Running Head: Cloward                                                                         








Stephanie Bontrager

Richard Cloward and Modern Criminology















Richard Cloward began his academic career in the late 1950’s.  His first published work was a well-received revision of Merton’s theory of anomie titled, Illegitimate Means, Anomie, and Deviant Behavior (Short, 1975).  Cloward, along with Lloyd Ohlin, expanded upon this revision and developed a theory of delinquent gangs in, what is perhaps his most influential work, Delinquency and Opportunity.  This theory of delinquent gangs is credited with spawning one of the largest delinquency prevention programs in U.S. history (Short, 1975).  The program, Mobilization for Youth, focused on expanding the legitimate opportunities afforded to young people in an effort to decrease deviant behavior (Short, 1975).  It was this application of the Cloward and Ohlin theory that was adopted by the larger social reform movement known as the Great Society or the War on Poverty (Short, 1975).  Given the importance of Cloward’s modified anomie theory it is important to fully explore the impact of this theory on the field of Criminology, including: the research that it inspired, the subsequent findings that either support or dispute the theories set forth by Richard Cloward, and the current status of the work within the discipline.  However, any examination of theory must begin by placing the theory within its larger social, historical, and political context in an effort to understand why it had such an influence on society and academia when it did.

        Developments from within the field of Sociology undoubtedly had a significant impact on the work of Richard Cloward.  First and foremost was the influence of Robert Merton.  Merton supervised Coward’s original revision of his theory of anomie (Short, 1975) and provided researchers with a middle range theory that could be applied directly to social problems of the day (Pfohl, 1994).  The work and sentiments expressed by C.

Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination,  paved the way for sociology to take a more proactive role in public policy and influenced researchers to combine theory building with practical research (Mill, 1959).  James Short (1975) also credits Whyte’s

Street Corner Society with influencing the research of Richard Cloward, stating that Street Corner Society produced one of the first micro-level examinations of deviant groups.  A theme that is expressed in Cloward and Ohlin’s theory of gang structure and the subsequent effects on different types of deviant behavior (Cloward and Ohlin, 1959).

Another development within sociology was the rise in governmental demand for applied social research.  This phenomenon is well documented in Simpson’s (1994) Science of Coercion.  Simpson describes the process by which government came to play such an important role in the development of Communication’s research from 1945-1960.  Pfohl argues that this demand for applied social research intensified following World War II as government came to play a much larger role in the social welfare of its citizens.  He goes on to say that the increase in demand came with the stipulation that sociological theories must be able to directly address social problems.  Given these conditions, Pfohl argues, it is not surprising that Merton’s theory, and Cloward’s revision of it, caught on when it did.  Cloward and Ohlin’s theory of delinquency not only provided clear directives for addressing the problem of delinquency but it also fit nicely with core American values, namely egalitarianism (Pfohl, 1994).

As already noted, the work of Cloward and Ohlin had a significant effect on the fight against juvenile delinquency in the 1960’s (Short, 1975).  However, this leap from theory to policy would not have developed if the political climate had not been conducive

to liberal policies.  Cloward and Ohlin’s  theory of delinquency and deviant behavior came to fruition under the liberal Kennedy administration (Pfohl, 1994).

It is noted that while Cloward and Ohlin’s research only relates to juvenile delinquency it has been applied to all forms of deviant behavior, not just that of juveniles (Short, 1975).  This observation begs the question, why did Cloward and Ohlin only focus their attention on juvenile delinquency?  The answer to this can be found by looking at the social climate during the 1950’s.  James Gilbert (1986) documents the rise of concern over juvenile delinquency that took place after World War II.  It is probable that this overriding public concern influenced the direction of Cloward and Ohlin’s research.

There are many factors that influenced the popularity and application of Richard Cloward's revised theory of anomie.  They include political, social, and historical conditions that proved conducive to the adoption of the ideas put forward by Richard Cloward, first in 1958 and then in collaboration with Lloyd Ohlin in 1959.  to document all cases, one could trace the development of criminological theory back to the Chicago school, or argue that the advent of the Progressive era was the major influence on the adoption and wide spread application of Cloward’s theories.  However, such an extensive review is not needed to uncover the influences most immediate to the work of Richard Cloward. 

As already noted, Robert Merton had a major influence on the work of Richard Cloward.  Cloward’s first major theoretical contribution to Criminology, Illegitimate Means, Anomie, and Deviant Behavior, was an attempt to integrate the theories of

Merton and Edward Sutherland.  In this thesis, Cloward accepts the main propositions outlined in Merton’s, Social Structure and Anomie.

