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Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Strain Theory, Term Paper Example

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Introduction

Sociologists and criminologists have long endeavored to determine why some individuals engage in criminal activity while others do not. The exploration of this subject has taken researchers down many paths; some have looked for biological explanations for criminal behavior, while others have explored the social and cultural frameworks that may establish the conditions for criminality. In the latter context, further interest exists in understanding why some members of a given society will engage in criminal acts, while others who seem to exist in the same social and cultural constructs do not turn to crime. One of the most well-known theorists in this field is Robert Merton; Merton largely rejected biological explanations for criminal behavior, and instead attempted to determine what sort of social conditions and circumstances might underpin the manifestation of criminal behavior. Among Merton’s theories and suppositions about the sociological basis for criminal behavior are two of his most well-known theories: anomie theory and strain theory. While these are, in effect, two different theories intended to explain different sets of circumstances and the results wrought by such circumstances, they are inextricably linked. It is impossible to fully understand or even effectually discuss one of these theories without exploring the other, and without giving consideration to the ways in which they overlap and intersect.

Anomie and Strain Theory: Background

Specific discussions about criminal behavior are underpinned, in the Mertonian view, by the larger discussion of deviant behavior. Not all deviant behavior is criminal behavior, but in the context of a sociological examination of criminality, all (or at least most) criminal behavior is deviant behavior. In effect, deviant behavior is that which diverges from societal norms. Sociological theorists before Merton, such as Emile Durkheim, were also interested in deviant and criminal behavior, and in understanding what cause each or both. Durkheim posited that deviant behavior was “necessary” in society (Brym and Lie, 2010); this may seem like a contradiction, but Durkheim’s explanation is sound. Durkheim posited that deviant behavior gives the rest of society something against which it can measure and calibrate its moral and ethical standards. In effect, deviant behavior shines a light on and ultimately defines non-deviant behavior. Deviant behavior “(clarifies) moral boundaries, allowing us to draw the line between right and wrong” (Brym and Lie). Without deviant behavior, it would be impossible to assess what behavior is socially and culturally appropriate, nor could we make determinations about how best to react to different types of deviant behavior, whether such reactions include mere repudiation of behavior or outright punishment of one form or another.

Although Merton built much of his theoretical work on the concept of social anomie, it was Durkheim who first suggested the role of anomie in deviant behavior (Akers and Sellers, 2013). The two theorists used the term in different ways, though there are several ways in which these different meanings and interpretations overlap. Durkheim basically defined anomie as an “absence of clear (social) norms” (Brym and Lie); Merton expanded on this idea by examining what he saw as some of the root causes of such absences as well as their direct and indirect correlations with deviant and criminal behavior. Merton’s ideas about anomie were in effect more fully-formed, rooted in a cause-effect paradigm. The Mertonian view of anomie posits that the it is the tension between the “culturally-valued goals” of a society and the access –or lack of access- to the means of achieving those goals (Brym and Lie; Featherstone and Deflem, 2003).

Mertonian anomie offers, as a hypothetical example, a social framework that promotes the accumulation of material possessions as a culturally-valued goal, yet does not provide ready access for all members of society to the legitimate or socially-acceptable means of acquiring such possessions. It is here that Merton’s idea about “strain” intersects with anomie. Those who experience the tension between the culturally-valued goals and the lack of means to achieve them are, according to Merton, experiencing strain. It is this strain that can and often does lead those who experience it to engage in criminal behavior as a means of bypassing the legitimate means of access.

Strain and Anomie Theories

Merton’s theories about anomie and strain fall under the larger umbrella of Social Structure Theories. These are the set of theories that seek to provide sociological explanations and conceptual frameworks for understanding the nature of criminal behavior. As noted, Durkheim’s theory of anomie preceded Merton’s; in both cases, the theories developed by these sociologists were rooted in their individual perceptions of and thoughts about the societies in which they lived or about which they knew. Durkheim’s theory of anomie was predicated on social and cultural conditions in France after that country “had gone through several political revolutions and was in the midst of changing from an agricultural to an industrial society” (Samaha, 2005). According to Durkheim, a society in “transition” experienced a “weakening of the bonds” that normally ensure that social norms remain extant and strong (Samaha).  Merton built on this idea by adapting it to social and cultural conditions in the United States.

Merton’s theories of anomie and strain were developed and originally published during the height of the Great Depression. The first example of these theories was made public in 1938, and Merton was clearly responding to the shifting social and economic conditions present at the time. Merton’s theories were predicated on the specific cultural values in the U.S.; as he saw it, American society placed great emphasis on “getting as rich as possible” and on doing so as quickly as possible (Samaha). Society stressed the cultural value of getting rich, but existing social structures and conditions made such a goal unattainable, or at least difficult to attain, for large segments of society. This “blockage” between the culturally-valuable goals and the means of attaining those goals creates a “strain” for those who are on the wrong side of the blockage (Samaha).

Both the culturally-valued goals and the means of attainting those goals are dictated by society. In the U.S., for example, where (according to Merton) the most laudable goal is getting rich, society also provides the approved means by which that goal can be attained. These approved means include “hard work, honesty, education and delayed gratification” (Samaha); while these may be the socially-acceptable means of attaining these goals, the reality is that not everyone –or even most people- can achieve great wealth solely through such means. A variety of other factors –most notably class stratification- also impinge upon an individual’s ability to access the means of attaining these culturally-valued goals.  For many members of society no amount of hard work or adherence to honesty or education will provide access to the means of amassing wealth. Criminal behavior, by contrast, may well provide access to wealth for those who engage in it, but society does not approve of criminal behavior. As Merton saw it, then, the strain of being denied access to the means of attain culturally-valued goals hit the lower classes particularly hard.

