Criminology Theory Summary

Merton developed strain theory, which falls within the general category of functionlism. According to Merton, deviance within society is as a result of the culture and structure of society itself. His theory is based on the idea that all members of society share common values and goals. Some of those values might be to own one’s own house, own a car, enjoy foreign holidays etc. However, because not all members in society occupy the same economic or social position, they do not all have an equal opportunity to realise those goals. Merton used the USA as an example to illustrate his theory.

American society developed the idea of the ‘American Dream’. The philosophy behind the ‘American Dream’ is that anyone, regardless of one’s social background, can achieve financial success. The normal way to achieve material success is through hard work, education, determination and ambition. Unfortunately, the reality is that not everyone is able to succeed. There are winners and losers.

Merton’s argument is that the pressure from society to achieve financial success actively pushes individuals (the losers) to commit crimes and therefore is the cause of deviant behaviour. As Merton says, ‘the social and cultural structure generates pressure for socially deviant behaviour upon people variously located in that structure’. In other words, American society generates a desire for material possessions, especially as success is measured by the attainment of such possessions. In this materialistic society, those who cannot succeed by legitimate means will resort to devious means to do so. Merton also considered the different ways in which individuals would respond in the face of failure to achieve success. How they would react also depended upon their social position in society. He outlined five ways in which people would respond to such a situation. 1. Conformity

This would be the response of the majority. Most law-abiding citizens would try to achieve success by conventional, non-criminal means. 2. Innovation Here there is a rejection of the normal means of achieving success. Individuals would resort to crime to gain wealth. Merton believed that those in the lower social bracket would be most likely to choose this route as a way to be financially successful. Such an option is likely because their educational qualifications and their jobs provide little opportunity for advancement. The result is that there is greater pressure on them to deviate and turn to crime. 3. Ritualism

This response is likely to be that of the lower middle class. Their jobs provide fewer opportunities than other members of the middle class. Robert Merton: Anomie Theory (sometimes also termed strain theory or means-ends theory) In one of the most famous articles in sociology, its first version written in the 1940s, Robert Merton begins by addressing biological explanations of deviance and concludes that biology cannot account for variations from one society to the next in the nature and extent of deviance. His primary interest is not so much why a particular individual deviates, but why the rates of deviance differ so dramatically in different societies and for different subgroups within a single society.

Merton works within the overall functionalist perspective that we have already addressed, which puts a great deal of emphasis on the role of culture, particularly its unifying aspects, but now Merton adapts a concept he borrows from Durkheim to analyze situations in which culture creates deviance and disunity. In Durkheim’s usage, anomie referred to a situation in which cultural norms break down because of rapid change. Anomic suicide, for example, can occur during a major economic depression, when people aren’t able to achieve the goals that they have learned to pursue, but it can also occur when the economy experiences a boom and suddenly the sky’s the limit–people don’t know how to limit their goals and be satisfied with their achievements.

Merton changes the concept slightly, to refer to a situation in which there is an apparent lack of fit between the culture’s norms about what constitutes success in life (goals) and the culture’s norms about the appropriate ways to achieve those goals (means). In Merton’s formulation, anomie becomes the explanation for high rates of deviant behavior in the U.S. compared with other societies, and also an explanation for the distribution of deviant behavior across groups defined by class, race, ethnicity, and the like. The U.S., in fact, Merton sees as a polar example of a society in which success goals (often defined primarily in monetary terms) are emphasized for everyone in the culture, and people are criticized as being quitters if they scale back their goals.

On the other hand, the culture is at best ambivalent in its norms about the apporpriate means of being sucessful. Certainly hard work and ambition, in school and then in the economic marketplace, are the culturally approved means of success, but there’s also an element of admiration for the robber baron and the rogue who breaks the rules about appropriate means but achieves success goals by deviant means. In America, in other words, success is probably rated a lot more highly than virtue. In addition, the U.S. has minority groups whose access to success by conventional means is clearly limited. In the period in which Merton was writing, ours was a clearly racist society.

