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Merton’s strain theory was an expansion of the anomie theory which sought to develop an explanation of crime
It was thus founded on Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie. In this theory, Merton posited that strain is caused by the existence of a social structure in which people have similar goals to achieve but are presented with unequal opportunities to conventionally achieve the desired goals. It is this blockage or limitation of that causes strain and thus makes one to commit a crime.
Merton’s strain theory is founded on the assumption that everybody is law abiding if given the opportunity
People do not commit crimes for its sake since naturally we are law abiding and value social order and social equilibrium in the society. However, people break laws when they encounter some barriers in their endeavor to achieve societal goals in a conventional manner. It is this barrier that Merton called strain. This strain leads to commission of crime. Walsh & Hemmens cited that the strain is caused by the social structures that are in operation in one’s environment. For example, in a society where it is expected that after pursuing higher education one should secure a well paying job, strain results if one is not able to get the opportunity to pursue the much valued education. They thus find other alternatives of earning their livelihood through unconventional ways.
In his strain theory, Robert Merton contends that as a result of the conflict between socially approved goals and the limited opportunities to achieve them, people often adapt differently to the resulting strain. This led to his development of five concepts in which he explains how people adapt to the strain. These include innovation, retreatism, conformity, rebellion and ritualism. Innovation is an adaptation process in which people accept the socially approved goals but reject the legitimate means of achieving the goals. For example, one accepts that economic success is achieved through pursuit of higher education and a financially rewarding job but instead creates some other ways of achieving the same goal. Most often, the alternatives in innovation are criminal behaviors such as theft or other unconventional ways.
Conformity is a response to structural strain where people accept the conventional goals of society and embrace the socially approved ways of achieving the goals. For example, a conformist who wants to be wealthy will invest in education and work hard to acquire the wealth through other socially approved ways. This social adaptation strategy to strain enhances social stability and limits occurrences of crime in the society. In ritualism, Merton contends that people accept societal values but oppose the goals. For example, an employee who is ritualistic commits crime by stealing the employer’s time. Such a person may report to work but fails to give his/her best services to the clients. In the long run, the organization is not able to achieve its goals. This is because the employee accepts that he/she should go to work (conventional requirement) rejects the goals of the organization (profitability).
Merton contends that retreatism is where as a result of strain, people reject both the goals and the means of achieving the goals as set by the society. For example, drunkards, drug addicts, or outcasts are retreatists who respond to structural strains through mental, physical or other withdrawal and defense mechanisms. Rebellion on the other hand involves substitution of the conventional goals with alternative ones as an adaptation strategy to structural strain. Merton illustrates these using revolutionists as examples. They respond to social strains in the society by organizing revolutionary movements that advocate for alternative lifestyles, leaderships, beliefs or laws. Through such revolutionary movements, the rebels deviate from the socially approved values, norms and other standards of behavior.
In conclusion, Merton’s strain theory is a structural theory of crime that posits that crime can only be eradicated in society through elimination of structural strains and creation of equal opportunities for people to achieve the socially approved materialistic goals in conventional ways.