Crime and Deviance: Strain Theory

A2 Sociology revision cards on strain theory in crime and deviance.

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  • Created by: Pheebie
  • Created on: 27-10-12 13:11


  • When people are unable to legitimately achieve societies goals, the illegally try to achieve them.

This is due to:

  • STRUCTURAL FACTORS: Society has unequal opportunities.
  • CULTURAL FACTORS: Strong emphasis on success and less on legitimate means.

These goals encourage people to achieve but the institutional structure of society but don't necessarily encourage them to achieve the goals by legitimate means.


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Merton's 5 Deviant Adaptations to Strain

1. CONFORMITY: Strive towards goals legitimately.

2. INNOVATION: Have the goal of money success but strive to it illegitimately. 

3. RITUALISM: Give up on goals, but still live a legitimate life and follow rules for own sake.

4.  RETREATISM: Reject goals and legitimate means, becoming drop outs e.g. tramps.

5. REBELLION: Reject societies goals and legitimate means replacing them with new ones as they desire a revolution e.g. politicians. 


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Evaluation of Mertons Strain Theory


  • Shows why individuals commit crime.
  • Explains why most crime is property crime.
  • Provides an understanding of why people commit economic crime.


  • Assumes everyone has the same goals.
  • It does not explain all forms of crime.
  • It takes official statistics at face value.
  • The desire to be successful rejects biological competition.
  • Only explains economic crime.


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A K Cohen

Similar to Merton, but  believes when people fail to gain success by legitimate means they achieve by aiming for alternate hierarchy status, where they receive status from peers in delinquent actions.



  • Doesn't explain middle class crime.
  • Deterministic (assumes everyone who doesn't achieve turns to crime.)
  • Assumes working class have middle class goals and change if fails. It ignores the possibility they never had legitimate goals in the first place.


  • Provides explanation for non-economic crime e.g. vandalism, robbery, drug-dealing, GBH and wanting peer status.
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Cloward & Ohlin

CRIMINAL SUBCULTURES: Youths provided with an apprenticeship for crime. Arise in neighbourhoods where there's a hierarchy in local crime.

CONFLICT SUBCULTURES: High population turnovers. High levels of social disorganisation, so no stable criminal network & loosely organised gangs. Gang develop.

RETREATIST SUBCULTURES: In every neighbourhood, not everyone aspires to be in a professional criminal or a gang leader and they don't achieve well paid jobs. They fail on both levels. Some turn to illegal drug use.


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Chicago School

CULTURAL TRANSMISSION THEORY: Some neighbourhoods have criminal traditions which are transmitted from generation to generation.

DIFFERENT ASSOCIATION THEORY: Deviance is behaviour learnt through social interaction with others who are deviant.

SOCIAL DISORGANISATION THEORY: Rapid population changes and immigration leadsto changes in structures- unable to exercise social control, leading to deviance.

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Evaluation of Cloward and Ohlin's Strain Theory


  • Explains different working class deviance in terms of different subcultures.


  • Ignores crime of wealth.
  • Boundaries are too sharply drawn.
  • Assumes everyone has the same shared goals.
  • Subcultures are too inflexible, combination of all three subcultures, not just the one.


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