Black Americans, for example, were severely limited in their access to education, but if they overcame those obstacles and obtained a good education, that education would not “buy” them as good a job as it would for a white person. In some societies that emphasize ascriptive criteria in allocating power and privilege, the culture sets a very different standard of success. Someone who was born an untouchable in the Indian caste system, for example, would learn not to aspire to the kind of success that might be available to an upper-caste individual.

But in the U.S. the same kinds of success goals are held out to all. Thus our very high rates of deviance and crime, compared with other societies, in Merton’s analysis can be understood, first as a result of our emphasizing success goals more than we emphasize approved means of achieving those goals, and second, our emphasizing the same kind of success for everyone even while the race, ethnic, and class stratification of the society limits the opportunities for success by those in the less privileged groups. How do people respond to this disjunction of goals and means? Merton creates a typology of adaptations. The first symbol designates people’s relationship to norms about goals; the second symbol designates their relationship to norms about the means of achieving those goals. Mode of adaptation

I. Conformity + +II. Innovation + -III. Ritualism – +

IV. Retreatism – -V. Rebellion xxIn this diagram, a “+” means acceptance, a “-” signifies rejection, and an “x” means rejection of prevailing values and substitution of new ones. Although Merton spends some time discussing each of these modes of adaptation, it’s probably the second one, “innovation,” which most logically follows from his earlier discussion of the relationship between culture and deviance in general and the deviance-producing features of American society in particular. Innovators are people who break the rules (and often the laws) in order to achieve the success goals that are so heavily promoted in the society. At the upper levels, Merton points out, “the pressure toward innovation not infrequently erases the distinction between business-like strivings this side of the approved norms and sharp practices beyond the norms.”

Merton quotes Thorstein Veblen: “It is not easy in any given case–indeed it is at times impossible until the courts have spoken–to say whether it is an instance of praiseworthy salesmanship or a penitentiary offense.” But he sees the greatest pressures toward “innovation” operating at the lower levels of the stratification system.” Here “incentives for success are provided by the established values of the culture and second, the avenues available for moving toward this goal are largely limited by the class structure to those of deviant behavior. It is the combination of the cultural emhasis and the social structure which produces intense pressure for deviation.” “Despite our persisting open-class ideology, advance toward the success-goal is relatively rare and notably difficult for those armed with little formal education and few economic resources.”

“Within this context, Al Capone represents the triumph of amoral intelligence over morally prescribed “failure,” when the channels of vertical mobility are closed or narrowed in a society which places a high premium on economic affluence and social ascent for all its members.” Notice that Merton’s analysis is not ultimately aimed at the individual level–why does this individual deviate and this one not–but at the level of groups and societies as reflected in differing rates of deviance. Merton isn’t saying that every individual exposed to these cultural conflicts reacts the same way; on the contrary, his typology is designed to allow for variation at the individual level. In his concluding remarks, Merton himself highlights the major weaknesses of his analysis. ” T

his essay on the structural sources of deviant behavior remains but a prelude. It has not included a detailed treatment of the structural elements which predispose toward one rather than another of the alternative responses open to individuals living in an ill-balanced social structure. It has largely neglected but not denied the social psychological processes determihng the specific incidence of these responses; it has only briefly considered the social functions performed by deviant behavior;

…it has only touched upon rebellious behavior which seeks to refashion the social framework.” Unfortunately, as is so often the case with people doing what they label as preliminary or exploratory work, Merton never went on to attempt the additional work that he himself recognized as crucial to a full understanding of the dynamic he describes in this essay. Anomie and Strain: Context and Consequences of Merton’s Two Theories (2003) Richard Featherstone

University of Northern Iowa&Mathieu Deflemwww.mathieudeflem.netThis is an electronic version of an article published in Sociological Inquiry 73(4):471-489, 2003. Also available in print-friendly pdf format. [alternate pdf]

Cite as: Featherstone, Richard, and Mathieu Deflem. 2003. “Anomie and Strain: Context and Consequences of Merton’s Two Theories.” Sociological Inquiry 73(4):471-489, 2003.

