation in subcultures

    As a result of status frustration, Cohen argued that young working-class men form their own delinquent subcultures.

    A subculture refers to a group with its own unique norms and values that do not conform to those of mainstream culture.

    According to Cohen, members of subcultures had initially been socialised into mainstream values. However, seeing that they couldn't gain status through them due to their lack of wealth and privilege, they created their own social groups with values and norms that worked for them.

    The youth from the previous example meets with some friends, fellow young working-class men, who share the same status frustration as him. They all talk about how they feel helpless in achieving material success or respect since they did not do well in school or have the attitudes or connections of the middle class.

    In the end, the working-class youths decide to lead their lives differently. Since society has excluded them and made it very difficult for them to succeed, they will create their own goals and achieve them in their own way.

    The young men form a group or subculture and start finding alternative means of gaining status that will be recognised by each other. They deliberately disregard social rules and norms by skipping school, graffitiing buildings, and stealing.

    What is reaction formation?

    The formation of subcultures also results in the replacement of values, which is known as reaction formation. Young men from lower classes find themselves replacing the values and ideals they previously held, and adopting new ones that give them the status and respect they did not receive from mainstream culture.

    The process of reaction formation meant that things that would be viewed negatively elsewhere, e.g. vandalism and truancy, are perceived positively within delinquent subcultures. Those who commit the most vandalism may be rewarded in a delinquent group the same way those who obtain a high-paying job are rewarded in wider society.

    The working-class young men in the subculture substitute values that were taught to them with new values that they hold as a group.

    They dispose of the idea that there is a "good", "right" or "clean" way to earn money - e.g. through hard work, talent, dedication, and so on. They replace it with the belief that they can enrich themselves however they want. The group also replaces its regard for institutions such as education and the law, valuing their desire to play truant and commit unlawful acts such as graffitiing instead.

    Doing such things is deeply frowned upon in wider society, but within the subculture, it inspires respect and status. The working-class youth we followed earlier misses weeks of school and steals from multiple people, becoming the group's leader and gaining what he had always wanted.

    Cohen argued that this explanation addresses the three shortcomings in Merton's strain theory highlighted above:

    • why young working-class men are more likely to commit crimes than other social groups,

    • why they do so in gangs, and

    • why they engage in delinquent behaviour that does not have economic benefits (e.g. vandalism or fighting).

    Albert Cohen, rundown building with graffiti, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Cohen's subcultural theory explains why delinquent groups tend to engage in vandalism.

    Albert Cohen - Key takeaways

    • Albert Cohen (1918-2014) was an American sociologist and criminologist from Boston, Massachusetts. He is most widely regarded for his subcultural theory of delinquency, which is prominent within the sociology of crime.
    • The most significant of Cohen's work is his subcultural theory, based on research conducted on delinquent boys in 1955. He developed his theory to address issues he found in Robert Merton's strain theory.
    • Cohen argued that young working-class men's academic underperformance means they do not get the social status they aspire to in mainstream society - they face status frustration.
    • According to Cohen, working-class boys had initially been socialised into mainstream goals. However, seeing that they couldn't gain status due to their lack of wealth and privilege, they created their own subcultures with their own rules and norms.
    • This is known as reaction formation and meant that things that would be viewed negatively elsewhere, e.g. vandalism and truancy, are perceived positively within delinquent subcultures.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Albert Cohen

    Is Albert Cohen a functionalist? 

    Yes, Albert Cohen was a functionalist. 

    What does Cohen mean by status frustration? 

    According to Cohen, status frustration occurs when peopleprimarily young working-class men, do not gain the social status they desire and feel unable to achieve material success the conventional way.  

    How does Cohen criticise Merton? 

    While studying Robert Merton's strain theory, Cohen observed a number of issues that he felt strain theory did not address: 

    1. Merton attributes delinquency to individual behaviour, but much of delinquent behaviour occurs within gangs.

    2. Merton's theory attempts to explain occurrences within all social groups, but delinquency is most prevalent among working-class men.

    3. He argues that delinquent behaviour is motivated by monetary gain, but a large percentage of delinquency is non-monetary, e.g. vandalism.

    What was Cohen's theory? 

    Cohen is most well known for his subcultural theory based on research conducted on delinquent boys in 1955. He wrote about delinquent gangs, suggesting that their behaviours and attitudes are a result of attempting to "replace" mainstream social norms and values with their own subcultures.  

    Is Albert Cohen a Marxist? 

    Albert Cohen was not a Marxist. He held functionalist ideas of concepts such as class and crime. 

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