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Robert Merton’s Strain Theory in Criminology

In the United States, there are an increasing number of juvenile offenders and the country also has one of the highest incidences of serious crime. Studies show that the causes of such criminal behavior are rooted in a complex set of psychological, social, and economic factors. Clinical studies have uncovered that emotional disturbances caused by domestic issues can also lead to crime and other studies show that there are consistent patterns of crime in regions where the poor people live (CE, 25474). Shaw (1929) observed that it was the nature of neighborhoods and not the nature of individuals who lived there that determined the levels of criminality. He wrote “In this state of social disorganization community resistance is low. Delinquency and criminal patterns arise and are transmitted socially just as any other cultural and social pattern is transmitted. In time these delinquent patterns become dominant and shape the attitudes and behavior of persons living in the area” (Shaw, 1929, pp. 205-6). Shaw and McKay (1942) hypothesized that criminal nature was learned and passed on through generations in cultural form (Muncie, 101). Thus, it can be said that the social conditions in which they live are often the reason why young adults resort to crime. Robert Merton (1947), the father of classic strain theory, holds that society creates within its members a desire for upward mobility by achieving certain goals and also the means by which these goals may be achieved. However, if a person is not able to reach his goals through proper ways, anomie or strain sets in, which in turn compels the individual to violate the law in order to attain these goals (Walters, 1). Thus Robert Merton’s Strain theory explains the link between crime and adverse social conditions and how the former may be precipitated by the latter.

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Strain theory has its foundations in Emile Durkheim’s (1938) anomie concept according to which traditional social norms and rules are broken as a result of adverse social conditions. According to Merton, lower class individuals are especially prone to strain because it is more difficult for them to attain their goals than middle class respondents. Thus, social class and poverty levels are all factors related to crime according to the strain theory. “Strain theory is a perspective developed by Robert Merton that suggests that individuals experience frustration or strain from their inability to realize their aspirations” (Hickey, p. 20). Merton explains that in the United States, people are expected to earn money and become rich and are judged according to their economic well being. This means there is a cultural goal of material wealth. The approved legitimate way to accumulate money would be to work hard, delay gratification and play by the rules. Sometimes, some individuals face obstacles on their path to their goals. They experience strain due to factors such as racism, class biases or other structural barriers that block their culturally approved means to their goals. To overcome this perceived strain, Merton says people adapt in different ways such as conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion. Innovation explains violence in a plausible manner (Hickey, p. 20). When a person is unable to get a good job or work hard to become rich, the innovator will find shortcuts to financial success by physically taking money from others through criminal acts such as bank robbery, mugging, or convenience store holdups. Practically, one can see that society does not really bother about how one makes the money, just that one has money. It’s about reaching the American Dream and not about how exactly an individual attains the dream. Strain theory seems to imply the old saying “The end justifies the means”. The desire to get rich is culturally ingrained in a person as a goal to be achieved in life and this is more ingrained in society than the culturally approved means of getting a good education and working hard. Therefore the strain theory explains why many individuals use crime and violence as a means to satisfy their desires for wealth (Hickey, p. 20).

Merton’s theory assumes that humans are basically conforming beings who resort to illegitimate means only when the disjunction between goals and means becomes so great that the individual loses his belief to successfully pursue and reach his goals via legitimate channels. Thus strain theories would hold that society and certain social variables are responsible for people becoming criminals in the world today. According to Merton, the main background to crime is the society that places more emphasis on goals rather than the means to these goals and hinders the individual’s progress in legal paths towards the goals, thereby creating a situation that would promote anomie and future criminality. It has been long felt by strain theorists that the tendency of a person to resort to criminal behavior will decline once the person is protected from the social variables causing him frustration. However, when this hypothesis was scientifically tested with high school dropouts, the results showed that people who were removed from the source of negative influence, namely the school, showed increasing criminal nature upon leaving school (Shavit & Rattner, 1988).

Classical strain theorists include Merton (1938), Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960). Their explanations were similar and they focused on the inability of adolescents to attain the status goals or long range economic goals or the American Dream through socially legitimated processes. According to these theorists, the image of delinquency would be one of the urban youth from a disenfranchised ethnic or racial group, who is systematically denied opportunities for progress due to discrimination and capitalistic motivations (Mooradian, p. 38). This brings the issue of race in the discussion of juvenile delinquency. Newer versions of strain theory (Elliot and Voss, 1974; Greenberg, 1977 and Empey, 1985) replace the hindering of long range goals with focus on more immediate short term goals such as popularity with peers, academic success, athletic achievement and having reasonable relationships with adults. As success in achieving these types of goals may be varied on a daily basis, there can be greater variability in delinquent behavior when compared to earlier formulation of strain theory. A more recent version of strain theory includes the role of blocking from avoidance of painful or aversive agents (Agnew, 1985). This means when a person is unable to use legitimate methods to avoid unpleasant life circumstances, he may select illegal escape attempts (Mooradian, p. 38).

Cloward and Ohlin (1960) have extended the strain theory by arguing that delinquency is more as an act of rebellion against blocked social opportunities rather than as a means of achieving culturally approved goals. According to Cloward and Ohlin, due to lack of social opportunities, the deprived youth bond together and form delinquent gangs. This gives them a kind of social status that was not obtainable from conventional means in society. According to Cloward and Ohlin, criminality is caused by lack of access to legitimate income-earning activities and lack of access to illegitimate opportunities as well. Cloward and Ohlin’s theory gives rise to the possibility that economic stress may have just as strong an effect on non-acquisitive crime such as rape or drugs as on acquisitive property crime such as robbery. According to Cohen (1955) lower-class socialization equips lower-class boys less adequately than their middle-class counterparts for success in school and this results in a sense of personal failure reinforced by stigmatization at the hands of teachers and more successful students. Moreover, juveniles from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to do poorly at school and poor school performance is universally found to be highly correlated with juvenile involvement in crime (Weatherburn and Lind, p. 8).

