illegitimate businesses

Strain theory (sociology)

In criminology, the strain theory states that social structures within society may encourage citizens to commit crime. Following on the work of Émile Durkheim, Strain Theories have been advanced by Merton (1938), Cohen (1955), Cloward and Ohlin (1960), Agnew (1992), and Messner and Rosenfeld (1994). Strain may be either:

  • Structural: this refers to the processes at the societal level which filter down and affect how the individual perceives his or her needs, i.e. if particular social structures are inherently inadequate or there is inadequate regulation, this may change the individual's perceptions as to means and opportunities; or
  • Individual: this refers to the frictions and pains experienced by an individual as he or she looks for ways to satisfy his or her needs, i.e. if the goals of a society become significant to an individual, actually achieving them may become more important than the means adopted.


Strain theories are often viewed as adaptations of Durkheim's anomie concept, presented in Suicide (1897) where he outlined the causes of suicide and described a condition or malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values and an associated feeling of alienation and purposelessness. However strain theory was also pioneered independently by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Philadelphia Negro (1899), an in-depth study on African-American crime. The first part of Du Bois' criminological theory focused on the strain of the social revolution experienced by black Americans in the face of political reforms in the post-bellum U.S. as a factor in increased crime.

Strain Theories provide structural-functional explanations for criminality. A purely structural explanation demonstrates how things work, locating a process, event, or variable within a larger structure by emphasizing locations, interdependencies, distances or relations among positions in that structure. A functional explanation uses a structural explanation to analyze how interdependent parts fit into and sustain an overall system, hence demonstrating why things happen. All systems, whether mechanical or social, depend on the constituent parts working together, and any failure or "strain" on a critical part or combination of parts may cause system failure unless "repair" or replacement is done. These theories also relate to Differential Association, Social Control and Social Learning Theory.

Robert King Merton

At the time Merton's theory was developed, the United States was experiencing significant changes. At the start of the twentieth century, there had been a huge wave of immigration. America was the land of opportunity and individuals came in search of the American dream of prosperity, but found that the dream was not equally attainable by everyone. World War I was followed by the Great Depression, and twelve years later, World War II began. It would be fair to say that goals remained universal, but the means for attaining them did not.

Merton offered two theories (see Fetherstone & Deflem: 2003): a micro Strain Theory of deviant motivation and a macro Anomie Theory of social disorganization on the structural distribution of deviance. He was attempting to explain the differential crime rate between the lower and higher social classes. He posited that two social structures are involved. The first structure is culturally assigned goals and aspirations (Merton, 1938: 672). These are the things that all individuals should want and expect out of life, including both material and non-material things. The second defines the acceptable means for achieving the goals and aspirations set by society (Merton, 1938:673), e.g. obeying laws and societal norms, seeking an education, and working hard. For society to maintain a normative function, there must be a balance between aspirations and the means by which to fulfill such aspirations (Merton, 1938:673-674). According to Merton balance would occur as long as the individual felt that he or she was achieving the culturally desired goal by conforming to the “institutionally accepted mode of doing so” (Merton: 1938:674), i.e. there must be an intrinsic payoff, an internal satisfaction that one is playing by the rules and there must also be an extrinsic payoff, achieving their goals. It is also important that the culturally desired goals be achievable by legitimate means for all social classes. If the goals are not equally achievable through an accepted mode, then illegitimate means might be used to achieve the same goal. There is often a disparity between goals and means. Too much emphasis is placed on the goal and not enough emphasis is placed on achieving it through acceptable means. For some citizens there is a lack of opportunity. This leads individuals to seek out the goal by whatever means necessary. According to Merton, crime is bred through this process. Simply put, overemphasis on material success and lack of opportunity for such material success leads to crime.

