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.

We also recommend watching Robert K. Merton: Theories and Functionalism and Sociological Theories of Deviance: Definitions and Theoretical Perspectives


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.

Retreatism occurs when people reject both society's goals and the means to achieve those goals. These people chose to cut themselves off from the world, such as drug addicts and homeless 'street people'.

Finally, rebels are those persons who feel so strained by society that they want to replace both the goals and the means of achieving those goals. These individuals are those who go one step further by forming a counterculture supporting alternatives to the existing social order. Anarchists and various militant groups would be an example of this mode of adaption.

Lesson Summary

Strain theory, developed by Robert K. Merton, argued that society may be set up in a way that encourages too much deviance. Merton believed there was a disjunction between socially approved means to success and legitimate cultural goals. He outlined five modes of adaptation, or combinations of goals and means, and suggested that innovation was the mode most likely to be associated with crime. Those five modes of adaptation include conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.

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