Differential Opportunity Theory: Definition and Examples

differential opportunity theory definition and examples, explained below

Differential Opportunity Theory is a theory of crime that seeks to explain people’s choice of criminal activities. It states that some groups have higher access to “illegitimate means than others. As a result, some people are more highly incentivized to commit some types of crimes than other people.

The theory explores how illegitimate means of committing crimes (such as by joining organized criminal groups) directly affects the types of crimes that are committed.

According to this theory, there are three categories of deviant subcultures:

  • Criminal subcultures (high access to legitimate means),
  • Conflict subcultures (low access to legitimate means), and
  • Retreatist subcultures (low access to legitimate means).

Key Terms: Legitimate vs Illegitimate Means

In differential opportunity theory, the term ‘illegitimate means‘ refers to the opportunities people have to engage in deviant behavior, while ‘legitimate means‘ refers to the opportunities people have to gain money and power legally and morally. People with greater access to illegitimate means than legitimate means are highly incentivized to engage in sophisticated criminal activities.

Differential Opportunity Theory Overview

The key contribution of the theory is that it was the first to discuss how access to opportunities for criminal behavior will affect the type of crime committed (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011).

Prior to this, the dominant theory at the time – Merton’s strain theory – simply proposed that the key driver of crime was lack of access to legitimate ways of gaining money and power. It didn’t sufficiently talk about the types of crimes committed by people who lack access to legitimate ways of gaining power and money.

Differential opportunity theory both built on and critiqued strain theory by introducing the idea of ‘illegitimate means’ when discussing the crimes that people choose to commit (Shjarback, 2018).

Differential Opportunity Theory proposes that not all criminal opportunities are equally accessible or appealing to individuals.

The social environment, including factors such as neighborhood characteristics, family background, and social networks, can shape the types of criminal activities that individuals become involved in (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011).

As a result, the theory suggests that it is not only the presence of strain but also the type and availability of illegitimate opportunities that influence criminal behavior.

Deviant Subcultures and Illegitimate Means

The criminologists who developed the theory, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, propose three distinct deviant subcultures.

Each subculture had differing levels of access to illegitimate means of obtaining money and power, resulting in different criminal or deviant behaviors, as explored below.

1. Criminal Subculture

A criminal subculture refers to a culture where organized deviant groups exist. The groups have organized structure and a hierarchy of roles, enabling them to engage in sophisticated criminal activities.

In these environments, people seeking to engage in deviance have access to criminal role models who can train and guide newcomers (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011).

Deviance is often achieved through illegitimate means, such as theft, corruption, trafficking, or other illegitimate activities.

The criminal subculture provides individuals with opportunities to learn criminal skills and obtain material reward for the acquisition of those skills.

As a result, criminal behavior is seen within this subculture as a rational and acceptable way to achieve money and power.

Example: A young person growing up in a neighborhood with a strong presence of organized crime may become involved in trafficking of goods on behalf of superiors within the gangs. Engagement with the criminal subculture feels legitimate as the rewards obtained (i.e. money) are more readily available and rewarding than alternate legitimate options, like getting a job.

Example: A successful politician realizes there is a lot of money to be made by green-lighting land rezoning applications for developers who will provide highly lucrative kickbacks once the buildings are constructed.

2. Conflict Subculture

Conflict subcultures emerge in communities where there are few legitimate means for gaining money and power, but there are also few organized crime opportunities.

In other words, both legitimate and illegitimate means to obtain money and power are scarce.

In these settings, individuals may engage in sporadic and opportunistic deviance as a means to achieve status and respect within their peer group.

Unlike the criminal subculture, people in conflict subcultures don’t tend to engage in organized illegitimate activities such as corruption or extortion.

The primary goal in a conflict subculture is not necessarily material gain or gaining skills, but rather the pursuit of individual prestige and dominance through physical confrontation or aggressive behavior (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011).

Example: A group of teenagers who go to a local tourist street at night to pickpocket unsuspecting tourists. They gain status among friends for success and for evading detection.

3. Retreatist Subculture

Retreatist subcultures are made up of social outsiders who have failed to achieve success through legitimate nor illegitimate means.

Such people may have made an effort to fit into society, applied for jobs, etc., but come across barriers due to anything from personal inability to systemic discrimination.

As a result, they have often withdraw from conventional society and decided to engage in behaviors that offer a temporary escape from their feelings of inability or failure (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011).

This subculture may engage in vagrancy, rioting, substance abuse, or other forms of escapism as a way to cope with feelings of alienation and frustration.

Their deviance is often destructive but victimless, such as spray-painting public spaces, squatting in unused buildings, and vagrancy.

Example: A person who struggles with finding stable employment and has no access to criminal opportunities might turn to the outsider punk scene and start abusing substances as a way to escape their sense of failure or dissatisfaction with their life.