Merton’s theory of deviance has received a tremendous amount of attention and it is not necessary to go into great detail about his theory.  A brief summary is sufficient to show how this theory was modified by Cloward in 1959.  Merton (1938) argued that

it is only when a system of cultural values extols, virtually above all else, certain common symbols of success for the population at large while its social structure rigorously restricts or completely eliminates access to approved modes of acquiring these symbols for a considerable part of the same population, that antisocial behavior ensues on a considerable scale.[1]

The basic premise then is that when confronted with this difference between goals and opportunities to achieve those goals individuals will engage in one of five coping mechanisms (Merton, 1938).  One of these methods, innovation, involves the use of non-institutional or illegal means to achieve culturally defined goals (Merton, 1938).  Merton (1938) points out the decision to use innovative means of achieving goals is mediated by the extent to which the individual has internalized cultural norms and morals.  Deviant behavior then depends on two things; a disparity between goals and means of achieving those goals and the individuals ability to resist the pressure to turn to innovative means of achieving goals (Merton, 1938).

[1] Emphasis added in original


It is here that Cloward extends the theory set forth by Merton.  Cloward (1959) argues in, Illegitimate Means, Anomie, and Deviant Behavior, that Merton fails to take

into account that access to illegitimate means of achieving culturally defined goals may also by limited.  “Apart from both socially patterned pressures, which give rise to deviance, and from values, which determine choices of adaptations, a further variable

should be taken into account: namely, differentials in availability of illegitimate means [2](Cloward, 1959)

Cloward expands on the idea of differential opportunity by integrating the ideas of differential association; particularly those expressed by Sutherland, into his theory of deviant behavior.  Sutherland’s theory of differential association proposes that deviant behavior is learned through interaction and communication with deviant groups and/or individuals (Pfohl, 1994).  Others, such as Korbin, Shaw & McKay, and Whyte, continued this tradition, showing that there appeared to be deviant “subcultures” where individuals could gain the instruction and knowledge needed to participate in criminal activity, even noting that access was at times restricted by class or ethnicity (Cloward, 1959).  However, unlike the others, Cloward states explicitly that the same social structures that limit access to legitimate means also limit access to illegitimate means.  Put more simply, the opportunity to learn deviant behaviors, in response to blocked goals, is not open to all members of society (Cloward, 1959).

In conjunction with Lloyd Ohlin, Cloward again picks up the work of Sutherland, Shaw, and McKay in Delinquency and Opportunity.  Cloward and Ohlin (1960) start with the premise that access to illegitimate opportunity is different for different people.  Their work sets out to show that not only is this so, but that differences in the presence of

deviant subcultures produces different types of responses to blocked opportunities.  In this sense it is not only social structure, cultural norms and a disparity between goals and

means that produces deviant behavior but also the structure of deviant subculture and access to them (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960).

To summarize, Cloward’s revision of Strain theory integrates the work and theories of several different schools of thought including Stain, Learning, and Disorganization.  Cloward accepts the basic components of Merton’s Strain theory, which assumes that strain is caused by a disparity between culturally defined goals and the means to achieve them.  He also acknowledges that participation in innovative means of achieving goals is not automatic, but is in fact mediated by such things as personal values and acceptance of culturally defined norms.  Building on these premises, Cloward adds an extra dimension to the equation with his idea of differential access to the learning cultures that may facilitate deviant or innovative behaviors.  Cloward’s work with Ohlin continues with this line of reasoning, suggesting that access to deviant subcultures is more typical and specific in some kinds of neighborhoods than in others.  It is these differences that in large part determine the nature of the response to blocked opportunities. 

        In, Thinking About Crime, James Wilson (1975) conducted a survey of top criminologist to determine the most significant works within the field of Criminology. One of the two works cited most often in the survey was Cloward and Ohlin's, Delinquency and Opportunity.  This illustrates that the book and the theories set forth in

it are well read by scholars.  However, what is not addressed by the survey is the degree to which there is evidence supporting the theories set forth by Richard Cloward (1959) in, Illegitimate Means, Anomie, and Deviant Behavior, or for the theories from his collaboration with Lloyd Ohlin (1960) in, Delinquency and Opportunity. 

