Merton's Strain Theory: Definition & Examples

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Low-Balling Technique in Psychology: Definition & Overview

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:03 Definition
  • 0:37 Typology of Deviance
  • 1:15 Merton's Modes of Adaptation
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

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.

Strain Theory: Definition

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).

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account