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Strain Theory by Robert Merton | An Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2648 words Published: 18th Jul 2018

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In criminology, the strain theory describes social structures inside society that may support people to carry out crime. Following the work of Emile Durkheim, Strain Theories have been supported by Robert King Merton, Albert K. Cohen, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, Robert Agnew, and Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld. Strain may be either:

Structural: this applies to the procedures at the community level which break down and impact how one judges their requirements, i.e. if specific social controls are insufficient or there is little regulation, this may alter the individual’s outlook as to methods and prospects; or

Individual: This term represents the hostility and barriers faced by persons as they look for ways to fulfill their needs or desires, i.e. if the norms of a society become important to a person, in fact accomplishing them may become more significant than the methods.

The History of Strain Theory

Strain theory was created from the work of Durkheim and Merton and derived from the theory of anomie. Durkheim concentrated on the reduction of societal control and the strain that was caused at the individual level, and Merton analyzed the cultural connection that is present between the individual and the standards of society. Anomie can be split into two separate levels. The first of these levels is the macro side of anomie, which is apparent in the capacity of society to establish restrictions on societal norms and goals, and ultimately control an individual’s conduct. The micro side of anomie, also called as strain theory, is focused on the motives underlying the bigger probability of deviance that accumulates from the breakdown of society. In accordance with this micro side of anomie, the reduction in societal controls generates more desire to perform deviant actions (Agnew & Passas, 1997:2-3).

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Agnew and Passas (1997) dealt with the similarities between the macro level of anomie and control theory; however, they claimed that the micro level theory of strain should be judged in a distinct way different from the control theory. Agnew (1992:48) also contrasted and compared strain theory to control theory and social learning theory. The theories vary in the kind of social relationships that they emphasize and the motivations on which they are established. The control theory hinges on the notion that the breakdown of society frees the individual to carry out crime; strain theory is motivated on the strain that is put on the person to carry out crime (Agnew, 1992). Social learning theory is founded on the fundamentals from a group that bring about a constructive or positive view of crime (Agnew, 1992). In accordance with strain theory, individual deviance is created due to negative treatment from others, and this causes anger and disappointment (Agnew, 1997a). Control theory, though, is founded on the lack of significant relationships with non-deviant others, i.e. family, church, and social learning theory is based on positive interactions with other that are considered deviant. (Agnew, 1992).

The attractiveness of strain/anomie theory began in the late 1960’s owing to the need of data presented by analysts and the political and social environment of the decade (Agnew & Passas, 1997). The lack of supporting evidence can be due to many deficiencies in the original methods used by the analysts (Agnew & Passas, 1997). Generalization of the theory and an ignorance of the earlier revisions caused a body of work that distorted the original definition of anomie/strain theory (Agnew & Passas, 1997). Together with these deficiencies, modern theorists have claimed that empirical evidence in fact supports the theory (Agnew, Cullen, Burton, Evans, & Gregory 1996).

Merton’s Strain Theory: Economic Goals, Educational Means & Delinquency

In the history of modern criminology, few theories have realized the impact of Merton’s (1983) theory of strain and deviance. It has withstood a half-century despite a sizeable amount of literature opposed to its theoretical basis. Disillusionment with its empirical verification, on the other hand, has caused many to discard it as a possible explanation for delinquency (Hirschi, 1969; Johnson, 1979; Kornhauser, 1978).

In view of the fact that the strain theory incorporates both mental and structural account for crime, its dismissal would be a critical loss to criminology. Together with reservations about the significance of social class in the birth of crime, the denial of Merton’s theory of structurally induced strain could create a typical shift toward theories of individual behavior lacking structural context. The historical significance and unique contribution of strain theory deserves a re-examination before its final rejection.

Merton’s original explanation of strain was criticized for its theoretical uncertainty (Cohen, 1955; Lindesmith & Gagnon, 1964). For instance, Merton gave examples of deviance perhaps linked with different methods of adjustment although he did not offer any statements regarding the methods by which each adaptive method might impact various crime results (Clinard, 1964a).

