Differential Opportunity Theory – All You Need To Know.

Differential Opportunity Theory


According to differential opportunity theory, regardless of demographic circumstances, everyone has an equal chance to achieve great things in life; but, not everyone will take advantage of this.

Learning, subculture, Anomie, and social disorganization theories are combined in the theory of differential opportunities, which recognizes that criminal behavior requires access to illicit means.

Cloward and Ohlin established a new theory of criminal behavior in 1960 by combining Sutherland’s and Merton’s views. Cloward and Ohlin discuss differentials in legitimate and illegitimate ways to success-goals, whereas Sutherland and Merton discuss differentials in legitimate means.

This blog post will explain what Differential Opportunity Theory, key elements of this theory, applications and criticisms of Differential Opportunity Theory. As you read along, remember that our qualified writers are always ready to help in any of your assignments. All you need to do is place an order with us!

What is Entailed in the Differential Opportunity Theory

Differential opportunity theory is based on Sutherland’s theory of differential association, highlighting that criminal motives, techniques, and rationalizations are learned through criminal relationships. Cloward and Ohlin, like Merton and Cohen, believe that deviant behavior results from a stratum-specific urge to adapt, or more precisely, a lack of access to legitimate means and that this adaptation is often made collectively through group interaction processes.

Cloward and Ohlin view the explanation why not all people with adaption issues become criminals in the fact that access to illegal means can be denied for criminal activity. Drug trafficking, for example, is more difficult in some parts of the city than in others. A person who wants to be a drug dealer needs drug suppliers, a customer base, and a street corner to sell his wares. However, not everyone has access to these resources. It necessitates ties with seasoned professionals who are eager to share their knowledge and network.

The ability to break into cars is also influenced by the social context, the car owner, and the presence of potential accomplices. According to Shaw and McKay’s theory, socially disordered neighborhoods have greater opportunities for criminal behavior than others.

 According to the differential opportunities theory, we are learning to conform to behavior, excellent social policy, moral education, the resolution of problematic neighborhoods, and, to a degree, deterrence and situational crime prevention.

Cloward and Ohlin, above all, call for more education and better economic conditions for the underclass in the United States to ensure cultural and financial prosperity for all members of society. This includes creating social and political structures in vulnerable or socially disadvantaged areas.

Types of Crimes Suggested in Differential Opportunity Theory

  • Crimes of need: These crimes are typically committed by those who are unable to earn enough money legitimately and must resort to illicit means.
  • Crimes of frustration: These crimes occur when someone has been pushed to their breaking point and decides to take matters into their own hands.
  • Crimes of opportunity: These are crimes perpetrated by those who have a lot of opportunities to conduct crimes due to their position, which puts them above suspicion.

Key Elements of Theory of Differential Opportunities

The key elements of this theory are:

  1. An individual has a place in both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures
  2. The relative availability of illegitimate opportunities influences the resolution of an individual’s adjustment problems
  3. When faced with limitations on legitimate avenues of access to goals and unable to revise his aspirations downward, he experiences intense frustrations, leading to the exploration of non-conformist alternatives.

Three Subcultures

Differential opportunity theorists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin determined that there were three paths individuals faced with limited opportunities would use to achieve success. The three subcultures are based on the stability of the environment.

They’re as follows:

Crime, wherein a neighborhood that is stable and in which opportunity for crime exists, the individual will turn to crime as their alternative. Stability in this instance means that a hierarchy of criminal organization exists and that the teen can move through the ranks to establish themself.

Conflict, where this subculture is typical of disorganized areas of low socioeconomic opportunity. The area is characterized by a mix of groups trying to establish dominance. Although there is a crime against others to fund the various organizations, people within the groups achieve based on their success at conflict. Teens fight to gain territory and prestige for their gang.

Retreats, where teens are unsuccessful at both legitimate and illegitimate enterprises in some instances. In this case, the individual drops out of society. Status is gained by drug use or by membership in separatist gangs.

Differential Opportunity Theory-related sociological theories

Theory of social learning

Differential opportunity theory is linked to Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. According to Bandura, children acquire both good and negative habits through observing other individuals, according to Bandura. According to this notion, a child does not learn solely from his parents’ actions; the individuals in his immediate environment, in general, might impact how he will act as an adult.

Social learning theory and differential association theory are comparable. While the differential association theory says that social circumstances influence conduct, the social learning theory suggests that both social and personal elements influence it.

Social learning theory is commonly used to explain criminal conduct, while differential opportunity theory is not. According to this theory, deviant behavior will arise not only from those who influence us but also from our society.

