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Rebellion is the most extreme form of deviance according to American sociologist Robert Merton. Rebellion can lead to crime, violence, and terrorism. Learn the definition of rebellion and the causes and effects of rebellion in this lesson.

What Is Rebellion?

Chris grew up in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood.

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He strived to do well in elementary school, motivated by his dream to live in a wealthy neighborhood with a big house and fancy car. After academic struggles and personal hardship throughout elementary school, Chris slowly gave up the idea that he would ever do well in school and be wealthy. When he met gang members in middle school, his new goal became earning status and respect in the gang. The means to doing this was by committing crimes. This example of Chris highlights the epitome of rebellion from a sociological standpoint.Rebellion is when a person rejects culturally and society-defined goals and means and actively replaces them with culturally unacceptable ones.

Five Modes of Adaptation

Rebellion is the most extreme form of sociologist Robert K.

Merton’s classification of types of deviance. Merton claimed that deviance can be determined by two factors: 1. How motivated someone is to achieve culturally accepted goals and 2. If that person perceives the means to obtain those goals as reachable. Here, we will review Merton’s five modes of adaptation:

  1. Conformity– This is the antithesis of deviance. It means accepting cultural goals and socially acceptable means to get those goals.

    For example, an adult in the United States going after the ”American dream” by going to college, getting a good-paying job, marrying, and having kids.

  2. Innovation– This is when one accepts the cultural goals, but they reject the traditional or legal means to obtain them. For example, an entrepreneur wants to buy a nice house and have a lot of money, but utilizes illegal methods to obtain that money.

  3. Ritualism– This involves rejection of cultural goals but acceptance of the means of achieving those goals. An example of this would be a factory worker in China who doesn’t agree with the government’s low wages of factory workers, but continues to work hard at his job day in and day out.
  4. Retreatism– This is rejection of cultural goals and means required to obtain those goals. An example would be a teenager who gives up on school and the prospect of college/work by smoking marijuana and getting high every day.
  5. Rebellion– This differs from retreatism because not only does a person reject both culturally accepted goals and means, but they actively replace them with completely different goals and means.

Causes and Effects of Rebellion

The cause of rebellion can be explained in part by Robert Merton’s strain theory. The strain theory states that people may deviate or rebel if there is an inconsistency between culturally defined goals and the accessible means to obtain those goals. This discrepancy can cause strain that can lead to the crime, violence, and murder that are the effects of rebellion.Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1: Terrorism

Terrorists utilize violence and murder as a vehicle for spreading their political message. Say a young adult immigrates to Europe and feels marginalized, or excluded, from the culture and political system there.

He feels that his values don’t mesh with the culturally defined goals of that society. He believes that even if he had the same goals, the means of obtaining those goals would be unreachable. He meets a group of people who also feel marginalized and they decide to rebel against the system by bombing various areas to spread their message of discontent with the system and feelings of hatred.

Example 2: Mass Shooting

Or, say a teenager of a wealthy family is tired of being bullied his entire life and never feeling like he fit into the perfect world of his private school’s or his parents’ country club’s lifestyle. He doesn’t aspire to go to college, and smokes marijuana to relieve the emotional pain. Right now, he is at the level of Merton’s retreatism.

But, this teen’s anger and resentment lead him to a new goal: revenge by way of homicide and suicide (rebellion). His means for achieving revenge? He locates a machine gun, finds the nearest crowded area, and shoots innocent people before ending his own life.The consequences of terrorism and mass shootings are extreme forms of rebellion, and they always end tragically.

However, not all acts of rebellion are senseless. Sometimes rebellion leads to revolution, or a dramatic change in how a political system operates.

Example 3: The Stonewall Riots

In 1969, public displays of homosexuality were outlawed by the U.S. government.

When police raided a bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NYC, the same year, the two hundred patrons had no intention of surrendering. They threw bottles at police officers and were joined by others in the streets in protest. The Stonewall Riots were considered a catalyst of the Gay Rights Movement. One year later, the first gay parade in New York City took place on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Lesson Summary

Rebellion is rejection of culturally defined goals and means and active replacement with culturally unacceptable ones. Robert Merton stated that deviance is determined by motivation to achieve culturally defined goals and perception of accessibility of the means to achieve them.

He identified five modes of adaptation: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.The strain theory states that people may deviate or rebel if there is an inconsistency between culturally defined goals and the accessible means to obtain them. Rebellion can come in the form of tragedy, such in the case of terrorism, mass shootings, and other forms of crime.

However, it can also be seen as a means of revolution or changing the political landscape for the better.

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