Robert K Merton's Strain Theory - Explained
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Last updated 31 Aug 2020
Merton (1938) concluded that Americans were socialised into believing in the American Dream; that a consensus existed about what people's social goals should be: success and material wealth. However, equal access to those goals did not exist: there was a strain between the socially-encouraged goals of society and the socially-acceptable means to achieve them.
People were socialised into believing that to achieve the American Dream they had to work hard and they would succeed because the society was a meritocracy. Individuals made various adaptations in response to this strain, some of which were likely to lead to crime. The different adaptations were based on either accepting or rejecting the means and/or the goals:
So while some people will conform, work hard and try to achieve success despite the difficulties, others will adapt. The clearest adaptation that might lead to criminal activity is that of the innovator: they still want the material success, but they don't want to work hard at school so they find another route to their ends. While this might mean appearing on X Factor, it could also be robbing a bank. Either could lead to a criminal record.
Some might reject both the means and the goal, and drop out of society altogether. These are the retreatists, and Merton thought they might commit crimes such as illegal drug use. The other adaptation that might lead to criminal behaviour is rebellion: some people might want to replace the means and the goals with new ones and this could, in some cases, lead to illegal protest or political violence.
While Durkheim's concept of anomie was rather vague, Merton explains the idea in quite a detailed way: as the product of a strain between socially-accepted goals and the socially-accepted means to achieve them. While Merton's theory was based on 20th century America, it is transferable to any contemporary, western, developed capitalist society.
Merton does not consider the source of social goals, nor in whose interests society is socialised into believing. Marxists would argue that the former is bourgeois ideology; that the latter is in the interests of capitalism. Everyone wants money to purchase consumer goods; they're also socialised into believing the best way to achieve that goal is to work extra hard for their bosses. This is not a value consensus ensuring social solidarity, of the sort that functionalists describe, but rather capitalist ideology or hegemony, serving the interests of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the proletariat.
Nor does Merton spend any time considering why some people find it harder to achieve society's goals than others. He does not pursue the idea that inequality and unequal opportunities in society are a social problem, nor what the cause of that problem might be. Similarly, Merton does not consider why different people have different adaptations. While many people feel that the socially-accepted means to achieve their goals are too difficult, only a small number of them go on to commit crimes. Why? What makes the majority law-abiding most of the time? Are there sociological explanations for some people choosing to innovate while others retreat? Merton does not provide us with answers to those questions.
Continuing from the previous point, Merton does not explain why groups of people are deviant in the same way. As previously mentioned, most people conform most of the time, but those who don't often socialise together (e.g. gangs). Merton does not address this, but it is taken up by functionalist subcultural theorists who have developed Merton's theory.
Finally Merton presents a possible explanation for some crime; but what about non-utilitarian crime (crime from which the criminal does not materially benefit)? Although Merton suggests an explanation for some non-utilitarian crime (like drug abuse), there is nothing in his theory that would explain fighting or vandalism. While not being able to achieve the American Dream might encourage someone to rob a bank, there is no apparent reason why it would lead to someone to draw graffiti on a bridge or to beat someone up.