The deviance strain theory

According to the deviant strain theory, criminality and economic issues are linked. According to the notion, high unemployment rates are linked to higher rates of deviance.

According to this hypothesis, lower-class criminals desire what the middle class has, and they want it now. Unemployed people are put under more stress, and they are more likely to commit crimes.

Differential opportunity theory can be thought of as a counter-argument to this one. According to the deviant strain theory, people from lower social classes may feel compelled to commit crimes in order to achieve their goals.

On the other hand, differential opportunity theory proposes that this is dependent on the opportunities accessible to them. A drug dealer, for example, may not accomplish the same results as someone selling legal goods.

In this situation, the drug dealer sees narcotics as a method to get out of debt. Because the offender believes that lawful avenues of earning money are out of reach, they rationalize their behavior.

Differential association theory

Edwin Sutherland proposed the differential association theory, which states that criminal behavior results from social interactions. Criminality is influenced by the person who commits the crimes and the people around them.

So, let’s use differential opportunity theory as an example. In such a situation, we’ll recognize that a person who is unable to access these social interactions will be unable to be impacted by them.

Differential association theory is predicated on the idea that humans are not born criminals. They require the appropriate social stimuli. On the other hand, differential opportunity theory asserts that everyone, regardless of demographic circumstances, has the same chance to achieve great things in life. However, not everyone will benefit from this.

Social bond theory

Travis Hirschi created the social bond theory. According to this argument, those with a vested interest in society are less likely to commit crimes.

There is a direct correlation between low social bonding and high crime rates. There will be more illegal behavior if fewer people engage in legitimate activities. Individual relationships within a society can directly impact the options available to them.

This hypothesis is linked to differential opportunity theory, which states that socially connected persons are more likely to have their legitimate needs met. Those who lack social ties will be unable to realize their goals. People with weak social relationships will seek money and happiness from illegal activities.

Anomie theory

According to Anomie’s theory, society can influence individual conduct. Émile Durkheim proposed this concept in the nineteenth century, and it is still applicable today.

In the same way that the Anomie and differential opportunity theories both argue that society can influence individual behavior, the Anomie theory and differential opportunity theory are related. The primary distinction is that differential opportunity theory argues that this influence can be positive and negative, whereas anomie theory solely states that it is negative.

Differential opportunity theory is linked to other theories because it can explain criminal behavior differently. It can, however, be used to explain a variety of other sorts of deviant behavior.

Differential Opportunities and Social Control

Controlling aberrant conduct is referred to as social control. Because the opportunity is one of the components in social control, differential opportunity theory is related to this.

The availability of options, according to this hypothesis, influences criminal behavior. For example, when it’s dark outside, there are more robberies than when it’s bright. There is more chance for robbery if there are no street lights.

Differential opportunity theory emphasizes that crime is a result of individual decision-making and the possibilities accessible to individuals. This shows that people can make an alternative decision when the option is not available.

When a person needs money, and it’s simple to do so, they might steal from a store. However, if a person is working and financially secure, they are unlikely to steal from the same store.

Social control is a method of ensuring that people are unable to take advantage of the available unequal opportunities. It is feasible to avoid criminal activity by doing so.

Macro-social Level of Differential Opportunities

The macro-social level of differential opportunities has an impact on crime rates. People from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds have fewer options. As a way out, many of these people turn to crime.

This is an important aspect of unequal opportunity theory because it explains why some people from the middle and higher classes can succeed in life. On the other hand, others remain at lower socioeconomic levels and suffer.

Due to a lack of opportunity, some people may resort to criminal activity to obtain what they need outside of the legal system. Someone may believe that they are being held back because they are unable to find work. In this circumstance, they’re more prone to resort to crime to achieve their goals.

Environmental Influences on Criminal Learning

The significance of the environment in criminal learning is discussed in differential opportunity theory. According to this theory, some people desire to be criminals so they can imitate their role models.

According to this theory, people learn from the mistakes of others. Someone can observe a renowned person committing a crime on television and think it makes them look cool and tough. They may then resolve to follow in that person’s footsteps and commit a crime of their own.

Differential opportunity theory, which states that some environmental conditions can contribute to criminal learning, is related to this.

These include:

  • Easy access to resources,
  • Lack of opportunities
  • People who are role models for individuals who want to become criminals at some point in their lives.

It is feasible to prevent criminal learning by managing the surrounding environment. This management can also reduce crime rates by preventing people from committing crimes in the first place.

The majority of offenders from low-income families explain their criminal behavior in the environment in which they were born or reared. The societal norms of a given community may also play a role.

