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Deviance and Strain Theory in Sociology

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Oct 01, 2021


  • Social inequality can create situations in which people experience tension (or strain) between the goals society says they should be working toward (like financial success) and the legitimate means they have available to meet those goals.
  • According to Merton's strain theory, societal structures can pressure individuals into committing crimes. Classic Strain Theory predicts that deviance is likely to happen when there is a misalignment between the “cultural goals” of a society (such as monetary wealth) and the opportunities people have to obtain them.
  • Responding to heavy criticism of Classic Strain Theory, sociologists Robert Agnew, Steven Messner, and Richard Rosenfeld developed General Strain Theory. This predicts that various strains (such as violence and discrimination) create negative feelings which, when there are no other viable options for coping, leads to deviance.
  • Modern strain theories evolved from studies of “anomie,” or normlessness. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim was the first to write about anomie. In his works The Division of Labor in Society (1893) and Suicide (1897), Durkheim hypothesized that groups and social organizations are primary drivers of misconduct.
  • Principally, Durkheim claimed that a breakdown in societal norms — a result of rapid social change — made it so that societal institutions could no longer regulate individuals well.
  • For example, in a society where economic norms become unclear — there are weak or non-existent authorities to tell workers what they can or cannot do — aspirations become limitless and anomie and deviant behavior (such as crime) results.

Overview of Robert Merton's Theory of Deviance

Building off of Durkheim’s work on anomie, Merton (1957), was the first person to write about what sociologists call strain theory. To Merton, anomie was a condition that existed in the discrepancy between societal goals and the means that individuals have in achieving them.

Merton noticed that American society had high rates of crime and proposed that this was because the achievement of the American Dream — wealth attainment — was deeply ingrained by Americans, even those for whom factors such as race and class had made it highly improbable that they would ever achieve large monetary success.

Holding this cultural value in high regard, they turn to illegitimate means of obtaining wealth, becoming criminals in the process. The discrepancy or strain between the aspirations and the means of achieving them became known as “strain theory.”

Implicit in Merton’s approach is that the factors that lead to order and disorder in a society (such as crime versus the order of social norms) are not mutually exclusive, and that cultural values that have desirable functions often contain or produce undesirable consequences (Hagen & Daigle, 2018).

Five Responses to Strain

“The extreme emphasis on the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success in our own society militates against the completely effective control of institutionally regulated modes of acquiring a fortune. Fraud, corruption, vice, crime, in short the entire catalogue of proscribed behavior becomes increasingly common…” (Merton, 1938, p.59).

Society’s emphasis on financial success and materialism through the mythology of the “American Dream” can be stressful for those whose chances of realizing that dream are limited (Messner & Rosenfeld, 2012). The rewards of conformity are available only to those who can pursue approved goals through approved means. Any other combination of means and goals is deviant in one way or another.

Merton argued that individuals at the bottom of society could respond to this strain in a number of ways. Different orientations toward society’s goals and differential access to the means to achieve those goals combine to create different categories of deviance.

Merton’s Typology of Deviance

Conformity: individuals are following a societal goal through legitimate means. Although a conformist may not necessarily achieve the societal goal, he has enough faith in society to follow legitimate means. For example, a student who is going to school in order to advance a professional career is conforming, as he is following the American cultural value of success through an approved means (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016).

Innovation: the individual shares the cultural goal of the society but reaches this goal through illegitimate means. Thieves - who share the cultural goal of wealth obtainment, but do so through breaking the law (such as drug dealing or embezzlement), are innovators.

Ritualists: individuals who have given up hope of achieving society’s approved goals but still operate according to society’s approved means. A member of middle management, for example, who accepts that they will never progress but nonetheless stays in their position is a ritualist.

Retreatists (like dropouts or hermits): individuals who have rejected both a society’s goals and the legitimate means of obtaining them, and live outside conventional norms altogether. Drug addicts and figures such as Chris McCandleless — an Emory University graduate found dead in Alaska after attempting to reject capitalism, hitchhike north, and live off the land — retreat from both societal rule and societally-approved means (Krakauer 2018).

Rebellion exists outside of Merton’s system altogether. Rebels aim to replace societal goals with those of their own and devise their own means of achieving them. The most obvious examples of rebellion are terrorist organizations, which attempt to advance a goal, typically political, through means such as violence (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016)

Criticism of Merton's Strain Theory

Merton’s strain theory became the basis of much of criminal sociology in the 1950s and 1960s, but received substantial and damaging criticism. Writers such as Hirschi (1969), Johnson (1979), and Kornhauser (1978) have argued that Merton’s theory is not supported empirically; however, others (such as Farnworth and Lieber, 1989) argue that it does.

