Strain Theory was first developed by Robert Merton in the 1940s to explain the rising crime rates experienced in the USA at that time. Strain theory has become popular with Contemporary sociologists.
Merton argued that the cultural system of the USA was built on the ‘American Dream’ – a set of meritocratic principles which assured the American public that equality of opportunity was available to all, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity. The ‘American Dream’ encouraged individuals to pursue a goal of success which was largely measured in terms of the acquisition of wealth and material possessions. People were expected to pursue this goal through legitimate means such as education and work. The dominant cultural message was if you are ambitious, talented and work hard, then income and wealth should be your rewards.
However Merton pointed out that these goals were not attainable by all, that the structural organisation of the USA mean that the means to get on were not fairly distributed and it was difficult, if not impossible for some to compete an achieve financial success.
Merton developed the concept of ‘anomie’ to describe this imbalance between cultural goals and institutionalised means. He argued that such an imbalanced society produces anomie – there is a strain or tension between the goals and means which produce unsatisfied aspirations.
Merton argued that when individuals are faced with a gap between their goals (usually finances/money related) and their current status, strain occurs. When faced with strain, people have five ways to adapt:
1. Conformity: pursing cultural goals through socially approved means.
2. Innovation: using socially unapproved or unconventional means to obtain culturally approved goals. Example: dealing drugs or stealing to achieve financial security.
3. Ritualism: using the same socially approved means to achieve less elusive goals (more modest and humble).
4. Retreatism: to reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it, then find a way to escape it.
5. Rebellion: to reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them.
One of the strengths of Merton’s Strain Theory is that it is able to explain different types of both criminal and non-criminal responses to strain
Supporting evidence for strain theory
Philip Bourgeois (1996) In search of respect us that some of the most despised criminals have actually internalised Merton’s success goals.
Carl Nightingale: On the Edge – Carl Nightingale developed Merton’s Strain Theory, applying it to inner city youths in the 1990s
Sudhir Venkatesh: Gang Leader for a Day
Evaluations of Strain Theory
Marxists point out that lack of equality of opportunity is at the heart of the Capitalist system. (Elites make the system work for them, which disadvantages the lower classes).
Strain theory is still insufficient to explain exactly who will commit crime. Not all people who lack legitimate opportunities turn to crime to do so.
Strain theory only really explains economic crime, it doesn’t really explain violent crime.
This post offers a useful discussion and evaluation of Strain Theory