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Merton's Strain Theory: Definition & Examples

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

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

Expert Contributor
Christianlly Cena

Christianlly has taught college physics and facilitated laboratory courses. He has a master's degree in Physics and is pursuing his doctorate study.

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).

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Additional Activities

Merton's Strain Theory True or False Activity

This activity will help you assess your knowledge of the definition and examples of the strain theory.

Directions

Determine whether the following statements are true or false. To do this, print or copy this page on a blank paper and underline or circle the answer.

1. The strain theory states that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals.

True | False

2. When individuals feel strained, their course of action would fall between four modes of adaptation.

True | False

3. According to Merton, not everyone who wants conventional success has the opportunity to obtain it.

True | False

4. Conformists go through their everyday life and find salvation in mediocre goals.

True | False

5. Stealing and other forms of street crime are unconventional ways of achieving a culturally approved goal.

True | False

6. The homeless, as Merton suggested, are people who choose to cut themselves off from the world.

True | False

7. Retreatists are the persons who form a counterculture supporting alternatives to the existing social order.

True | False

8. Society does not provide the means to achieve cultural goals as stated by Merton.

True | False

9. A person who resists an established authority, often violently, is known as a rebel.

True | False

10. Richard Merton was one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century who developed the strain theory.

True | False


Answer Key

  1. True
  2. False, because the correct statement is, When individuals feel strained, their course of action would fall between five modes of adaptation.
  3. True
  4. False, because the correct statement is, Ritualists go through their everyday life and find salvation in mediocre goals.
  5. True
  6. True
  7. False, because the correct statement is, Rebels are the persons who form a counterculture supporting alternatives to the existing social order.
  8. True
  9. True
  10. False, because the correct statement is, Robert Merton was one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century who developed the strain theory.

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