This highlights the differences between and among culturally-valued goals, the social structures that provide access to those goals, and the means of utilizing existing social structures for the attainment of such goals. Those who are born into wealth, who have the benefits of the best education, the social connections which open doors of opportunity and the other advantages of the upper classes do not just have access to the social structures needed to attain culturally-valued goals; the members of these classes, in essence, create and exist within these social structures. The social structures available to the lower classes not only do not provide access to culturally-valued goals; they also actively block such access and serve to keep social strata from shifting too greatly.

These conditions, according to Merton, generally disprove the idea that crime among the lower classes is predicated on differences between the cultural values of the upper and lower classes. Quite the opposite is true; individuals at all levels of society share many of the same desires and culturally-valued goals (such as getting rich). The motivating forces, then, are not rooted in cultural differences, but simply in structural differences (or, more specifically, differences in access to structural conditions). Taken together, Merton’s anomie and strain theories serve to reinforce each other; anomie is created when structural conditions do not align with culturally-valued goals. Those on the wrong end of this anomie, i.e.- those without access to viable structural means of attain culturally-valued goals- experience strain. Thus, while the two theories do not explain the same phenomena, they work in concert, according to Merton, to create the conditions that often underlie criminal behavior.

Within the larger context of strain theory, asserted Merton, there are a number of different ways that those who are under strain will react. Merton labels these primary responses “modes of individual adaptation” (Featherstone and Deflem). Not everyone who exists in conditions of anomie or under strain will engage in criminal behavior; according to Merton, there are five ways in which most people will respond. These responses, or modes of individual adaptation, are conformity, retreatism, rebellion, ritualism, and innovation. Each mode of adaptation describes a specific set of behaviors, some of which are more and less socially acceptable than others.

The first, conformity, involves an individual who adheres to cultural goals and also adheres to the socially-acceptable means of attaining those goals. This is, clearly, the most socially acceptable mode of individual adaptation. The other modes of adaptation exist as a continuum of decreasingly-acceptable behaviors. Retreatism involves the rejection of cultural goals and of the means of attaining those goals. Rebellion involves the “rejection and active substitution” of both cultural goals and of the means of attaining those goals (Featherstone and Deflem). Ritualism is the adherence to culturally-valued goals despite having no actual access to the means of attaining them. The last mode of adaptation, according to Merton, is that which primarily motivates criminal behavior: innovation. Those who resort to this mode of adaptation adhere to culturally-valued goals but reject the approved means of attaining those goals. In short, it is the innovator who chooses to engage in criminal behavior –or some other form of deviant behavior- as a means of attaining culturally- valued goals.

Vito and Maahs (2012) offer several examples of these differing modes of adaptation. They cite the television character of Archie Bunker as someone who fits the mode of a ritualist. Archie Bunker generally accepted the values and goals of society, though his station in life assured that he was unlikely to ever attain great wealth. The main character in the Al Pacino film Scarface serves as an example of an innovator: he embraced the goal of amassing wealth, but used illegal means- specifically, drug dealing-to reach that goal. In the category of retreatist, Vito and Maahs list “psychotics…vagrants…(and other social) outcasts” as members of this group. Under rebellion, Vito and Maahs mention “hippies” and other members of counter-cultural groups who eschew both the typical culturally-valued goals and the means of attaining them.

Other Views on Strain Theory

As could be expected, there is a body of research that seeks to expand on anomie and strain theories or offer criticism of those theories. Some researchers note that Merton used definitions of strain that were often different or even contradictory (Featherstone and Deflem). Merton did in fact discuss the concept of strain in two entirely different contexts. In one usage, strain refers to the social conditions which block access to culturally-valued goals for some members of society. In an alternate usage, strain refers to the “feelings” (Samaha) felt by those who are denied access to the social structures needed to attain the culturally-valued goals. In this light, then, the term “strain” can refer to social strain or individual strain; Merton had a tendency to use these terms interchangeably in different explications of his theories of criminal behavior.

There are some direct criticisms of Merton’s theories as well. Some critics note that the nature of criminal behavior that can possibly be explained by anomie and strain theories tends to be monetary in nature. These theories, then, may help explain such crimes as robbery and burglary but do little to explain the motivations of murderers or rapists. Merton’s theories are further limited, note critics, by their ability to only explain criminal behavior among the lower classes (Vito and Maahs). Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of Merton’s theories that has been noted by critics, however, is that they fail to explain why some people who experience strain or who are blocked by strain fro attaining culturally-valued goals turn to criminal behavior while others do not.

Conclusion

Despite the criticisms of Merton’s theories, sociologists and criminologists continue to look to them as a means of explaining at least some, if not all, the reasons why some members of society turn to crime. Subsequent researchers have often used Merton’s theories as a springboard from which to develop further theoretical constructs. Merton’s theories clearly do not explain why all criminals choose to engage in such activity, but he did provide a strong framework in which later theorists could consider the sociological conditions that might underpin some criminal behavior. Whatever the shortcomings of Merton’s theories, there is no question that they have had a significant influence on the development of many aspects of sociological explorations of criminal behavior and have served as the foundation for an enormous body of theoretical work.

References

Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2013). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.

Brym, R. J., & Lie, J. (2010). Sociology: Your compass for a new world, the brief edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Featherstone, R., & Deflem, M. (2003). Anomie and Strain: Context and Consequences of Merton’s Two Theories. Sociological Inquiry , 73(4).

Samaha, J. (2005). Criminal justice with infotrac. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Vito, G. F., & Maahs, J. (2012). Criminology: Theory, research, and policy. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth Pub. Co.

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