The consequences of this type of vagueness are apparent in trials for the research of strain impacts on juvenile delinquency. The theory appears to mean that innovation causes utilitarian kinds of delinquency although does not state whether strain clarifies common kinds of juvenile crime for example sabotage or personal crimes of a non-utilitarian character (Gibbons & Jones, 1975; Thio, 1975).

The theory is implied as to whether strain should foresee crime prevalence or frequency or both, or critical against non-critical types.

Akers’ operationalization of Agnew’s theory: Sources of strain

Akers (2000) has operationalized Agnew’s version of the Strain Theory, as follows:

“Failure to achieve positively valued goals: the gap between expectations and actual achievements will derive from short- and long-term personal goals, and some of those goals will never be realized because of unavoidable circumstances including both inherent weaknesses and opportunities blocked by others; and the difference between the view of what a person believes the outcome should be and what actually results increases personal disappointment. Frustration is not necessarily due to any outside interference with valued goals, but a direct effect on anger, and has indirect effects on serious crime and aggression. Agnew and White (1992) have produced empirical evidence suggesting that general strain theory was positively able to relate delinquents and drug users, and that the strongest effect on the delinquents studied was the delinquency of their peers. They were interested in drug use because it did not appear to represent an attempt to direct anger or escape pain, but “is used primarily to manage the negative affect caused by strain.”‘

Up to this stage, strain theory had been related with types of strain as opposed to sources of strain while the stress of one’s surroundings can be shown to involve with the expectations of just and fair results. These may be major events or minor “hassles” that build up and discourage over time. Frustration causes disappointment, bitterness, and anger – all the emotions normally linked with strain in criminology. It is normal for persons to feel pain when they are refused fair compensations for their efforts, especially when measured against the endeavors and compensations given to others for similar results. Agnew (1992) deals with anger as the most decisive emotion as it is almost always aimed outwards and is generally linked to breakdowns in relationships. Study shows that the stress/crime relationship seems to hold regardless of guilt emotions, age, and capacity to deal with when events take place simultaneously or in close sequence.

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Robert Agnew

In 1992, Agnew maintained that strain theory could be fundamental in describing crime and deviance, however that it required review so that it was not attached to social class or cultural standards; however, re-focused on self standards. He mapped out a general strain theory that is neither structural nor interpersonal; however, emotional and motivated on an individual’s direct social status. He claimed that an individual’s concrete or anticipated failure to realize positively valued objectives, actual or expected removal of positive values, and actual or anticipated presentation of negative motivation all results in strain.

Strain appears from negative relationships with others. If persons are not dealt in the way that they anticipate or want to be dealt, they will lose their trust in the role others play for achieving goals. Anger and disappointment support unconstructive relationships. This will generally involve more one-sided action since there will be an innate wish to avoid unwanted rejections, supporting more general isolation. If specific rejections are general feelings that the situation is unjust or unfair, stronger and more negative feelings may inspire the person to engage in crime. This is especially true for younger people, and Agnew proposed that study concentrate on the overall , currency, duration, and grouping of such stressful events to find out whether a person deal with strain in a criminal or compliant way. He especially found temperament, intelligence, factors interpersonal skills, relationship with criminal peers and conservative social support important factors of self-efficacy.

Robert Dubin

Dubin (1959) judged deviance as a task of society, disputing the hypothesis that the deviant action resulting from circumstances of anomie is essentially damaging to society. For instance, a person in the ritualistic environment is still playing by the regulations and contributing to society. The only deviance lies in discarding one or more of its prescribed objectives. Dubin maintained that Merton’s concentration on the interactions between society’s stressed objectives, and institutionalized agreed methods was insufficient.

