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Strain Theory

Strain Theory

Author: Paul Hannan

Recognize the main ideas that comprise Robert Merton's strain theory.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain US Map; Public Domain:

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on Strain Theory. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure get the most out of this tutorial.


So today we're looking at Strain Theory. Now Strain Theory was an idea that was brought up by, Robert K. Merton. Now Merton is a sociologist, American sociologist, famous for a couple of different things in sociology. But again, today we're looking at Strain Theory. Now Strain Theory is really just the idea that, deviance can result from a difference from a discrepancy between cultural goals and institutional means to achieve these goals.

So let me maybe dissect that a little bit. And it helps to think of the word strain so like a strain amongst things. So two things that are stretched out. So when there's deviance, so acting these deviant acts, come when the goals of society, so the things that people want, there's a discrepancy between that and the means, so the ability to get those goals.

Let me give you a good example of that. So let's look at Strain Theory in the US. So in the United States America our general cultural goal is the acquisition of wealth. We kind of believe, not kind of, we do believe as a general society that wealth will bring happiness, material goods will bring happiness.

Now to achieve these material goods we have to work hard and we have to be educated. That's how you get good things. That's the belief that we have, the cultural belief of the means. Now we also say that those not succeeding must be lazy or defective.

So, if you're buying into this idea, then people that cannot succeed, that cannot get material wealth, they have to be lazy or defective. It can't be that situations are hard for them and that they had things go on that weren't their fault. Oh, no no, it must be that hard work and education-- they didn't work hard, and they don't have enough education.

So part of the idea of the Strain, though, is that legitimate means for material success are not uniformly distributed. So there's not an equal chance that someone that is poor versus someone that is wealthy has a chance to make more money. So some people are more likely to reach this dominant-cultural goal of the acquisition of wealth then others, and it has nothing to do with their hard work or education. It has simply to do with the situation they are born into.

So Strain Theory breaks down what happens with this disconnect into a couple different ways. Now, if you accept conventional mean and you accept cultural goals, so again, conventional means is working hard and education and working within the law. So, if you accept that, and then you accept the culture goals of gaining wealth, then you fit into the box of conformity. So you are conforming to the situation. You're going to work hard and get education, and you're going to work towards that that wealth.

Now, if you are going to be someone who works towards those cultural goals but rejects the conventional means, you're what is, in Strain Theory is called an innovator. In this innovation box people that fall into that would be petty crime people, drug dealers, anyone who's saying I accept the culture goals of getting wealth, but I'm not going to do it by the regular means of just hard work and education. Now,

If you do the opposite of that, if you reject the culture goals but you accept the conventional means, you fall into the box of ritualizm. Now, ritualism is someone who there someone who's going to work hard and have a good education, but they're not really concerned about gaining wealth. They take kind of solace in the idea that while I'm at least I'm a good person because I work hard and have education.

Now, if you reject both the means and the goals, you fall into the box of retreatism. Now retreatism, a great example of that would be an alcoholic. This is somebody who is not, well doesn't want the cultural goals and also doesn't want any means, doesn't buy into the means to do them.

But you can actually break down retreat into another group, that's rebellion. Now rebellion or people who reject the cultural means and reject the cultural goals, but they actually set up their own counter culture that is going to fight against the cultural and conventional means.

So today's takeaway message, Robert Merton is a famous psychologist known for his Strain Theory. And Strain Theory is just the idea that deviance comes from a difference between the goals and the means available to achieve those goals. And it can can be broken down into five, what I like to call boxes there, conformity, ritualism, innovation, retreatism, and rebellion.

Well that's for this lesson. Good work, and hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
Strain Theory

A theory of deviance that suggests deviance results from the mismatch between cultural goals such as honor, wealth, and material comfort on the one hand, and the means to achieve those goals on the other.

People to Know
Robert K. Merton

An American sociologist who developed Strain Theory to explain the structural underpinnings of crime in society.