In the Western societies, value is placed on those who have achieved material wealth and power, rather than judging whether the wealthy and powerful are valuable individuals. Those who do not achieve wealth are not accorded status. This lack of respect is justified as an incentive to the underachievers to follow the path to respectability through education and honest work: a route that actually limits access to wealth to the few that are able to satisfy the highest educational standards and who can then command the higher salaries and exploit the commercial opportunities that come their way. In reality, it is quicker to steal the money and use violence to get power and, if having the money and power is all that is required for high status, adopting criminal means is more efficient. Thus, there is a gap between the culturally-induced aspirations for economic success and the structurally distributed possibilities for achieving it. Merton defined this gap as "anomie" and predicted that some individuals would respond to the strain between aspiration and the lack of opportunity by indulging in criminal behaviour. The theory assumes fairly uniform economic success aspirations across social class, and it postulates that crime is concentrated among the lower classes because they have the fewest legitimate opportunities for achievement and so are the most vulnerable to this pressure or strain. Their economic aspirations are more likely to remain unfulfilled leading to frustration or demotivation. The system could be stabilized by providing rewards for non-economic pursuits, but the stress or strain toward anomie would still be operative because society prefers rewarding the winners rather than supporting the emotions of satisfaction among all who compete. This lack co-ordination between means and ends leads to limited effectiveness in the social structure in providing regularity and predictability of success, and a condition of "anomie or cultural chaos supervenes".

Typology of deviance

This classification was not inflexible. Hence, a ritualist or retreatist might intermittently innovate with small-scale criminality before lapsing. But it has proved difficult to operationalize for the purposes of research. The components of income, education, and occupation seem to be of some utility in measuring strain because they may be indicators of goal aspirations or opportunity blockage, i.e. when income expectations are not met by educational expectations, structural strain is present. These economic concerns can be hypothesized to predict an innovative pattern of involvement in crime but demonstrating that a lower class individual is more likely than a middle class individual to respond to strain through criminality is problematic. Nevertheless, some of Merton’s ideas resulted in several programs in the United States during the 1960s promoting affirmative action and equal opportunity along race and gender lines, e.g. the Kennedy administration “Mobilization for Youth” attacked social structure obstacles in a lower class Manhattan neighbourhood by making training and other support services available to improve the employment of youths from low-income families.

Albert K. Cohen

Cohen (1955) found that delinquency among youths was more prevalent among lower class males, and that the most common form was the juvenile gang. He felt that, apart from the notion of rebellion, Merton's Strain Theory did not explain purposeless crime. Cohen declared that all children seek social status, but not everyone can compete for it in the same way.

Social status

The institution of the school embodies middle class values for honesty, courtesy, personality, and responsibility, and this is where the competition takes place for status, approval, or respect. Losers in this competition for status experience strong feelings of frustration or deprivation. They are already at the bottom of the social pile, and so lack the capacity to revise their aspirations downward. Most of them adopt a "corner boy" attitude, accepting their fate, but a significant number turn to crime. Strain for Cohen is therefore not structural, but interpersonal, located at the level of group interaction. He argued that subcultures emerged out of class-based status frustration, most usually in poor urban environments, resulting in malice and opposition to those of the dominant culture. The causes were rooted in class differentials, parental aspirations and school standards given that the position of a family in the social structure determines the problems the child will later face in life. Thus, they will experience status frustration and strain, and adapt into either a corner boy, college boy, or a delinquent boy. Delinquent boys band together for no real purpose except to establish peer status and consolidate group loyalty. They often act on impulse and without consideration for the future. For Cohen (1977), the importance of having deviant friends is to help deal with a common problem of legitimacy. There is no need for attachment, as social control theory postulates (Hirschi: 1969). Actors become insulated from conventional standards, resolving their inner doubts and conflicts.

Other variables

What distinguishes those who turn to crime is the social variable of peer influence and the psychological variable of reaction formation. The process of transition from a pressure situation to crime is gradual, "...tentative, groping, advancing, backtracking, and sounding out" (Cohen 1965:8). Middle class values, such as honesty, are not just rejected but flouted. At the same time, dishonesty represents a desperate need for status approval according to Cohen's reaction formation which suggests that they become convinced of their own truthfulness. Deprived people live by their fictions. Further, the research suggests that many interpersonal problems are self created.

Frustration is generally regarded as an aversive internal state due to goal blockage or any irritating event. Frustration due to lower status origins would appear to be associated with more serious, repetitive offending. High status repeat offenders did not anticipate failure at getting a prestigious job, but showed the same aspirational concerns for self-respect. Stinchcombe (1964) demonstrates the pervasiveness of status frustration in all social classes and for each gender using a measure of anticipated social class over expected prestigious job attainment, which significantly differentiated those who thought school was unfair and those who did not. Perceptions of unfairness were associated with more diffuse status concerns, such as personality, intelligence, and grooming. Reiss and Rhodes (1963) found feelings of deprivation about clothes and housing to be related to deviant involvement with negligible social class, ethnicity, and gender differences. These findings suggest that status frustration is directly involved in peer comparisons regardless of the referent. Beliefs about what are fair allocations of tangible and intangible rewards are therefore important causal factors.

