Article Review: Robert K. Merton's Anomie and Social Strain Theory

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Social Strain

Robert K. Merton's Social Strain Theory: Twentieth Century Developments and Adjustments to Theory

Though crime and prisons have existed in one form or another for many millennia of human history -- indeed, since at least the dawn of recorded history and probably since long before then -- these elements of society were not made the focus of specific study or examination until the nineteenth century. Since that time, there have been many differing explanations proffered for why crime exists and how prison and penal systems can best be designed so as to effectively dissuade criminal behaviors through punitive measures and/or the rehabilitative of criminals once they have been imprisoned. Some theorists place the blame for criminal acts solely on the individual criminal, while others see large-scale social problems as the primary reason that certain individuals and/or segments of society turn to crime.

One large school of theories that puts a social cause at the root of most or all criminal behavior is known as social strain theory. There are actually many different variations and interpretation of this theory, yet one of the earliest and most respected enunciations of a social strain theory comes from Robert K. Merton, who first put forth his theory in the 1930s. Since that time, many other theorists have contributed to the growth and adaptation of this theory in light of new evidence and convergence with other theories. This review will analyze research articles from throughout the twentieth century in order to outline the progress and impact of Merton's social strain theory of society and criminal behavior.

Review

In his 1938 paper "Social Strain and Anomie," Merton lays out his theory in a very clear and succinct manner: "certain phases of social structure generate the circumstances in which infringement of social codes constitutes a 'normal' response" (p. 672). In other words, there are certain factors and movements that occur within a society that make subversive or criminal behavior and expected and "normal" part of the functioning of that society, meaning both that some sort of subversive element is all but unavoidable in any society, and that particular societal forces can increase these subversive elements and impetuses (Merton 1938). This theory was in marked contrast to prevailing theories at the time, which generally posited a biological force behind criminality, and thus marked a very valuable new direction in social research generally and the field of criminology specifically.

By the 1960s, theories of social strain had become well-engrained in the research community, and these theories were gaining in their specificity and their adaptability to different societies and time periods. William J. Goode (1960) suggests in his version of this theory that it is strain experienced in social roles more than anything else that actually helps keep society stable and "normal," as it is through the struggle to fulfill and maintain roles rather than in a stasis of attainment that societies progress. Clearly, role and social strain has moved beyond a mere explanation for criminal and/or subversive behavior, and is in fact seen at this point as a potential explanation for the entire fabric of human society (Goode 1960).

Another study conducted in the same decade and along the same lines found that the level of job stress and role strain that an individual experienced was in large part predicated upon the number of different role interactions and relationships that they were expected to undertake and take part in as part of their daily lives and the fulfillment of their own roles (Snoek 1966). This suggests that, rather than being a wholly normative feature, there are varying levels of role and social strain that are experienced based on a variety of large-scale and individual-level social factors (Snoek 1966). This research also seems to suggest that these varying degrees of role strain can create different perceptions of situations and thus lead to different actions, which ties in quite neatly with Merton's (1938) original (1938) theory of increased social strain leading to subversive actions (Snoek 1966).

By 1985, social strain theory had developed considerably, with the most prominent and consistent theories promoting the idea that strain was created by social barriers to goal achievement, which led to delinquency or criminality in response (Agnew 1985). One researcher points out that for adolescents specifically, the blockage of pain-avoidance behaviors such as being trapped in an abusive family relationship can also contribute to delinquency and criminality (Agnew 1985). This theory did not and does not refute in whole or in part earlier or contemporary social strain theories, but rather enlarges and enhances them by providing evidence of specific strains and the ways in which they contribute to subversive yet "normal" behaviors in a specific segment of a society's population.

In addition to all of the agreement that Merton's theory found with other subsequent researchers, of course, there have also been theorists that entirely disagreed with social strain theories as an explanation for criminality or subversive behavior for various reasons. By 1987, theories had emerged that were not wholly separate from social strain theory but that proposed individual relationships rather than aggregate relationships with certain social elements as an explanation for turning to criminal or subversive behaviors (Bernard 1987). Certain theorists and researchers also determined that they could prove Merton's theory of social strain false using aggregate data, and that although individual data could not falsify these aggregate theories of social strain and subversive behavior it could be shown that individual relationships showed a better fit to reality than aggregate relationships (Bernard 1987).

Continuing this trend, Burton et al. (1994) examined three different competing standards of measurement applied in different variations of social strain theory that had developed to this point. This research supported some of the earlier findings in social strain theory research, namely that perceptions of blocked opportunity and relative deprivation are highly correlated with criminal offenses in adults, while gaps in aspirations and expectations are not adequate measures in social strain frameworks of criminal behavior (Burton et al. 1994). This particular study also found, however, that other factors such as low self-control and social bonding problems were much more highly correlated with criminal offenses, and negated any effects proposed by social strain theories (Burton et al. 1994).

A much more recent study attempted to determine a link between several common features identified as causal of criminal behaviors by prominent social strain theories, and found that ethical standards were positively associated with income amongst self-employed individuals, but negatively associated with educational level and association membership (De Clercq & Dakhil 2009). That is, the higher an individual's educational level was and/or the more extensive there memberships in certain professional and societal organizations was, the lower their ethical standards were observed to be (De Clercq & Dakhil 2009). This seems to run counter to findings in previous research supporting social strain theory, which has found that the more socially accepted and successful an individual is, the less likely they are to exhibit subversive, criminal, or unethical behavior (De Clercq & Dakhil 2009).

All in all, the findings of the research into social strain theory throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century has contained very mixed results. From the different and often directly oppositional theories and conclusions that have been formulated, it might seem as though no real useful progress has been made in the area of social or role strain theory as an explanation from criminality and subversive (yet "normal") behavior. This is not actually representative of reality, however, and a close examination of the various studies and their progression shows that very real advances have been made, even if the answers derived now are no more certain than they were the better part of a century ago. Social sciences are not as concrete as the hard sciences, but no scientific progression is ever really linear.

The Progress of Social Strain Theory

The 1920s and to a large extent the 1930s were decades when theories of "social Darwinism" were rampant, asserting that some people were simply naturally better-equipped to survive in society, and that there was some sort of natural right to greater levels of success that did not have to be shared with those less naturally endowed. This can be seen in many of the theories that Merton (1938) was denouncing in the development and promulgation of his social strain theory. Merton, instead of ascribing criminality and subversive behavior to the frustrated impulses of individuals not biologically equipped for success in society, saw it as a natural and normal reaction to being relegated to certain positions within society, and having goal attainment blocked by social barriers (Merton 1938). This essentially framed the debate in this area to some degree for the next seven decades.

By the 1960s, society was seen as something that needed to truly work together, without simply dismissing certain individuals or classes out of hand in the way that biological theories of criminal behavior tended to do. Social strain had begun to be seen as something normative… [END OF PREVIEW]

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