Robert Merton’s personal adaptations to anomie (aka “strain theory”)

Like many sociologists and criminologists, Robert Merton was interested in explaining the root of social deviance; however, unlike most theorists, who posited that crime and deviance arise from individual causes (such as a biological “defect”) (Cullen & Agnew, 171), Merton argued that certain groups participate in criminal behaviour because they are“responding normally to the social situation in which they find themselves” (Tierney, 95-6). His theory of the five personal adaptations to anomie, also known as “strain theory”, arose from the earlier sociological theory of anomie developed by Emile Durkheim (Gomme, 49). Anomie is a sort of psychological “state of confusion” in which an individual observes a conflict between the prescribed and commonplace social goals and the culturally-acceptable, “legitimate” ways to pursue those goals (Gomme, 48).

While society encourages all citizens to display unrelentless individualism in pursuit of economic and material success, however, opportunities for advancement and goal-attainment are not equally accessible (Winfree & Abadinsky, 165). Thus According to Merton, crime and deviance are caused by an imbalance in social order, when individuals utilize the most efficient and convenient means, including crime, to achieve their goals (Cullen & Agnew, 171). This imbalance, in which some individuals (particularly those of the lower- and lower-middle social classes) are disadvantaged and have few prospects of reaching goals, produces a strain (Gomme, 50). Merton argues that some individuals and groups are subject to a particular pressure as they struggle to attain the common cultural goals, with restricted means and access to fewer “legitimate” channels (Winfree & Abadinsky,166). As a result, such individuals are under considerable strain, to which they adapt in any one of five possible ways (Gomme, 51).

The first, and most common, reaction to anomie is conformity. Most people are conformists. Conformists accept both the culturally-defined goals, and the societally-restriced means of achieving such goals, as legitimate. They strive for success through the socially-acceptable avenues of educational and occupational advancement. Although many (especially lower-class and lower-middle class citizens) are unlikely to attain the desired, idealized ends, they obey social rules anyway (Gomme, 50) and “grin and bear it” (Winfree & Abadinsky, 166) without deviation or complaint. When unable to achieve their goals or to achieve “success”, they claim responsibility for such failures (“I didn’t work as hard as I could have”), and continue to conform to social expectations. Excellent examples of conformists include cheerleaders, university students, as well as most “nine to five” corporate employees. These people accept the imposed “ultimate” goal of monetary and social success, and attempt to reach it by working diligently and following the predetermined educational and vocational paths.

The second possible reaction to anomie is that of innovation. Merton believed that much of criminal behaviour could be categorized as “innovative”. Innovators are people who continue to embrace monetary and material success as a worthy goal (Lilly et al., 57) but who turn to crime or deviance upon realization that their social status or experience limits access to legitimate means for success (Winfree & Abadinsky, 166). Gomme suggests that the archetypal example of an innovator is the “gangster”: a young immigrant with intelligence and ambition who abandons “proper” means to success in favour of crime (51). A similar example would be a drug dealer, who – like most conformists – desires wealth and social status, yet who attempts to achieve such ambitions through illegal activity (Lilly et al., 57). Innovators, however, are not necessarily violent or serious offenders: people who lie about the work experience or educational background on a resume or in an interview would also fall into this category.

Another of Merton’s possible adaptation mechanisms to anomie is called ritualism. Ritualists alleviate the strain of anomie by lessening their own aspirations of success to a point where goals are more practically attainable (Gomme, 51). They accept their caste and social position, and consistently adhere to the organizational means they are required to follow (Winfree & Abadinsky, 166). Ritualists tend to avoid taking risks (such as law violation), and are comfortable living within the confines of daily routines (Lilly et al., 57); as Gomme describes, “for ritualists, the means become ends in themselves” (51). A telemarketer or agent in a customer service department, for example, may demonstrate a ritualistic response. While accepting that personal wealth and social prestige are unlikely life outcomes, he or she will behave conventionally and acceptably by working hard; it is likely, however, that he or she will revise goals to be better aligned with practical possibilities (for example, by aiming to make the most commission, or be promoted to a supervisory role.) Similarly, bureaucrats and administrators who work in large institutions (e.g. government agencies) are also likely to display this ritualistic response, adapting their ambitions to match available possibilities for success. As they outwardly maintain conformity to socio-cultural norms and do not violate the law, ritualists are not seen as a threat to the social or organizational structure (Gomme, 51).

The fourth adaptation reaction – possibly the most discouraging – is retreatism. Retreatists make a more dramatic response to the stress of anomie. Strained by the forced expectations of social “success” through conventional and traditional avenues, retreatists essentially “give up”: they renounce both their obedience to cultural goals and to the social norms that dictate acceptable ways to reach success (Lilly et al., 57). As Durkheim observed, suicide can be seen as the “ultimate retreat” (Winfree & Abadinsky, 166). A homeless person and an individual who withdraws from the educational system can also be said to exhibit retreatist reactions by relinquishing the desire to attain culturally-defined goals as well and by retreating from activities (means) to pursue such ends.

The fifth type of adaptation to anomie outlined by Merton is rebellion. Rebellion can be called the most threatening and dangerous reaction mechanism, and it is certainly the greatest challenge to (and biggest critic of) established, normative society (Winfree & Abadinsky, 166). Rebels not only discount and reject the prevailing system that determines “legitimate” means and ends, they intend to overthrow it (Gomme, 51). Alienated from social and cultural structures, rebels propose new goals and means for success (Lilly et al., 57). Contemporary Marxists and socialists, for example, who advocate group rather than individual success, and who desire equal distribution of wealth, are threats to prevalent capitalist doctrine, and would be classified as rebels. Similarly, radical terrorists are examples of Mertonian rebels: they reject the conventional idea of economic and material wealth as ultimate goals, and propose new means to success (e.g. suicide bombing and “holy wars”).
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Works Cited

  1. Gomme, Ian McDermid. The Shadow Line: Deviance and Crime in Canada. 4th ed. Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2007.
  2. Lilly, J. Robert, Francis T. Cullen, and Richard A. Ball. Criminological Theory: Context and Consequences. 4th ed. London: Sage Publications, 2007.
  3. Cullen, Francis T. and Robert Agnew, eds. Criminological Theory: Past to Present. Los Angeles: Roxbury Company, 2006. 171-178
  4. Tierney, John. Criminology: Theory and Context. 2nd ed. Essex: Longman, 2006.
  5. Winfree, L. Thomas, and Howard Abadinsky. Understanding Crime. 2nd ed. Toronto: Nelson Thomson, 2003.

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One thought on “Robert Merton’s personal adaptations to anomie (aka “strain theory”)

  1. Liliana Maskell

    December 22, 2011 at 9:19am

    good work, keep up the great webpage.

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