Structural theory explains the origin of deviance in terms of the position of individuals or groups in the social structure. Sub-cultural theories explain deviance in terms of the subculture of a social group. They argue that certain groups develop distinctive norms and values that deviate from the mainstream culture of society. According to Albert Cohen delinquent subculture not only rejects the mainstream culture, it reverses it. In Cohen's words the delinquent subculture takes its norms from the larger culture but terms them upside down. Thus a high value is placed on activities such as stealing, vandalism etc that are condemned in the wider society.
Cohen begins from the structural perspective, as there is unequal access of opportunity there is greater pressure on certain groups within the social structure to deviate. He shows how pressure from the social structure to deviate is reinforced by pressure from the deviant sub-culture.
Miller rejects Cohen's argument that it results from a delinquent sub-culture which is a reaction to failure to attain mainstream goals. Instead he sees lower class delinquency as simply resulting from lower subculture. Miller argues that following cultural practices that comprise essential elements of the total life pattern of lower class culture automatically violates certain legal norms. There is a distinctive cultural system that may be termed lower class. It includes a number of focal concerns that is major areas of interest and involvement. Included in these focal concerns are toughness, smartness and excitement. Toughness involves a concern for masculinity and finds expression in courage in the face of physical threat and a rejection of timidity and weakness. Smartness involves the capacity to outsmart, dupe take on another.
In Delinquency and Opportunity the American sociologists Cloward and Ohlin combine and develop many of the insights of Merton and Cohen. They argue that Merton has explained deviance in terms of the legitimate opportunity structure but failed to consider the illegitimate opportunity structure. Thus just as opportunity to be successful by legitimate means varies so does opportunity for success by illegitimate means. By examining the access and opportunity for entry into illegitimate opportunity structures Cloward and Ohlin provide an explanation for different forms of deviance.
According to them there is greater pressure on numbers of the working class to deviate because they have less opportunity to succeed by legitimate means. They distinguish three possible responses to this situation the criminal sub culture, the conflict subculture and retreatist sub-culture. The development of one or other of these responses of young people depends upon their access to and performance in terms of the illegitimate opportunity structure.
Criminal sub-culture tends to emerge in areas where there is an established pattern of organized adult crime. In such areas a learning environment is provided for the young, they are exposed to criminal skills, deviant values and presented with criminal role models. Those who perform successfully in terms of these deviant values have the opportunity to rise in the professional criminal hierarchy. They have access to the illegitimate opportunity structure. Conflict sub culture tends to develop in areas where adolescents have little opportunity for access to illegitimate opportunity structure. This situation tends to prevent a stable criminal sub-culture from developing. Thus access to both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity is blocked. The response to this situation is often gang violence. This serves as a release for anger and frustration and a means of obtaining prestige in terms of the values of the sub-culture. Cloward and Cohen suggest that some lower class adolescents from retreatist sub-cultures are organized mainly around illegal drug use because they have failed to succeed in both the legitimate and illegitimate structures.