Social unequal opportunity structure creates strain for the people between legitimate ways and the goals towards which society pushes people to achieve. However, when people do not meet their goals through legitimate means and opportunities they are available with to obtain success, deviance happens which forces an individual to commit crimes. The deviance due to misalignment between the “legitimate means” and the “cultural goals” of the society creates situations in which an individual experiences various strains such as discrimination and violence. Subsequently, these strains raise negative feelings in an individual leading to deviance if a person does not find a viable option for coping with the misconduct. Principally, Emile Durkheim, the French Sociologist in his Suicide (1897) and The Division of Labor in Society (1893) was the first one who hypothesized the breakdown of societal norms which leads towards deviant behavior and then committing crimes in the society. (Vito & Mahhs, 2021) Moreover, building off of Emile Durkheim’s hypothesis regarding the discrepancy between legitimate means and societal goals, Robert Merton added on further what the sociologists call Strain Theory.
Merton’s Strain Theory of deviance application proposes a classification scheme of deviant behavior based on an individual’s adherence to culturally approved goals and his belief to attain them through legitimate or illegitimate criminal means.
Merton’s Strain Theory
Robert Merton built his theory of Strain on the crime rates in the United States. He proposed that this was due to the ingrained notion of the American Dream in native people to achieve financial success. He noticed that dream of “wealth attainment” turned Americans to implore illegitimate ways of attaining wealth to achieve great monetary success and in the process they became criminals. He called the discrepancy between the societal aspirations and the means to obtain them as “Strain Theory” as this strain was leading to disorder in the society. He emphasized that extreme emphasis on aspirations and cultural norms prescribe a deviant behavior that results in the form of robbery, fraud, and rape as a rebellion to reject the conventional norms of society. (Vito & Mahhs, 2021)
Merton hypothesized Strain Theory to explain the following deviance patterns in a society that rise due to social inequality. Merton describes those patterns as ways through which an individual can showcase his deviant behavior to certain cultural goals. These patterns are as follows:
Individuals follow the culturally approved societal goals through legitimate means.
Individuals accept the societal norms and goals but follow illegitimate means to pursue them.
Individuals who give up on culturally approved goals but try to operate according to societal rules are ritualists.
Individuals drop out from the culturally approved goals and reject the legitimate means of attaining the desired goals. Merton includes drug addicts, outcasts, psychotics, and chronic drunkards as examples of such individuals.
Merton includes political radicals in this category as such types of individuals replace societal goals with their own desired goals and devise their own means to attain them in order to bring about social change sometimes through violence. (Vito & Mahhs, 2021)
Application of Merton’s Strain Theory in Societal Crimes
This paper expands on the views of Merton to analyze two of the societal crimes: Robbery and Rape to study the detrimental socio-economic conditions that are being faced by the current American society and the potential reasons that lead people to commit these heinous crimes in society.
Analysis of Robbery through the Application of Strain Theory
To analyze the crime of robbery through the theoretical framework of Merton’s Strain theory, it is important to first understand what the act of robbery actually is. Robbery is a crime that refers to the forcefully acquiring of anything of value by depriving the victim of the thing or property that is not lawfully offender’s property through threats or physical violence. (Anderson, 2007) This act occurs anytime anywhere as there is no predetermination rather use of violence is required to execute the act of robbery offense. Statistics of the United States Department of Justice reports that around 6 million robbery cases have been reported to police in past years and nearly 5.5 million of the population lost their lives during this offense.
Building upon Merton’s Strain theory, it is noted that the unequal societal structures such as unequal distribution of wealth and resources are the actual force leading individuals to commit the act of robbery. Merton’s adaptation of Conformity is seen when an individual tries to conform with the societal structures society imposes in an attempt to achieve his goals. The inability of the individuals to conform to the desired set of societal standards to achieve their goals leads them to dissatisfaction which results in committing a robbery that is related to Merton’s adaptation of Innovation and Rebellion in Strain theory. There is also a group of people who commit the crime of robbery because they do not see any value in conforming to the legitimate ways society imposes on them to achieve their goals. This is related to Retreatism and Rebellion used by Merton to distinguish retreatists who in the majority are drug addicts who discriminate themselves from the rest of the people in society and therefore commit robbery to fulfill their satisfaction.
Rebellion is another pattern described by Merton to categorize people who set their own rules in order to change the society whether these rules or legitimate or illegitimate. This group of rebellious people believes that they cannot achieve “financial success” in their lives by following the legitimate ways society describes in the achievement of their goals. (Anderson, 2007) Therefore, they commit robbery at the cost of people’s lives and property. An example of a Rebellion used by Merton is gang robbers who organize a group of 4 to 5 people to commit planned robberies for “wealth attainment” through the use of violence.
Analysis of Rape through the Application of Strain Theory
The need to conduct the analysis of the criminal act of rape that qualifies the deviant behavior as Merton described in his Strain theory ensures the relevancy. Statistics of the American Bureau report that the sexual assaults reported to the police and other security agencies in America escalated by 3% in the 2 consecutive years since 2014 making up 85% females as sexual assault victims. The criminal act of rape in conjunction with Merton’s theory of Strain and deviance patterns validates the act as abuse that the offender forces upon another person without the victim’s consent. Egan and Wilson in an attempt to provide the foundational definition of the criminal act of rape refer to it as “penetration against a person’s consent” through the use of abuse and physical force. (Anderson, 2007)
In a dynamic approach to understanding the criminal act of rape because the patriarchal notions confirm the relevancy to the deviance pattern of Conformity. Male members of the patriarchal society feel that they have all legitimate rights to achieve sexual satisfaction through females and thus conform to commit the act of rape. On the other hand, the majority of the rapists as Merton described and American Statistics Bureau also confirmed are drug abusers and therefore resort to rape forcefully when they are not in their senses due to overdose. (Egan, 2012) This group is related to Retreatism who is dissatisfied with their family lives and subsequently engages in rape activity. Merton’s Strain theory acknowledges the deviant behavior while dating in which they commit rape as an alternative where men routinely initiate their sexual behavior. On the other hand, victims show Ritualism as they do not report the trauma they face in the hands of offenders. (Egan, 2012) Besides, an insidious myth that is associated with female rape victims around the United States is the blame that females who drink are deserved to be raped which is relevant to Merton’s Ritualism. The variables in such cases are usually associated with the societal strain such as fear, rage, power, and lack of self-control which conform to Merton’s adaptations of Rebellion, Retreatism, and Innovation to satisfy offender’s dissatisfaction through violent rape act.
The research confirms the relevance with Merton’s Strain theory and its adaptations that individuals who commit rape and robbery fit the patterns argued by Merton which individuals use through legitimate or illegitimate means to achieve their goals. In addition, through the categorization of individuals according to Merton’s adaptations of Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism, and Rebellion, the reasons and the motivations which encourage people to commit robbery and rape are also sought in the study.
Egan, R., & Wilson, J. C. (2012). Rape Victims’ Attitudes to Rape Myth Acceptance. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 19(3), 345–357. https://doi.org/10.1080/13218719.2011.585128
Anderson, J. F. (2007). Criminal justice and criminology: terms, concepts, and cases. Lanham Univ. Press Of America.
Vito, G. F., & Maahs, J. R. (2021). Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy: Theory, Research, and Policy. Jones & Bartlett Learning.