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Thoughts on Deviant-Criminal Behavior


by Jim Palombo

Politics Editor


During my years as a student in the political science, criminal justice and sociology disciplines, I was exposed to a theory of deviancy and crime that appeared significantly on point with the anti-social, deviant-criminal behavior that was occurring in the country. Importantly, over the course of several decades, the value of the theory’s tenets seems to have grown relative to the oftentimes bizarre, aggressive and violent behavior – think mass, public murders – we are experiencing today. In fact when asked about the motivation for these difficult-to-explain actions, I find myself referencing this theory as the one to consider more than the others.


Given the legitimate interest displayed when explaining the theory’s elements to individuals who have so inquired, I thought passing them along would be a worthwhile idea. It’s very unlikely that you’ve heard much about the theory as it is rarely called upon in public discussion, so in this sense you should at least find what follows interesting. And you can certainly decide to what extent the theory’s applicability warrants more attention than it has typically been given.


Before proceeding into a general review of the theory there are a few points to note. First, when reading what is presented, keep in mind the contemporary American landscape that you are exposed to everyday. In other words, place the theory and its elements within the context of your everyday life to see how, by intuition if nothing else, they seem to actually play out. Second, remember that the U.S. is a big country, with many variables in motion in terms of attempting to explain behaviors related to our particular set of cultural instincts. In this sense the theory should be seen as adding value to other theories that might also be offered, in a sense providing a base for a well-rounded interpretation of deviant-criminal behavior.


Finally, it could be argued that, given today’s barrage of social media, as well as the continual search for all varieties of sensational information, we may be exposed to things in such a way that they appear more prevalent than in previous years. In short we may be led into thinking that there is currently more deviant-criminal behavior happening, when actually there is not. Even if this is so (which seems doubtful) this should not diminish the desire to better understand what we see happening before us – it’s simply what progressive societies do. So, without further adieu, take a read.  And as always feel free to let us know what you think.




Robert K. Merton’s Strain Theory*


Robert K. Merton was particularly influenced by Emile Durkheim, an early sociologist who at the close of the 19th century was interested in social structures and how functional they might be in relationship to human endeavors. In general,Durkheim focused on the behavior – particularly suicide – that would result when there was a breakdown between personal and societal standards, when a condition of “anomie,” or lack of moral guidance, would happen. This would mean  that individuals would experience alienation, lack of hope and a form of purposelessness as they were left in desperation with no clear-cut sense of values. For Durkheim this condition would likely occur in societies that were dysfunctional, in those that became too unruly, or in those where over-regulation would cause too much rigidity. In this context it was important to manage social structures in a way that offered balance in terms of form and function.


A half-century later, borrowing from Durkheim’s anomie theme, Merton produced his Structural Strain Theory, focused primarily on deviant-criminal behavior. In brief, Merton posited that when a society extols certain success goals but limits the avenues to achieve those goals, a strain will occur. It would be this strain that could lead to a number of problematic behaviors that went well beyond Durkheim’s interest in suicide.


In light of this theory it appeared that in the U.S. the goals were directly correlated with economic and material gain, while the limited means to achieve these goals lay primarily in the social structure. For Merton the greatest strain would occur in the lower class where the goals might be clear but the discordant lack of related societal opportunities seemed most strident, a situation resulting in more deviant-criminal behavior coming from that class. This point seemed consistent with the facts and figures being produced in the country at that time, which resulted in acclaim for his theoretical propositions.


In Merton’s scheme there are five general categories that follow from the strain that can occur when the goals and means to achieve them are perceived to be out of sync. They each rely on a variation in terms of an acceptance of the goals-means measure, and are categorized as follows:


Conformists: Those who accept both the established goals and the means available. These are people who follow the rules accordingly, and deviant-criminal behavior is less likely in this regard. Examples here include the hard-working individual who wants to succeed in traditional ways – he/she may complain a bit but they are not usually deviant- or criminal-oriented.


Ritualists: Those who do not necessarily believe in the goals, but accept the means available to obtain more personal success. The example is the person who may not be interested in wealth or material gain, but who will accept the legitimate means to reach his/her own form of success.  An example may be a person who drops out of political life or relies on religious principles while working with the means that the system offers. This person may be generally anti-social but not deviant-criminal.


Innovators: Those who are willing to accept the goals, but have issues with acceptable and available means to achieve them, i.e., they tend to disregard the conventional and/or limited means, in favor of creating whatever might work to get what they need. Examples here can include people who are corrupt/take advantage of/cheat within their work, or those who create their own illegitimate opportunity structures that includes deviant-criminal behavior.


