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Strain Theory

Strain Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson explains Merton's Strain Theory.

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Introduction to Sociology

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

Video Transcription

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Hello, welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. We're going to talk about a really interesting theory of deviance today, a theory that relates deviant behavior to the structure of society. This theory was given to us by Robert K. Merton, an American sociologist, and we call it strain theory.

Strain theory, like I said, relates the deviant behavior of individuals to the structure of society and really holds that society structures deviance. It causes strain in our lives based upon the way society's set up, and this strain could cause us to act out deviantly.

So now I want to turn attention to the diagram on the board behind me that's going to illustrate strain theory for us. Well, in our society, we have cultural goals and ends that we all strive for. In America, these goals and ends are wealth, relatedly social honor, and material comfort. They all kind of cluster together. And we also have culturally and socially sanctioned ways of arriving at these ends and goals, and those are the means to the cultural goals.

You can do it in conventional fashion. Education, that's a means to these goals. Getting a good, well-paying, socially honorable job is another means to these goals. Hard work, working hard to get ahead, the American way. That's a third yet mean to get to these goals.

And when you achieve success using the conventional means, Merton called this conformity. The majority of us want to conform so you'll play by the rules and get an education and try to work hard and get a good job. Trying to get ahead and reach the culturally sanctioned goals that way. That Merton called conformity. But yet, also criminal activity can get you there as well.

So what Merton really did was to look at how people responded to the strain or ease that they may face with getting to these goals. This represents strain in the middle. Not everybody can get to the culturally sanctioned ends using the same means like education and good jobs. For a certain segment of the society, it's just not exactly feasible or likely that they're going to arrive here by conventional fashion. So then Merton theorized that this strain causes them to act out criminally and deviantly.

And he theorized four ways that people do this so we're going to talk about them. We're going to talk about the four ways that people respond to strain in their lives. We're going to do that now.

The first response to strain that Merton theorized is innovation. Innovation occurs when the conventional path to social honor is rejected as futile or just not possible for that particular person. So people innovate and resort to things like street crime, violence, gang hierarchy, the shadow economy or the black market, really any action that they perceive will get them to the culturally approved end of wealth and material comfort.

So again, recall I said this was a structural theory. We're not saying that it's the individual's fault. This is a way to understand deviants in relation to the structure.

So take a black youth born in a very poor neighborhood of New York City or Chicago or just a inner city neighborhood, and how are their future job prospects? Are they likely to feel strain in their lives? Yes, because black people have been systematically shut out of labor markets for centuries. So the job opportunities aren't as easily secured in this person's position so they might have a more difficult time and feel more strain in their lives. So this strain is uncomfortable, and we don't like it so it causes you to then potentially act out in a deviant fashion.

I should add in passing that innovation does not always have to involve criminality. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, for instance, three innovators in society, didn't play by the rules. They dropped out of school, yet they were wildly, massively successful. So this is an example of innovation then not necessarily involving criminality.

The second of Merton's responses to strain was what we call ritualism, which is where when you recognize that you might not able to get to the culturally approved ends by the means available to you, but rather than resorting to crime, you turn inward and just decide well, I'm not going to get there. So you live legitimately without engaging in crime so at least then people will see you as honorable and playing by the rules.

So although you decide to play by the rules, that feeling of strain never goes away. And this causes people a lot of pain and suffering and discomfort in life because yes, you're playing by the rules, but you don't get where you're supposed to get, where culture says you're supposed to go. So people live with this entire lives, and ritualism then is a very painful way to deal with the strain, the strain that society puts in people's lives.

A third response to strain that Merton theorized was what's called retreatism. And retreatism happens when people drop out and don't even bother to pursue the culturally-approved goals of society anymore. They don't care about them. They don't accept the cultural goals of their society as the innovation and ritualism responses do.

They both still accept that cultural model and try to get it, whereas retreatists, people who might be alcoholics or drug addicts or homeless people, for example, retreatists are no longer really concerned about these goals or claim to care about them. They've thrown in the towel. They're done. They don't care that society says, you've got to get here. So they then reject the dominant cultural model.

The final response to strain is rebellion. Rebellion happens when people not only deny the cultural logic of their society and the means to achieve social honor, but put forth a new value set, a new way of life that is against the dominant cultural goals of society. So they not only drop out like retreatists, but they take their dropout one step farther and actively propose alternative cultural traditions.

So then with the idea that strain is a structural facet of American society, Merton really gives us a structural macro way to look at deviance. So given that deviance then is structured, it's always going to be there so long as the social structure promotes strain in people's lives, and I don't really see this strain going away any time soon for people in society. So given that strain, Merton theorized, is why some people act out deviantly, deviance is always going to be there in response to strain. So it is a very important theory.

Well, I hope you enjoyed learning about strain theory. Have a great rest of your day.

  • Robert K. Merton

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

  • 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.