Merton's Strain Theory: Definition, Examples & Quiz

  • 0:03 Definition
  • 0:37 Typology of Deviance
  • 1:15 Merton's Modes of Adaptation
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

Robert Merton (1910-2003) argued that society may be set up in a way that encourages too much deviance. Learn more about Robert Merton's strain theory and test your knowledge with a quiz.


Robert Merton, who lived from 1910-2003, argued that society may be set up in a way that encourages too much deviance. Merton believed that when societal norms, or socially accepted goals, such as the 'American Dream,' place pressure on the individual to conform, they force the individual to either work within the structure society has produced, or instead become members of a deviant subculture in an attempt to achieve those goals. Merton termed this theory strain theory. Let's take a look at the theory's most important characteristics.

Typology of Deviance and Examples

Merton's main concern was that societies, such as the United States, do not provide the means to achieve cultural goals. For example, for citizens to achieve the American Dream, society needs to provide access to education, employment, etc., and Merton felt that the United States wasn't doing a good enough job. When individuals are faced with a gap between 'what ought to be' and 'what is,' they will feel strained and have a choice between five modes of adaptation.

Merton's Modes of Adaptation

Strain Theory

Conformity involves pursuing cultural goals through approved means. Conformists have accepted the goals of society and the societally-approved ways of attaining them. The 'American Dream,' for example, is financial security through talent, schooling, and above all, hard work. The problem, as Merton saw it, is that not everyone who wants conventional success has the opportunity to obtain it.

According to Merton, the strain between our culture's emphasis on wealth and the lack of opportunities for success may encourage some people, especially the poor, to engage in stealing, selling drugs, and other forms of street crime. Merton called this type of deviance innovation, using unconventional means (dealing drugs) to achieve a culturally approved goal (financial security).

Another mode of adaptation, ritualism, is also prompted by an inability to reach cultural goals. In this mode, individuals reject the societal goals and instead work toward less lofty goals by institutionally approved means. For example, one may treat a job as a form of security instead of using the job as a means to achieve success. A person who goes through the motions of college, but has no real desire to use his or her education to realize the 'American Dream,' would be another example. Ritualists go through the motions of everyday life and find salvation in scaled-down ambitions.

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