Structural Strain Theory seeks to understand the circumstances that make individuals behavior in ways that are uncommon to the standards of a particular society. The theory focuses on the individual and his or her interaction with the immediate environment. As the pioneer of the theory, Merton sought to investigate the reasons that make people exhibit certain behaviors that were previously considered to be determined by forces of nature. Merton argued that social structures may push certain individuals to engage in nonconformist behaviors. The nonconformist behaviors result from the inability of members of a given society to establish an effective equilibrium between cultural goals and institutional norms (Farnworth & Leiber, 1989) thereby introducing a strain into their lives.
The conceptualization of strain theory was motivated by the wide economic disparities characteristic of the American society in the 20th century. This society attached a lot of significance to meritocracy as a means of achieving personal success (Farnworth & Leiber, 1989). Given the mentioned circumstances, Merton observed that, under natural circumstances, any given society proposes goals that all of its members need to accomplish for them to be considered as successful. To this end, Merton suggested that economic success is possible if people exploited their abilities to the fullest and also put in inadequate efforts (Krohn, Lizotte, & Hall, 2012)
Under the strain theory, cultural goals and institutional norms are the primary variables that influence behaviors; that is, societal expectations and the means through such expectations are supposed to be met (Farnworth & Leiber, 1989). In such circumstances, Merton argued that people will experience pressure that comes with the failure to meet the expectations of society. For instance, a college education may be considered as a pivotal pathway through which people access well-paying jobs which, in turn, guarantee economic success. If particular groups of individuals fail to access educational opportunities, they are likely to experience some form of strain since the lack of skills and knowledge is likely to reduce their chances of realizing individual economic goals (Zembroski, 2011).
Despite the universal attribute of goals that society proposes, the structure of the same society often fails to offer its people equal opportunities to access the means through which the goals can be attained (Teasdale & Bradley-Engen, 2017). Due to frustrations, strain sets in, making the affected individuals experience some form of disorientation from the general discourse in society (Zembroski, 2011). As a result, people change behaviors as a way of countering the effects of strain in the context of the failure to achieve cultural goals. Merton referred this phenomenon as anomie.
Anomie is a reflection of the failure of society to address its shortcomings. It occurs when society emphasizes cultural goals but fails to address the institutionalized norms that regulate the means through such goals could be attained. As such, standards of right or wrong no longer apply in the quest for cultural goals (Agnew, 2001). For instance, economic achievement and individualism are emphasized in the American society. Evidently, this cultural motivation has been instrumental to the prosperity that is commonplace among the citizens of the United States. However, evidence suggests that the system has failed certain groups in the society and also made upper class individuals to scale further on the economic ladder.
Since society has several shortcomings in regulating the means of attaining goals, individuals are compelled to devise ways that enable them to live within the confines of the social realities of their immediate environment while striving to achieve cultural goals. Under anomic conditions, people adapt to fit certain social settings, and such adjustment is manifested in conformity, retreatism, rebellion, ritualism and innovation (Zembroski, 2011). All the mentioned responses tend to suggest that people do not abandon the pursuit of society-sanctioned goals.
Conformity may be described as the acceptance by the affected individuals that cultural goals and institutional norms represent the fundamental structure of society. It is the considered as the typical response and individuals often pursue their cultural goals through the means that the society has approved. Retreatism is a deviant response that rejects the goals as well as the means that are supposed to be employed to achieve such goals in the society. Rebellion not only involves rejecting both goals and means but also substitutes the mentioned variables. Ritualism is a response which acknowledges that cultural goals should be respected. Lastly, innovation accepts the goals but rejects the means that society has prescribed for their attainment (Zembroski, 2011).Innovation will be explored further in the subsequent sections of the essay.
Limitations of the Structural Strain Theory
The assumption that society proposes universal goals to all of its members is contestable. It is true that economic inequalities are a prominent characteristic of economies in the modern era. This situation offers opportunities to one group and at the time denies others. However, the diversity in modern societies cannot guarantee a situation where all individuals aspire to attain similar goals. And even when there are similar demographic features, it is not realistic for people to have similar goals (Farnworth & Leiber, 1989; Agnew, 2001).
