Robert Merton’s Strain Theory

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ROBERT MERTON’S STRAIN THEORY

Robert King Merton was an American sociologist who belonged to the Émile Durkheim School. He developed the Strain theory in 1938 and this theory uses principles of sociology and criminology to explain the manner in which societal expectations and pressures push an otherwise law-abiding citizen to take up crime and achieve wealth, fame, and status. Some common examples are financial frauds and scams, selling drugs or taking up other criminal activities. There is a direct association between financial and social gain and crime (Merton, 1938).

Differing from other sociologists who argued that criminal activity and deviance had a biological link, Merton suggested that the theory of Anomie, proposed by Durkheim can be applied to explain deviant behavior. As per this theory, a psychological state of confusion creates conflicts between cultural and social goals and legitimate ways to achieve these goals. When individuals cannot find legitimate ways to achieve these goals, they face a gap where differences between existing and expected status creates a strain. Individuals faced with strain adapt in five ways. These are conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. Among these, innovation leads to deviant behavior since individuals can take up socially disapproved and illegal means to attain social goals. Critics of strain theory argue that factors such as thrill seeking, interpersonal relations, passion, and other factors are not considered. Certain societies and social groups such as African Americans, Hispanics show more incidents of crime, and these aspects are ignored in the strain theory (Agnew, 2001).

APPLYING THE THEORY TO A CRIME MOVIE

The movie ‘Catch me if you can’ is used to explain the strain theory. The movie is about Frank Abagnale, a check con fraud, impersonator, and trickster who defrauds many banks, Pan Am airlines into giving him free rides, and carries out various forgeries (IMDb, 2003). The character of Frank and his development as a con can be explained with the Strain theory. Frank comes from an improvised home, his family has broken up, he has no money, and he has no standing in society. His impersonation of a Pan American pilot was to gain a socially exalted status since airline pilots are respected and they are given preferential seats even when flying with other airlines (Messner and Rosenfeld, 1994).

One of the factors in strain theory is to use innovative methods to obtain financial gains. Frank has seen poverty when his family had to move to a smaller house since a business loan was turned down. Given his limited education and means, Frank uses the innovation factor to become rich. As proposed by the strain theory, individuals take up innovative and socially unacceptable, criminal behavior to make money, by using the resources at their disposal. It appears that Frank has sufficient skills to plan cons, cheat, and forge, and he manages to use these skills effectively. Therefore, he has gained social status and wealth. When Frank decides to get engaged to a rich girl, he is further subscribing to the strain theory where he wants to increase his social standing (Paternoster and Mazerolle, 1994). However, in the end, everything comes out and he is arrested.

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  1. 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
  2. IMDb, (2003). Catch me if you can. Internet Movie Database.
  3. Merton, R. (1938). Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review, 3 (5): 672-682.
  4. Messner, S & Rosenfeld, R. (1994). Crime and the American Dream. Wadsworth.
  5. Paternoster, R. & Mazerolle, P. (1994). General Strain Theory and Delinquency: A Replication and Extension. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 31 (3): 235–263.
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