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delinquencyillegal or ‘antisocial’ acts, typically performed by young males. The emphasis on young males is not necessary in a strict sense, but has been a clear feature in sociological studies of the subject, which have commonly focused on WORKING CLASS youth PEER GROUPS, gangs or SUBCULTURES, or on aspirations and opportunities for young people.
The first sociologists to study the problem systematically were associated with the CHICAGO SCHOOL in the US. Starting with the influence of Robert PARK and W. E. Burgess in the 1920s, sociologists at the University of Chicago were encouraged to undertake empirical studies of neighbourhoods, gangs, etc, treating the city as a ‘social laboratory’. Their lasting influence was in the development of area studies (the most criticized aspect of their work), and in arguments about ‘social disorganization’ and the importance of subcultures (or cultural transmission). Later US studies presented alternatives to the Chicago approach, or tried to develop themes which had been established by Chicago sociologists.
MERTON, for example, adapted DURKHEIM's notion of ANOMIE to suggest that a disparity between highly valued goals and legitimate opportunities to achieve goals could produce a number of deviant responses (see CRIMINOLOGY). Other researchers, notably A. K. Cohen (1955), developed the concept of subculture in relation to working-class male delinquency. He argued that delinquent subcultures provided an alternative source of status and respect for boys who did not take, or have access to, other 'S olutions’, like higher education or a stable adjustment to middle-class values. The values of the delinquent subculture were seen as a reaction to, and an inversion of, middle-class values. Some critics of Cohen pointed out that ‘lower-class culture’ had its own values which informed and shaped delinquent values. Those most commonly emphasized have been ‘masculinist’values of‘toughness’, autonomy and excitement. The work of Cloward and Ohlin (1960), emphasizing status and opportunities for legitimate and delinquent lifestyles, was an attempt to combine Merton's anomie theory with subculture theory Critics of US subculture theory have tended to pick out the essentially FUNCTIONALIST assumptions about values, the positivistic, over-deterministic character of the work (see DELINQUENT DRIFT), the fact that females and middle-class youth are almost completely ignored, and, finally, the lack of empirical backing for many of the assumptions and arguments of‘classical’ subculture theory
In the UK, there has been a long-standing interest in juvenile crime and policy issues. Juveniles were very much the concern of the people who framed the Probation Act of 1907. Separate provision was made for juveniles in the Criminal Justice System (from 1933) and a number of Acts in the 1970s and 80s have been specifically directed at the problems of crime and treatment of young offenders. This interest has been stimulated by successive MORAL PANICS about YOUTH CULTURES – from teddy boys in the 1950s through a variety of ‘youth subcultures’ to FOOTBALL HOOLIGANS and lager louts’ in recent years. Many sociologists have cast doubts on the argument that these phenomena are distinctively new (Pearson, 1983), and others have argued that the MASS MEDIA OF COMMUNICATION have played a significant role in defining working-class youth as a problem and in distorting and exaggerating the nature and significance of the issue (S. Cohen, 1973 and 1981). Even accepting the strength of these arguments, it is clear that juvenile crime and delinquency is a serious problem, requiring sociological research. CRIME STATISTICS in the 1980s suggest that, motoring offences apart, for both males and females, offending rates are highest amongst juveniles. This fact, together with the very high visibility of ‘youth problems’ which has been encouraged by the mass media, has stimulated a great deal of research by British sociologists. Early work questioned the value of the US gang studies for the British case (Downes, 1966). Rather different subculture models have been used, though, and are particularly associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (see CULTURAL STUDIES) at Birmingham University Other studies have looked at the importance of ‘anti-school’ cultures (Willis, 1977) and at parental supervision and family life (Wilson and Herbert, 1978). Race has been a separate research area, in which much of the work has focused on the effects of deprivation, on RACISM, POLICING and political alienation (Beynon and Solomos, 1987; Institute of Race Relations, 1987). Equally important, the issue of gender has been raised in ways which do not simply accept the great discrepancy between male and female delinquency, but attempt to explain the reasons for the much lower involvement of females and for the quite different treatment which they receive in the Justice system (Carlen and Worrall, 1987). There is now a large British literature on different aspects of delinquency characterized by a diversity of research interests and strategies. See also CRIMINOLOGY, DELINQUENT SUBCULTURE.