Retreatists: Those who reject and/or avoid both the success goals and the available means. These individuals basically drop out of the system, examples being alcoholics, drug users and homeless people who in some cases rely on deviant-criminal behavior.


Rebels: Those who reject or are disillusioned by both the goals and means and replace both with their own manifestations. Examples here can include people that belong to groups like the Nazi’s or the KKK, as they adhere to the goals and means pertinent to achieving their desired society. This situation traditionally results in deviant-criminal behavior.


Of course, Merton’s theory and resulting categorizations do not offer the perfect fit for all behavioral possibilities. There are no doubt variations on his themes. Perhaps the most important concern, however, is Merton’s focus on lower class behaviors, which when translated meant that middle and upper class deviant-criminal behavior and the related strain felt there were left mostly unattended. In other words, it seemed that there was/is also a significant strain occurring in all the classes, particularly as the “push to succeed” appears to leave people in the entire society in rather precarious behavioral positions. As examples, one can consider white-collar crime or the need to “take a little” from one’s work place, or any number of substance abuse scenarios. Unfortunately these more encompassing possibilities were not something Merton allowed for.


When I first encountered Merton’s thoughts I was struck by his focus on the imbalance/inequality between ends and means that, for me as well as many others, was an issue in our society. In other words, the links between opportunities, unequal social conditions and deviant-criminal behavior that could be gleaned from his tenets were more than obvious. And although his emphasis was primarily on lower class behavior (which was in academic circles a critical shortcoming), it seemed only reasonable that by using the notion of strain and extending into the other classes, one could help explain the sometimes unexplainable deviant-criminal behavior emanating from across the societal spectrum.  Importantly, the cultural instincts created via the struggle to achieve success and power within the means available could also be referenced in conjunction with any number of sociological, psychological and even biological theories pointed at behavioral motivations.


With this more encompassing version in mind, let’s return to the point mentioned earlier – how might the elements of Merton’s theory play out when considering the American landscape? Without getting too complex, and again perhaps by using only your own intuitive senses, it seems fair to say that current everyday life is influenced by the type strain noted by Merton, and that the categorizations he referenced have viable applicability. Using the effect of advertising alone, one can attach to the implied notion of material success homes and cars, clothes and even mate selection. If one couples this with the emphasis on education (not just getting it anymore, but where and to what degree), and jobs (one’s work and income status do matter), while at the same time recognizing the contemporary difficulties that attach to both, well, some desperate and sometimes bizarre behaviors should be expected. As failure gets mixed into the pot of social discord and human nature, manifestations of feelings of alienation, exploitation, misunderstanding and discrimination will surface.  In this regard, Merton’s concept of strain and his resulting categorizations are certainly worth referencing.


That being said, it has to be also noted that it is one thing to identify problems and another to offer a policy plan in how to address what’s being identified. Given Merton’s logic it appears there is important work to be done in terms of either closing the gap between or altering the definitions of our success goals and the means to achieve them. And in either case this certainly speaks to a significant undertaking. This is especially so as we begin to consider the overall impact of the difficult relationships that embody our American experiment and its oftentimes strained mix of capitalist practicalities with the principles and ideals of democracy.


Obviously, Merton’s theoretical elements imply a difficult task ahead.  They speak to more a more informative civic education and sorting through long-standing ideas and new and innovative thoughts. Said another way, it should be clear that when considering the types of behavior that we see coming at us from all sides, we have to consider not only the individual behaviors but also how they might link to greater institutional and societal influences. (In theoretical terms this is known as moving from micro to mid to macro level considerations.)  So, and particularly when you hear more about deviant-criminal behavior coming from our presidential candidates, don’t be fooled by any stop-gap measures. Simply put, we have a lot of work to do in our country – and we don’t have much time left for fooling around.


  • Although serviceable for the purposes of this article, I want to underscore that my thumbnail, theoretical sketching might leave one thinking that with both Durkheim and Merton, their theories are somewhat simple, perhaps even crude. I’ll only say this is not at all the case and that their respective analyses are quite extensive and complex. For more on this point see Durkheim’s “Suicide” (Routledge-Free Press, 1951) and Merton’s “Social Theory and Social Structure” (Free Press, 1957.) In this vein I would also suggest a look into several other “older” theoretical frames, like those offered by David Gordon in “Problems in Political Economy  − An Urban Perspective” (Heath, 1977) and Jessica Mitford in “Kind and Usual Punishment  − The Prison Business” (Knopf, 1973.)
Jim Palombo is politics editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.