Table Summary: Deviant Subcultures from Differential Opportunity Theory

Table adapted from Wang (1983):

Criminal SubcultureConflict SubcultureRetreatist Subculture
DefinitionOrganized criminal groupsDisorganized criminalsCountercultural deviants who disengage with society
Access to illegitimate meansStrong access to illegitimate means of gaining money and powerPoor access to illegitimate means of gaining money and powerPoor access to illegitimate means of gaining money and power
Criminal and deviant behaviorsOrganized crime such as corruption, extortion, and smugglingOpportunistic crime such as pickpocketing, shoplifting, battery, vandalismRetreat from society, committing victimless crimes like substance abuse or crimes for the sake of enjoyment not power (e.g. graffiti).
ValuesStealth, wit, discipline, hierarchy, group reputationOpportunism, turf wars, destruction of property, personal reputationKicks, enjoyment, rebellion, punk music, self-destructive behavior

Differential Opportunity Theory vs Strain Theory

Differential opportunity theory is seen either as an improvement upon Merton’s strain theory or, to some, a critique of strain theory (Shjarback, 2018).

The theory clearly builds on aspects of strain theory, given that both belong to the groups and neighborhoods tradition of criminology theories (Shjarback, 2018), which look at how deviance comes to be a characteristic trait of some subcultural groups. This differs, for example, from Hirschi’s social bond theory, which focuses more on individual traits and factors rather than social structures.

However, the theory either contributes to or critiques the idea in strain theory that strain (in the form of lack of access to legitimate means for making money and achieving power etc.) can lead to crime (Shjarback, 2018). While agreeing to an extent with this proposition, Cloward and Ohlin propose that opportunity to commit crime is also an important influencing factor in both the decision to commit a crime, and the crime that will end up being committed.

Thus, differential opportunity theory’s critique of strain theory is summed up as:

“[it is] the illegitimate opportunity structure, not strain, regulates the content and form of deviant adaptations.” (Cullen, 1988, p. 224)

With that in mind, below is a table summarizing the key differences and similarities between strain theory and differential opportunity theory:

AspectDifferential Opportunity TheoryStrain Theory
TheoristsRichard Cloward and Lloyd OhlinRobert Merton
Main focusFocuses on accessibility of illegitimate means to obtain money and power. Accessibility to ‘illegitimate means’ leads to deviance (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011).Focuses on lack of access to legitimate means to obtain money and power. Lack of ‘legitimate means’ leads to deviance (Shjarback, 2018).
Central ideaThe type and accessibility of criminal opportunities influences the type of deviance a person might engage in.Society’s pressure to achieve cultural goals with limited legitimate means creates strain and drives individuals to commit crimes (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011).
Role of social environmentDetermines the availability and accessibility of criminal opportunities and shapes the types of criminal activities individuals engage in (Shjarback, 2018).Creates strain and frustration for individuals who cannot access legitimate opportunities.
Types of criminal/deviant behaviorCriminal, Conflict, and Retreatist subcultures are described, each with distinct characteristics (Barkan & Bryjak, 2011).Five modes of adaptation: Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism, and Rebellion.
EmphasisCriminal opportunities and social environment.Societal goals and limited access to legitimate opportunities (Shjarback, 2018).

Criticisms of the Differential Opportunity Theory

While offering profound insight into the varied levels of opportunity that people receive, and the repercussions of what not having access to that opportunity can result in, the theory been criticized for both its theoretical shortcomings and oversimplified approach.

Researchers have argued that there is a disproportionately high focus on lower socioeconomic strata, and in turn, empirical disregard towards criminal behavior among middle-upper class individuals (Shjarback, 2018).

Others contest that the scope of the theory, and the studies conducted on it up until now, often focused on juvenile delinquency, failing to properly examine criminal conduct in adults.

One particularly strong criticism came from Cressey (1964), who asserted that the theory fails to understand and respect the role of freewill in choosing to reject or participate in available illegitimate behaviors.

Compare This Theory With: Differential Association Theory


Differential opportunity theory offers an alternative perspective to Merton’s strain theory, offering a nuanced discussion of how access to illegitimate means can affect people’s criminal behavior. While the theory offers a useful lens for critiquing and/or building on strain theory, it is also seen to lack an understanding of human agency and white-collar criminal activities.


Barkan, S. E., & Bryjak, G. J. (2011). Fundamentals of criminal justice: A sociological view. New York: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Braithewaite, J. (1979). Merton’s theory of crime and differential class symbols of success. Crime and/ET Justice7/8(2), 90–94. http://johnbraithwaite.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/1980_Merton-s-Theory-of-Crime-and-D.pdf

Cressey, D.R. (1964). Some Popular Criticisms of Differential Association. In: Delinquency, Crime and Differential Association. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-011-9015-2_5

Cullen, F.T. (1988). Were Cloward and Ohlin strain theorists? Delinquency and opportunity revisited. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 25(3), 214-241.

Glaser, D. (1960). Differential Association and Criminological Prediction. Social Problems8(1), 6–14. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/798625

Shjarback, J. A. (2018). Revisiting a Classic: A Qualitative Analysis of Differential Opportunity Theory and Its Utility in Explaining Residential Burglary. Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminologyhttps://doi.org/10.21428/88de04a1.3cf13246

Wang, P. W. (1983). A study of juvenile delinquency in Taiwan: An application of differential opportunity theory. Illinois: Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.


Gregory Paul C. (MA)

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Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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