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The above
is a question which many criminologists have sought to answer, thus prompting
numerous speculations, sentiments and perspectives that do not necessarily
coincide with each other, but what they do agree on is that the idea that
unattainable cultural goals lead to criminal deviancy is called the strain
theory. In this essay, I plan to critically examine strain as introduced by
Merton and further expanded on by others, such as Agnew. To put into plain
words the meaning of cultural goals and how the pressure to achieve these goals
occur nowadays, and importantly, why some of these cultural goals are
unattainable. At that juncture, I will explain my thoughts to the current
question with reasons regarding why I am partially convinced that criminal behaviour can be explained by examining the
tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals
and the actual ability to secure those goals.


first developed the strain theory in the 1940s to explain the rising crime
rates being experienced at the time. Merton himself defined the theory as “the
perceived relationship between the creation and pursuit of culturally desired
goals, and one’s ability to achieve those goals through socially permitted
conduct” (1938: 673). The strain theory is a theory that expresses that
society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals, though
they lack the means or methods of doing such and that then leads to individuals
finding ways to cope with the pressure, which may include deviant behaviour.
Merton (1938) uses the example of the American dream where he argues that the
American public is assured, by a set of meritocratic principles, that equality
of opportunity was available to all, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity, “The
‘American Dream’ encourages individuals to pursue a goal of success which is
largely measured in terms of the acquisition of wealth and material
possessions. People are expected to pursue this goal through legitimate means
such as education and work. The dominant cultural message is if you are
ambitious, talented and work hard, then income and wealth will be your reward”
(1938: 675).

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Merton points out that “these goals are not attainable by all, the
structural organisation of the USA means that the ways to achieve such goals
are not fairly distributed and it is difficult, if not impossible for some to
achieve financial success” (1938:675). He then goes ahead to state that
the gap between their goals and their current status causes strain and when
faced with strain people have five ways to adapt;

Conformity: they continuing to pursuing cultural goals through socially
approved means.

Innovation: they begin to use socially unapproved or unconventional means to
obtain culturally approved goals.

Ritualism: they use the same socially approved means to achieve less elusive

Retreatism: they reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it,
then find a way to escape it.

Rebellion: they reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them”

But I
will only be focusing on the adaptions that lead to criminal behaviour due to
chasing those unattainable goals.

goals are of significance in the theory, but what exactly are cultural goals? Cultural
goals are a set of goals that society prescribed for and or implored on those
within the society to achieve. For example, back when Merton wrote the theory of
the cultural goal was to be rich and successful. But things aren’t the same
anymore, these days society feeds us more than just monetary success as
explained by Agnew, “Classic strain theories of Merton (1938), A. Cohen (1955), and Cloward
and Ohlin (1960) focus on only one type of relationship: relationships in which
others prevent the individual from achieving positively valued goals. They
focused on the goal blockage experienced by lower-class individuals trying to
achieve monetary success or middle-class status. More recent versions of strain
theory have argued that adolescents are not only concerned about the future
goals of monetary success/middle-class status, but are also concerned about the
achievement of more immediate goals such as good grades, popularity with the
opposite sex, and doing well in athletics” (1992:49).

has evolved to the stage where being rich or successful is only half the job
done, now you need to be rich, successful, have a beautiful partner, be
beautiful yourself, have white teeth, be in shape, raise kids, drive the best
car, have the biggest house, spend time with your family, have many friends, be
of influence within the society, win awards, have a master’s degree and even
have pets.

goals aren’t the only things that have changed, even the way they are now being
perceived has also changed. Before it was by word of mouth, people telling you
about the American dream, or by seeing, seeing your successful neighbours, now
we have technology spreading the goals about, with the likes of the television
where it is being shown “how we can become the perfect person,” or “How we can
get in shape”, the news of goals we should be attaining is never far from our
ears or eyes, this became especially true with the growth of social media,
where you can see you peers achieving their goals and how it is like to live
life at the top. The importance of those goals is also very stressed within
society, as explained by Merton “Many poor individuals, in particular, are
in a situation in which they face strong economic/status demands, people around
them stress the importance of money/status on a regular basis, and few
alternative goals are given cultural support” (1938:677);  so whether it is a parent begging you to
achieve good grade or if it is a billboard telling you to get a tan in order to
be apparently more beautiful, the emphasis and stress placed on accomplishing
such goals have taken away the joy achieved from them unless the goal is
successfully achieved (Merton,1938). It is no longer fun
to participate unless you are successful. It is at this point that the problems
begin to occur, the strong emphasis on being able to achieve the goals trumps
any importance on attaining it legally, they become two separate entities
rather than one. Merton describes it by saying “The extreme emphasis upon the
accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success in our own society militates
against the completely effective control of institutionally regulated modes of
acquiring a fortune. Fraud, corruption, vice, crime, in short, the entire
catalogue of proscribed behaviour, become increasingly common when the emphasis
on the culturally induced success-goal becomes divorced from a coordinated
institutional emphasis” (1938:679).