According to differential opportunity theory, the availability of resources has the greatest impact on crime rates in low-income areas. It goes on to say that by keeping control of these resources, criminal activities can be avoided.

This means that would-be criminals only need a little more weight in order to reap the rewards of resources.

There are a variety of reasons why some persons from low-income neighborhoods become criminals while others do not. Some scholars believe that these folks are only attempting to meet their own wants.

Categories of Illegitimate Opportunities

Cloward and Ohlin believed that crime requires a supply source in order to be successful. Illegitimate opportunities are the term for these sources.

Selling drugs, smuggling items into the country, and kidnapping people for ransom from wealthy families are examples of such sources. Illegal opportunities come in many forms, each of which is linked to a specific type of crime.

  • Drug opportunities that contribute to the illegal drug sale and distribution
  • Smuggling opportunities provide thieves access to commodities that are difficult to obtain because of their high pricing.
  • Racketeering Opportunities: Criminal connections exploit business owners by pressuring them to pay protection money or enter into a business deal with them.

Differential opportunity theory can also be used to explain specific sorts of criminal behavior. Whites, for example, are more likely to commit most white-collar crimes, whereas African Americans are more likely to commit violent crimes like robbery and drug charges.

Whites are more likely to conduct white-collar crimes, according to this argument, since they have privileged access to legitimate opportunities and hence have no need for illegitimate sources of supply.

The Differential Opportunity Theory’s Application in Criminology

In criminology, differential opportunity theory is frequently used. This encompasses the investigation of both human and environmental factors that influence criminal conduct.

  • Understanding the early stages of crime requires a thorough understanding of differential opportunity theory. This might include how young kids learn about criminal activity and how, in some situations, this can lead them down the route to crime.
  • The focus of this idea is on juvenile criminality. It explains why some young people make the decision to commit crimes at a young age while others do not. In this situation, social control and unequal opportunity can work together to prevent crime from happening in the first place by promoting social education.
  • The differential opportunity model can better understand how people react to crime in their communities. People may buy houses with better locks for security if there are more robberies at night than during the day. They may also believe that many robberies are linked to drug use, which could sway their opinions.
  • Differential opportunity theory can also explain why minorities are more likely to be involved in crime than other groups. In this scenario, interactions with the judicial system and the police can reinforce inequity.
  • Depending on particular conditions, there may be a link between differential opportunity theory and other theories, such as social disorganization theory and Anomie.
  • For example, with the use of differential opportunity theory, it may be feasible to explain how people react to crime in their society. The outcome can then be compared to what would occur if more policing or security measures were implemented.
  • The differential opportunity hypothesis can also be used to understand criminal behavior better. It can, for example, explain why criminals continue to commit crimes despite the fact that they are aware of the repercussions. This is because if they do not, certain elements may make their lives more difficult.
  • The differential opportunity model can be used to look into how people think about crime in their communities. It could be linked to different types of social control and how people respond to illegal behavior.

The important criticisms against Cloward and Ohlin’s theory

  1. The theory’s central claim that there are two types of opportunities, legitimate and illegitimate, is not as straightforward as it appears. Although real, the distinction is ‘analytical’ rather than ‘concrete,’ meaning that there aren’t some things that are legitimate and others that are illegitimate, but the same things are always both; for example, notes written by students on small pieces of paper that are used in examinations become unfair means.
  2. Cloward and Ohlin argue that lower-class teenagers have two distinct orientations: a desire to join the middle class, referred to as ‘lifestyle’ orientation, and a desire to improve their economic situation, referred to as ‘economic’ orientation. According to Cloward and Ohlin, candidates for the delinquent subculture are individuals who want to stay in the lower class but want to better their economic condition. These two orientations, according to Gordon, do not exist separately.
  3. Cloward and Ohlin do not specify the basic conditions that lead to the creation of different subcultures.
  4. There is class bias in this theory.
  5. According to Clarence Schrag, the theory’s notions, such as ‘opportunity structure,’ ‘perception of opportunity,’ ‘denial of legitimacy,’ and ‘double failure,’ cannot be operationalized.
  6. The personality aspect was largely overlooked.


According to the differential opportunity theory, crime is caused by a combination of individual choice and environmental influences. The availability of opportunities influences criminal behavior.

It is feasible to prevent criminal learning by managing the surrounding environment. It is also feasible to lessen crime by removing opportunities and preventing crime from occurring in the first place by providing equal opportunity to all.

When the possibility is not available, people can make an alternative decision. Someone might, for example, steal from a store when they need money and it’s convenient, but they wouldn’t steal if they were employed and financially secure.