Strain Theory

Robert Merton was an American functionalist sociologist who developed the strain theory as an explanation for why some people of modest means might turn to crime. His theory developed Durkheim's concept of anomie for 20th century USA. Merton notes that socialisation in the US encourages people to aim for the American Dream: the idea that everyone can have a good lifestyle, material wealth, a nice house, etc. if they work hard. However, he noted a strain between those socially-approved goals and the ability for everyone to access the socially-approved means of achieving those goals. The idea is that if you work hard at school, get qualifications and so on, then the American dream can be a reality. However, for some in society it does not seem possible. But they still have been socialised to want those goals. People therefore make a number of adaptations to that strain (not all of them relating to criminal behaviour). They might conform (keep trying); they might innovate (find some other way to reach the goals – which might well be criminal); they might retreat (give up on the goals and the means and drop out of society which again could lead to criminal activities such as illegal drug use); they might become a ritualist (give up on the ends but go through the motions of the means) or might rebel (seek to change the system altogether, which could theoretically lead to political crimes). Merton's theory went on to be very influential on sociologists who developed subcultural theories.

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