sábado, 1 de octubre de 2011

Can we smell the classics? Understanding delinquency.

Reading assignments of this week (R. Merton’s Social Structure and Anomie; A. Cohen’s The Culture of the Gang; and R. Cloward and L. E. Ohlin’s Delinquency and Opportunity) confirmed my sensation that we can always revisit Durkheim, Weber and Marx[1], and this visit can indeed be fruitful. It is quite evident the impact of Durkheim in Merton’s, Cohen’s and Cloward and Ohlin’s works, however when digging in Cohen’s and Cloward and Ohlin’s approaches, I argue that the influence of classic works such as the ‘Protestant Ethic’ and the ‘Theory of Alienation’ from Weber and Marx respectively, allow for a more complete understanding of what delinquency is and how is formed. Nonetheless, each of these three readings in their own merit contributes to sociologically explain why certain social groups deviate from the legal apparatus of a given society.[2]
Firstly, Merton’s conceptualization of anomie expands Durkheim’s in at least two senses: i) it defines more clearly how a given social actor is bounded by cultural and structural conditions, and therefore his/her actions can be understood in reference to goals and means and the social structure—which seems to be social class. Specifically, by analytically differentiating these two concepts, it is possible to observe how social actions can be coupled or decoupled. Processes of decoupling can be understood as deviant or delinquent because they depart from norms or goals, which have the strongest degree of validity in a given society. ii) Merton’s approach helps to explain potential mechanisms at the individual level, which in Durkheim are not clearly unpacked. Durkheim observes that social crisis (either at the macro or at micro level) can contribute to deviant behaviours, but he does not offer potential mechanisms that link these two characteristics more clearly. When comparing his work to Durkheim’s, the typology of individual adaptation of five modes of adaptation (p.140) can be regarded as his most resonant contribution. Specifically, because the modes of adaptation describe different decoupling processes at the individual level, and thus allow observing different types of deviant acts, which were not foreseen by Durkheim.
Secondly, Cohen’s work takes a very important element from Weber in order to understand delinquency. Although this is neither central nor explicit, the use of the ‘Protestant Ethic’, I argue, echoes the German sociologist in at least two wits. Firstly, by theoretically assuming that a given cultural set of values embedded in a society affects the formation of social actions, Cohen establishes the weight of culture in the formation of delinquent acts. Secondly, the ‘Protestant Ethic’ which is predominant in middle class families of United States broadly defines what steps need to be followed in order to be successful. It is important to highlight that this measurement of success, which can be for instance the so-called American dream, highly correlates with the idea of achievement in the ‘Protestant Ethic’. Thus, this ethic provides individuals with both means and goals. Why is it important to understand this relationship between Weber and Cohen? Because discipline, as a variable which distinguishes how children are socialized, ultimately shapes the skills needed to reach the goals regarded as legitimate. Although Cohen starts his analysis by analytically understanding how social class affects children’s behaviour, I argue that his conceptualization ultimately attenuates its importance, because a set of cultural values, which seem to be highly associated with the class position of a given child, is what explains delinquent acts. Like Durkheim and Merton, Cohen argues that the problem of individual adjustment is the main category which identifies deviant actions. Cohen states, specifically, that the lower the class location of a given child’s family, school, and street (p.155) the higher the conditions of becoming delinquent or performing delinquently. Under this social environment children learn values and practices which are not ultimately effective for reaching awards prized by those social groups and institutions which dominate the mainstream. This dissociation creates conditions whereby the children either adopt middle-class standards or repudiate them altogether. For Cohen the common core of motivation i.e. ‘status discontent’ is the first step of performing delinquent acts in working-class’ males. The mechanism ‘repudiation-formation’ allows individuals to perform delinquently and by accessing to groups where he can be valued, he is likely to reduce his problem of adjustment. This in turn strengthens the delinquent sub-culture.
While Cloward and Ohlin review elements of the former authors in order to explain delinquent acts, they implicitly use one Marxist concept as well, i.e. ‘alienation’. For Marx this concept is associated to workers and for Cloward and Ohlin to youth who can potentially become delinquents. In Marx this process implies that workers detached from four elements: the product they produce; their own working; from themselves; and from other workers, and therefore they lose connection with the most essential human process i.e. work. Cloward and Ohlin, on the other hand, point out that alienation is the “process of withdrawal of attributions of legitimacy from established social norms” (p.110), and therefore these individuals can easily detach from those values which society has declared to be the appropriated ones. In both cases the social system is understood as the force which drags individuals into states of alienation.
Cloward and Ohlin, like Durkheim, Merton and Cohen, also understand that a dislocation between the social system and the individual is likely to produce deviant acts. However, in order to delineate their own theory of delinquency they depart from Merton and Cohen. Firstly, unlike Merton, they state that every person occupies a position in the distribution of both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures; these are the differential opportunity structures (p.150). By developing this approach it is possible to ask “how the relative availability of illegitimate opportunities affects the resolution of adjustment problems leading to deviant behaviour” (p.151). In other words, when every person faces adjustment problems they have access to different sources whose differentiated weights are likely to influence the direction of their actions. These authors in some measure reject Cohen’s theoretical explanation of deviance, which identifies the problem of adjustment of lower-class youth with the middle-class values, because they argue that lower-class youth, while devaluing lower-class style of life and the materialistic success–goals of the middle class, is also oriented towards a definition of success that stresses a change in their economic position. Lastly, Cloward and Ohlin are the only authors who explicitly tackle the question of how collective behaviour, in the realm of delinquency, takes place. Specifically, when individuals associate the failures to the functioning of the system, rather than to themselves, they are likely to engage in collective adaptations (p.125). By understanding this process, their theory can also be useful to social movements because they unpack the conditions which trigger collective solutions to systemic problems.

[1] As Professor Carmichael mentioned the revisiting can go to classics such as Hobbes or even to ancient Greek philosophers, however it seemed to me that the links of these readings with Durkheim, Weber and Marx were clearer.
[2] I am explicitly using the concept of legal apparatus, instead of legitimate body of practices, because deviant acts that supposed to be classified as delinquent, ultimately need to affect norms which are acknowledged in legal codes. In making this distinction I follow the Philosophy of Law ‘Legal positivism’ defended by Hans Kelsen, whereby a ‘value’ is different from a legal ‘norm’, because the former is assessed by moral standards, whereas the latter by legal practices.

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