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Merton’s Strain Theory

Although crime is rampant in many cities across the United States, I am still the type of person who believes in self accountability. Even though I firmly believe in self accountability I have seen with my own eyes how some individuals end up committing crimes.  Some people do come from bad families, and rough areas of town. A lot of them do not have a lot of money nor education so they do whatever they see fit to make a dollar.  Unfortunately, a lot of the time they end up breaking the law to make that “dollar”. At least this is my “theory” as to why some people end up getting into trouble with the law. Many Criminologist have come up with their own theories or reasons as to why people commit crimes. Some of the theories do make sense, but again sometimes we will never know why some people commit crimes and others do not. In 1938 Robert Merton published a ten-page article “Social Structure and Anomie” (Lilly et. al, 2011).  Merton believed that America was an unusual society that put too much emphasis of making money, and not being content with what you have. Poor people are not taught to be satisfied with their lot but are told that they should pursue the American Dream (Lilly et. al, 2011). Apparently in Merton’s opinion this was a recipe for disaster, and was a big reason that people ended up committing crimes. The cardinal American virtue, and ambition will end up promoting a cardinal American vice which is deviant behavior (Lilly, et. al, 2011).  In other words, Merton felt that the less fortunate in society who did not have the means, social structure, or family structure would not have a fair shot of obtaining the American dream, and some would end up breaking the law. When the social structure fails to provide sufficient means to obtain success goals in the prescribed fashion, an increase in the rate of crime is the probable result (Chamlin & Cochran, 1995).  It is fascinating that he felt this way because he himself came from a poor family in the city slums, and he ended up obtaining the American dream. Then again maybe it does make sense because he made it out of the slums so he understood how hard it could be for others to do the same. Most of Merton’s neighbors from the slum did not fare so well (Lilly, et. al, 2011).

Merton’s strain theory does make sense to me after learning about why he looked at criminal or deviant behavior the way that he did.  According to Merton, conformity to conventional cultural values produced high rates of crime and deviant behavior (Beaver, 2021). It is obvious to me that there are a lot of people who come from poor households and they are barely scraping by. Many of these people have little chance of going to college or landing a decent paying job. Eventually some of these people make money the illegal way. However, I also know many who did not come from much money or a good home who ended up very successful in life. A lot depends on the inner strength of the person, their will power to succeed, and sometimes just getting a lucky break in life. With that said I also believe if the politicians and local leaders put money into special programs that are proven to work that this may help some people who are less fortunate than others. Strain theory justifies programs that attempt to help the disadvantaged with educational resources, job training, and access to some occupations (Lilly, et. al, 2011). There are many programs that are available to the less fortunate, but I believe that there certainly could be more. Strain theory has also helped to create many other programs to try to deter or help those who are less fortunate and have found themselves in trouble.  It is noteworthy that strain theory has served as the basis for many delinquency programs most notably the Mobilization for youth program (Lilly, et. al, 2011). Here are some examples from policies that are available to the less fortunate that come to mind. There are food stamp programs, welfare, pell grants for college, Section 8 housing, Medicaid, children’s health insurance program or Chip just to name a few. There are many other programs available to those in need. For example, there are after school programs available in many areas that keep kids occupied from 3PM to 6PM.  There are also programs that try to help offenders to both stay out of trouble, and to try to help them be successful. In South Carolina , we have the SC 211 Jump start program. This program is for those who are coming out of prison, and it helps with giving those individuals a support system upon release.  Also, in 2018 congress signed the First Step Act. This act is also for those coming out of prison, and it helps with recidivism among other things. The above examples are just the tip of the iceberg regarding many programs that are available to those in need. What I would recommend is that the policy makers and leaders should take a close look at these programs. The ones that are working should be kept, and possibly funded more. Any programs that are not working could be scrapped, and other programs could be developed to help those in need to stay on the right path.



Dr. Kevin Beaver Power Point Presentation. Anomie Theory. Florida State University (2021).

Lilly, JR., Cullen, FT., & Ball, RA., (2011). Criminology Theory: Context and Consequences 5th edition. Thousand Oaks, Ca.

Chamlin, MB., & Cochran, JK. (1995).  Assessing Messner and Rosenfield’s Institutional Anomie Theory: A Partial Test. Criminology, Vol. 33. Pg. 411-429.

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