School status

Proponents of "school status theory" (Polk 1969) claim that poor performance in school alone is responsible for crime and deviance. School failure in terms of grades, spelling ability, language usage, and general intelligence has been found to lead to crime and deviance even when perceived deprivation, familial based class, and outside misconduct were controlled. These researchers argue that ascription based stratification and tracking systems in schools lead poorly skilled students to reject being taught and create their own failure (Polk & Schafer 1972). These same researchers also take issue with the idea that higher status groups are equally involved in crime, but do not contest the idea that peer influences can provide the belief that crime will be status rewarding.

Robert Dubin

Dubin (1959) viewed deviance as a function of society, disputing the assumption that the deviant adaptations to situations of anomie are necessarily harmful to society. For example, an individual in the ritualistic adaptation is still playing by the rules and taking part in society. The only deviance lies in abandoning one or more of its culturally prescribed goals. Dubin argued that Merton's focus on the relationship between society’s emphasized goals, and institutionalized prescribed means was inadequate. Dubin felt that a further distinction should be made between cultural goals, institutional means and institutional norms because individuals perceive norms subjectively, interpreting them and acting upon them differently. The personal educational experiences, values, and attitudes may predispose an individual to internalize a norm one way. Another individual with different experiences may legitimately internalize the same norm differently. Both may be acting rationally in their own terms, but the resulting behaviour is different.

Dubin also extended Merton’s typology to fourteen, with particular interest in Innovation and Ritualism. Merton proposed that the innovative response to strain was accepting the goal, but rejecting the institutionally prescribed means of achieving the goal. The implication seemed to be that that not only did the individual reject the means, he must actively innovate illegitimate means as a substitute which would not always be true. Dubin also thought that a distinction should be made between the actual behaviour of the actor and the values that drove the behaviour. Instead of Innovation, Dubin proposed Behavioural Innovation and Value Innovation. Similarly, in Ritualism, he proposed Behavioural Ritualism and Value Ritualism (Dubin, 1959: 147-149). Merton (1959: 177-189) commented on Dubin’s revisions, claiming that although Dubin did make valid contributions, they took the focus off of deviancy.

Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin

Richard Cloward (1959) argued that Merton's theory should specify two rather than one structure of opportunity to reflect both legitimate and illegitimate avenues of structure. An illegitimate opportunity is more than simply the chance to get away with a criminal or deviant act; it involves learning and expressing the beliefs necessary for subcultural support. Consequently, just as any given individual may not have equal access to legitimate means of achieving goals, the same individual may not have equal access to illegitimate means of achieving the same goals. Merton had proposed that the Retreatist would not turn to illegitimate means due to an internalised mechanism. Cloward, however, believed that the Retreatists suffered from a “double failure”, i.e. there was no opportunity for them to succeed through either legitimate or illegitimate means.

Cloward and Ohlin (1960) then proposed a theory of delinquent gangs known as Differential Opportunity Theory to synthesis the work of Durkheim and Merton on anomie and that of Edwin Sutherland, Clifford Shaw, and Henry McKay on social structure. Delinquent subcultures appear to flourish in the lower-class areas. The communities in these areas vary by the extent to which criminal and conventional values are integrated. In some, conventional and non-conventional behaviour are integrated by a close connection to the legitimate and illegitimate businesses conducted in the community. The form that any behaviour may take will depend on the degree to which criminality is tolerated. The theory predicts that actors are not free to assume any role they like, but that well integrated communities offer more illegitimate opportunities for property offending, disorganized communities for violent offending, and if neither theft nor violent subcultures exist, retreatist crimes emerge. The causal mechanism is a class linked sense of injustice from actual or anticipated failure at achieving status by conventional standards. This is similar to Cohen except that there is a tendency for younger delinquents to attribute blame for actual or anticipated failure to the social order. Blaming the system helps individuals to overcome feelings of inadequacy, guilt or remorse, and it is a predictor of more persistent problems unless they become more aware of their own need to change.

