The aboveis a question which many criminologists have sought to answer, thus promptingnumerous speculations, sentiments and perspectives that do not necessarilycoincide with each other, but what they do agree on is that the idea thatunattainable cultural goals lead to criminal deviancy is called the straintheory.
In this essay, I plan to critically examine strain as introduced byMerton and further expanded on by others, such as Agnew. To put into plainwords the meaning of cultural goals and how the pressure to achieve these goalsoccur nowadays, and importantly, why some of these cultural goals areunattainable. At that juncture, I will explain my thoughts to the currentquestion with reasons regarding why I am partially convinced that criminal behaviour can be explained by examining thetension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goalsand the actual ability to secure those goals. Mertonfirst developed the strain theory in the 1940s to explain the rising crimerates being experienced at the time.
Merton himself defined the theory as “theperceived relationship between the creation and pursuit of culturally desiredgoals, and one’s ability to achieve those goals through socially permittedconduct” (1938: 673). The strain theory is a theory that expresses thatsociety puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals, thoughthey lack the means or methods of doing such and that then leads to individualsfinding ways to cope with the pressure, which may include deviant behaviour.Merton (1938) uses the example of the American dream where he argues that theAmerican public is assured, by a set of meritocratic principles, that equalityof opportunity was available to all, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity, “The’American Dream’ encourages individuals to pursue a goal of success which islargely measured in terms of the acquisition of wealth and materialpossessions. People are expected to pursue this goal through legitimate meanssuch as education and work. The dominant cultural message is if you areambitious, talented and work hard, then income and wealth will be your reward”(1938: 675).
However,Merton points out that “these goals are not attainable by all, thestructural organisation of the USA means that the ways to achieve such goalsare not fairly distributed and it is difficult, if not impossible for some toachieve financial success” (1938:675). He then goes ahead to state thatthe gap between their goals and their current status causes strain and whenfaced with strain people have five ways to adapt; “1.Conformity: they continuing to pursuing cultural goals through sociallyapproved means.2.Innovation: they begin to use socially unapproved or unconventional means toobtain culturally approved goals.
3.Ritualism: they use the same socially approved means to achieve less elusivegoals.4.
Retreatism: they reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it,then find a way to escape it.5.Rebellion: they reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them”(1938:677). But Iwill only be focusing on the adaptions that lead to criminal behaviour due tochasing those unattainable goals.Culturalgoals are of significance in the theory, but what exactly are cultural goals? Culturalgoals are a set of goals that society prescribed for and or implored on thosewithin the society to achieve.
For example, back when Merton wrote the theory ofthe cultural goal was to be rich and successful. But things aren’t the sameanymore, these days society feeds us more than just monetary success asexplained by Agnew, “Classic strain theories of Merton (1938), A. Cohen (1955), and Clowardand Ohlin (1960) focus on only one type of relationship: relationships in whichothers prevent the individual from achieving positively valued goals.
Theyfocused on the goal blockage experienced by lower-class individuals trying toachieve monetary success or middle-class status. More recent versions of straintheory have argued that adolescents are not only concerned about the futuregoals of monetary success/middle-class status, but are also concerned about theachievement of more immediate goals such as good grades, popularity with theopposite sex, and doing well in athletics” (1992:49).Lifehas evolved to the stage where being rich or successful is only half the jobdone, now you need to be rich, successful, have a beautiful partner, bebeautiful yourself, have white teeth, be in shape, raise kids, drive the bestcar, have the biggest house, spend time with your family, have many friends, beof influence within the society, win awards, have a master’s degree and evenhave pets. Culturalgoals aren’t the only things that have changed, even the way they are now beingperceived has also changed. Before it was by word of mouth, people telling youabout the American dream, or by seeing, seeing your successful neighbours, nowwe have technology spreading the goals about, with the likes of the televisionwhere it is being shown “how we can become the perfect person,” or “How we canget in shape”, the news of goals we should be attaining is never far from ourears 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 livelife at the top. The importance of those goals is also very stressed withinsociety, as explained by Merton “Many poor individuals, in particular, arein a situation in which they face strong economic/status demands, people aroundthem stress the importance of money/status on a regular basis, and fewalternative goals are given cultural support” (1938:677); so whether it is a parent begging you toachieve good grade or if it is a billboard telling you to get a tan in order tobe apparently more beautiful, the emphasis and stress placed on accomplishingsuch goals have taken away the joy achieved from them unless the goal issuccessfully achieved (Merton,1938). It is no longer funto participate unless you are successful. It is at this point that the problemsbegin to occur, the strong emphasis on being able to achieve the goals trumpsany importance on attaining it legally, they become two separate entitiesrather than one.