* A previous version was presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Washington, D.C., August 2000. We are grateful to Michael Leiber, Sanjay Marwah, and Caryl Lynn Segal for helpful comments.


Robert Merton presented two not always clearly differentiated theories in his seminal explorations on the social-structure-and-anomie paradigm: a strain theory and an anomie theory. A one-sided focus on Merton’s strain theory in the secondary literature has unnecessarily restricted the power and effectiveness of Merton’s anomie theory. For although structural strain is one way to explain why deviance occurs in the context of anomie, it is not the only way.

We contend that scholars who are critical of strain theory should not automatically discard Merton’s anomie theory, because the perspective of anomie is compatible with several other theories of crime and delinquency. Offering examples of previous integration efforts, we maintain that Merton’s theoretical model can benefit from the input of other theories of crime and deviance as much as these other theoretical perspectives can fine-tune their models and explanations.


Robert Merton’s paradigm of social structure and anomie has been enthusiastically embraced as a valuable analytical framework, especially for the study of crime and deviance. First presented in 1938, Merton’s theoretical model has been the springboard for scores of later research projects and theoretical discussions (see, e.g., contributions and bibliographies in Adler and Laufer 1995; Passas and Agnew 1997). In fact, Merton’s “Social Structure and Anomie” paper —in its various manifestations (Merton 1938, 1949a, b, 1957a, 1968a) — is the most quoted contribution in sociology (Besnard 1987:272; Cole 1975:175).

However, although Merton’s work on social structure and anomie is an undisputed classic in sociology, there has continued to be much confusion and debate over the years as to the meaning and status of Merton’s conceptualizations (Agnew and Passas 1997; Bernard 1987; Levine 1985:57-61). Relatedly, Merton’s contribution has been heralded as among the most significant of all major sociological theories (e.g., Garfield 1980; Orrù 1990; Passas 1995), but it has also been criticized as fundamentally flawed (e.g., Besnard 1990; Kornhauser 1978).

The confusion over the merits and limitations of Merton’s theory has no doubt several origins, some of which may have little to do with the empirical adequacy of the theory or other aspects of its intrinsic merits, but instead relate more to various currents in the social organization of sociology (Cole 1975). In this paper, we discuss conditions and implications of how the reception and understanding of Merton’s social-structure-and-anomie theories have been unfairly discounted.

We suggest that the depreciation of Merton’s ideas is partly due to his own inconsistent use of certain terms in his writings over the past half-century; moreover, it does not help that his work in this area remains unfinished. In particular, we argue that in his contributions on social structure and anomie Merton forwarded two distinct theories which he did not always clearly distinguish. First, there is presented a theory of anomie, referring to a de-institutionalization of norms that occurs when there is a disjunction between the emphasis on cultural goals and institutional means (Merton 1938:673, 1968a:189).

Second, Merton also presents a strain theory of deviant behavior which holds that people are more likely to pursue illegitimate means to attaining culturally prescribed goals when they are blocked from accessing the institutionalized means to these goals (Merton 1938:679, 1968a:211). In addition to the fact that Merton has not always differentiated clearly between anomie and strain, both theoretical components have also not always been very well distinguished in the secondary literature.

The arguments we will advance to substantiate the viewpoint that Merton developed two theories in his seminal work can to some extent rely on prior theoretical work. Particularly, Robert Agnew (1997:33) and Steven Messner (1988:41-43) have identified distinct theoretical perspectives within Merton’s broader paradigm of social structure and anomie. But some of the conditions and the implications for sociological crime and deviance research regarding Merton’s multiple theories have not yet been adequately recognized. In this paper, more specifically, we will argue that Merton’s strain theory actually restricts the power and effectiveness of his anomie theory.

We will advance that Merton did not have to confine his theory of deviant behavior to structural strain but could have taken other routes to make sense of the linkage between the social state of anomie and the structurally determined distribution of deviance. Merton himself alluded to these factors in his writings and occasionally even suggested them explicitly (e.g., Merton 1997a), but it remains an unfinished task to introduce a theoretical perspective of deviant behavior that is complimentary to and integrated with the anomie framework.