  • Direct evidence for Merton’s strain theory, though sparse, is conflicting. Some research finds that there are not particularly high delinquency rates between those with the greatest gap between aspirations and expectations — those with low aspirations and low expectations had the highest offense rates. However, others have shown support for this hypothesis (Agnew et. al 1996; Cullen & Agnew 2003).
  • Outside of empirical measurement, criticisms of Merton’s strain theory emphasize Merton’s assumption that the U.S. uniformly commits to materialistic goals when in reality the U.S. has highly pluralistic and heterogeneous cultural values (people tend to set themselves a variety of goals). For example, people might prioritize helping others less fortunate than themselves (such as teachers or nurses) or striving for a healthy work-life balance over material success (Valier, 2001).
  • Sociologists have also criticized Merton’s emphasis on criminality in lower classes, failing to examine why elites break laws, such as corporate and white-collar criminals (Taylor et al., 1973). And lastly, the theory emphasizes monetary, and not violent crimes and brings up the question: If Merton is correct, why does the U.S. have lower property crime rates than many other developed countries? (Hagen & Daigle, 2018).
  • Some have attempted to revise Merton’s strain theory. One such revision introduces the concept of “relative deprivation” — those who have less in comparison to those around them have higher rates of criminality.
  • Others have argued that adolescents pursue a variety of non-monetary goals, such as popularity, grades, athletic prowess, and positive relationships with parents (Agnew et al., 1996; Cullen & Agnew, 2003, Hagen & Daigle, 2018).

Agnew’s General Strain Theory

General Strain Theory’s core is that individuals who experience stress or stressors often become upset and sometimes cope with crime (Agnew & Brezina, 2019).

According to General Strain Theory, strain increases crime because it leads to negative emotions such as anger, frustration, depression, and fear.

Individuals want to do something to correct these emotions, and their circumstances may make it so that committing a crime is an individual’s most accessible option for coping (Agnew & Brezina, 2019).

These negative emotions may also lower the barriers to crime. For example, angry people often have a strong desire for revenge (Agnew 2006).

Agnew (1985) argues that delinquency is most common among those experiencing negative life events, such as divorce or financial problems (Hagen & Daigle, 2018).

He also argues that delinquency comes from an inability to avoid painful environments – such as a school environment where there are interaction problems with teachers.

This creates negative affect and delinquency becomes a means of obtaining what one has been prevented from obtaining (instrumental), retaliation, or escapism (Hagen & Daigle 2018).

Consequently, there are three types of strain, according to Agnew (Agnew & Brezina, 2019):

  • Strain from people losing something they value. For example, their money could be stolen, a friend may die, or a romantic partner may leave them.
  • Strain from being treated in an adverse or negative way, such as being verbally or physically abused.
  • Strain from people being unable to achieve their goals: for example, being unable to obtain the money or respect that they want.

General Strain Theory differentiates between strain on two different axes: objective vs. subjective strain and experienced, vicarious, and anticipated strains.

Objective strain happens because of events and conditions that most people in a given group dislike, while subjective strain results from events and conditions disliked by one particular person or the particular persons being studied. This is an important distinction because the negativity of an experience can differ radically between individuals.

For example, one person may call divorce the worst experience of their life while another may consider it a cause for celebration (Agnew & Brezina, 2019; Agnew, 2006).

Most researchers ask about objective levels of strain — whether or not individuals have experienced events that researchers assume are negative — however, it is important to consider that some so-called negative events can be positive to certain individuals and vice-versa (Agnew & Brezina, 2019).

Agnew (2002) also differentiates between experienced, vicarious, and anticipated strain. Experienced strains are strains directly experienced by someone, vicarious strains are strains experienced by others, often those that the individual feels protective toward.

And finally, anticipated strains are strains that individuals expect to experience, especially in the near future.

Examples of Strain

However, General Strain Theory does not consider negative emotions to be the only factor that increases crime in trained individuals. Strain can reduce levels of social control, such as how much someone values conformity and the belief that crime is wrong.

When strain comes from negative treatment from those in authority — such as parents, teachers, employers, and the police — this can decrease the individual’s stake in conformity and conventional society.

Rather than conforming to traditional ideas of social controls, strained individuals tend to adopt a values system that minimizes concern for others and prioritizes self-interest (Agnew & Brezina 2019; Brezina & Agnew 2017; Konty, 2005).

Strain can also encourage the social learning of crime. A student who is bullied can be regularly exposed to models of aggression, and chronically employed individuals living in communities where there is little room for economic opportunity may belong to groups that believe theft and drug dealing are acceptable.

The strains most likely to result in crime are those that are high in magnitude, that are seen as unjust, strains associated with low social control — such as parental rejection — and strains that create a pressure or incentive to cope criminally — such as a desperate need for money (Agnew & Brezina, 2019).

Many sociologists have researched which strains are the most likely to cause crime (such as Arter, 2008, Baron & Hartnagel, 1997, and Ellwanger, 2007), and Agnew (2002) compiles a list of these strains.