Merton describes it by saying “The extreme emphasis upon theaccumulation of wealth as a symbol of success in our own society militatesagainst the completely effective control of institutionally regulated modes ofacquiring a fortune. Fraud, corruption, vice, crime, in short, the entirecatalogue of proscribed behaviour, become increasingly common when the emphasison the culturally induced success-goal becomes divorced from a coordinatedinstitutional emphasis” (1938:679).Whenpeople begin to think of them as separate entities then the idea of “cheating”becomes more appealing and becoming “innovative” is much easier as the rewardof success surpasses the risk of “cheating”, especially when success cannotoccur without a little help. If the goals are high in importance, and theindividual has little alternatives then the deviant behaviour is looked at asthe way forward (Agnew, 1992).
Thenext step would be to ask ourselves the question of why such goals areunachievable for some but yet can be accomplished by others? The answer wouldseem to be within the structure of society, not everyone can be rich and havemillions of pounds because if such was to exist then money would lose itsvalue, as everyone has it, thus in that sense is anyone rich at all? Added tothe fact that it could lead to economic markets crashing and failing, societycannot allow such to happen hence, the regulation of money is so strong and noteasily accessible. It is the lower classes that suffer the most. (Featherstoneand Deflem, 2003) Thesaying that the rich keep on getting richer while the poor keep on gettingpoorer applies to society nowadays, as it takes money to earn serious moneythrough things like investing, starting a business or creating a product. Asmentioned earlier, monetary success is not the only goal that people aim forthese days, but yet even in the other categories, a blockage will still beexperienced, as explained by Agnew “There is a youth subculture that emphasizesa variety of immediate goals. The achievement of these goals is further said todepend on a variety of factors besides social class: factors such asintelligence, physical attractiveness, personality, and athletic ability. As aresult, many middle-class individuals find that they lack the traits or skillsnecessary to achieve their goals through legitimate channels” (1992:54).Not everyone is born beautiful or can afford plastic surgery to enhance theirfeatures, hence the growth in back alley operations, not everyone is smart andcan get good grades, hence the growth in cheating over the past few years etc.Essentiallylife is not fair and even when there is no man-made obstruction to achievingsome of these goals, natural obstructions will still be there.
It was not anoriginal thing for certain goals to be unachievable but it became surprisingwhen people began to become “innovative” to achieve those goals, and accordingto Featherstone and Deflem it was down to the cultural emphasis increasing overthe years, due to an increase in technology, “While the success value isdominant across society, legitimate means are not equally accessible, it is thecombination of the increased cultural emphasis and the social structure whichproduces intense pressure for deviation” (2003:473).Butaccording to Agnew it was due to the cost of crime being little and thebenefits being perceived as high due to the intense emphasis by society, “criminalcoping will be more likely when individuals encounter situations where thecosts 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 theytend to become “innovative”, though not all but some will take any mean whetherlegal or illegal to achieve the goals. This is the reason I am partiallyconvinced by the idea that criminal behaviour can be explained by examining thetension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goalsand the actual ability to secure those goals. When society has placed the ideathat achieving those goals will change your life for the better then theselfishness of human nature kicks in and we all aspire to achieve those samegoals.
When it becomes clear that we cannot all achieve those goals legallythen we are faced with only two options (that doesn’t involve giving up totallyor retreating from society), either we change our goals and aim for lessergoals or we find any means to achieving those goals whether legal or not, andwith such emphasis being put on achieving those goals it is obvious thatindividuals will not want to aim any lesser, leaving them only the secondoption. Thus, society indirectly encourages criminal behaviour by putting out themessage that these goals should be achieved at all costs, as stated byFeatherstone and Deflem, “In this sense, it is the social structurethat is postulated to be putting pressure on individuals to commit crime”(2003:475). On theother hand, I am not fully convinced , that criminal behaviour can be explainedby examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particularcultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals because we cannotexplain the whole of criminal behaviour based on that theory (Keith, 2011), inorder words there are holes in the theory as clarified by Agnew”These theories are unable to explain the extensive nature of middle-classdelinquency, neglect barriers to goal achievement other than social class, anddo not fully specify why only some strained individuals turn to delinquency”(1992:55).Ibelieve that by just examining the tension between an emphasis upon theattainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure thosegoals we cannot fully explain criminal behaviour. But rather, there are otherfactors that are to be considered alongside the strain experienced, such asemotions, personal experiences, social supports, moral beliefs, inclusivitywithin society and even the level of strain they are facing etc (Keith, 2011).Agnew also provided other factors to take into account alongside the tensionbetween an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and theactual ability to secure those goals, “the choice of crime and deviance as acoping mechanism may arise from internal and external factors, as some factorsmay provide the proper conditions for crime and deviance.