people begin to think of them as separate entities then the idea of “cheating”
becomes more appealing and becoming “innovative” is much easier as the reward
of success surpasses the risk of “cheating”, especially when success cannot
occur without a little help. If the goals are high in importance, and the
individual has little alternatives then the deviant behaviour is looked at as
the way forward (Agnew, 1992).

next step would be to ask ourselves the question of why such goals are
unachievable for some but yet can be accomplished by others? The answer would
seem to be within the structure of society, not everyone can be rich and have
millions of pounds because if such was to exist then money would lose its
value, as everyone has it, thus in that sense is anyone rich at all? Added to
the fact that it could lead to economic markets crashing and failing, society
cannot allow such to happen hence, the regulation of money is so strong and not
easily accessible. It is the lower classes that suffer the most. (Featherstone
and Deflem, 2003)

saying that the rich keep on getting richer while the poor keep on getting
poorer applies to society nowadays, as it takes money to earn serious money
through things like investing, starting a business or creating a product. As
mentioned earlier, monetary success is not the only goal that people aim for
these days, but yet even in the other categories, a blockage will still be
experienced, as explained by Agnew “There is a youth subculture that emphasizes
a variety of immediate goals. The achievement of these goals is further said to
depend on a variety of factors besides social class: factors such as
intelligence, physical attractiveness, personality, and athletic ability. As a
result, many middle-class individuals find that they lack the traits or skills
necessary to achieve their goals through legitimate channels” (1992:54).
Not everyone is born beautiful or can afford plastic surgery to enhance their
features, hence the growth in back alley operations, not everyone is smart and
can get good grades, hence the growth in cheating over the past few years etc.

life is not fair and even when there is no man-made obstruction to achieving
some of these goals, natural obstructions will still be there. It was not an
original thing for certain goals to be unachievable but it became surprising
when people began to become “innovative” to achieve those goals, and according
to Featherstone and Deflem it was down to the cultural emphasis increasing over
the years, due to an increase in technology, “While the success value is
dominant across society, legitimate means are not equally accessible, it is the
combination of the increased cultural emphasis and the social structure which
produces intense pressure for deviation” (2003:473).

according to Agnew it was due to the cost of crime being little and the
benefits being perceived as high due to the intense emphasis by society, “criminal
coping will be more likely when individuals encounter situations where the
costs of crime are low and the benefits are perceived as high” (1992:49).
Regardless of the reason, when people are faced with an unattainable goal they
tend to become “innovative”, though not all but some will take any mean whether
legal or illegal to achieve the goals. This is the reason I am partially
convinced by the idea that criminal behaviour can be explained by examining the
tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals
and the actual ability to secure those goals. When society has placed the idea
that achieving those goals will change your life for the better then the
selfishness of human nature kicks in and we all aspire to achieve those same
goals. When it becomes clear that we cannot all achieve those goals legally
then we are faced with only two options (that doesn’t involve giving up totally
or retreating from society), either we change our goals and aim for lesser
goals or we find any means to achieving those goals whether legal or not, and
with such emphasis being put on achieving those goals it is obvious that
individuals will not want to aim any lesser, leaving them only the second
option. Thus, society indirectly encourages criminal behaviour by putting out the
message that these goals should be achieved at all costs, as stated by
Featherstone and Deflem, “In this sense, it is the social structure
that is postulated to be putting pressure on individuals to commit crime”

On the
other hand, I am not fully convinced , that criminal behaviour can be explained
by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular
cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals because we cannot
explain the whole of criminal behaviour based on that theory (Keith, 2011), in
order words there are holes in the theory as clarified by Agnew
“These theories are unable to explain the extensive nature of middle-class
delinquency, neglect barriers to goal achievement other than social class, and
do not fully specify why only some strained individuals turn to delinquency”

believe that by just examining the tension between an emphasis upon the
attainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those
goals we cannot fully explain criminal behaviour. But rather, there are other
factors that are to be considered alongside the strain experienced, such as
emotions, personal experiences, social supports, moral beliefs, inclusivity
within society and even the level of strain they are facing etc (Keith, 2011).
Agnew also provided other factors to take into account alongside the tension
between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and the
actual ability to secure those goals, “the choice of crime and deviance as a
coping mechanism may arise from internal and external factors, as some factors
may provide the proper conditions for crime and deviance. Specifically, social
supports, temperament, intelligence, values, self-esteem, moral beliefs,
deviant peer association, prior crime and deviance, and self-efficacy, these
are instrumental in selecting crime and deviance as a form of coping with
strain” (1992:55).

play a big part in whether individuals turn to crime or not, Agnew states that “strain
produces negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, frustration,
depression, fear, or hopelessness. Negative emotions, especially anger, creates
pressure in the individual that needs to be alleviated. Anger is more likely to
lead to crime than other negative emotions because angry people perceive lower
costs of committing a crime, they justify criminal acts and feel less guilt,
and they are unable to discuss and resolve problems calmly and rationally.
Moreover, anger creates a sense of power and a desire for revenge” (2006:16).
When emotions are involved people tend not to think straight and thus make
regrettable decisions, emotions such as anger are especially strong as they
take over the individuals brain and suppress any rational thinking or any other
feelings, most of humanities worst crimes have been committed under the clouds
of anger. Other emotions such as desperation are also strong because when we
become desperate, we are willing to do nearly anything to get us out of that
circumstance whether it takes criminal conduct or not.

