Understanding Structural Strain Theory

An Overview

A man breaks into a car, demonstrating how deviant behavior and crime can result from structural strain.
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Structural 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. This 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.

Overview

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 realize positive identities. However, often our cultural goals are not in balance with means made available by the social structure, and this is when structural strain occurs, and according to Merton, deviant behavior is likely to occur.

Examples

How people go about achieving or appearing to achieve economic success is a prime example of this phenomenon. In the 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 capitalist/consumerist system. In the U.S., there are two key legitimate and approved means to 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 structural 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 market, 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, by a society rife with systemic inequalities limits their opportunities for success. These individuals are therefore likely to turn to unsanctioned means as a way to achieve economic success.

One could also frame the Black Lives Matter movement and the series of urban uprisings (like in Ferguson and Baltimore) that occurred over 2014-15. 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.

In Ferguson, protests attracted the attention of the Department of Justice, which conducted a thorough review of police and judicial practices in the county. Findings of widespread civil rights violations in both areas lead to important supervised changes to police and judicial practices, which suggest that the unsanctioned method of seeking change--protest--has produced the desired effect.

Critiques

Many sociologists have relied on Merton's theory of structural 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.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.