Strain Theory-Definitions, Examples, and Overview


What is Strain Theory?

Strain theory was proposed by Robert Merton, an American sociologist who is also well-known for his works on the functionalist theory. It is an aspect of functionalism, which in itself is a constructivist theory.  Strain theory attempts to explain conflict or deviance via the four functions of deviance.

Merton’s classic definition: “Strain theory has been defined as an approach to deviance which regards deviance as a product of the insufficient adaptation of the social system to the moral expectations of its members.”

The Strain Theory Overview

Merton offered four definitions in his works on strain theory, which can be summarized as follows:


It involves a conflict between culturally prescribed goals and the institutionalized means of achieving them. Anomie is the breakdown of social norms and values. It results in a pervasive sense of demoralization and normlessness which affects the general public, causing them to lose their respect for social institutions.

Mertonian norm

It refers to the conflict arising when there is a discrepancy between cultural goals and means to achieve them, and other social control mechanisms fail to resolve this. The Mertonian norm is a set of values and goals widely shared by members of the society in question. It was used conceptually to explain deviance, crime, and juvenile delinquency.

The theory focuses on anomie as a factor of social control and its role in shaping social values and norms. Mertonian Antinorm refers to a set of cultural goals that deviate from society’s “desired” norms.

The term was coined by Weber and was used to describe the cultural goals present in any society. It is a culturally defined set of goals, which deviates from the general societal norm. For example, in a homogeneous society, drinking is considered normal and normative. However, in a heterogeneous society, drinking is considered an anti-norm and deviant behavior.


Ambivalence is the realization that cultural goals are unattainable. It refers to the conflict when a person is aware that he cannot achieve his cultural goals and societal norms.


Innovation refers to the development of new means of achieving culturally prescribed goals. Social groups may try out new means of achieving their goals to resolve the tension caused by cultural goals and societal norms.

This resolution can be made in several ways, including forming new social groups with similar goals and devising means to attain those goals.

Strain can be either individual or structural.

Individual strain

Individual strain refers to the painful psychological state when an individual possesses characteristics that conflict with cultural values.

Examples of individual strain sources :

  • Low self-esteem causing the individual to value characteristics that are not valued by society
  • Attractiveness leading to vanity
  • A person lives in an economically disadvantaged area, causing the individual to value material possessions, like a big car or jewelry, above society’s value.

Structural strain

A structural strain involves social change as a cause of conflict, i.e., a mismatch between the cultural goals and institutionalized means to achieve them. It is the change that generates conflict.

This type of strain is particularly common in societies experiencing major change, e.g., industrialization and urbanization.

Examples of structural strain sources could include:

  • Immigrants who find the requirements of living in a large city difficult to assimilate.
  • A rise of capitalism into the public arena.
  • Increased consumerism and its subsequent effect on human values and desires.
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Why is Strain Theory Important?

It gives an insight into the source of crime. Strain theory suggests that when people cannot achieve their goals, they feel strained—this strain leads them to commit crimes to reduce that strain.

An individual will feel strained when:

  • The institutionalized means of achieving a goal is blocked
  • The primary socialization has not succeeded in providing the individual with acceptable means of achieving goals

It is important to clarify that strain theory does not imply that people who have been socialized into crime are ‘innately criminal’ or that everyone who experiences strain will turn to crime. Robert K. Merton proposed two versions of strain theory, ‘weak’ and ‘strong.’

The Weak Strain Theory

The weak form of strain theory suggests that people who are blocked from legitimate means to achieve goals will simply accept their situation and not commit crimes.

Strong Strain Theory

Robert K. Merton (1957) outlined a strong strain theory. The theory proposes that an individual will exhibit criminal behavior if they suffer from blocked opportunities and cannot achieve legitimate goals through legitimate means.

For Merton, the decision to commit a crime is a rational one based on cultural goals and societal expectations. His theory assumes that an individual experiences strain when culturally prescribed means to achieve goals are blocked and therefore uses illegitimate means to achieve a goal. Both culturally prescribed goals and institutionalized means are concepts that originate in the work of Émile Durkheim.

Merton developed a typology to help explain how strain theory works in practice. Five types of deviant behavior act as coping mechanisms: Conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.

The five types are explained below:

Conformity – in this case, a person is blocked from achieving culturally approved goals. They may feel strain but will not commit a crime to achieve culturally prescribed goals through illegitimate means

– Bobo’s parents want him to become a doctor. They cannot afford to put him through medical school, so Bobo chooses to apply for a scholarship to pay his tuition fees.

Ritualism is a type of deviance that occurs when an individual experiences strain and rejects culturally accepted cultural goals. However, they follow a routinized means of attaining the goals

– Bobo’s parents want him to become a doctor, but Bobo doesn’t want to become a doctor. Bobo reads just enough to pass exams and stay in school to achieve his parents’ American dream.