        Given the social importance of the theories set forth by Cloward it is not surprising that the academic community has given them considerable attention.  Many scholars have addressed Cloward's theories in a variety of different ways.  Authors such as Wilson (1975) argue that Cloward and Ohlin's influence on public policy was ill advised given the unsupported nature of their theories of juvenile delinquency. A point  supported by the fact that their participation in the organizing stages of Mobilization for Youth was carried out as they were writing, Delinquency and Opportunity (Short, 1975).  Others counter Cloward's claims with contradictory evidence and attack Cloward's assumptions for what they leave out.

        LaMar Empey (1978), in American Delinquency, points out that Strain theory in general and Cloward's revision of it, is limited to a particular segment of society, namely the lower-class and lower-class males.  This exclusion, based on class, neglects to account for or explain middle and upper class delinquency.  In addition to criticisms based on the class basis of Cloward's theory there are those who point to the theory's gender bias.  Eileen Leonard (1982) posed such  a criticism stating that access to the culturally defined goals may be greater for women, thereby reducing their participation in innovative means of achieving goals.  This revision of the theory of anomie extends the work of Merton and Cloward to include an explanation of why women participate in

criminal activity at different rates than men and also postulates predictions about the nature of female offending in the future (Leonard, 1982).  Aside from the theoretical limitations, there are also findings about the link between school and delinquency, sources of strain, and the presence of subcultures that point to weaknesses in Cloward's theories of strain and delinquency.

        The causal link between school failure and delinquency is one that is well established by researchers, and at first glance appears to support the differential opportunity theory set forth by Cloward and Ohlin.  However, as suggested by Empey (1978), there could be antecedent variables that cause both school failure and delinquency.  Travis Hirshi (1969) found that a boy's relationship with his parents may indeed be more predictive of delinquent behavior than failure in school and could possibly be the determining influence on both school failure and delinquency.  It is even possible that delinquency functions as an influencing factor in school failure instead of the other way around.  Researchers such as Delbert Elliot (1966); LaMar Empey and Steven Lubeck (1971); and Travis Hirshi (1969),  have found that while school failure is highly predictive of delinquency this finding is not limited to lower-class individuals as Cloward and Ohlin's theory might suggest. 

Another area of concern addressed in the literature has to do with the source of strain outlined by Cloward in, Illegitimate Means, Anomie, and Deviant Behavior.  Like Merton, Cloward points to the discrepancy between socially defined goals and the socially structured opportunities to obtain those goals.  Hence higher levels of ambition among lower-class youths should be associated with high rates of delinquency. Hirshi


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(1969) found just the opposite and concluded that occupational ambition could not be a major influence on the strain felt by lower-class males.

        Cloward and Ohlin (1960) propose that gang activity, particularly within the conflict gang structure, is a violent reaction to and rejection of the social structure that blocks opportunity.  However the work of Martin Gold (1963);  Robert Gordon (1963); and James Short and Fred Strodtbeck (1965), refute this position, finding that gang members do not typically reject socially acceptable goals.  There is also considerable evidence that gangs are not highly specialized groups with distinctive features as suggested by Cloward and Ohlin ( Erikson and Empey, 1963; Gold, 1966).

Another piece of the Cloward and Ohlin theory holds that drug addiction results when individuals retreat from society because of failure to utilize both legitimate and illegitimate opportunities of achieving goals.  The research of Daniel Glaser and Michael Lewis refutes this assumption, finding that drug users must, out of economic necessity, participate in either legitimate or illegitimate means to earn money (Pfohl, 1994).

All of these findings and criticisms clearly illustrate that there are problems with the theories set forth by Richard Cloward. However the propositions examined here have also found a great deal of support in the literature (Empey, 1978). In addition, the work of Cloward and of Cloward and Ohlin has done much to further the usefulness of Robert Merton's Strain theory.

As mentioned,  James Wilson’s 1975 survey of criminologist revealed that Cloward and Ohlin’s work was one of the two works most often cited by criminologist as

the most important in the field.  That was in 1975, what about the influence of Cloward’s work today?  Forty years after its introduction, does his version of Strain theory still resonate with researchers within Criminology?

A review of databases reveals that Cloward’s contribution to Criminology is still finding expression in research.  Of the hundred or so dissertation abstracts surveyed on Dissertation Abstract International in the last eleven years, at least eight were a direct attempt to test the theories set forth by Richard Cloward (Uggen, 1995; Ireland, 1996; Tung, 1994; Su, 1989; Kelsey, 1999; Wallisch, 1997; Parker, 1996; Streifel, 1989).  Moreover, another five were directly influenced by the Cloward and Ohlin theory of differential opportunity (Heimer, 1989; Patterson, 1992; Kyriakos, 1995; Smith, 1997; and Lai, 1997).