Although structural strain is one way to explain why deviance occurs in the context of anomie, there is no theoretical necessity for it being the only way. Although it is obviously beyond the confines of this paper to settle the debate on the appropriate level and mode of the explanation of crime and deviance once and for all, our discussion will specify building-blocks towards a comprehensive criminology in the Mertonian tradition.

We develop our analysis not only on the basis of a conceptual discussion, but also situate it in terms of a sociological investigation of the ebbs and flows that have historically marked the development and reception of the social-structure-and-anomie paradigm. In a recent paper, Agnew and Passas (1997) ask whether or not the Mertonian paradigm constitutes a unified theoretical tradition.

The authors answer in the affirmative, but their focus is mainly on the existing intellectual work that has historically emerged from Merton (via Durkheim) (Agnew and Passas 1997:9-11). Their answer, in other words, is appropriate relative to the external, social context of the Mertonian tradition, but it leaves unaddressed the question on the (internal) systematics of theory, which —as Merton himself has argued (Merton 1968c) — has to be kept distinct from its history. Other scholars, however, have debated the merits and limitations of the Mertonian paradigm exclusively in theoretical terms (e.g., Kornhauser 1978). Focusing on aspects of both the history and systematics of the Mertonian framework, our paper will discuss the reception of Merton’s theories in the social-scientific literature and explore theoretical issues related to the sociological explanation of deviant behavior.


In a recent commentary, Robert Merton (1997a) nicely points out the unfinished nature of his contributions on anomie and deviance by speaking of his “evolving idea of anomie-and-opportunity-structures” (p. 518, our emphasis). Next to the original version of the “Social Structure and Anomie” article in the American Sociological Review in 1938 (Merton 1938) and the numerous reprints of that paper in scores of textbooks, Merton has continually reworked the paradigm through revisions and extensions (Merton 1949a, b, 1957a, b, 1968a, b, 1995, 1997a), related discussions (Merton 1955, 1971),

responses to criticisms (Merton 1959, 1964), and added theoretical reflections (Merton 1997b, 1999). These developments can only be analytically divorced from the social context of the scholarship in which they occurred. Thus, we first take a look at the history of the reception of Merton’s work on the basis of an analysis of citations in the Social Sciences Citation Index and its current online version, the Web of Science. Though the strategy is of course not without limitations (Cole 1975:186-187), it does provide some revealing findings.

Merton’s writings on the social-structure-and-anomie paradigm continue to be frequently cited to this day (see Table 1). In fact, the number of citations to Merton’s various “Social Structure and Anomie” papers has increased in recent decades after it had taken a dip in the early 1970s. The steady popularity of Merton’s work, however, is not altogether a blessing and cannot be taken as a straightforward indication of the continued popularity of Mertonian theory today. A closer look reveals the striking fact that the total number of references to Merton’s seminal article in the American Sociological Review (Merton 1938) has consistently increased over the past 50 years and was at an all-time high in the second half of the 1990s.

Although this may partly be due to the fact that scientific production in sociology has generally increased, the finding remains counter-intuitive inasmuch as Merton’s theory is surely less applied today than in the 1960s, when the popularity of the functionalist paradigm was at an all-time high (Cole 1975:175). But the well-documented intellectual and political attacks on structural-functionalism and the decline of its popularity during the 1970s are not reflected in a corresponding decline in citations to the 1938 ASR article. Yet, when we also consider the various versions of “Social Structure and Anomie” published in the editions of Social Theory and Social Structure, a more telling picture is revealed.

Table 1: Citations to Merton’s “Social Structure and Anomie”, 1956-2000. * Includes one reference to Merton 1949a.

Sources: Data for the period 1956-1980 are based on hard-copy editions of the Social Science Citation Index. Data from 1981 onwards were calculated from the same index in the Web of Science Citation Databases ( End-date is August 2000.

