October 14, 2008

Merton's Strain Theory, Crime, and My Pants

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When it comes to explaining crime and deviance, there are a couple theories that sociologists always teach, and one of them is Merton’s strain theory. Robert Merton (1910-2003) was probably the foremost American sociologist. His strain theory starts with the general assumption that societies provide both culturally-valued goals and culturally-valued means. The goals are based on shared assumptions in a society about what people should strive i.e., what constitutes success. Here in the U.S. it’s the American Dream—good paying job, nice house, couple of kids, and new cars. The means are how you’re supposed to obtain the goals. Here in the U.S. the narrative for success emphasizes hard work and education. Basically, the story is that if you work hard, go to school, then you can become anything that you want.


Things get interesting, according to Merton, when there is an imbalance between the goals and the means. Specifically, when society doesn’t provide the means to everyone to accomplish the goals it sets out for them. This means that there are some people in society who are aiming for something that they probably can’t obtain. The result of this, according to Merton, is something called strain, an unpleasant emotional condition. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what goes on in the body with strain, but it seems to be a mixture of angst, stress, and feeling pissed off.

Once someone feels this strain, there are a handful of ways they can deal with it and some responses to strain can result in criminal behavior. In Merton’s terms, one can react to strain by conforming. This means that the person accepts both the goals and the means of society and just plods along doing what they’re supposed to get ahead. Another response is ritualism. Here the person gives up on the goals of society, accepting that he/she will never obtain them, but continues on with the means. 

Say a person gives up on the American Dream, but they continue to show up for work every day just the same. Retreatism involves rejecting both the goals and the means. For example, one might just drop out of society, giving up on everything. Rebellion also involves rejecting goals and means, but rebellion, as opposed to retreatism, which entails finding new goals and new means to obtain them. Finally, innovation is accepting society’s goals but coming up with new means of obtaining them, means that society doesn’t approve of. This, commonly, leads to deviance and crime.

To illustrate each of these responses to strain, which Merton termed “modes of adaptation” (BTW, I think that we sociologists get paid more when we come up with fancy terms), let’s consider a simple act of student deviance: cheating on an exam. College students are supposed to get good grades and graduate—this is their culturally-valued goals. They are supposed to do this by studying hard and learning lots—other culturally valued goals. Merton’s vision of conformity, then, happens when students do just this, when they study hard, get good grades, and graduate. 

What happens, though, when students aren’t able to accomplish the goals set out for them? Well, they could just keep on going to class and studying, even though they do badly and have little hope of being an academic success. This is ritualism. They could also just give up on everything and stay in their dorm rooms playing video games and partying. This would be retreatism. They could redefine the goals and means of college—that it’s about making a social change rather than learning, and so they might get into the protest scene. This would be rebellion. Finally, they could hold onto visions of academic success but achieve it with disapproved means such as cheating at tests or plagiarizing papers. This would be innovation.

clip_image004Okay, so far I’ve given you a fairly standard presentation of strain theory, but I wonder if we can broaden its application to a wider array of goals and means, including cultural tastes and fashions. What got me thinking about this, and what is the impetus of so much in my life, is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. You see, I love to eat ice cream, especially on hot summer days (though winter days work just fine as well). As a result, I gained weight but I didn’t notice because I wore shorts all summer. Now that it’s autumn, though I have discovered that none off my long pants fit me anymore. What should I do? As a sociologist, I ask WWMD (What would Merton do)? And so I turn to strain theory for alternatives. 

The culturally-valued goal here is looking slim, and the culturally-valued means are eating well and exercising regularly. Conformity, then, would entail a healthy, fit life style in which I’m looking good and my pants will fit me. Ritualism would be continuing to say that I’m on a diet but not really changing. Retreatism would be just giving up and living in sweat pants or maybe buying bigger pants. Innovation would be to get some sort of surgery or maybe wear a girdle. Rebellion would be to cast down the tyranny of fashion expectations and just wear shorts all year around (which is a bit of a challenge in New England).

