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May 23, 2013 / C H Thompson

Merton’s Strain to Anomie

Before moving on to Merton, it is best if we run through some key aspects of Durkheim. As we have discovered mice-and-menDurkheim’s position is crime is a consequence of societies based on values of competitive individualism structured within a high division of labour (competition and the division of labour being a feature of advanced, industrialized countries).

In such dynamic conditions according to Durkheim, crime is an ‘integral part of all healthy societies’. It’s inevitability being not every member of society will automatically sign-up to society’s value-consensus as everyone is open to different influences.

Crime therefore is inevitable as social change begins with some sort of deviance from the norm. Crime only becomes an issue – dysfunctional – when crime rates are too high or low. In such situations society’s regulations would be seen to be either too restrictive or too lose respectively. For example the rate at which individuals deviate from the norm is related to the degree of integration and cohesiveness between society’s members.

The higher the rate of suicides (or crime) in times of economic crisis is explained by the lack of regulation in society. This is because society encourages aspirational individualism, which in times when these aspirations can’t be realised. Therefore a state of anomie (normlessness) will occur until occur leading to increased incidence of suicide (or crime) unless new regulations are imposed.

It was this idea of the unobtainable dream as a cause of anomie, which Merton developed.

  1. Merton said the American Dream or meritocracy is seen as available to everyone but in reality people are restricted by social structures caused a ‘strain to anomie’ or frustration
  2. Merton said the very nature of society generates crime and deviance
  3. Because aspirations are encouraged to be endless, but are blocked by what the social structures make possible (this links back to the point above how Merton said not all institutions provided a positive function)
  4. Merton identified 5 adaptations to these social structures

Merton’s 5 adaptations, were ways in which individuals found ways of overcoming this strain to anomie created by social structures

Conformity – acceptance of goals and means, and is the one taken up by most people

Innovation – where people accept the need to achieve their goals but are prepared to do so irrespective of the social cost. Therefore any illegal or immoral means to achieving wealth become acceptable. This tends to be undertaken by the working-classes because they tend to have less opportunities to achieve as they’re stratified so low in society, that any escape through ‘legal’ means is limited.

Ritualism – this is particularly taken up by the middle-classes as they ‘get there head down’ and follow the rules and keep their employer happy and go out of their way not to ‘rock the boat’

Retreatism – you give up and drop-out of society because you’ll never achieve anything and so retreat into a world of drugs and alcohol

Rebellion – you start a revolution to change things. And so you reject the existing norms, values and aspirations and seek to create a set of new ones through revolutionary means

In effect Merton is arguing the very nature of modern Western society creates crime and deviance. The more Western culture encourages people to live the material dream and in promoting such a lifestyle societal regulation is diminished and people criminality especially through ‘innovation’ becomes common-place! Therefore in the same way Durkheim argues ‘social facts’ exist and need to be recognised in order to understand individual and group action. Merton uses the concept of ‘social facts’ as determinant in cultural goals, in this case the American Dream. The following page allows you grasp these ideas more fully by seeing anomie in action.

Durkheim’s and Merton’s theory of anomie paved the way for the creation of subcultural theories of crime and deviance. This was due to Albert Cohen explaining the actions of lower-class subcultures by examining their adaptations (Merton used the term adaptations) to the dominant values of the middle-classes

Task – Assess the usefulness of anomie in understanding crime and deviance

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