They are:

  • Familial: parental rejection, child abuse and neglect, marital problems, use of humiliation, threats, screaming, and physical punishments.
  • School: low grades, negative student-teacher relationships; bullying and otherwise abusive peer relationships.
  • Economic: Work that involves unpleasant tasks, little autonomy, low pay, low prestige, and limited opportunities for advancement; unemployment; homelessness (which combines a desperate need for money with frequent conflicts and criminal victimization); residence in poor urban areas.
  • Being the victim of a crime
  • Discrimination based of factors such as race, gender, and religion.

Some sociologists, such as De Coster and Kort Butler (2006) have found that strains in certain life domains — such as family, school, and peer groups — are especially related to delinquency in that domain (Agnew & Brezina, 2019).

Langton (2007) found that general strain theory is able to explain certain types of upper class “white-collar crimes” (such as tax fraud), but that Agnew’s theory cannot generalize to all corporate crimes.

Indeed, Langton suggests, the types of strain and negative emotions experienced by white collar workers may differ from that of other populations. Not all individuals respond to stress with crimes.

For example, someone can cope with living in a poor urban area by moving away, a lack of financial resources by borrowing money, or low grades by studying more effectively.

Nonetheless, General Strain Theory outlines a few factors that make criminal coping more likely (Agnew & Brezina 2019):

  • Poor conventional coping skills.
  • Resources to commit crimes, such as physical strength and fighting ability
  • Low financial and emotional support and direct help in coping.
  • Low control by society, holding little belief in conformity.
  • Criminal peers. Beliefs that favor criminal coping.
  • Negative emotions and low constraint.
  • Situations where the costs of crime are low and the benefits high.

Institutional Anomie Theory

Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld, in their book Crime and the American Dream (2012), extend Agnew’s General Strain Theory into “institutional anomie theory.”

In this view, society is made up of social institutions (such as family, religion, and economic structure), and greater rates of crime result when one institution — the institution of economic structure — trumps all others.

People in this society begin to try to accumulate material wealth at the cost of all else, and a lack of control and authority by noneconomic institutions institutionalized anomie.


Bullying and Self-Harm in Adolescents

Hay & Meldrum (2010) examined self-harm in 426 adolescents in the rural United States from the perspective of Agnew’s General Strain Theory.

They emphasized two seldom spoken about areas of strain and deviance: self-harm as deviance and bullying as strain. Self-harm, according to Hay & Meldrum, is an internalized deviant act (as it usually only affects oneself) and can result from strainful relationships with peers (such as bullying).

Hay & Meldrum hypothesized three things. Firstly, bullying is significantly and positively associated with self-harm. Secondly, this self-harm is mediated by the negative emotional experiences of those who are bullied — such as anxiety, depression, and low self-worth.

And, thirdly, that prosocial, authoritative parenting and high levels of self-control would be associated with lower levels of self-harm. Hay & Meldrum considered authoritative parenting to be a “moderating variable” because it indicates high access to family support.

Ultimately, the researchers found that General Strain Theory did align with the behavior they observed. Adolescents who experienced bullying, in-person or over the internet, had more negative emotions.

These negative emotions were especially high among females, people of color, those living in immigrant or non intact households, and those low in self-control.

And those who had more negative emotions but few avenues to “mediate them” (such as through strong, prosocial family support) had higher levels of self-harm (Hay & Meldrum, 2010).


Many researchers have attempted to create theories of terrorism by accounting for particular types of strain — such as poverty — but they consider all of the factors that could lead to terrorism (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

Terrrorism is likely to result from a group or collective experiencing “collective strains'' (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016). These strains can be because of several factors, such as race and ethnicity, religion, class, politics, or territorial groups.

However, the strains mostly resulting in terrorism are high in magnitude with civilian victims, unjust, or caused by more powerful others (Agnew 1992).

For example, case studies of terrorist organizations such as the Tamil Tigers, Basque Homeland and Liberty, Kurdistan Workers Party, and the Irish Republican Army reveal that the strains faced by these groups involved serious violence — such as death and rape — threats to livelihood, large scale imprisonment and detention, and attempts to eradicate ethnic identity (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

These strains happened over long periods and affected many people, largely civilians (Callaway and Harrelson-Stephens 2006, Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016).

Members of terrorist groups that do not seem to have experienced high magnitude strains still report experiencing high magnitude strains (Hoffman 2006).

For example, some right-wing terrorists in the United States believe in a “Zionist Occupation Government” which threatens their values (Blazak 2001, Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey, 2016).

These strains must be seen as unjust — for example, if it violates strongly held social norms or values or if it differs substantially from how members of the collective have been treated in the past.

These strains lead to strong negative emotions — such as anger, humiliation and hopelessness, and make it difficult to cope legally and militarily, leaving terrorism as one of few viable coping options (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016).

They also reduce social control and provide models for and foster beliefs favorable to terrorism (Inderbitzen, Bates, & Gainey 2016).

As a result, following General Strain Theory, terrorist groups resort to deviance in the form of collective violence.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Oct 01). Merton’s strain theory of deviance. Simply Psychology.


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