Typology of gangs

Cloward and Ohlin identify three types of delinquent gangs: 1) criminal; 2) conflict; and 3) retreatist. Criminal gangs are more stable, with older criminals serving as role models and teaching the necessary criminal skills to the younger members. To an extent, these gangs may serve the interests of the community. Conflict gangs are less well organized and focused on conflict or violence as a means of developing a reputation for toughness. So these gangs are not integrated into the community and tend to be unstable. Retreatist gangs are equally unsuccessful in legitimate as well as illegitimate means, retreating into a world of sex, drugs, and alcohol.

Individual adjustment

All individuals need to adjust their behaviour and values to reconcile the gap between their aspirations and expectations. The adjustment required will vary depending upon precisely what it is that the individual aspires toward. Many are conformist and aspire to a middle class lifestyle. But others simply want material possessions and resent the pressure to change their lifestyle or their social class. Such individuals are under the most pressure to become criminal or deviant because, when they cannot realize their material aspiration by legitimate means, they turn to "seeking higher status within their own cultural milieu" by engaging in more serious criminal activity. Research demonstrates that the majority of young offenders reject the lifestyle values of self-improvement, work, courtesy, and education.

Robert Agnew

In 1992, Agnew asserted that strain theory could be central in explaining crime and deviance, but that it needed revision so that it was not tied to social class or cultural variables, but refocused on self-generated norms. He therefore proposed a general strain theory that is neither structural nor interpersonal, but emotional and focused on an individual's immediate social environment. He argued that an individual's actual or anticipated failure to achieve positively valued goals, actual or anticipated removal of positively valued stimuli, and actual or anticipated presentation of negative stimuli all result in strain. Strain emerges from negative relationships with others. If individuals are not treated in the way that they expect or want to be treated, they will lose their belief in the role others play for realizing expectations. Anger and frustration confirm negative relationships. Should attempts to realize goals be blocked by others, the negative affect may lead to pressure which, in turn, may persuade any individual to adopt illegitimate means to attain the goal. This will often involve more unilateral action because there will be a natural desire to avoid unpleasant rejections, confirming more general alienation. If particular rejections are generalized into feelings that the environment is unsupportive, more strongly negative emotions may motivate the individual to engage in crime. This is most likely to be true for younger individuals, and Agnew suggested that research focus on the magnitude, recency, duration, and clustering of such strainful events to determine whether a person copes with strain in a criminal or conforming manner. He particularly identified factors including temperament, intelligence, interpersonal skills, self-efficacy, association with criminal peers, and conventional social support.

Sources of strain

Akers (2000: 159) has operationalized Agnew's version of the Strain Theory, as follows:
Failure to achieve positively valued goals:
the gap between expectations and actual achievements will derive from short- and long-term personal goals, and some of those goals will never be realized because of unavoidable circumstances including both inherent weaknesses and opportunities blocked by others; and
the difference between the view of what a person believes the outcome should be and what actually results increases personal disappointment. Frustration is not necessarily due to any outside interference with valued goals, but a direct effect on anger, and has indirect effects on serious crime and aggression. Agnew and White (1992) have produced empirical evidence suggesting that general strain theory was positively able to relate delinquents and drug users, and that the strongest effect on the delinquents studied was the delinquency of their peers. They were interested in drug use because it did not appear to represent an attempt to direct anger or escape pain, but "is used primarily to manage the negative affect caused by strain."

Up to this point, strain theory had been concerned with types of strain rather than sources of strain whereas the stress of events can be shown to interfere with the achievement of natural expectations or just and fair outcomes. These may be significant events or minor "hassles" that accumulate and demoralize over time. Frustration leads to dissatisfaction, resentment, and anger — all the emotions customarily associated with strain in criminology. It is natural for individuals to feel distress when they are denied just rewards for their efforts when compared to the efforts and rewards given to similar others for similar outcomes. Agnew (1992) treats anger as the most critical emotion since it is almost always directed outwards and is often related to breakdowns in relationships. Research shows that the stress/crime relationship appears to hold regardless of guilt feelings, age, and capacity to cope when events occur simultaneously or in close succession.