Dubin thought an added difference should be made between cultural objectives, organizational methods and organizational standards since individuals identify standards individually, explaining them and operating them in a different way. The individual educational skills, principles, and behaviors may influence a person to internalize a norm one way. Another individual with different experiences may justifiably internalize in a different way. Both may be doing realistically in their own terms; however, the behavior is different.

Dubin also expanded Merton’s classification to fourteen, with particular focus in Innovation and Ritualism. Merton put forward that the new response to strain was linking the objective, although discarding the organizing agreed methods of realizing the objective. The connotation appeared to be that not only did the person discard the methods, he must vigorously innovate unlawful methods as a replacement which would not always be correct.

Dubin also believed that a difference should be made between the real behavior of the individual and the principles that pushed the behavior. Rather than Innovation, Dubin put forward Behavioral Innovation and Value Innovation. Likewise, in Ritualism, he put forward Behavioral Ritualism and Value Ritualism (Dubin, 1959). Merton (1959) remarked on Dubin’s changes, claiming that although Dubin did make suitable contributions, they took the motivations off of deviancy.

Operationalizing Strain for Juveniles

Merton termed strain as an individual’s response to a dysfunction between objectives and accessibility to the socially accepted methods for their achievement. Merton’s original writings (1938; 1957) appear to spell out clearly that economic wealth is a principal goal in the meritocratic society and that education is the conservative ways for realizing wealth. At present, for instance, a college degree is usually considered as a minimum requirement for entry to a good job or professional job. Strain would be possible when a person is firmly dedicated to making much wealth nevertheless considers college as outside attainment. It is thought that structurally induced strain amongst juveniles would be considered correctly as the dysfunction between economic objectives and hopes for finishing college.

On the contrary, the preferential operationalization of strain in delinquency researches has been the difference between educational aims and hopes. The argument for using this evaluation is that job expectations are less helpful as objectives for juveniles since these expectations are too far removed from their conscious concerns (Agnew, 1986, 1984; Elliott, Huizinga, & Ageton, 1985). This normally used measure deviates considerably from Merton’s theory. If strain is redefined completely in the field of education, the educational methods in Merton’s original theory become both objectives and methods, and the central theoretical significance of economic objectives is lost.

The basis for this version of strain for juveniles is challenging. Although juveniles may have trouble in thinking about future jobs, their financial aspirations may be strong and clear. For both hypothetical and rational motives, as a result, juvenile strain is a product of the dysfunction between economic objectives and educational prospects rather than as a dysfunction between educational aims and prospects.


In 1969, Hirschi proposed within a control outlook that high expectations to customary objectives performed as limitations on delinquency (1969) and that the calculation of a measure of strain would not enhance the descriptive competence of dedication alone. As against the strain position that high expectations in the presence of low expectations raise the chances of delinquency, Hirschi (1969) presumed that “the (negative) relation between aspirations and delinquency” (supportive of control theory) “does not reverse when expectations are held constant”. His assessment using educational expectations showed that while higher goals reduced the chance of delinquency in his sample, differences in educational expectations are not significant in the causation of delinquency for two reasons: few boys in the sample have expectations considerably beyond their expectations; and those boys whose expectations far exceed their expectations are at no greater risk to be delinquent than those boys whose expectations are the same (1969).

More researches by Liska (1971) with several data sets strengthened Hirschi’s result. Similar to Hirschi, Liska computed juvenile strain as the dysfunction between educational expectations and reported results showing that Merton’s “stress proposition” might be interpreted more simply by dedication or control theory. Therefore the most overwhelming criticism of strain theory relates to its noticeable failure in empirical research, mainly its failure in relation to control theory (Johnson, 1979; Kornhauser, 1978). In contrast, the majority of the studies supporting such results ignored the importance of economic success objectives in creating strain (Bernard, 1984). Hirschi recognized the possible value of income expectations in testing control and strain proposals (1969). His and Liska’s denial of strain theory, though, depended on the assessment of objectives and methods as educational expectations


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