Merton’s Strain Theory

Merton argues that people engage in deviant behaviour when they cannot achieve socially approves goals by legitimate means. His explanation combines structural factors and cultural factors.

The American Dream

  • For Merton, deviance is the result of the strain between the goals a culture encourages individuals to aim for and the structure of society actually allows them to achieve legitimately.
  • For example, the American Dream emphasises money success, Americans are expected to pursue this goal by legitimate means (education and hard work)
  • The ideology claims that American society is meritocratic. But in reality, poverty and discrimination block opportunities for many to achieve this goal by legitimate means.
  • The resulting strain between the cultural goal and the lack of legitimate opportunities produces frustration and a pressure to resort to illegitimate means.

Deviant adaptations to strain

Merton argues that an individual’s position in the social structure affects how they adapt to the strain to anomie. He identifies 5 adaptations:

Adaptation Means Goal Likely crime
Rebel ✔✖ ✔✖


Strengths of Merton’s Approach:

Merton shows how normal and deviant behaviour can arise from the same mainstream goals. Conformists and innovators both pursue the same goal but by different means.

  • However, Merton’s theory has been criticised on several grounds. It takes official crime statistics at face value. It is too deterministic, not all WC people deviate. It ignores the power of the ruling class to make and enforce the laws.#

Subcultural Strain Theories

Subcultural strain theories both criticise both Merton’s theory and build on it. They see deviance as the product of delinquent subcultures. These subcultures offer their lower-class members a solution to the problem of how to gain status they cannot achieve by legitimate means.