Robert K. Merton was an American sociologist that wrote in the 1930’s putting out his first major work in 1938 called Social Structure and Anomie. After publication, this piece was we worked and tweaked to counter criticisms. The importance of the time frame of which Merton initially began his work is significant, as during this time crime and the approach to crime was examined predominantly based on the individual and was explained from a psychological base.
Merton on the other hand, applied sociology to crime.
This is critical to understanding his strain theory, as his work is sociological in nature, following the core beliefs of structuralism and drawing from the previous works for functionalist such as Emile Durkheim. Merton used his predecessor’s term anomie – which in Durkheim’s work referred to suicide as a result of the breakdown of social norms – and applied it to crime.
The anomie perspective on crime “highlights the ways in which the normal features of the social organization of American society ironically contribute to the high levels of crime and other forms of deviant behavior by producing anomie, a breakdown of culture” (Cullen and Wilcox, 2010).
According to Merton, the American Dream effectively put strain on individuals to attain lofty goals without any emphasis on the legitimate means. Hence, strain theory.
Society has two main features, as outlined by structural functionalism, cultural structure – prescribed goals and legal attainment – and the social structure – patterned social relationships – which exist in differing levels of integration. Merton uses the term malintegration to describe the state of society. This refers to the intrinsic tensions between core features of the system. They can exist between main components of culture or between culture and the social structure.
When “[t]he cultural emphasis on the pursuit of goals is out of balance” (Cullen and Wilcox, 2010) there is a strong emphasis on the goals and weak emphasis on the institutionalized method of realizing these goals. Efficiency guides the means. This, according to Merton represents the dominant cultural ethos of society and embodied the American Dream. Cultural goals are universal and apply to everyone, while the social structure limits the access of normatively approved means of obtaining success.
In Merton’s words “Inequality of opportunity rooted in the class system” undermines the integrity of the culture and leads to anomie or normlessness. With this in mind, Merton expands on his strain theory and outlines the possible responses an individual may have to their social environment. Conformity being the most common mode of adaptation, as the majority of individuals in society conforms to the norms and values or the institutions or there would be chaos and society would cease to function; when strain is placed on the individual because of their inability to legitimately obtain their goals they “Innovate”.
Accept the goals of society but reject the means and turn to criminal elements to attain success. Ritualism, another response, reflects the individual that has rejected or has no interest in the goals of society but still accepts the means and goes through the mundane routine of everyday life; usually the case of the lower middle class employee who sees no real potential for social mobility but continues along anyway. Retreatism is the case of those who reject both the goals and means of society and instead drop out of society altogether, such as substance abusers, vagabonds or the mentally unstable.
Finally, Merton acknowledges those who may throw away both the means and goals of society and place their own new norms and values in the form of rebellion. While he focuses greats on innovation and does not go into much detail of why an individual may choose a certain mode of adaptation over another, strain theory groups and categorizes patterned responses to a society in which the goal itself is the focus and the norms and values are weak showing no real attention to how success is attained as long as one succeeds.
Essentially the end justifies the means. Section B 4. i) Explain crime and differentiate it from deviance ii) Evaluate two theories that have been used to explain crime. Reference must be made to their application to at least one Caribbean country. Crime and deviance are two sides of the same coin; both are usually studied together and that is because crime is a form of deviance that has legal implications, while deviance in general is measured by societal norms and values without legal implications. Society functions because individuals onform to the understood norms and values that they have been made to believe are critical to the society in which they live. A functionalist view argues that society is comprised of like minded individuals that share a similar belief system and more importantly a common set of values that hold society together. Those who do not adhere to these written or unwritten values and norms of the society are labeled as deviant and isolated as sub-cultures or minority groups. Thus, deviance refers specifically to those acts which are not condoned by a given society.
One may commit an act of deviance and then it is up to society and a number of other institutions to effectively label them as a deviant but the act itself is inherently one of deviance. Crime specifically refers to any deviant act that is against the actual law of the society and is punishable. There are cases in which a criminal act may not be deviant as it does not go against the current norms or values of the society, but the laws governing that society may have at one point labeled it as deviant enough to be a crime.
