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Classic Texts: Robert Merton "Social Theory & Social Structure" 1938


Last updated 23 Apr 2019

In this book, Merton outlined his well-known strain theory of deviance.

Robert Merton took a standard functionalist view that there was a value consensus: that - through socialisation - we all share the same norms and values and life goals. With that in mind, he set out to try and explain why some people committed crimes, apparently seeming to deviate from the norms and values of society. In doing this, he looked to develop the ideas of Durkheim and apply them to the American society he was living in.

Merton argued that people were encouraged to believe in the American Dream: that is that, through hard work, everyone can have a comfortable life with their own home and access to consumer goods. However, Merton noted that, in reality, achieving this was much easier for some people than others. In other words, there was a strain between what people wanted in life and the socially-acceptable way of getting it (hard work, qualifications, etc.)

Merton argued that people could respond to that strain in 5 different ways:

1. Conformity. This is where people accept both the social goals (material success) and the social means (hard work, qualifications, etc.) and so they work hard and try to be successful that way. This does not lead to crime.

2. Innovation. This is where people accept the social goals (material success) but reject the social means (hard work, qualifications, etc.) and so they try and find other ways to get material success. While these ways are not necessarily criminal, some innovators will break the law as a shortcut to material success. Merton argues that this might be a popular option from "lower" class individuals who might struggle to get the best qualifications. (Merton does not focus his study on why this might be the case).

3. Ritualism. This is the idea that some people are not striving for the social goals (material success) - perhaps because, like the innovators, they think it is too difficult / out of reach - but do embrace the social means (hard work, qualifications, etc.) because they have been socialised to conform. Merton suggests that such people may stay in low-status occupations but have a strong focus on rules and bureaucracy (what is sometimes described as "jobsworths").

4. Retreatism. Merton suggests some people reject both the social goals and the social means and drop out of society altogether. Merton suggests that such people could come from any social class background, but they are likely to be deviant and commit crimes such as illegal drug use.

5. Rebellion. Finally there are those who, like the retreatists, reject goals and means but set out to replace them with new ones. For Merton these are revolutionaries who want to build a new sort of society.

Criticisms of strain theory include: it doesn't really explain deviant or criminal behaviour that doesn't help achieve material success (such as vandalism or fighting) and doesn't explain why people often break the law in groups.


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