When it comes to explaining crime and deviance, there are a couple theories that sociologists always teach, and one of them is Merton’s strain theory. Robert Merton (1910-2003) was probably the foremost American sociologist. His strain theory starts with the general assumption that societies provide both culturally-valued goals and culturally-valued means. The goals are based on shared assumptions in a society about what people should strive i.e., what constitutes success. Here in the U.S. it’s the American Dream—good paying job, nice house, couple of kids, and new cars. The means are how you’re supposed to obtain the goals. Here in the U.S. the narrative for success emphasizes hard work and education. Basically, the story is that if you work hard, go to school, then you can become anything that you want.
Things get interesting, according to Merton, when there is an imbalance between the goals and the means. Specifically, when society doesn’t provide the means to everyone to accomplish the goals it sets out for them. This means that there are some people in society who are aiming for something that they probably can’t obtain. The result of this, according to Merton, is something called strain, an unpleasant emotional condition. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what goes on in the body with strain, but it seems to be a mixture of angst, stress, and feeling pissed off.
Once someone feels this strain, there are a handful of ways they can deal with it and some responses to strain can result in criminal behavior. In Merton’s terms, one can react to strain by conforming. This means that the person accepts both the goals and the means of society and just plods along doing what they’re supposed to get ahead. Another response is ritualism. Here the person gives up on the goals of society, accepting that he/she will never obtain them, but continues on with the means.
Say a person gives up on the American Dream, but they continue to show up for work every day just the same. Retreatism involves rejecting both the goals and the means. For example, one might just drop out of society, giving up on everything. Rebellion also involves rejecting goals and means, but rebellion, as opposed to retreatism, which entails finding new goals and new means to obtain them. Finally, innovation is accepting society’s goals but coming up with new means of obtaining them, means that society doesn’t approve of. This, commonly, leads to deviance and crime.
To illustrate each of these responses to strain, which Merton termed “modes of adaptation” (BTW, I think that we sociologists get paid more when we come up with fancy terms), let’s consider a simple act of student deviance: cheating on an exam. College students are supposed to get good grades and graduate—this is their culturally-valued goals. They are supposed to do this by studying hard and learning lots—other culturally valued goals. Merton’s vision of conformity, then, happens when students do just this, when they study hard, get good grades, and graduate.
What happens, though, when students aren’t able to accomplish the goals set out for them? Well, they could just keep on going to class and studying, even though they do badly and have little hope of being an academic success. This is ritualism. They could also just give up on everything and stay in their dorm rooms playing video games and partying. This would be retreatism. They could redefine the goals and means of college—that it’s about making a social change rather than learning, and so they might get into the protest scene. This would be rebellion. Finally, they could hold onto visions of academic success but achieve it with disapproved means such as cheating at tests or plagiarizing papers. This would be innovation.
Okay, so far I’ve given you a fairly standard presentation of strain theory, but I wonder if we can broaden its application to a wider array of goals and means, including cultural tastes and fashions. What got me thinking about this, and what is the impetus of so much in my life, is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. You see, I love to eat ice cream, especially on hot summer days (though winter days work just fine as well). As a result, I gained weight but I didn’t notice because I wore shorts all summer. Now that it’s autumn, though I have discovered that none off my long pants fit me anymore. What should I do? As a sociologist, I ask WWMD (What would Merton do)? And so I turn to strain theory for alternatives.
The culturally-valued goal here is looking slim, and the culturally-valued means are eating well and exercising regularly. Conformity, then, would entail a healthy, fit life style in which I’m looking good and my pants will fit me. Ritualism would be continuing to say that I’m on a diet but not really changing. Retreatism would be just giving up and living in sweat pants or maybe buying bigger pants. Innovation would be to get some sort of surgery or maybe wear a girdle. Rebellion would be to cast down the tyranny of fashion expectations and just wear shorts all year around (which is a bit of a challenge in New England).
What will I do? Oh, the strain of it all.
Originally published on everydaysociologyblog.com