Merton's Strain Theory

Does society provide the means to achieve cultural goals?

Robert Merton, an American sociologist, practiced a functional approach to deviant behavior. As a functionalist, Merton believed that social institutions act to further society and work to keep stability within the social structure. This is the framework from which Merton tried to understand how deviance shapes society (and vice versa). With deviance being found naturally within a society, Merton believed that society caused caused it. Merton believed that when societal norms place pressure on the individual to conform, they force the individual to either work within the structure society has produced, or, become members of deviant subculture.
Conformity- pursuing conventional goals through normal means
Innovation- unconventional means to achieve approved goals
Ritualism- accept institutional means; rejected goals
Rebellion- define new goals and means to achieve goals
Gap between what "ought to be" and "what is" leaves a person "strained"
One theory that attempts to explain why individuals commit crimes is called the strain theory. The strain theory claims that crime is a result of frustration and anger, and that the increased strain of being unable to achieve certain goals creates an increased amount of strain, causing crime.

Culturally Approved
Socially Accepted Way to
Hard Work
Conformity Response
Deviant Response

Accepts Goal of Success +
Accepts hard work as appropriate way to succeed +
Conformity- works hard to succeed

Business executives
Accepts Goal of Success +
Rejects hard work as the appropriate way to succeed -

Innovation- finds illegal ways to succeed
Rejects Goal of Success -
Accepts hard work as appropriate way to succeed +

Ritualism- acts as if he wants to succeed but does not exert much effort
Unmotivated teacher
Rejects Goal of Success -
Rejects hard work as the appropriate way to succeed -

Retreatism- drops out of the race for success
Skid row Alcoholic
Rejects Goal of Success +/ -
Rejects hard work as the appropriate way to succeed -

Rebellion- substitutes new way to achieve new goal
Militia group member





Since 1992, General Strain Theory (GST) has earned strong empirical support and has been applied to several key correlates of crime (e.g., age, sex, community), but researchers have yet to fully consider how GST may aid in explaining racial differences in offending. While most explanations focus on macro level and macro-micro control processes, we argue that GST complements these explanations by highlighting the emotional and motivational social psychological processes that underlie criminal behaviour, thereby filling an important theoretical gap. In particular, we argue that African-Americans are likely to experience more and qualitatively unique types of strain compared to Whites, and that these strains in turn lead to higher levels of negative emotions among African-Americans. Further, we argue that the unique social conditions in which many African-Americans live may disproportionately lead them to cope with strain and negative emotions through crime. We believe these theoretical insights can guide future empirical research to create a fuller understanding of racial differences in offending.