Definition of Opportunity Structure

A girl studies a model of a molecule in a classroom

Hero Images / Getty Images

The term "opportunity structure" refers to the fact that the opportunities available to people in any given society or institution are shaped by the social organization and structure of that entity. Typically within a society or institution, there are certain opportunity structures that are considered traditional and legitimate, like achieving economic success by pursuing education in order to get a good job, or dedicating oneself to a form of art, craft, or performance in order to make a living in that field. These opportunity structures, and untraditional and illegitimate ones too, provide sets of rules that one is supposed to follow in order to achieve cultural expectations of success. When traditional and legitimate opportunity structures fail to allow for success, people may pursue success via untraditional and illegitimate ones.


Opportunity structure is a term and theoretical concept developed by American sociologists Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd B. Ohlin, and presented in their book Delinquency and Opportunity, published in 1960. Their work was inspired by and built upon sociologist Robert Merton's theory of deviance, and in particular, his structural strain theory. With this theory Merton suggested that a person experiences strain when the conditions of society do not allow one to attain the goals that the society socializes us to desire and work toward. For example, the goal of economic success is a common one in U.S. society, and the cultural expectation is that one would work hard to pursue education, and then work hard in a job or career in order to attain this. However, with an underfunded public education system, high cost of higher education and burdens of student loans, and an economy dominated by service sector jobs, U.S. society today fails to provide the majority of the population with adequate, legitimate means to attain this kind of success.

Cloward and Ohlin build on this theory with the concept of opportunity structures by pointing out there are a variety of pathways to success available in society. Some are traditional and legitimate, like education and career, but when those fail, a person is likely to pursue pathways provided by other kinds of opportunity structures.

The conditions described above, of inadequate education and job availability, are elements that can serve to block a particular opportunity structure for certain segments of the population, like kids to attend underfunded and segregated public schools in poor districts, or young adults who have to work to support their families and thus do not have the time or money to attend college. Other social phenomena, like racism, classism, and sexism, among others, can block a structure for certain individuals, while still enabling others to find success through it. For example, white students might thrive in a particular classroom while Black students do not, because teachers tend to underestimate the intelligence of Black kids, and to punish them more harshly, both of which hinder their ability to succeed in the classroom.

Relevance in Society

Cloward and Ohlin use this theory to explain deviance by suggesting that when traditional and legitimate opportunity structures are blocked, people sometimes pursue success through others that are considered nontraditional and illegitimate, like getting involved in a network of petty or major criminals in order to make money, or by pursuing grey and black market occupations like sex worker or drug dealer, among others.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of Opportunity Structure." ThoughtCo, Jan. 18, 2021, Crossman, Ashley. (2021, January 18). Definition of Opportunity Structure. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of Opportunity Structure." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).