Criminology Wiki

Merton’s Strain Theory

Merton’s strain theory and the history, evidence to support this theory, policy, and social programs which are in place to try to combat crime in a different manner.


The academic discipline of criminology has a plethora of theories which try to explain various criminological phenomenons. Some theories lead to the age old question of nature versus nurture. The theory which I am interested in and working on lies within the nurture and environmental aspect of theories. The theory which I am studying is Merton’s Strain Theory, this particular subject lies within the Strain theory umbrella. Strain theory is a derivative of Emile Durkheim’s Anomie Theory, which is the theory of normlessness; an example of this anomie would be how in the late nineteenth century Europeans would emigrate from the rural areas to more urban environments due to the Industrial Revolution. The European economy (as well as American economy) was changing from agricultural based to manufacture based. Due to this quick change and a combination of different cultures meshing together, people would be confused due to all the change, this was known as anomie because what was once normal is not considered normal anymore. Merton’s Strain Theory is a modern day example of environmental aspects of why people commit crime. The main concept of Strain Theory is that the media and society insidiously tell people that they need to gain material wealth in order to achieve a certain type of respectable status and if they are poor or in an unfortunate socio-economic position, with enough hard work, they too can achieve the American Dream. Unfortunately Strain Theory explains, that not everyone can be lucky enough (even with hard work) to obtain the American Dream. Due to not obtaining the American Dream, and having blocked opportunities, people will find alternatives in order to try to obtain the American Dream, because it has been ingrained in them insidiously since they were a small child. Society tells everyone that they are a success based upon how much material wealth they have obtained. This also works in reverse if an individual does not have much material wealth, then society will deem his/her as a failure and they will see this as a problem with the persons character instead of just thinking of the person as unfortunate. Society will view a poor person’s poverty as a sign of laziness, instead of a problem with society and blocked opportunities that these mostly urban, low socio-economic individuals are facing. This in turn, would make these unfortunate individuals develop a sort of strain; this strain in turn would make the individuals adopt into criminals, or conformists (Keel, 2008).

There are five different ways an individual under these specific circumstances would adopt. They will conform, innovate, become ritualistic, a retreatists, or rebel against society itself. The conformist would just accept the way how things are and try to achieve success by following the system of legitimate hard work breeds success. The conformist is the most common type of response to strain and an example of a conformist could be someone who is trying to achieve a modest amount of wealth by hard work.  The innovator is a way to achieve success in a deviant or criminal manner, they would break some rules in order to try to achieve a type of success which is what is society insidiously tells everyone to do. An example of an innovator would be a drug dealer or thief.  Ritualistic is when an individual gives up in trying to achieve commercial success and tries to just focus (with a hard dedication) to what they already have, or to try to adhere to the rules in a very strict manner. Retreaters would give up in trying to achieve success and giving up the dreams of achieving any type of success as well. An example of this type of person would be like a hermit. Rebels are against the notion of having success and how to get successful but they would want to replace the system (of trying to achieve the “American Dream”) with something else. Scholars would argue that the rebels want to overthrow the current “American dream” system (another term for capitalism) with communism but that is a topic for another time.

Evidence of strain theory

There is circumstantial evidence that there is strain in the lower classes of society. The socio-economic status of most criminals would also be a determining factor or could be seen as evidence that criminals are under brought up to believe (by society) to achieve material wealth in any means possible. This evidence is mostly qualitative in nature, when (except for the data of criminals) criminals are questioned as to why they commit crimes, they some would state because they really needed the money, others would state other reasons but the strain theory applies to the criminals who are in need; or feel as if they want money to try to obtain some sort of material objects. In Bourguigno’s paper Crime As a Social Cost of Poverty and Inequality: A Review the focus is that in developing countries, poverty is a factor in the contribution to criminalistics activities. (Bourguignon & Bourguignon, 2002). This hypothesis that crime is a phenomena due to poverty is a known fact in the criminal justice area of study. There are some social and political policies which are available in order to try to prevent crime, these are available to people who have a low socio-economic status.  


Policy to try and counter the effects of strain

            There are a number of social and political policies and programs which are available to try to prevent crime due to the strain theory. One of these programs is the Boys and Girls Club of America. The Boys and Girls club particularly helps juveniles by being a sort of after school program where juveniles could go to do homework, study, play sports, video games, workout, or just plain hang out with friends.  The boys and girls club helps out with preventing “strain” by giving other children a more equal playing field with children who are more fortunate than them. There is welfare which gives money to poorer people of the population and who are in need of assistance in order to get food, child support, or to help pay rent for those who are out of luck and out of work. This is a very great thing for people who are of low socio-economic status, because it helps make the American Dream a little more of a reality.

            Strain theory was a big hit in the 1960’s, but even though a lot of scholars do not refer to it as the number one theory anymore, it show relevance as to why it works especially in the social programs which it provides. Society cannot function if people are being told to accomplish one thing, yet it is nearly to do. In this day and age, it is nearly impossible for a person to move up in social class, usually, the socio-economic class ones parents are, is the one someone will stay in for the rest of their life. Strain theory is one of the social theories as to why criminals commit crimes and even if there are more than just societal issues as to why criminals commit crimes, it still explains and helps people out.





Farnworth, M., & Leiber, M. (2007). Strain theory revisited: Economic goals, educational means, and delinquency. Retrieved from Theory Revisited.pdf

Keel, R. O. (2008, September 22). Structural strain theories. Retrieved from

Bourguignon, F., & Bourguignon, F. (2002). Crime as a social cost of poverty and inequality. Retrieved from

Boys and Girls Club of America. (2011, November 25). Retrieved from