A base for understanding crime can be seen in functionalism as this was one of the earliest attempts at explaining crime as an agent of society. Crime is functional to society as it is the core of the legal and justice institutions that provide employment and a manner of negative reinforcement of the social norms and values. Those who break the laws are punished so others are weary of committing an infraction and therefore adhere to the norms of society. However, the most important function of crime is in social control. Crime and deviance is the engine that the elites of society use to control the masses and maintain the status quo.
This is the premise for conflict theory of crime. The norms and values that govern society and determine crime and deviance are in fact implemented by the elite capitalists who manipulate the laws in such a way that the working class is constantly oppressed and thus reinforces the capitalist agenda. Conflict theory states that crime does not exist until an act itself is determined to be criminal. Deviance is the first step to undermining the structure of the capitalist state and it is then labeled as deviant giving it a negative connotation.
Members of society then avoid this behaviour as it can incur many harsh consequences such as being ostracized from society, their friends and family. To avoid this stigmatization, deviance is avoided and shunned. Those acts that are particularly detrimental to the capitalist state are labeled as a crime to use the legal arm of the state to punish and oppress the working class. An act is only criminal because the law deems it criminal. Take away the law, and the same act is no longer a crime and can be sociably acceptable. This is seen in the Western world in the contemporary era.
Divorce carried a stigma during the 20th century, however, the 21st century see’s divorce rates of over 40% and very little negative feedback from society. This shows how the norms and values of a given society are dynamic and ever changing. Furthermore, conflict theorists suggest the laws are made specifically to isolate individual components of the population to prevent solidarity and eventually the Marixst revolution. By separating the population, the revolution can never take place as the working class is constantly divided and fighting amongst themselves, they become blind to the their own oppression.
Critics argue that crime is not only a working class phenomenon and even conflict theory acknowledges this, however, the important fact is that crime among the elite is usually white collar or victimless crime. This often goes unpunished or even unreported. As those with what Weber calls “status and prestige” usually use their positions in society to evade and negative repercussions, further oppressing the working class as the focus shifts from the elite entirely to them.
Shifting from a macro perspective, symbolic interactionists propose a different aspect, labeling theory, which focuses on secondary acts of crime owing to societal labels placed by members of society and accepted by the individual. Labeling theory states that any or all individuals posses the inherent ability to deviate or commit a criminal act. However, repeat offenses are the result of society t large, or influential agents of society placing these labels or stigmas on the individual or group. It is only then, that the individual is overcome by the label and that label forces them into repeat crime.
This theory is better understood when applied to a given society, such as the Caribbean, or specifically Trinidad and Tobago. Individuals from a certain area deemed to have a number of deviants or criminals gain that label. Any individual born or residing in these areas carry with them the label of a criminal or deviant – the label of the area – and they are seen for this label and not their individual worth. Furthermore, this label goes with them when they apply for employment or enroll in social institutions, limiting their viable legal options for surviving.
Without even committing a single crime these persons are forced into criminal lives as there is no other alternative for them. This is a very real situation in Trinidad and Tobago and is seen in police profiling of criminals at road blocks and house searches. The theory further explains why ex-convicts are displaced and labeled as convicts their entire lives triggering an eventual chain of recidivism. Crime and deviance are both borne of societal norms and values. Any action or failure to act in a normative manner carries with it the label of deviance and by extension a criminal act.
In this regard conflict theorists say it is the act of the capitalist as they attempt to further oppress the working class and maintain the capitalist state, while labeling theory suggests that it is not only that capitalist that are responsible for creating crime, but the way in which society reacts to those that have become deviant and labeling them as such, that eventually they themselves either accept the label, or are given no choice but to accept it and turn to crime.
Cite this Merton’s Strain Theory
Merton’s Strain Theory. (2016, Oct 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/mertons-strain-theory/