The basis of Merton’s Strain Theory lies with Emile Durkheim and his theory of anomie in so far as ‘anomie’ is translated as ‘deregulation’ or ‘normlessness’. Durkheim developed the concept of anomie in his book, Suicide, published in 1897 to refer to the lack of social regulation in modern society as one condition that promotes higher rates of suicide. He believed that individuals possessed an unlimited appetite of aspirations and it was up to society to regulate such an appetite.
According to Durkheim, the appetites were regulated by the ‘collective conscience’ of society; meaning people were bound together by their common morals and beliefs. However, if this mechanism failed or was significantly weakened, anomie would occur. An anomic state would unleash in people limitless appetites that could result in a variety of deviant behaviours. It was after reading Durkheim’s work that “Merton assigned himself the task of discovering what produces anomie” (Hunt, 1961:58)
Robert Merton was a criminologist who applied Durkheim’s definition of anomie to modern industrial societies, with specific emphasis on the United States of America, and redefined the term. According to Merton, anomie is the form that social incoherence takes when there is a significant detachment “between valued cultural ends and a legitimate societal means to those ends” (Akers, 2000:143). Anomie can be separated into two distinct separate categories: macroside and microside. Macroside is caused when society fails to establish clear goal limits and is unable to regulate society members conduct.
It is the microsided category that is more commonly referred to as strain, which focuses its attention on the breakdown of society and the increased levels in deviance, which is associated with this declining change that produces a stronger pressure among society members to commit crime. (Calhoun, 2003). Strain is the pressure that is placed on disadvantaged minority groups, where the lower societal population take any effective means to income and success that they can find even if those means are illegal (Akers, 2000:144), and Durkheim classified two strains of strain: individual and structural.
Individual strain is described as the personally created stress that is attained by the person while they search for a means of meeting the needs they define through their personal expectations. Structural strain applies to members of the society who determine what their needs are based on societal ideas and are constantly battling to achieve these ideals (O’Connor, 2003). Following on from this, when Merton introduced his general strain theory, as aspirations increase and expectations decline, delinquency and the amount of deviant behaviour that occurs increases in effect to these changes.
Merton recognised that certain expectations created by these two general types of strain and went on to identify five specific “modes of adaptation” to tackle these strains (Akers, 2000:144). Merton began his expansion on anomie by stating there are two elements of social and cultural structure. The first structure is culturally assigned goals and aspirations (Merton, 1938:672). These are the things that all individuals should want and expect out of life, including success, money, material possessions etc.
The second aspect of the social structure defines the acceptable mode for achieving the goals and aspirations set out by society (Merton, 1938:673). This is outlined as the acceptable and appropriate way that people get both what they want and what they expect out of life, fro example obeying laws and societal norms, getting an education and working hard through life. It is expected that in order for society to maintain a normative function there must be a balance between aspirations and means in which to fulfil these aspirations (Merton, 1938:673-674).
Balance would then occur as long as the individual felt that he was achieving this culturally desired goal by conforming to the “institutionally accepted mode of doing so” (Merton, 1938:674). Put in other words, there must be an intrinsic payoff, an internal satisfaction in playing by the rules as well as an extrinsic payoff of achieving their goals. It is also an important factor for all social classes to achieve these culturally desired goals through legitimate means, as if they are not, then illegitimate means might be employed to achieve the same goal.
There is however, sometimes a disparity between goals and means with too much emphasis being placed on the goal itself and not the legitimate means by which it is achievable. For some members of the society, there is a lack of opportunity, which leads the individuals to a possible illegitimate way of achieving the goal. This, according to Merton is how crime is bred: – overemphasis on material success and lack of opportunity for such material success leads to crime.
As mentioned previously, to supplement his theory, Merton developed a list of five possible reactions to such a disparity between goals and means. The first of these is the most common – Conformity. An individual facing this reaction accepts the goal alongside the institutionalised means. A second possible reaction would be Innovation. In this case, the individual accepts the goals facing him, but rejects the institutionalised means of attaining them.
Then we have Ritualism, where the goal is rejected because the individual does not believe that it can be achieved but legitimate means are employed. Retreatism is where both the goal and the means are rejected. Merton used the example of the drug addict or alcoholic to demonstrate – people who are in society, but do not take part in the function of that society. The fifth and final reaction is Rebellion. Merton reserved rebellion for the individuals who, when frustrated, would elect to simply adopt a new social order and dispose of the old one.
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