Merton’s American Sociological Review (hereafter: ASR) paper of 1938 was first revised and expanded for inclusion in an edited volume on the family (Merton 1949a). This explains the separate attention paid in the revised paper for the role of the family in the context of the social structures of deviant behavior (Merton 1949a:309-311, 1968a:212-213). The revised version was in the same year reprinted in the first edition of Merton’s collection Social Theory and Social Structure (Merton 1949b), a volume that went through two more editions, in 1957 and 1968. The 1957 edition reproduced the anomie paper from 1949 (Merton 1957a) as well as a supplementary chapter called “Continuities in the Theory of Social Structure and Anomie” (Merton 1957b).

The 1968 edition included reprints of both chapters (Merton 1968a, b). Investigating these various editions, it is shown that the number of references to the social-structure-and-anomie papers in Social Theory and Social Structure (hereafter: STSS) was relatively high during the 1960s, then suddenly and sharply declined during the 1970s and continued to decrease ever since. Though the number of citations to the ASR 1938 paper still increased during the functionalist demise of the 1970s, it was then about equal to the number of references to the various STSS versions, which had dropped dramatically since the 1960s.

Figure 1: Citations to Merton’s ASR (1938) article and its expanded chapter version from all editions of Social Theory and Social Structure combined.

Finally, comparisons between citations to the 1938 ASR article, on the one hand, and the various STSS versions, on the other, are also telling. As visualized separately in Figure 1, from the 1970s onwards the number of references to Merton’s ASR paper of 1938 has continually increased at the very same time when the number of references to the various STSS versions has decreased.

The proportion of citations to the various STSS editions dropped steadily from the 1960s onwards, from more than 80% in the 1960s, to between 30% and 40% in the 1970s, and only 5% at the close of the 20th century. In other words, the effective dominance of structural-functionalism and the influence of Merton’s paradigm on social research in the 1960s are demonstrated by the high proportion of citations to the mature version of the social-structure-and-anomie paradigm in the STSS editions.

1For, indeed, Merton’s ASR article in 1938 is but a 12-page outline of a theoretical framework that is later developed in much more detail in the various STSS editions (Cole 1975:206).2 Thus, it appears that the criticisms against functionalism that had more and more effectively invaded the field from the late 1960s onwards served to diminish the prestige of the ideas contained in STSS. This is shown by the dramatic decline during the first half of the 1970s of the citation of the social-structure-and-anomie paradigm presented in the STSS editions.

An additional contribution to this decline was a general decrease in the popularity of crime and delinquency research (Garfield 1987:6; Cole 1975:201). Thereafter, however, the further decline in the popularity of functionalism during the last decades of the 20th century is demonstrated, not by an over-all decline in citations to the social-structure-and-anomie perspective, but by a continual and very pronounced decline of references to the STSS versions of Merton’s theories.

Since any serious discussion, application, or empirical test of Merton’s anomie framework has to rely on one of the STSS versions, it can be deduced that the increase in citations to the ASR paper since the early 1980s is indicative of something other than an increasing influence of Merton’s work on theoretical and empirical research practices. The continually growing success of Merton’s 1938 ASR article, we maintain, is indicative of the status of Merton’s contribution as a ‘classic’ among contemporary sociologists.

Though now revered as a classical contribution, the Mertonian paradigm of strain and anomie is today much less applied and tested in empirical research and is generally not discussed in theoretical excursions in an intellectually meaningful degree of detail. Instead, references to Merton’s social-structure-and-anomie paradigm have changed qualitatively to become, as Stephen Cole (1975) suggested, “ceremonial” in nature (p. 209).3 These kinds of references are more likely to be made to the 1938 version which presented the theory in its most seminal form, even though that early formulation is rather sketchy and lacks the sophistication of the expanded STSS versions, not to mention the entire body of work in the social-structure-and-anomie paradigm.

The price of becoming a classic is that one is no longer a contemporary. And we do not see the giants on whose shoulders we stand. What our citation analysis cannot reveal is that this effect is perhaps even more acute in the contemporary textbook literature, in which it is almost always the original “Social Structure and Anomie” article from 1938 that is reprinted (see Snell, Green, and Wakefield 1994). This is surely acceptable when a compendium explicitly deals with the history of criminological thought (e.g., Rock 1994:389-402), especially when one wishes to indicate that Merton was among the first to develop a distinctly sociological theory of deviant behavior that reacted against biological and psychological explanations (Merton 1938:672; see also Merton and Ashley-Montagu 1939).

