Topic 1 - Functionalist, strain and subcultural theories

Merton's strain theory 

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Merton's strain theory - 1

Merton’s Strain theory

Merton argues that people engage in deviant behaviour when they cannot achieve socially approved goals by legitimate means. His explanation combines

  •  Structural factors – society’s unequal opportunity structure
  •  Cultural factors – the strong emphasis on success goals and weaker emphasis on using legitimate means to achieve them.
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Merton's strain theory - 2

The American Dream

Deviance is the result of a strain between the goals a culture encourages individuals to aim for and what the structure of society actually allows them to achieve legitimately.

  •  For example the American dream emphasises on money success. Americans are expected to pursue this goal by legitimate means – Education and hard work
  • The ideology claims that American society is meritocratic. But in reality, poverty and discrimination blocks opportunities for many to achieve by legitimate means.
  •  The resulting strain between the cultural goal (money success) and the lack of legitimate opportunities produces frustration and a pressure to resort to illegitimate means.

 The pressure is increased by the fact that American culture puts more emphasis on achieving success at any price than upon doing so by legitimate means. Winning the game is more important than playing by the rules

Merton sees American society as tending towards ANOMIE – Normlessness in that the norms are too weak to restrain some people from using deviant means to achieve the materialistic goals that American culture sets them.

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Deviant adaption to strain 

Merton seeks to explain different patterns of deviance.  He argues that an individual's position in the social structure affects how they adapt to the strain to anomie. 

He identifies 5 adoptions 

1.     Conformity - Individuals accept the culturally approved goals and strive to achieve them legitimately.(The Middle Class)

2.     Innovation - Individuals accept the money success goals but use illegitimate mean to achieve them. E.g. Theft.  This is typical of those who lack legitimate opportunities. (The Working Class)

3.     Ritualism - Individuals give up on the goal, but have internalised the legitimate means and follow the rules of their own sake. (The Lower Middle Class) 

4.     Retreatism - Individuals reject both goals and legitimate means and drop out of society. (Addicts, Vagrants etc)

5.     Rebellion - individuals replace existing goals and means with new ones with the aim of brining about social change. (Political Radicals)

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Merton's strain theory - 4

 Strengths of Merton’s approach

Merton shows how both normal and deviant behaviour can arise from the same mainstream goals. Conformist and innovators both purse the same goal, but by different means. He explain the patterns shown in official statistics:

  •  Most crime is property crime because American society value material wealth so highly.
  •  Working class crime rates are higher because they have the least opportunity to obtain them.


  • Merton’s theory has been criticised on several grounds. It takes official crime statistics at face value. It is too deterministic; not all working class people deviate.
  •   It ignores power of the ruling class to make and enforce the laws.

Subculture strain theory

Subculture stain theories both criticise Merton’s theory and build on it. They see deviance as the product of delinquent subcultures. These subcultures offer their lower-class members a solution to the problem of how to gain the status they cannot achieve by legitimate means. 

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