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 distress individuals experience when they're deprived of ways to achieve culturally valued goals. For example, Western society places value on economic success, even though wealth is accessible to just a small percentage of people. This results in some individuals from the lower classes using unconventional or criminal means to obtain financial resources.

Strain Theory: An Overview

American sociologist Robert K. Merton developed strain theory, a concept connected to both the functionalist perspective on deviance and Émile Durkheim's theory of anomie. Merton asserted that societies are composed of two core aspects: culture and social structure. Our values, beliefs, goals, and identities are developed in the cultural realm. They form in response to existing social structures that ideally provide the means for the public to achieve their goals and live out positive identities. Often, though, people lack the means to achieve culturally valued goals, leading them to feel strain and possibly engage in deviant behavior.

Using inductive reasoning, Merton developed strain theory by examining crime statistics by class. He found that people from lower socioeconomic classes were more likely to commit crimes that involve acquisition (stealing in one form or another). He argued that when people cannot attain the "legitimate goal" of economic success through "legitimate means"—dedication and hard work—they may turn to illegitimate means of doing so. The cultural value of economic success looms so large that some people are willing to acquire wealth, or its trappings, by any means necessary.

Five Responses to Strain

Merton noted that the deviant response to strain was one of five responses he observed in society. He referred to such deviance as "innovation" while identifying the other responses to strain as conformity, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.

Conformity describes the people who pursue culturally valued goals through legitimate means, and ritualism refers to the individuals who set more realistic goals for themselves. Retreatism explains those who reject a society's goals and refuse to try to obtain them. These individuals are so disinvested in these goals that they retreat from society. Lastly, rebellion applies to people who reject and replace culturally valued goals and the socially sanctioned ways of achieving them.

Applying Strain Theory to the United States

In the U.S., many people strive for economic success, considered the key to having a positive identity in a capitalist and consumerist society. Education and hard work may help Americans to achieve middle- or upper-class status, but not everyone has access to quality schools or employment. Class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural capital influence a person's likelihood of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Those who find themselves unable to increase their class standing feel a strain that may result in them engaging in deviant behavior such as theft, embezzlement, or selling goods on the black market to achieve wealth.

People marginalized by racism and classism are most likely to experience strain because they have the same goals as their fellow Americans but find their opportunities limited in a society rife with systemic inequalities. These individuals may, therefore, be more likely to turn to unsanctioned methods to achieve economic success, though plenty of so-called "white-collar crime" routinely takes place in the U.S. too. This form of crime refers to the misdeeds of the economically privileged, such as a corporate executive committing fraud or engaging in insider trading on the stock market.

The discussion of strain theory extends beyond crimes of acquisition. One could also frame the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police violence as examples of strain-induced rebellion. African Americans currently and historically have demonstrated against social injustice to get lawmakers to enact legislation that more evenly distributes the country's resources. Economic empowerment is one of the goals of affirmative action and laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, disability, etc.

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

Sociologists have used strain theory to explain deviant behaviors related to acquisition and to support research that links social-structural conditions to culturally valued goals. In this regard, many find Merton's theory valuable and useful. Some sociologists, however, question his concept of "deviance," arguing that deviance is a social construct. Those who engage in illicit behavior to obtain economic success may simply be partaking in normal behaviors for individuals in their circumstances. Given this, critics of strain theory argue that characterizing crimes of acquisition as deviant may lead to policies that seek to control people rather than make society more equitable.