Merton's Strain Theory: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

Robert Merton (1910-2003) argued that society may be set up in a way that encourages too much deviance. Learn more about Robert Merton's Strain Theory and test your knowledge with a quiz.

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Robert Merton (1910-2003) argued that society may be set up in a way that encourages too much deviance. Merton believed that when societal norms, or socially accepted goals (such as the American Dream), place pressure on the individual to conform they force the individual to either work within the structure society has produced, or instead, become members of a deviant subculture in an attempt to achieve those goals. Merton termed this theory Strain Theory. Let's take a look at the theory's most important characteristics.

Typology of Deviance and Examples:

Merton's main concern was that societies such as the United States do not provide the means (access to education, employment, etc.) to achieve cultural goals (the American Dream). When individual's are faced with a gap between 'what ought to be' and 'what is', that person will feel strained and have a choice between five modes of adaptation.

Merton's Modes of Adaption

Strain Theory

Conformity involves pursuing cultural goals through approved means. Conformist have accepted the goals of society and the societal approved ways of attaining them. The 'American Dream', for example, is financial security through talent, schooling, and above all hard work. The problem, as Merton saw it, is that not everyone who wants conventional success has the opportunity to obtain it.

According to Merton, the strain between our culture's emphasis on wealth and the lack of opportunities for success may encourage some people, especially the poor, to engage in stealing, selling drugs, or other forms of street crime. Merton called this type of deviance innovation - using unconventional means (dealing drugs) to achieve a culturally approved goal (financial security).

Another mode of adaptation, ritualism, is also prompted by an inability to reach cultural goals. In this mode, individuals reject the goals, but instead work towards less lofty goals by institutionally approved means. For example, one may treat a job as a form of security instead of using the job as a means to achieve success. A person who goes through the motions of college, but has no real desire to use his or her education to realize the American Dream would be another example. Ritualists go through the motions of everyday life, and find salvation in scaled down ambitions.

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