How Does Social Strain Theory Explain Deviant Behavior?


Diego Sanchez

Social Strain Theory is a sociological perspective that seeks to explain deviant behavior in society. Developed by Robert K. Merton in the mid-20th century, this theory explores how social structures and strains can lead individuals to engage in deviance. In this article, we will delve into the key concepts of Social Strain Theory and understand how it provides insight into deviant behavior.

The Basics of Social Strain Theory

Social Strain Theory posits that when individuals are unable to achieve culturally approved goals through legitimate means, they experience strain or pressure. This strain arises from the disjunction between societal expectations and an individual’s ability to meet them. Consequently, some individuals may resort to deviant behavior as a means of adapting to or overcoming this strain.

Key Components of Social Strain Theory:

  • Cultural Goals: Society sets certain objectives or goals that are considered desirable and worth striving for. These goals may include wealth, success, status, or other forms of achievement.
  • Institutionalized Means: To attain these cultural goals, society establishes institutionalized means or legitimate pathways such as education, employment, or entrepreneurship.
  • Strains: When individuals face structural barriers or encounter limited access to legitimate opportunities for goal attainment, they experience strains. These strains can be categorized into five types:
  1. Conformity: Individuals who conform adhere to both cultural goals and institutionalized means. They strive towards societal expectations through socially accepted channels.
  2. Innovation: Innovators accept cultural goals but reject institutionalized means. They resort to unconventional methods to achieve their ambitions and often engage in deviance.
  3. Ritualism: Ritualists abandon their pursuit of cultural goals but continue to adhere to institutionalized means.

    They may lose motivation for success but still follow societal norms in their daily lives.

  4. Retreatism: Retreatists reject both cultural goals and institutionalized means. They withdraw from society, often resorting to substance abuse or isolation.
  5. Rebellion: Rebels challenge both cultural goals and institutionalized means. They aim to replace existing social structures with alternative systems, advocating for social change.

Explaining Deviant Behavior

Social Strain Theory suggests that individuals are more likely to engage in deviant behavior when faced with strains. The theory argues that deviance is not inherently caused by individual characteristics, but rather a response to structural factors within society.

The theory proposes that individuals who experience strain are more prone to adopt deviant behaviors as a coping mechanism or an alternative means of achieving their desired goals. Deviance can manifest in various forms, such as crime, substance abuse, or even non-conformity to societal norms.

An Example:

Consider a person who grows up in a low-income neighborhood where legitimate opportunities for economic success are limited. This individual may face strain due to the disjunction between the desire for financial stability and the lack of access to education or employment opportunities. In such circumstances, they might resort to engaging in criminal activities as a way to achieve financial gain, which is considered deviant behavior.

The Criticisms of Social Strain Theory

While Social Strain Theory provides valuable insights into deviant behavior, it is not without its criticisms. Some argue that the theory overly focuses on economic goals and fails to consider other cultural objectives. Additionally, it does not fully address the influence of individual agency and personal motivations in deviant behavior.

Despite these criticisms, Social Strain Theory remains a significant framework for understanding the complexities of deviance in society. By examining the relationship between societal structures, cultural goals, and strains faced by individuals, we gain a better understanding of the factors contributing to deviant behavior.

In Conclusion

Social Strain Theory offers a unique perspective on deviant behavior by emphasizing the impact of societal structures and strains on individuals. By exploring how cultural goals and institutionalized means can lead to strain, this theory sheds light on why some individuals resort to deviance as a means of adaptation or goal attainment. Understanding this theory can help societies develop strategies to reduce strain and provide legitimate opportunities for all members, ultimately promoting social cohesion and reducing deviant behavior.