huge factor to be considered is the traits of the individual if they have
traits such as intelligence, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills,
creativity, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Then they will have better-coping
skills and can cope with disappointments and better yet find a legal and
logical way to eventually achieve their goals (Agnew, 2006). These traits also
affect strain itself, when one is in possession of such traits they may not
feel as much strain as those who have coping problems. This also ties into
personal experiences of the individual, as Polizzi explains, “How
an individual reacts to the experience of strain will likely be influenced by
the circumstances of his or her social situation as well as the expectations
this situation imposes on personal experience. Certain social contexts will
demand a specific response to the experience of strain that from another
perspective is likely to be viewed as deviant or criminal” (2011:1053).  If the individual has been exposed to crime
and hangs around with deviant peers then their automatic response to strain
will be deviant, but to them their behaviour is normal because that is what
they have been exposed to and vice versa, if the individual has grown up
adhering to all the rules of society then becoming deviant to cope with the
strain, is not a likely outcome.

support is similarly an important factor to consider, what I mean by social
support is when those that surround you within the society help and support you
during a difficult time or a time when you begin to experience strain. Agnew
explains why people with high amounts of social support are less likely to
become criminal deviant, “Those who lack conventional social supports
will be more likely to respond to strain with a crime. This is because those
who have conventional social supports can rely on a variety of people to help
them cope with strain such as parents, teachers, friends, romantic partners,
neighbourhood residents, and church members” (1992:53).  It is easy to see why those without or with
low social support can easily fall into deviancy because they have no one to
counsel them or support them. It is even worse when the social support they do
have turns against them, this could include such things as hostility from
parents, rejection by peers and negative experiences at school (Polizzi, 2011).
Such things could drive anyone over the edge and that is not comparable to
someone already facing strain from the society.

beliefs are likewise a factor because if the individual has moral beliefs and
exercises them regularly then becoming deviant will be an unlikely response to
strain. Unsurprisingly society also affects an individual’s moral belief, as
kids, we are taught what is right and wrong by those around us within the
society, our parents, teachers and even our neighbours, but when those spaces
are void it is often filled with other things such as television shows, peers
and social media. The problem is that we are taught what is right and wrong
according to each of those sources, so if they are deviant, then we are taught
that deviancy isn’t as wrong as society makes it out to be and those who are
brought up in those kinds of situations are more likely to result to deviancy
as a coping mechanism to strain. Agnew explains that “the larger social environment
may affect the individual’s coping to particular strains by influencing the
individual’s beliefs regarding what is and is not wrong” (1992:62). Society
seems to be the biggest factor in whether an individual turns deviant or not,
either if it is by providing strain to the individual or by influencing how the
individual copes with the strain itself.

influence the society has on the individual which determines whether he copes
with the strain with a deviant behaviour or not is social inclusivity. Social
inclusivity refers to being involved in the society and having ties to the
society, such as being a teacher or a priest within the society. If one is in
such position and has many ties within the society, then becoming deviant is
less likely because they are more involved within the society and becoming
deviant will be taking away from the society in which they already give to. But
those that are outsiders, that are not within the society or do not have any
strong bonds to the society are likely to become deviant because they believe
they do not owe society anything due to their position in life. Keith justifies
this by saying “those low in social control, or those who do not believe crime is
wrong, those who have few emotional bonds with conventional others, and those
who are not invested in conventional activities within the society will be more
likely to cope with strain through crime” (2011:872).  The feeling of being part of something, like a
family or the society as a whole, would make a sane individual because let us
face it psychotic people have been known to kill family members, less likely to
become deviant toward the group they are part of for obvious reasons.

most apparent factor on the individual which determines how they cope with
strain is the amount of strain they are facing, one person failing to provide
for their family will be facing more strain than someone under pressure to pass
a test, it is more likely that the person suffering from the bigger pressure is
willing to go the extra length, even if it means criminal deviancy, because
they are in the more despairing situation. Keith explains that “strains
that are seen as high in magnitude, viewed as unjust, associated with low
social control or create some incentive for criminal coping are more likely to
result in crime” (2011:885), and it is hard to argue with that
statement as I have previously shown why each of those factors affects one’s
decision to cope with strain through criminal behaviour.

question asked, “how convinced are you by the idea that criminal behaviour can
be explained by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment
of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals?”
After going through the meaning of strain and how it affects individuals I am
partially convinced that we can explain criminal behaviour by examining the
tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals
and the actual ability to secure those goals. The reason for my partiality is
due to the fact that I believe that the actual strain is not the only factor in
which we can use to explain criminal behaviour, although it is a big factor. I
have showed why we have to consider other factors such as emotions, personal
experiences, social supports, moral beliefs, inclusivity within society and
even the level of the strain they are facing when trying to explain criminal
behaviour by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of
particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals.

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