Traditionally, variables like age, race, and gender have been considered “the most consistent predictors of both criminality and victimization” (McShane and Williams, 12). Criminality in the context of age and gender is described as young and male. The fact that it is young and predominantly male is seen in the way violence is filtering into American college and university campuses, high schools, junior high schools, and even elementary schools (Bennett-Johnson, 2003). In earlier times, crime and violence at the public school would have been limited to petty thefts and drugs. But more recently, the crime at school level has expanded to include rape, robbery, murder, arson, and many other heinous crimes; much like the crimes within the larger society (Bennett-Johnson, 1997a; Bennett-Johnson, 1997b). Apart from race and gender, race has been thought to be a predictor of criminality as well. But to what extent race contributes towards criminality can be known only through analysis of complex relationships such as socioeconomics, criminal history, neighborhoods and education. Studies show that are strong correlations between lower socioeconomic status and delinquency and factors such as poor parental supervision, low parental reinforcement, and males with low levels of family activity are all related to increased levels of delinquency. (McShane and Williams, p. 18). This implies that races that have low socioeconomic status are likely to be more associated with crime.

Statistics show that since 2001, the United States has had approximately 22.9 million property crime (73%), with 8.1 million (26%) crimes of violence and over 20,000 victims of family violence involving children. Crime and violence among juveniles are increasing day by day according to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001 (Bennett Johnson, 199). Moreover it has been found that urban environments tend to have higher poverty rates and consequently more crime. Of the various types of crimes, the most frequent delinquent event has been found to be property crime and was committed most frequently by a black male, 15 to 17 yeas old, who lived in an urban area (McShane and Williams, p. 18).

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There is a conclusive link between low socioeconomic status or poverty and delinquency. Poverty within the urban environment is associated with joblessness and irregular employment and most of the people in these areas just idling away time or getting involved in drugs and criminal activities. Children growing up in this environment are influenced by these people and begin to use weapons, get easily provoked and find that they are unable to solve simple problems without becoming upset, etc. Such tendencies later develop into criminal nature and poor regions in urban areas have been found to have “a higher incidence of drug and alcohol abuse, concentrated poverty and various types of “deviance” such as drug use, higher incidences of teenage pregnancy and more violent crime” (Bennett- Johnson, p. 199).

Moreover, recent news headlines show that youngsters have been involved in school shootouts. This shows the great level of stress and strain they are under and if Merton’s theory were to be applied, the stress is mainly due to their lack of access to the means to achieve the goals society expects them to achieve. In one of the most shocking events of recent times, Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech committed the mass murder of 32 people and wounded 25 others in a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University campus. Cho was a South Korean national who faced a lot of bullying due to his ethnicity, inability to cope with the class and a great deal of loneliness (Apuzzo and Cohen, p. 1). These factors blocked his chances of making it big in the way American culture expected him to. Frustrated at not being able to achieve the American Dream, Cho was driven to a state of temporary insanity that cost many lives on that fateful day. This incident clearly bears proof to Merton’s Strain theory.

Delinquency or crime has always been associated in the United States with youth, the male gender, minority races such as the Afro-Americans, school performances, etc. Apart from predictors of age and gender, all the other factors are all linked to poverty. It is poverty that is behind most of the transformation of young people to criminals. Poverty denies people particularly youngsters of legitimate means to achieve economic success and sometimes even illegitimate means to achieve it. This accounts for the increasing number of property crimes in the country compared to other crimes. The deprived people resort to robbery in order to get the social status that society expects from them according to Robert Merton’s strain theory. Thus Robert Merton’s strain theory helps in understanding why young people resort to crime.

Works Cited

  1. Agnew, R. “A revised strain theory of delinquency”. Social Forces, 1985, 64, 151-167
  2. Apuzzo, M. & Cohen, S. “Va. Tech gunman seen as textbook killer”. Associated Press. 2007.
  3. Bennett-Johnson, Earnestine. “The Root of School Violence: Causes and Recommendations for a Plan of Action”. College Student Journal, Volume: 38, Issue: 2, 2004.
  4. Cloward, R. A. and Ohlin, L. E. (1960). Delinquency and opportunity. Free Press, New York.
  5. Cohen, A. Delinquent Boys. Free Press, New York, 1955
  6. Columbia Encyclopedia. Juvenile Delinquency. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.
  7. Hickey, W. Eric. Encyclopedia of Murder & Violent Crime. SAGE Publications, 200
  8. McShane, D. Marilyn and Williams, P. Frank. Youth Violence and Delinquency: Monsters and Myths. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007
  9. Mooradian, K. John. Disproportionate Confinement of African-American Juvenile Delinquents. LFB Scholarly Publishing, New York, 2003.
  10. Muncie, John (2004). Youth & crime. SAGE Publications, 2004
  11. Shavit Y., & Rattner A. “Age, Crime and the Early Life Course”. American Journal of Sociology, 1988, 93, 1457-1470.
  12. Shaw, C. R. and McKay, H. D. Juvenile Delinquency in Urban Areas. University of Chicago Press. 1942
  13. Shaw, C. R. et al. (1929). Delinquency Areas. University of Chicago Press. 1929.
  14. Walters, D. Glenn. Criminal Belief Systems: An Integrated-Interactive Theory of Lifestyles. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 2002
  15. Weatherburn, Don and Lind, Bronwyn. Delinquent-Prone Communities. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 2000

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