Steven F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld

Messner and Rosenfeld (1994) proposed a Theory of Institutional Anomie (sometimes called "American Dream" Theory) representing a radicalization of Merton's key ideas by linking Strain Theory to Social Control Theory and focusing on contradictions in both the cultural system and the opportunity structures to be pursued by everyone in a mass society dominated by huge multinational corporations. Specifically they built on the section of Merton’s theory dealing with emphasized goals. They seek to explain the cause of the United States’ elevated crime rate in terms of the American Dream which is a broad, cultural ethos that entails a commitment to the goal of material success, to be pursued by everyone. But if the chances for success are genuinely open to everyone, this belief creates an intense fear of failure. As did Merton, Rosenfeld and Messner (1995:141) claim that there is a causal link between the crime rate and the core values contained within the American Dream. Their argument is not only that concern for economics has come to dominate U.S. culture, but that the noneconomic institutions in society have tended to become subservient to the economy. For example, the educational system now prepares students for the job market rather than offering a general education, politicians are elected on the strength of the economy, and despite lip service to family values, workers and their families are expected to subordinate their lives to the needs of the employer. Goals other than material success such as parenting, teaching, and serving the community, are no longer considered valuable. Their work also blames the high crime rate on the institutional imbalance of power. As in the work of Merton, and Cloward and Ohlin, there is differential access to opportunity. Those individuals with the means and the power can succeed while those individuals without it are left by the wayside. The cause of crime is the anomie fostered by the American Dream and, since the emphasis is on the efficiency of the market economy, crime is often seen as the most efficient competitive strategy for making immediate material gains. The Dream also embodies the values of achievement and individualism. Achievement involves the use of material success to measure one's self-worth. Individualism refers to the notion of intense personal competition to achieve material success.


  • Agnew, R. (1992). "Foundation for a General Strain Theory". Criminology 30(1), 47-87
  • Agnew, R. & White, H. (1992). "An Empirical Test of General Strain Theory" Criminology 30(4): 475-99.
  • Akers, R. (2000). Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application. Los Angeles: Roxbury.
  • Cloward, R. (1959). "Illegitimate Means, Anomie and Deviant Behavior" American Sociological Review 24(2): 164- 76.
  • Cloward, R. & Ohlin, L. (1960). Delinquency and Opportunity. NY: Free Press.
  • Cohen, A. (1955). Delinquent Boys. NY: Free Press.
  • Cohen, A. (1965). "The Sociology of the Deviant Act: Anomie Theory and Beyond". American Sociological Review 30: 5-14.
  • Cohen, A. (1977). "The Concept of Criminal Organization". British Journal of Criminology 17: 97-111.
  • Dubin, Robert. (1959) “Deviant Behavior and Social Structure: Continuities in Social Theory” American Sociological Review 24:147-163.
  • Durkheim, E. (1897/1997). Suicide. NY: Free Press.
  • Featherstone, Richard & Deflem, Mathieu. (2003). "Anomie and Strain: Context and Consequences of Merton's Two Theories". Sociological Inquiry 73(4):471-489.
  • Hirschi, Travis. (1969). Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Merton, Robert K. (1938). "Social Structure and Anomie". American Sociological Review 3: 672-82.
  • Merton, Robert K. (1959). “Social Conformity, Deviation, and Opportunity-Structures: A Comment on the Contributions of Dubin and Cloward”. American Sociological Review 24:177-189.
  • Merton, Robert K. (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
  • Messner, S & Rosenfeld, R. (1994). Crime and the American Dream. Belmont: Wadsworth.
  • Polk, K. (1969). "Class, Strain and Rebellion Among Adolescents" Social Problems 17: 214-24.
  • Polk, K., & Schafer, W. (eds.). (1972). Schools and Delinquency. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Reiss, A., & Rhodes, A. (1963). "Status Deprivation and Delinquent Behavior" Sociological Quarterly 4: 135- 49.
  • Rosenfeld, Richard & Messner, Steven. (1995). “Crime and the American Dream” in Criminological Theory:Past to Present (Essential Readings). Los Angeles: Roxbury. pp141-150.
  • Stinchcombe, A. (1964). Rebellion in a High School. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

See also

External links

  • Merton and the Strain Theory

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