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Strain Theory

Goals and Means to Achieve Them Modifying Durkheim’s (l964a/1895) concept of anomie, the sociologist Robert ..Merton (1938, 1968)developed strain theory. According to strain theory. people feel strain when they are exposed to cultural goals that they are unable to obtain because they do not have access to culturally approved means of achieving those goals. The goals may be material possessions and money; the approved means may include an education and jobs. When denied legitimate access to these goals, some people seek access through deviant means. Strain theory is often used to explain deviance by people from lower-income neighborhoods, who are typically depicted as being left out of the economic mainstream, feeling hopeless, and sometimes turning their anger and rage toward other people or things. In this way. the structure of the society and the economic status of the people involved are major factors in why some people commit deviant and or criminal acts. Merton identified five ways in which people adapt to cultural goals and approved ways of achieving them: conformity. innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion

 According to Merton. conformity occurs when people accept culturally approved goals and pursue them through approved means. Persons who want to achieve success through conformity work hard. save their money, and so on. Even people who find that they are blocked from achieving a high level of education or a lucrative career may take a lower-paying job and attend school part time, join the military, or seek alternative (but legal) avenues, such as playing the lottery. to “strike it rich,” Conformity is also crucial for members of middle- and upper-class teen cliques, who often gather in small groups to share activities and confidences, Some youths are members of a variety of cliques, and peer approval is of crucial significance to them-being one of the “in” crowd, not an “outcast” or a “loner,” is a significant goal for many teenagers. In the aftermath of the recent school shootings, for example. numerous journalists trekked to school campuses to report that athletes (“jocks”), cheerleaders, and other “popular” students enforce the social code at high schools (Adler, 1999; Cohen, 1999). One report suggested that “from who’s in which clique to where you sit in the cafeteria, every day [high school] can be a struggle to fit in” (Adler, 1999: 56). A comparison of appearance norms held by some teen peer Groups and some juvenile gang members shows that what constitutes conformity within one group may be viewed as deviance within another . Merton classified the remaining four types of adaptation as deviance. inhalation occurs when people accept society’s goals but adopt disapproved means of achieving them. Innovations for acquiring material possessions or 1110ney cover a wide variety of illegal activities, including theft and drug dealing. For example, the journalist Nathan McCall (1994: 6) describes how his innovative behavior took the form of hustling when he was a gang member: Hustling seemed like the thing to do. With Shell Shock [a fellow gang member] as my main partner, I tried every nickel-and-dime hustle I came across, focusing mainly on stealing. We stole everything that wasn’t nailed down. from schoolbooks, which we sold at half price, to wallets, which we lifted from guys’ rear pockets. We even stole gifts from under the Christmas tree of a girl we visited.Although Merton primarily focused on deviance committed by persons from lower-income backgrounds, innovation is also used by middle- and upper- income people. For example, affluent adults may cheat on their income taxes or embezzle money from their employer to maintain an expensive lifestyle. Students from middle- and high-income families may cheat on exams in hopes of receiving higher grades and ensuring their admission to a top college. Merton’s third mode of adaptation is ritualism, which occurs when people give up on societal goals but still adhere to the socially approved means of achieving them. Ritualism is the opposite of innovation; persons who cannot obtain expensive material possessions or wealth may nevertheless seek to maintain the respect of others by being a “hard worker” or “good citizen.” Retreatism occurs when people abandon both the approved goals and the approved means of achieving them. Merton included persons such as skid-row alcoholics and drug addicts in this category; however, not all retreatists are destitute. Some may be middle- or upper-income individuals who see themselves as rejecting ,the conventional trappings of success or the means necessary to acquire them.  fifth type of adaptation, rebellion, occurs when people challenge both the approved goals and the approved means for achieving them, and advocate an alternative set of goals or means. To achieve their alternative goals, rebels may engage in acts of violence such as rioting or may register their displeasure with society through acts of vandalism or graffiti.

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