Another weakness is the idea that the economic factor is the principal source of strain in a meritocratic society and education is the only means through which people can access opportunities. If it were to be assumed as true, one would argue that juveniles who fail to get a college education, are more likely to miss economic opportunities(Zembroski, 2011).This may not be the case considering that education does not determine entirely whether a person would attain economic success. On the same note, the imbalance between cultural goals and institutional norms is not the only factor that brings stressors. As some scholars found, strains come from different sources including the death of a friend or relative, neglect from parents, physical assault or failure to get justice (Agnew, 2001).
Strain Theory, Crime, and Delinquency
Although several improvements have been made on Mertons theory, its initial version captured the influence of strains on crime and nonconformist social behaviors. Merton suggested that criminal behavior occurs when individuals assimilate the cultural goals but fail to internalize the institutional norms that regulate the ways and means of attaining goals. In effect, lower-class persons experience a lot of pressure as they struggle to achieve the desired economic status in an environment that is limited with opportunities (Zembroski, 2011).Mertons theory has since been revised, and Robert Agnew has been widely credited for his contribution in the development of the General Strain Theory(GST).The GST holds that physical abuse and economic challenges increase the likelihood of criminal acts (Teasdale & Bradley-Engen, 2017).Physical abuse and economic problems increase the likelihood of the development of negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and hopelessness. These emotional moments create pressure on the affected persons, enhancing the likelihood of dabbling in crime as one of the options of reliving of the stressors (Agnew, 2001). It should be noted that not all stressors generate criminal tendencies.
Scholars have theorized that several factors may influence the development of criminal tendencies from strains. According to Agnew (2001), strains are most likely to lead to criminal acts if the affected persons lack the skills to cope with stressors, are low in social control, have inadequate access to social support, blame others for their stressful situations, and have a higher exposure to crime. Moreover, the interplay of individual characteristics and the type of strain play a significant part in predisposing people to criminal activities. For these reasons, an understanding of the broader picture of crime life can be resourceful in designing appropriate interventions.
Programs that intend to address crime issues have shown that it is imperative for one to understand the root causes of criminal activities in the American society. Before the acceptance of studies of Agnew and other scholars, crime agencies mostly focused on the fight against crime and largely ignored prevention mechanisms (Teasdale & Bradley-Engen, 2017).However, insights from GST have been useful in identifying the reasons that motivate individuals to criminal activities. Government agencies and individuals involved in crime prevention have shown widespread use of interventions that address social stressors. Today, anti-criminal support groups give financial resources and also provide counseling to young people who have records of parental neglect and other dysfunctional problems (Krohn, Lizotte, & Hall, 2012) as a means of addressing juvenile crime and gang violence. These methods seek to address the root causes of strains and have shown positive outcomes in reducing delinquency among lower-class juveniles
In conclusion, Mertons Structural Strain Theory has made a significant contribution to the study of human behavior. The theory illustrates the different reactions of people when approved societal norms curtail their efforts to attain cultural goals. Robert Agnew enhanced the theory and proposed several strains that negatively affect behavior. In his studies, Agnew found that lack of money, death of a spouse, verbal assault, and an unjust judicial system can motivate individuals to engage in crime. However, his studies reveal that the interplay between individual characteristics and the type of stressors such individuals undergo is crucial in predisposing them to criminal activities. These findings have been utilized by government agencies and private institutions in the fight against crime in the United States.
Agnew, R. (2001). Building on the Foundation of General Strain Theory: Specifying the Types of Strain Most Likely to Lead to Crime and Delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38(4), 319-361. doi:10.1177/0022427801038004001
Farnworth, M., & Leiber, M. J. (1989). Strain Theory Revisited: Economic Goals, Educational Means, and Delinquency. American Sociological Review, 54(2), 263-274. doi:10.2307/2095794
Krohn, M. D., Lizotte, A. J., & Hall, G. P. (2012). Handbook on crime and deviance. New York: Springer.
Teasdale, B., & Bradley-Engen, M. S. (2017). Preventing crime and violence.
Zembroski, D. (2011). Sociological Theories of Crime and Delinquency. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 21(3), 240-254. doi:10.1080/10911359.2011.564553
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