What will I do? Oh, the strain of it all.


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Funny, I was just listening to BBC's Thinking Allowed podcast for last week, and they separately discussed obesity and Durkheim. Coincidence?

Hm-m-m-m, maybe we should do a treatment of all sociological theorists as they relate to weight gain!

Hi! I really enjoyed reading your story. In my online sociology class this week, I've learned about social control (ways to encourage conformity to society's norms) and your article supplemented what I've already learned. I also enjoyed reading about Merton's strain theory because I've never heard of it before and never really thought about society that way. Thanks!

I have also learned alot and am in an online study of sociology . I apply these therories to the nursing process and they fit well. PS: I like ben and jerry's too

thanks for this info. now i understand wat my son is experiencing, but what can one do to motivate him now that we identified the strain factor...
basically he is in the retreat theory..
not willing to take the next level to see what his actual potential is...

I enjoiyed reading ur blog.

I have learned that the strain theory is that deviiance is more likely to happen when there is a gap between goals and the ability to achieve those goals. I enjoyed reading your story on it also, and your story added great information about this topic.

This article charms in its simple rehash of Merton’s Strain Theory. Coupled with the humorous ice cream and too fat for pants analogy an old yet tried and true theory gains an unusual foothold. From the point of view of sociologists, finding new perspectives for viewing honored theories keeps the material fresh in our minds. Where else can we categorize the facts into Merton’s theory? What new application, new angle can be found? Examples of deviance according to society’s goals and means are seemingly infinite as really everyone in at least some small way is an innovator, a ritualist, a retreatist, a rebel, and a conformist.
This article intrigued me because I was once in many ways the perfect conformist. And yet for all of my conformity, security was still ephemeral. I went to college. I went to graduate school. I worked hard at my studies. I passed the most difficult state exam on the first try. Follow the rules and do everything by the book, conformist par excellence! I became a commodity. Employers fawned over me. Each new move to a new job was a large jump in salary. I was pursued and dogged by potential employers. It was the American Dream come true. I had an elite zip code, three vehicles, eating out and so on.
Then the Governator was elected. He had a bone to pick with my specialty. He went after my industry with a vengeance! And he won! The industry crumbled, a sinking ship, all was lost due to the whim of the politicians.
This was not an act of conformity on the part of the Governator. No! This was a full frontal attack, a search and destroy mission. As they say in India “what to do?” In a normal world a lateral move may be possible, but not in a sinking economy where all sectors of the profession are filled with pink slips. What to do when the socially approved goal is suddenly removed and scrapped? Is not the means also invalidated? Is society dictating that one accept the bitter retreatist pill? Or? Rebel!! Out of the dust and ashes rises the Phoenix! The hero who rebels against retreat and creates new goals, new means, new norms! I just have to make sure my wings are not made of wax!


I believe ritualism would be more than just "saying" you're on a diet. According to Merton, ritualism involves adherence to norms despite lack of commitment to the culturally accepted goals associated with the behavior. This would mean doing the culturally acceptable thing (eating healthfully) even though you no longer foresee reaching your weight loss goal. You go through the motions without a real emotional commitment.

Innovation might include behaviors associated with bulimia or anorexia; these are not culturally acceptable methods for weight loss, while girdles, liposuction and bariatric surgery have had some measure of acceptance in our society.

This is probably the most down to earth explanation of Merton's Strain Theory that I have heard in a while. Since I am also studying for a test, your explanation should help when it comes to the test. Thank you very much

well explained article.

I normally dont post any comment at any article read after getting any necessary information needed but I think you are awesome!!!!!!!!!!!! It was not bored at all I actually ready twice

Merton strain theory is still fundamental,since it gives us a better understanding in our daily life

Helpful for my assignment. I got idea from you article. Thanks a lot.

Hello there! I really appreciate this post. I am currently studying Social Deviation, particularly on Strain Theory. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

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