Deviance and Strain Theory in Sociology

An Overview of Robert Merton's Theory of Deviance

A man breaks into a car with a crowbar
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Strain theory explains deviant behavior as an inevitable outcome of the strain individuals experience when society does not provide adequate and approved means to achieve culturally valued goals. For example, when a society places cultural value on economic success and wealth, but only provides legally sanctioned means for a small portion of the population to achieve these goals, those excluded may turn to unconventional or criminal means of attaining them.

Strain Theory: An Overview

Strain theory was developed by American sociologist Robert K. Merton. It is rooted in the functionalist perspective on deviance and connected to Émile Durkheim's theory of anomie.

In Merton's theory of strain, societies are composed of two core aspects: culture and social structure. It is in the realm of culture that our values, beliefs, goals, and identities are developed. These are developed in response to the existing social structure of society, which is supposed to provide the means for us to achieve our goals and live out positive identities. However, often, the goals that are popular within our culture are not in balance with the means made available within the social structure. When this happens, strain can occur, and according to Merton, deviant behavior is likely to follow.

Merton developed this theory from crime statistics, using inductive reasoning. He examined crime statistics by class and found that people from lower socioeconomic classes were more likely to commit crimes that involve acquisition (stealing in one form or another). Merton then developed strain theory to explain why this is so.

According to his theory, when people cannot attain the "legitimate goal" of economic success through what society defines as the "legitimate means"—dedication and hard work—they may turn to other illegitimate means of attaining that goal. For Merton, this explained why people with less money and items that demonstrated material success would steal. The cultural value on economic success is so great that the social force of it pushes some to attain it or the appearance of it through any means necessary.

Five Ways of Responding to Strain

Merton noted that the deviant response to strain was just one of five types of responses that he observed in society. He referred to this response as "innovation" and defined it as the use of illegitimate or unconventional means of obtaining the culturally valued goal.

Other responses include the following:

  1. Conformity: This applies to people who accept both the culturally valued goals and the legitimate ways of pursuing and attaining them, and who go along in step with these norms.
  2. Ritualism: This describes those who pursue the legitimate means of attaining goals, but who set more humble and achievable goals for themselves.
  3. Retreatism: When people both reject the culturally valued goals of a society and the legitimate means of attaining them and live their lives in a way that evades participation in both, they can be described as retreating from society.
  4. Rebellion: This applies to people and groups that both reject the culturally valued goals of a society and the legitimate means of attaining them, but instead of retreating, work to replace both with different goals and means.

Applying Strain Theory to the Contemporary U.S. Society

In the contemporary U.S., economic success is a goal that most everybody strives for. Doing so is crucial to having a positive identity and sense of self in a social system organized by a capitalist economy and a consumerist lifestyle. In the U.S., there are two key legitimate and approved means of achieving this: education and work. However, access to these means is not equally distributed in U.S. society. Access is brokered by class, race, gender, sexuality, and cultural capital, among other things.

Merton would suggest that what results, then, is strain between the cultural goal of economic success and unequal access to available means and that this leads to the use of deviant behavior—like theft, selling things on the black or gray markets, or embezzling—in pursuit of economic success.

People marginalized and oppressed by racism and classism are most likely to experience this particular strain because they aim for the same goals as the rest of society, but a society rife with systemic inequalities limits their opportunities for success. These individuals are therefore more likely than others to turn to unsanctioned means as a way to achieve economic success.

One could also frame the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police violence that have emerged across the nation since 2014 as examples of rebellion in the context of strain. Many Black citizens and their allies have turned to protest and disruption as a mean for achieving the basic forms of respect and provision of opportunities that are required to attain cultural goals and that are currently denied to people of color by systemic racism.

Demonstrators celebrate the verdict in the murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on October 5, 2018.
Demonstrators celebrate the verdict in the murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on October 5, 2018. Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Joshua Lott/Getty Images  

Critiques of Strain Theory

Many sociologists have relied on Merton's strain theory to provide theoretical explanations for types of deviant behavior and to provide a basis for research that illustrates the connections between social-structural conditions and the values and behavior of people in society. In this regard, many find this theory valuable and useful.

However many sociologists also critique the concept of "deviance" and argue that deviance itself is a social construct that unjustly characterizes anormative behavior, and can lead to social policies that seek to control people instead of fixing problems within the social structure itself.