A survey of sociological databases such as SocioAbs_Abridged and SocioSciAbs was not as supportive of the continued influence of Cloward’s work.  There were only two articles published by journals in these databases that were directly tied to the work of Cloward (Vowell, 2000; Allan, 1989).  However, this may have more to do with the difficulty in getting articles published in top-notch journals than with any diminished influence of Richard Cloward’s contribution.

Finally, a review of all of the relevant citations of Richard Cloward’s work reveals that his work has had and continues to have a very diverse and widespread effect on research topics.  In the last thirty years, Cloward’s theories have been used to study delinquency in Taiwan, Sweden, and Brazil (Wang, 1983; Friday, 1970; and Iutaka, 1967).  The Cloward and Ohlin theory of differential opportunity has also been extended to the study of not just juvenile delinquency but also homicide, gambling, and street crime (Wallisch, 1997; Parker, 1996; and Berger, 1980).  And finally, one of the most remarkable and perhaps most telling indicators of the far reaching influence of Cloward’s work is the diversity of academic institutions presented in the recent applications of his thesis.  Researchers from universities in the North, South, West and East are still using and applying Cloward’s theory.  Given the trend for universities to “specialize” in a particular school of thought it is this finding that is most impressive, reflecting the continued influence of the contribution by Richard Cloward.

The explanations of deviance laid out by Richard Cloward are by no means perfect.  Applications of his theories have revealed weaknesses and limitations.  However, his work was and continues to be one of the most important in all of Criminological theory.  He extended the endeavor started by Durkheim and continued by Merton.  He provided society with an applicable model for reducing juvenile delinquency and fighting poverty. In addition, he continues to be both researcher and activist.  His contribution as a researcher provided Criminology with one of its greatest explanations of deviance and his work as a social activist has provided other researchers with a model of how  to use theory as a guide for both research and social change.










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Elliot, D. (1966).  Delinquency, school attendance and dropout.  Social Problems, 13, 306-318.


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Heimer, K (1989),  Sex, interaction, and delinquency.  DAI, 19(01a), 0300.


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Ireland, T. (1996).  Elaborated strain theory: Building and testing an individual- level theory of delinquent behavior (adolescents).  DAI, 57(11a), 4937.

Iutaka, S. (1967).  Social mobility and differential occupational opportunity in Brazil.  The University of Texas Institute of Latin American Studies.  Austin: University of Texas.


Kelsey, S. (1999).  A study of attachment to parents, attachment to school, perception of blocked opportunities, and companions, as predictors of adolescent female delinquent behavior.  DAI, 60(09b), 4949.


Kyriakos, A. (1995).  Gender inequality and differential treatment.  MAI, 34(02), 0590.


Lai, S. (1997).  Influence of opportunity structure and significant others on the variation of academic achievement among Asian American, African American, and Hispanic American high school youth.  MAI, 35(06), 1682.


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Patterson, L. (1992).  Victimization in schools: A contextual effects model of risks (school crime).  DAI, 53(10a), 3683.


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Short, J. & Strodtbeck, F. (1965).  Group process and gang delinquency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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Smith, H. (1997).  The role of symbolism in structure, maintenance, and interaction of high school social groups.  MAI, 35(06), 1687.

Streifel, C. (1989).  The status of women and women's involvement in crime: SA cross-sectional examination of gender differences in rates of offending.  DAI, 51(05a), 0176.


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Uggen, C. (1997).  Choice, commitment, and opportunity: An event history analysis of supported employment and crime.  DAI, 56(11a), 4564.


Vowell, P. (2000).  Another look at classic strain theory: Poverty status perceived blocked opportunity, and gang membership as predictors of adolescent violent behavior.  Sociological Inquiry, 70(1), 42-60.


Wallisch, L.(1997).  Determinant of gambling and problem gambling: Three theories (opportunity theory, differential association, anomie theory).  DAI, 58(10a), 4094.


Wang, P. (1997).  A study of juvenile delinquency in Taiwan: An application of differential opportunity theory.  DAI, 44(01a), 0289.


Wilson, J. (1975).  Thinking about crime. New York: Basic Books Inc.



[2] Emphasis added in original.