Society has strong views on the existence of norms values and mores that it strives to preserve. However in the preservation of this breadth there exists deviance in the society. In light of this comment it is the purpose of this write up to explain the occurrence of deviance in society using the strain theory. The writer will define the terms values, deviance and the strain theory and make illustrations how the theory explains the occurrence of deviance giving relevant examples in different societies.
Values from a sociological perspective refer to the views that are shared by society and of what is desirable, acceptable and draws a line between right and wrong. The values in society are clearly defined but are rather pronounced by society in different cultures. “The failure to achieve core goals that are not the result of conventional socialization and that are easily achieved through crime” can encourage delinquency (Agnew, 2001: 343). Such goals may include the desire for money, thrills/excitement, high levels of autonomy and masculine status.
If barriers to achieving these goals are related to ascribed status, such as race or religion, people may see their inability to achieve such goals as unjust. This may encourage the adoption of illegitimate means to achieve these goals, since legitimate means are perceived to be blocked. These values are broad in any society ranging from education, economic success, marriage, cattle, and feminity or masculinity. On the other hand, Merton (1968) defines deviance as the characteristics of behaviours of individuals which violate group norms – including cultural mores and moral standards of the society.
He further emphasizes that there has to be an inducement of a negative response from the group. Key to note is that deviant behaviour is defined by the group/ society because if the group does not give a negative reaction to behaviour then the behaviour is not considered deviant. Relatively, it is important to point out that deviance is contextualized in different societies in the context of age, gender, sex, culture and geographical location. For example in Zimbabwe mbanje smoking is considered deviant behaviour if one is not in Binga but is approved in Binga amongst the old folks in the communal areas.
Similarly, gay marriages are considered deviant in some states of America and acceptable in others. It is from the bases of this explanation of deviance that Robert Merton further discussed deviance. In defining deviance and formulating the strain theory Merton was driven by the functionalist perspective that it is a necessary function in society which is beneficial. The foundation of his theory lay in understanding the causes of deviant behaviour in America during the Great Depression hence his strong emphasis on economic success and the continuous reference to the values of the American society.
Anderson and Taylor (2009) explain that according to the strain theory deviance is caused by the tensions in the gap between cultural goals and the means people have available to achieve those goals. In essence the explanation lies in that society establishes values or goals which are to be achieved by the members of that society. However the social structure or the hierarchical making of the social structure has provisions for the means of the attainment of these values or fails to provide for the means of these goals.
It is from this undertaking that deviance manifests itself as stated by Merton. He further explains that in a well balanced society people will strive to use the accepted means to achieve the societal values because of the balance. However, deviance will stem if the values and the means to the attainment of these values are not in balance. In addition, Merton (1968. 189), points out that “the sole significant question becomes: which of the available procedures is most efficient in netting the culturally approved value? It is in the bid to answer the question that Merton then suggested that deviance is naturally the making of the society. He asserts that the pressure that has been placed on the individual by the society to gain economic success will force the individual to work within the structure of society which is in existence or instead become member of a deviant sub culture. Conley (2008), further points out that “despite the fact of possibility in upward social mobility there are strains in society that limit progress to economic success”.
It is therefore, the “limitations” that eventually breed deviance as classes do not have equal access to the resources that lead to upward “social mobility” for example the low class strive to aim for economic success but have limited opportunities to success because of blockages they are most likely to turn to deviance in order to gain economic success. Merton in his theory concurs that the approved route to success by society is determined by the acquisition of education and work. He therefore points out that the unequal access to institutionalized means to success people turn to illegal opportunity structures.
He further borrows from Durkheim explanation of “anomie’ who Conley (2008) explains as the “situation in which cultural norms breakdown because of rapid change”. This comes about as the institutions which are supposed to regulate success in society such as schools fail to regulate the behaviour of individual in their quest to achieve economic success either because of limitations or non availability. It is from the limitations that the values that have been imposed by the society are not compatible with the prevailing situation in terms of either economic reality present at the moment or access to education to the populace.
As such deviance becomes a normal response to the situation as society puts a huge emphasis on success yet the means to succeed in an approved manner are not clear. As people respond Merton classified people reactions into a typology of different options that individuals have when deviance from norms is an option. These will further explain how deviance is propelled by society emphasis on social values. Merton reactions to the failure of institution to provide economic success are based on individual choices.
One such are conformists who despite the failure of the institutions to make provisions for their economic success they continue on the route of the established cultural goal of society and values that they continue to go to school/ college regardless of the fact that the returns of economic success are limited. To exemplify this an example is the Zimbabwe scenario that despite the meltdown of the economy in 2007-8 it continued to produce graduates from various colleges despite the fact of the poor economy and non availability of guarantors of employment and the use of education as a gateway to economic success which society promoted.