Specifically, socialsupports, temperament, intelligence, values, self-esteem, moral beliefs,deviant peer association, prior crime and deviance, and self-efficacy, theseare instrumental in selecting crime and deviance as a form of coping withstrain” (1992:55).Emotionsplay a big part in whether individuals turn to crime or not, Agnew states that “strainproduces negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, frustration,depression, fear, or hopelessness. Negative emotions, especially anger, createspressure in the individual that needs to be alleviated. Anger is more likely tolead to crime than other negative emotions because angry people perceive lowercosts 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 makeregrettable decisions, emotions such as anger are especially strong as theytake over the individuals brain and suppress any rational thinking or any otherfeelings, most of humanities worst crimes have been committed under the cloudsof anger. Other emotions such as desperation are also strong because when webecome desperate, we are willing to do nearly anything to get us out of thatcircumstance whether it takes criminal conduct or not.Anotherhuge factor to be considered is the traits of the individual if they havetraits such as intelligence, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills,creativity, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Then they will have better-copingskills and can cope with disappointments and better yet find a legal andlogical way to eventually achieve their goals (Agnew, 2006). These traits alsoaffect strain itself, when one is in possession of such traits they may notfeel as much strain as those who have coping problems. This also ties intopersonal experiences of the individual, as Polizzi explains, “Howan individual reacts to the experience of strain will likely be influenced bythe circumstances of his or her social situation as well as the expectationsthis situation imposes on personal experience. Certain social contexts willdemand a specific response to the experience of strain that from anotherperspective is likely to be viewed as deviant or criminal” (2011:1053).
If the individual has been exposed to crimeand hangs around with deviant peers then their automatic response to strainwill be deviant, but to them their behaviour is normal because that is whatthey have been exposed to and vice versa, if the individual has grown upadhering to all the rules of society then becoming deviant to cope with thestrain, is not a likely outcome.Socialsupport is similarly an important factor to consider, what I mean by socialsupport is when those that surround you within the society help and support youduring a difficult time or a time when you begin to experience strain. Agnewexplains why people with high amounts of social support are less likely tobecome criminal deviant, “Those who lack conventional social supportswill be more likely to respond to strain with a crime.
This is because thosewho have conventional social supports can rely on a variety of people to helpthem 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 withlow social support can easily fall into deviancy because they have no one tocounsel them or support them. It is even worse when the social support they dohave turns against them, this could include such things as hostility fromparents, rejection by peers and negative experiences at school (Polizzi, 2011).Such things could drive anyone over the edge and that is not comparable tosomeone already facing strain from the society.Moralbeliefs are likewise a factor because if the individual has moral beliefs andexercises them regularly then becoming deviant will be an unlikely response tostrain. Unsurprisingly society also affects an individual’s moral belief, askids, we are taught what is right and wrong by those around us within thesociety, our parents, teachers and even our neighbours, but when those spacesare void it is often filled with other things such as television shows, peersand social media.
The problem is that we are taught what is right and wrongaccording to each of those sources, so if they are deviant, then we are taughtthat deviancy isn’t as wrong as society makes it out to be and those who arebrought up in those kinds of situations are more likely to result to deviancyas a coping mechanism to strain. Agnew explains that “the larger social environmentmay affect the individual’s coping to particular strains by influencing theindividual’s beliefs regarding what is and is not wrong” (1992:62). Societyseems 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 theindividual copes with the strain itself.Anotherinfluence the society has on the individual which determines whether he copeswith the strain with a deviant behaviour or not is social inclusivity. Socialinclusivity refers to being involved in the society and having ties to thesociety, such as being a teacher or a priest within the society. If one is insuch position and has many ties within the society, then becoming deviant isless likely because they are more involved within the society and becomingdeviant will be taking away from the society in which they already give to. Butthose that are outsiders, that are not within the society or do not have anystrong bonds to the society are likely to become deviant because they believethey do not owe society anything due to their position in life.
Keith justifiesthis by saying “those low in social control, or those who do not believe crime iswrong, those who have few emotional bonds with conventional others, and thosewho are not invested in conventional activities within the society will be morelikely to cope with strain through crime” (2011:872). The feeling of being part of something, like afamily or the society as a whole, would make a sane individual because let usface it psychotic people have been known to kill family members, less likely tobecome deviant toward the group they are part of for obvious reasons.Themost apparent factor on the individual which determines how they cope withstrain is the amount of strain they are facing, one person failing to providefor their family will be facing more strain than someone under pressure to passa test, it is more likely that the person suffering from the bigger pressure iswilling to go the extra length, even if it means criminal deviancy, becausethey are in the more despairing situation.
Keith explains that “strainsthat are seen as high in magnitude, viewed as unjust, associated with lowsocial control or create some incentive for criminal coping are more likely toresult in crime” (2011:885), and it is hard to argue with thatstatement as I have previously shown why each of those factors affects one’sdecision to cope with strain through criminal behaviour.Thequestion asked, “how convinced are you by the idea that criminal behaviour canbe explained by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainmentof particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals?”After going through the meaning of strain and how it affects individuals I ampartially convinced that we can explain criminal behaviour by examining thetension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goalsand the actual ability to secure those goals. The reason for my partiality isdue to the fact that I believe that the actual strain is not the only factor inwhich we can use to explain criminal behaviour, although it is a big factor. Ihave showed why we have to consider other factors such as emotions, personalexperiences, social supports, moral beliefs, inclusivity within society andeven the level of the strain they are facing when trying to explain criminalbehaviour by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment ofparticular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals.