Robert K. Merton was born in Philadelphia, America in July 1910. After receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard University he went on to serve as a professor across the states. In the late 1930s, he went on to create his Strain Theory. This was just one of his theories which gained prominence amongst Social Science circles and beyond. Following his death in 2003, he doesn’t seem to have become any less influential.
America experienced The Great Depression from 1929 to 1939. The worst economic disaster America had ever seen. This situation would provide the contexts for work and crime which Merton would theorise on in his work ‘Social Structure and Anomie‘ in 1938. Brought on by Black Friday, on October 24th, 1929, when the stock market crashed. At the height of the Depression in 1933, nearly a quarter of the workforce in America was unemployed.
The Depression began in Philadelphia even before the stock market crashed. In April 1929, citywide unemployment stood at 10 percent. 30 percent for the jobless who had been idle for six months or longer. Up until the Roosevelt New Deal in the mid 1930’s, everything seemed bleak.
Merton’s Strain theory grew in prominence at a time when Sociologists were attempting to explain why crime tends to increase at times of economic growth.
Merton’s Strain Theory quickly became one of the more popular Crime and Deviance positions. Merton’s Strain theory argued deviation from social norms is a result of the strain a person feels when they’re unable to achieve legitimately (legally). People only engage in deviant behaviour because they are unable to achieve social goals and standards through legitimate (legal) means. A strain an individual may experience may be, lack of education, lack of experience, lack of contacts, lack of funds. These strains push individuals towards Crime and Deviance.
The American Dream
The best way to see Merton’s Strain Theory in practice is to examine The American Dream. The American dream presupposes that through hard work an individual can experience upwards social mobility for themselves, and their offspring. This can happen regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, or any other factor. As long as you work hard, money and success should come your way. It doesn’t factor in structural elements which may prevent this dream from becoming a reality e.g. discriminatory employment practices, or unequal access to opportunities. Structural factors to one side there are still individual and cultural factors at play that may prevent an individual from attaining The American Dream.
Continuing with Merton’s example of the American Dream. Children in western societies are socialised into believing the ideology. Money and material goods are conflated with success and progress, therefore, it becomes the norm for individuals to acquire money and goods by 1) getting a good education and then 2) finding legitimate (legal) work or 3) starting a business. Whilst on paper the route seems simple, in practice, this path is blocked by a number of obstacles (some stated before) And this is when some individuals resort to illegitimate (illegal) means. Those who come from the working class, are less likely to be able to access opportunities and are therefore more likely to have to result to illegitimate means (drug dealing, prostitution, etc).
A culture of winning
A culture of winning in America and afar adds to this pressure to make money and succeed. As long as you win, winning could simply be having lots of money in the bank, you will tend to be revered. Look at the people who have built wealth through illegitimate means who have gone on to be idealised in Western culture. Jordan Belfort, better known as The Wolf Of Wall Street, became a millionaire through white-collar crime, defrauding people, and manipulating the stock market. He’s now free (having served 22 months) has to pay back $100 million in restitution but is now a motivational speaker with a giant movie based on him.
Pablo Escobar was a Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist. At the height of his career his cartel, cartel de Medellin, supplied up to 80% of Americas cocaine market. Following his period of violence, he had gone on to be at the forefront of the first 2 series of Narcos. At times he’s portrayed as a Robin Hood even though he hid most of his money. To the extent he forgot where it was, loads of money rotted, and we should focus on his ‘redistribution of wealth’ amongst the masses. Few rich businessmen who make money through illegitimate means such as, Mike Ashley, receive such high levels of public, parliamentary, and media scrutiny.
The Relationship between Merton and Durkheim
Durkheim’s writings reflect on the social conditions of France. Merton on the social and economic conditions of America. Durkheim developed the theory of anomie, a state where there is an absence of norms regulating human behaviour. Arguing deviance and crime arose from this state. Merton, argues deviance and crime comes from strain, the presence of norms. So, the views are at different ends of the spectrum.
How does Strain affect people?
Individuals are more likely to conform to the status quo picking jobs they ‘know’stereotyping will bring them wealth. This is usually the socially approved route, getting good grades, progressing through university, and then working way up through a business.
Some individuals may innovate different routes to acquiring the American Dream. One way may be Drug Dealing, this worked for men like Pablo Escobar. These individuals are still attaining cultures goals of being successful and making money just in a niche which isn’t socially approved.
Others may use socially accepted routes to achieve less elusive goals. These individuals may end up in rituals where they aren’t aiming for the American Dream.
Some individuals retreat out of society completely rejecting the norms they’re supposed to conform to and the routes they’re supposed to take.
Others rebel hoping to bring about social change. They may align with political views which completely reject the status quo.
Evaluation of Strain Theory
- Merton’s Strain Theory shows how normal and deviant behaviour can arise from the same motivations. Therefore a graduate who wants to get money quickly may be enticed into crime, in the same way, they would be enticed into a corporate job largely because of the financial benefits.
- Working Class individuals are more likely to commit crime. With them being the least likely to be able to access opportunities in society, Merton’s Strain Theory does provide one reason as to why they’re lead into crime.
- Highlights that society is still inherently unequal, and that some people do have it easier to progress than others.
- Merton’s Strain Theory is deterministic, opportunities are more complex than class. Talent can propel individuals in certain spheres.
- Why do some working-class individuals not turn to crime? As not all individuals do, this theory isn’t accounting for something.
- Why do some individuals commit violent crime? Unless they’re a paid assassin this theory fails to account for reasons as to why people commit crime which does not have a financial motive.
- Marxists would argue that the Proletariat (who’re made up of the working class) end up in prison more often than members of the Bourgeoisie because Politicians (who’re often members of the Bourgeoisie) put oppressive laws in place which work to keep the Proletariat alienated, and exploited.
- Merton’s Strain theory is great at providing a theory of Working Class crime but it does not account for crime at the other end of the spectrum. Why do the Upper Class commit crime if they have access to so many resources and opportunities?
Other Social Theorists
Since Merton created Strain Theory, other theorists have developed on the theory.
Robert Agnew developed General Strain Theory believing Merton’s theory was too vague. It argues individuals may commit crime due to emotion and not financial gain. Violence in these circumstances may be a way to cope. Robert Agnew argued that strain theory could still be a key theory within Crime and Deviance but it had to loosen its ties to Social Class and refocus on norms.
Jie Zhang developed the Strain theory of Suicide which precedes from psychological strains. A psychological strain is formed by stressors and pressures.
Merton was key to sociology and his role shouldn’t be primarily reduced to Strain Theory. He also coined the terms ‘role model’ and ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ when he wrote on the concept of serendipity. MertonStrain Theory puts forward a great theory of how individuals are socialised into believing an ideology, The American Dream. And then how by trying to attain this dream they may end up having to result to illegitimate means. The theory highlights the unequal nature of society and had been developed by contemporary social scientists to keep the theory relevant. This beginner article will hopefully be followed up in the future with more in depth analysis’ of Strain theory in motion.
By Shaneka Knight
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Last Updated: 1st of January 2019
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Merton, K. R. (1938). Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review, Vol. 3, No. 5, pp. 572-682. Retrieved from http://www.csun.edu/~snk1966/Robert%20K%20Merton%20-%20Social%20Structure%20and%20Anomie%20Original%201938%20Version.pdf [Accessed 02 December 2018].
SAHO. (2017). What was the Great Depression and why did it start in the USA? Retrieved from https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/what-was-great-depression-and-why-did-it-start-usa [Accessed 02 December 2018].
Simon, D. R. (2003). Great Depression. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Retrieved from https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/great-depression/ [Accessed 02 December 2018].
University of Portsmouth. (undated). Merton’s Strain Theory. Retrieved from http://compass.port.ac.uk/UoP/file/7bb5c099-a05e-4037-a4ea-394f0ea4d719/1/Anomie_IMSLRN.zip/page_05.htm [Accessed 02 December 2018].