Strain Theory

By: Megan Ortiz

Research into the psychology behind organized crime is only a fairly recent scholarly pursuit. One of the earliest theories that explained social deviance was one developed by Robert Merton (1938). Through a functionalist approach Merton developed the Strain Theory which  explained his beliefs in an Essay on Strain theory entitled Social Structure and Anomie.In his essay Merton explains that, although society tends to blame social deviance on biology,  biological factors do not in fact account for crime, nor does it account for statistical variation in crime between societies and cultures. Strain theory suggests that the reason for deviant behavior is a “situation in which there is an apparent lack of fit between the culture’s norms about what constitutes success in life (goals) and the culture’s norms about the appropriate ways to achieve those goals (means.)

Thus, according to Merton, the two most important factors in determining the liklihood of deviant behavior are 1) culturally defined goals and interests, and 2) the acceptable modes of achieving these goals.

According to Merton, there is a time when cultural defined goals become so oppressive that an individual may feel forced to use alternative methods to reach these goals. For organized crime, this refers to the pressure to be wealthy and the use of prostitution, gambling and drug sales to achieve this goal.

“The extreme emphasis on the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success in our own society militates against the completely effective control of institutionally regulated modes of acquiring a fortune. Fraud, corruption, vice, crime, in short the entire catalogue of proscribed behavior becomes increasingly common…”

Individuals adapt to the disjunct between these two factors in 1 of 5 ways:

Conformity– ++ When an individual chooses to conform they choose to accept the cultures ideas of success and also to use culturally acceptable methods of achieving the goals of society. This is the state of equilibrium for the theory where individuals conform to both contraints.

Innovation– +- This results from inadequate socialization. It is the option that leads to deviance. Innovators are individuals who adapt to the disjunct between goals and means by breaking laws. Innovation is most common amongst lower classes where avenues available for moving towards goals are largely limited.

Ritualism– -+ goals are treated as unattainable, but conformity to appropriate social behavior is maintained.

Retreatism– — this is a rejection of goals and means. This is the least common type of adaptation to the disjunction. This category of people are the outcasts of society including those individuals with drug addictions and drinking problems.

Rebellion– +/- an attempt to create a new social order for oneself and others in which there are different societal standards and different acceptable means for achieving those goals.

Individuals may shift from one adjustment to the other depending on the cultural goal. However, it is innovation that  most criminologists are interested in. It is in this adjustment option that individuals who are frustrated with their inability to meet cultural goals choose to break the law to attain these goals.


According to Merton there are 2 factors which play a role in determining whether an individual will conform or will innovate: Conventional values of the culture and class structure. Despite the popular belief that it is possible to move up in social class is possible, it is actually quite difficult. Thus individuals in lower classes who accept the common goals of society (mainly wealth) are left trying to achieve these goals through the only method of occupation available to them which is most commonly manual labor.Because this occupation will not provide adequate income to achieve the goal of wealth, individuals choose to instead use the easiest and most effective way to achieve these goals: and that is crime of theft, drug dealing, prostitution, etc. Because these individuals are limited in opportunity they are more likely to adjust using innovation.

We know that organized crime often occurs in areas of lower social class and income. We see how Merton’s theory explains the motivation to join a gang. In order for individuals from these areas to become successful by accepting the goal of wealth that is prevalent within our society, they must use methods of innovation to achieve these goals.

The Next Theory:

After Strain theory a new theory called the social control theory emerged. The ideas of innovation are present in the ideas of belief within the social control theory. We see Merton’s influence on Social control theory and can clearly see how one idea led to the next.



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