Briefly outline and highlight the contribution of Merton’s strain theory to criminology.
Robert K. Merton was an American sociologist that wrote in the 1930’s putting out his first major work in 1938 called Social Structure and Anomie. After publication, this piece was we worked and tweaked to counter criticisms. The importance of the time frame of which Merton initially began his work is significant, as during this time crime and the approach to crime was examined predominantly based on the individual and was explained from a psychological base. Merton on the other hand, applied sociology to crime. This is critical to understanding his strain theory, as his work is sociological in nature, following the core beliefs of structuralism and drawing from the previous works for functionalist such as Emile Durkheim. Merton used his predecessor’s term anomie – which in Durkheim’s work referred to suicide as a result of the breakdown of social norms – and applied it to crime. The anomie perspective on crime “highlights the ways in which the normal features of the social organization of American society ironically contribute to the high levels of crime and other forms of deviant behavior by producing anomie, a breakdown of culture” (Cullen and Wilcox, 2010). According to Merton, the American Dream effectively put strain on individuals to attain lofty goals without any emphasis on the legitimate means. Hence, strain theory. Society has two main features, as outlined by structural functionalism, cultural structure – prescribed goals and legal attainment – and the social structure – patterned social relationships – which exist in differing levels of integration. Merton uses the term malintegration to describe the state of society. This refers to the intrinsic tensions between core features of the system. They can exist between main components of culture or between culture and the social structure. When “[t]he cultural emphasis on the pursuit of goals is out of balance” (Cullen and Wilcox, 2010) there is a strong emphasis on the goals and weak emphasis on the institutionalized method of realizing these goals. Efficiency guides the means. This, according to Merton represents the dominant cultural ethos of society and embodied the American Dream. Cultural goals are universal and apply to everyone, while the social structure limits the access of normatively approved means of obtaining success. In Merton’s words “Inequality of opportunity rooted in the class system” undermines the integrity of the culture and leads to anomie or normlessness. With this in mind, Merton expands on his strain theory and outlines the possible responses an individual may have to their social environment. Conformity being the most common mode of adaptation, as the majority of individuals in society conforms to the norms and values or the institutions or there would be chaos and society would cease to function; when strain is placed on the individual because of their inability to legitimately obtain their goals they “Innovate”. Accept the goals of society but reject the means and turn to criminal elements to attain success. Ritualism, another response, reflects the individual that has rejected or has no interest in the goals of society but still accepts the means and goes through the mundane routine of everyday life; usually the case of the lower middle class employee who sees no real potential for social mobility but continues along anyway. Retreatism is the case of those who reject both the goals and means of society and instead drop out of society altogether, such as substance abusers, vagabonds or the mentally unstable. Finally, Merton acknowledges those who may throw away both the means and goals of society and place their own new norms and values in the form of rebellion. While he focuses greats on innovation and does not go into much detail of why an individual may choose a certain mode of adaptation over another, strain theory groups and...
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