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Merton's Strain Theory

Whereas Durkheim's explanations were a reflection of the social conditions that were occurring in France at the time of his writing, Robert Merton's contribution towards offering an analysis of social order was enormously influenced by the social and economic character of American society. Merton originally published Social Structure and Anomie in 1938. The ideas set out in his ten-page article reflected the cultural and economic features of America that struggled to come to terms with the Great Depression which had followed the prosperity and productivity of the 'Roaring Twenties'. As we saw with regard to the discussion of Chicago sociology, the problems affecting Chicago were a consequence of the lure of economic opportunities available in the city, which drew waves of different immigrant workers. The Chicago sociologists suggested that social problems were concentrated within the zone in transition. This contention, however, became less tenable as the onset of the Great Depression saw social disorganisation and insecurity become a more pervasive presence throughout society. Although first advanced in the late 1930s, Merton's work became particularly influential during the 1950s, when sociologists sought to explain why it was that crime still occurred in periods of economic growth. Thus Merton was to expand upon his original article, thereby enabling him to account for relevance of his explanation to the affluence of the 1950s. The significant contribution made by Merton was to suggest that crime and delinquency resulted from conformity and commitment to cultural values, in spite of the prevailing structural and economic conditions.

Whereas Durkheim's conception of anomie referred to the absence of norms to regulate human needs and action, Merton's belief was the opposite. He suggested that anomie, or what he referred to as strain, resulted from the presence of norms!


Thus in contrast to both Durkheim's and the Chicago sociologists' theories, which proposed that the lapse of social norms led to social problems, Merton suggested that conformity led to crime and deviance. The cultural norm that provided such a profound influence on American culture is that of the 'American dream'. This cultural ethic held that anyone and everyone could potentially achieve economic success through hard work and endeavour. However, as Lilly, Cullen and Ball (2002: 49) write, 'this widespread aspiration for success, however, has an ironic and unanticipated consequence'. Merton cautioned that the 'cardinal American virtue, 'ambition'' ultimately 'promotes a cardinal American vice, 'deviant behaviour'' (Merton 1968: 200, cited in Lilly, Cullen and Ball, 2002: 49). The problem then was the cultural commitment to the American dream became so internalised by the population and incorporated into the national psyche that even during economic downturns, where the reality of economic hardship and poverty was at odds with the cultural norm of success, there nevertheless still existed a 'strain' towards realising the dream.

Consider how Merton's emphasis on the 'American Dream' might be analysed in terms of functionalism and Durkheim's insistence on identifying social facts.

At the core of Merton's theory, then, is the suggestion that there exists a disjunction between 'culturally defined goals' and the means to attain these goals. As Downes and Rock (2003: 116) write of America:

in a society founded on the repudiation of monarchy and aristocracy, success came to be symbolized by sheer material gain. 'Money success' was coined by Merton as the core value of American society, a 'cultural goal' extolled above all others...

Thus the attainment of status and personal prestige was possible, not through class or lineage, but through the accumulation of material wealth. What Veblen (1899, cited in Valier, 2002: 64-5) described as 'conspicuous consumption', referring to the way in which social status and esteem is derived not simply from being financially wealthy but through its overt display, took on particular significance in Merton's analysis given emphasis placed upon 'money success'.

Conspicuous consumption was reinforced, indeed encouraged, by the shift in the capitalist economy from one that was based on mass production to one that became reliant upon mass consumption. As Valier (2002: 64) writes:

Put differently, the 'problem' for capitalism was no longer how to produce enough but rather how to sell the excess produced above market demand. How could people be induced to consume more? The landscape of commerce underwent a striking transformation with the introduction of coordinated methods of distribution, sales and advertising. New ways were constantly sought to expand consumer demand, for instance a multiplication of forms of merchandising and display.

Thus Downes and Rock (2003: 116) are able to claim that:

The pursuit of infinite aspirations was not seen by Merton as an innate human tendency...It was rather the product of a particular culture that needed incessant nurturing if it was to persist and develop. A key feature of Merton's theory is his sensitivity to the dramatic growth in advertising in the inter-war period. A necessary adjunct to the growth of mass production and mass distribution was mass consumption.

Thus the cultural goal asserted is one of material wealth, in the absence of any other forms of deriving status it is the possession of and display of wealth that becomes exalted and aspired to.

What implications do you think an emphasis on 'consumerism' and 'consumption' might have on crime and delinquency today?

The comments by Valier (2002) and Downes and Rock (2003) above also reveal an important distinguishing feature of Merton's theory from that of Durkheim's depiction. For Durkheim, anomie stemmed from exceptional periods of instability or what he regarded as periods of rapid transition from mechanical to organic society. Merton, on the other hand, suggested that anomie or what he preferred to describe as 'strain' occurred naturally as an outgrowth of American society, which placed such importance upon material success and the 'American Dream'. Thus American culture was such that it extolled particular goals and ideals, yet the promise of an open society where each person had equal chance at success was not possible, especially given the harsh reality of economic inequality that was brought into sharp relief by the 1930s recession.

It should be pointed out that it is not economic inequality per se that leads to problems for, as Durkheim claimed again in contrast to Merton's theory, anomie least affected the poor for whom economic changes were least pronounced since their position altered very little. Those accustomed to a better standard of living were more vulnerable to changes where they experienced abrupt damaging changes. Merton, however, felt that the least financially well off and impoverished were most at risk from experiencing anomie. This was not because they were poor but because they believed in the 'Dream', a culturally - and as we noted above economically - inscribed ethic. This raises the question therefore as to how credible Merton's theory would be if it were not for the profound existence and effect of the American Dream, or indeed if the Dream had extolled other values. One criticism made of Merton's work is that he assumed a broad consensus around the American Dream. However, the point to be made is that Merton suggested that strain is inversely related to one's structural position, whereas for Durkheim the opposite is the case.

Merton observed that the social structure is such that there are limits to access the goal of success through legitimate means. Most notably, those from the lower classes are less able to attain the sort of successes that are being promoted. As Lilly, Cullen and Ball write:

The disjunction between what the culture extols (universal striving for success) and what the social structure makes possible (limited legitimate opportunities), therefore, places large segments of the American population in the strain-engendering position of desiring a goal that they cannot reach through conventional means. This situation, Merton concluded, is not without important social consequences: It 'produces intense pressure for deviation'. (Lilley, Cullen and Ball, 2002: 49)

Thus Merton's understanding of anomie concerned the incompatibility between goals and legitimate means. This tension leads to there being a 'strain' towards the goals without the legitimate means of achieving them. Thus 'for Durkheim, deregulation led to infinite aspirations; for Merton, infinite aspirations led to deregulation. The result for both was the same; high rates of deviation' (Downes and Rock, 2003: 116). The sum of their work is then to suggest that crime and deviance is the 'normal' response generated by the culture and structure of society.

Although Merton believed the majority of people conformed to goals and means, he suggested that others resolve the strains generated from their inability to attain success in different ways


The key response, as far as we are concerned, is with innovation. Crime can be seen as the individual, under pressure from the cultural and social structure, seeking illegitimate means to achieve generally accepted goals. It is a solution to social strain. The motivations for crime thus lie in the strains imposed by the unequal society.

Merton's theory was developed within the specific context of American society. Do you consider that British society can be viewed in the same light?

Merton's theory of anomie has received a number of criticisms, the major ones of which are summarised below.

This last point was made by Albert Cohen, an author otherwise sympathetic to Merton. Cohen's focus was similarly on strain and the 'criminal solution', but in his case this was linked to the concept of subculture. The next section therefore looks at Cohen and other subcultural theorists.