Similarly, the ritualists, who adhere to the structured societal values of success but they are rigid and believe in the in the means of attaining those goals through the traditional means of hard work. Despite the amount of commitment that they put to the work the ritualists is persistent and committed to his work but cares less for the attainment of wealth despite the fact that he continues to climb the socio- economic ladder.
The ritualists is characterized by his/her commitment to work cares little for bonuses they behave more or less as loyal servants who get satisfaction in the completion of tasks and care less for the economic success driven by the society. An example of these may be given to Zimbabwean teachers who despite the success they continued to religiously go to work and teach and get satisfaction in the pass rate with little regard to economic success.
The most intriguing from these typologies are the innovators these are the pillar in the strain theory in relation to deviance. The innovators realize their position in society as hinging on the fact that the discourse of society that of economic success are important and should be driven as such they adhere to the principal values of the society. However, what they disregard are the convectional means of attaining the goals that are strengthened by society, Agwew (2001. 45) states that “innovators are people who break the rule and often the laws in order to achieve the success goals that are promoted by society”. A typical example in Zimbabwe is the existence of the new word “njikiriza”. The term explains the existence of a certain class that has come into existence in Zimbabwe the group strives for success by breaking the laws to the country. For example burning money, smuggling of goods the key driver of these players is the fact that that they realize the push factors of societal value that strengthens economic success.
However the delimitation of this factor is that the room to maneuver and succeed in a legitimate manner is full of bottlenecks limited to a few individuals therefore rather than sitting back and watching the groups finds alternative means which are in contrary to the laws of the society but a route to economic success. An example of an epitomized figure in America is the gang leader Al Capone and his enterprises in the 1930s and the deviance was embraced by the populace rather than the lawmakers which is a characteristic of innovators in society.
Other examples of innovators can be the common thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes and foreign currency dealers- “osiphatheleni”. The other reaction of concern in the typology is that of the retreatists this group rejects both the cultural goals and the accepted means of attaining these goals. These can be termed as the escapists the characteristic of these people is that they retreat to their cocoons and are void of any will to pursue any goals an example of this group is are the alcoholics and some homeless people. These defy the demands exerted by society; however they succumb due to failure to strive to achieve the goals.
They fail to replace the values totally and retreat to less demanding cultural forces and build that comfort zone in deviant activities such as drug and alcohol abuse. The rebels reject both the established cultural goals and accepted means of attaining those goals but substitute new goals and new means of attaining the goals. The extreme continuum of these rebels can be noted in groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in America who vented their failure to achieve pronounced societal values by going on the rampage and killing the minority black groups.
These people can be retaliatory and express harmful behaviour towards certain groups or authority. Recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa can be explained as a form deviance emanating from the rebels who have rejected the societal values and the goals of reaching them in society. However on the lighter scale of the continuum there exists certain group which altogether abandons the society for example Zimbabweans going to live abroad. It is from these bases and the explanation of the typologies that the production of deviance emanates from the strain theory.
Hirschi (1969), acknowledges that the tendency by individuals to experience strain may develop negative emotions including anger, when they see adversity as imposed by others, resentment when they perceive unjust treatment by others and depression or anxiety when they blame themselves for the stressful consequence. It from this point of view that whenever there has been stressful event and the blocking of individual interest to accomplish societal goals there is bound to be deviance as way of response to a particular situation.
The base of the production of deviance is drawn from the fact that the tendency of people to use illegitimate means to achieve social values will inevitably lead to deviance. However, it is important to note that that it is not in finality to draw conclusion to state that the strain theory breeds deviance as acknowledge by Kornhauser (1978 )who states that using the strain theory as only the cause of deviance may problematic in the sense that “ the structural sources of deviant behavior remains but a prelude.
It has not included a detailed treatment of the structural elements which predispose toward one rather than another of the alternative responses open to individuals living in an ill-balanced social structure. It has largely neglected but not denied the social psychological processes determining the specific incidence of these responses; it has only briefly considered the social functions performed by deviant behavior; … it has only touched upon rebellious behavior which seeks to refashion the social framework. Basically this asserts that there are other precipitators to deviance which stem from society regardless of the blockages found in society. Conclusively it be ascertained that the strain theory is a precursor to the production of deviance in society. The reason being that the society mechanisms are imbalanced and not in favour of the low class who are already suffering from other social vices and hence in frustration and failure to achieve the pronounced societal values lead to reactions that are deviant in nature.
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