But the practice is more problematic when a compendium is meant to contribute to the systematics of criminological theory (e.g., Pontell 1999:37-44). Among the most critical shortcomings of the ambiguous ceremonial status of Merton’s paradigm in respect to the systematics of theory are the many continued misunderstandings and misreadings of Merton’s theoretical formulations and their relevance for contemporary work on crime and deviant behavior. In the remainder of this paper we will focus on some of these theoretical issues and particularly bring out the existence and implications of at least two theories in the social-structure-and-anomie paradigm.


Borrowing a term sociologically introduced by Durkheim (1893), Merton adopts the anomie concept as part of his effort to suggest that biological explanations of deviant behavior are inadequate to explain social reality and that instead structural conditions should be considered as inducing deviation from prescribed patterns of conduct. Although the concept of anomie appears in the title of Merton’s original article, the term is used only casually in two passages, without even a mention to Durkheim (Levine 1985:57).

Later papers by Merton more explicitly include and discuss the term, also referencing Durkheim (e.g., Merton 1968a:189), but the usage and meaning of the term is clearly multiple and not entirely consistent with Durkheim’s use (Deflem 1989; Hilbert 1989; Levine 1985:57-61). Furthermore, the macro-sociological concept of anomie has often been confused with the social-psychological concept of anomia, although Merton himself clearly distinguished between the two (Merton 1968b:215-217).

The conceptual ambiguity over Merton’s anomie concept is at least partly a result of Merton’s own inconsistent use of the term. As Donald Levine (1985) argues, Merton’s various formulations of anomie demonstrate “a pattern of steadily increasing semantic confusion…” (p. 58). Levine argues that Merton employed at least ten definitions of anomie from 1938 to 1964 (Sztompka [1998] suggests four definitions). This cloudiness of meaning causes Levine (1985) to opine that “Merton failed to acknowledge the ambiguities of anomie in his own work…” (p. 60).

How then can we define Merton’s concept of anomie? For the purposes of this paper it is useful to rely on the two social-structure-and-anomie chapters from Merton’s revised and enlarged edition of Social Theory and Social Structure (Merton 1957a, b, 1968a, b). It is in this work that Merton was most concerned with developing and clarifying the paradigm, devoting an entire new chapter to the matter in which he also included separate sections on “The Extended Concept of Anomie” and “Indicators of Anomie” (Merton 1968b:215-220).

The one most precise, if not always consistently used, definition of anomie provided by Merton refers to “a literal demoralization, i.e., a de-institutionalization, of the means” which is the consequence of a dissociation between cultural goals and institutional norms (Merton 1968a:190). Anomie has often been believed to refer to a general imbalance between cultural goals and the legitimate ways to achieve those goals (Deflem 1989). That is clearly not the case, for Merton’s concept of anomie refers to “a specific imbalance where cultural goals are overemphasized at the expense of institutionalized means” (Orrù 1987:122).

Unfortunately, as Farnworth and Leiber (1989:263) argue, more generalizing conceptual reinterpretations of Merton’s theory have added to the disillusionment of Merton’s model. What Merton primarily adjusted in the different versions of his work from the 1938 article to the 1968 chapters is the nature of the source of anomie. As Marco Orrù (1987:138-141) argues, in the 1938 article Merton uses the notion of anomie very broadly to refer to any kind of imbalance between cultural goals and institutionalized means.

Merton suggests that when means and goals are emphasized at disproportionate levels, anomie will be the result. Yet, elsewhere in the paper Merton describes anomie in terms of a particular type of disjunction of means and goals: when society stresses the achievement of cultural goals but does not as equally emphasize the prescribed means to those goals a de-institutionalization of means occurs and “the integration of society becomes tenuous and anomie ensues” (Merton 1938:674). From this early formulation it is clear that anomie refers to having such a singular devotion to the goals of society that following the designated means to achieving th