Practice Question: How, according to Merton, are deviant subcultures generated ? (20 Marks)
Approach: Introduction; Explain Strain theory, Emphasise on meanings of 'deviance' and 'sub-cultures, Bring in examples, Criticism; Conclusion.
Sometimes people find that when they attempt to attain culturally approved goals, their paths are blocked. Not everyone has access to Institutionalized Means, or legitimate ways of achieving success. Strain Theory, developed by sociologist Robert Merton, posits that when people are prevented from achieving culturally approved goals through institutional means, they experience strain or frustration that can lead to deviance. He said that they also experience Anomie, or feelings of being disconnected from society, which can occur when people do not have access to the institutionalized means to achieve their goals.
STRAIN THEORY OR THEORY OF DEVIANCE
American sociologist Robert K. Merton developed strain theory, a concept connected to both the functionalist perspective on deviance and Émile Durkheim's theory of anomie. Merton asserted that societies are composed of two core aspects: culture and social structure. Our values, beliefs, goals, and identities are developed in the cultural realm. They form in response to existing social structures that ideally provide the means for the public to achieve their goals and live out positive identities. Often, though, people lack the means to achieve culturally valued goals, leading them to feel strain and possibly engage in deviant behavior.
Using inductive reasoning, Merton developed strain theory by examining crime statistics by class. He found that people from lower socioeconomic classes were more likely to commit crimes that involve acquisition (stealing in one form or another). He argued that when people cannot attain the "legitimate goal" of economic success through "legitimate means"—dedication and hard work—they may turn to illegitimate means of doing so. The cultural value of economic success looms so large that some people are willing to acquire wealth, or its trappings, by any means necessary.
TYPES OF REACTIONS TO CULTURAL GOALS
APPLICATION OF STRAIN THEORY
In the U.S., many people strive for economic success, considered the key to having a positive identity in a capitalist and consumerist society. Education and hard work may help Americans to achieve middle- or upper-class status, but not everyone has access to quality schools or employment. Class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural capital influence a person's likelihood of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Those who find themselves unable to increase their class standing feel a strain that may result in them engaging in deviant behavior such as theft, embezzlement, or selling goods on the black market to achieve wealth. The discussion of strain theory extends beyond crimes of acquisition. One could also frame the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police violence as examples of strain-induced rebellion.
Sociologists have used strain theory to explain deviant behaviors related to acquisition and to support research that links social-structural conditions to culturally valued goals. In this regard, many find Merton's theory valuable and useful. Some sociologists, however, question his concept of "deviance," arguing that deviance is a social construct. Those who engage in illicit behavior to obtain economic success may simply be partaking in normal behaviors for individuals in their circumstances. Given this, critics of strain theory argue that characterizing crimes of acquisition as deviant may lead to policies that seek to control people rather than make society more equitable.