Retreatism– this type of deviance occurs when an individual rejects cultural goals and the legitimate means to achieve them.

In Bobo’s case, he may chose to stay at home and live off the parent’s meager earnings.

Rebellion-This occurs when an individual rejects both cultural goals and legitimate means to achieve them, and also tries to replace the cultural goals and legitimate ways of achieving them.

– Bobo’s parents want him to become a doctor. Bobo refuses to go to college and spends all of his time in the pub gambling.

Innovation-This occurs when a person accepts a cultural goal but finds an illegitimate way of achieving it, due to strain. In Bobo’s case, it may be cheating to pass exams.


The Strain Theory Expansion

In a 1972 article, Merton expanded on strain theory. He stated that the deviant act is an adaptation to certain kinds of strain. Our society places a great emphasis on success as we are often told that we will be more satisfied if we are rich, successful, and powerful. However, the reality is that not everyone who wants to succeed in society can do so. 

In some cases, individuals do not have the opportunity to achieve legitimate goals by legitimate means. This could be for various reasons, but the outcome is that many individuals can become stuck in a certain part of society.  

  1. One example could be a low-level office employee who performs all the tasks that his position requires dependably and reliably. This is what society expects him to do in his position.

However, he does not show any interest or enthusiasm for the job and could be bored. This is a strenuous situation for him, as he cannot achieve the culturally approved goal of becoming successful because it is impossible.

  1. Another example is a young boy who enjoys skateboarding, but his parents want him to become a doctor. This pressure may lead to deviant behavior.
  2. It is not always the case that an individual will experience strain and therefore commit a crime. Sometimes, they will reject society’s goals, but they go through legitimate channels to achieve this.
  1. A third example could be a young girl, who wants to become the president of her company, but she does not possess any managerial skills. Instead of learning these skills, she finds a man in the company willing to marry her and help her get to where she wants to be. 
  2. A student whose parents value education and success above all else will probably experience strain if they choose to drop out of school. It is not that dropping out is inherently wrong, but the parent’s cultural goals are likely to create a great deal of strain for the student.
  3. Another illustration could be an individual who rejected cultural goals but also goes through legitimate channels. In this example, someone skips school to work as a full-time job and pay their bills. Their parents might be very disappointed, but they are also in a position where they can understand the decision that has been made.
  4. An individual may choose to work full-time instead of going to university. This may lead to great strain as they have rejected cultural goals and legitimate means to achieve those goals. However, if he finds a job that his parents respect and appreciate, the strain is reduced.

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Other Theories Derived from Merton’s Theory

The Robert Agnew General Strain Theory


Robert Agnew’s strain theory identifies social frustration as the primary cause of deviance. Social frustration is when an individual experiences pressure to achieve culturally approved goals but cannot achieve these goals because of institutionalized barriers. This will cause an individual to become socially isolated, and as a result, they will be more likely to commit a crime.

The main argument that Robert Agnew makes is that deviance can be explained by social circumstances rather than an individual’s characteristics. Agnew believed that most people commit crimes out of social isolation and frustration caused by their disadvantaged situation in society.

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Labelling Theory

This theory is based on two assumptions:   

  • A person who commits an act of deviance is seen as deviant by society. 
  • Once a deviant label has been given to someone, they will be treated differently from other individuals in society.

The theory explains the process of deviance in 3 stages:   

  1. First, a person or group is labeled as deviant by others in society. 
  2. Second, the label is applied to this individual by a large number of people. 
  3. Third, negative treatment and discrimination are applied to this individual.

According to labeling theory, deviance occurs when a label has been attached to someone, leading them to be seen as deviant. As a result of this, the deviant person will have a difficult time in society and may even become involved with other deviants

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The Institutional Anomie Theory

This theory concerns itself with the actions of employees who work in an institution. If these employees do not meet certain expectations, it could lead to criminal activities.

An example of this could be an individual who works in a bank and expects to become wealthy through hard work and diligence. However, they realize that it will not happen at a certain stage of their career and become disappointed. As a result, if this persists over time, they may be more likely to embezzle money to achieve what they believe is impossible.

The anomie theory may also apply to a police officer who believes the justice system can be used to achieve what his colleagues call success. If he encounters problems, however, he may become frustrated and commit a crime.

The institutional anomie theory is based on the following assumptions:   

  • People who work in an institution (police force, army, the medical profession, etc.) have certain occupation expectations. This is what society expects of them. 
  • If these expectations are not met, it may lead to deviance in the form of crime because institutions cannot offer the type of job reward they had expected.

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The Role Strain Theory

This theory also focuses on how cultural values can have an impact on behavior. The basic argument is that if a person feels they are being forced to play a role that is not in line with their social class, they may engage in criminal activity.

An illustration of the role strain theory is an individual born into a wealthy family but wants to become a doctor. His parents, however, want him to follow in the footsteps of his father and take over the family business.

This theory may also apply to a wealthy individual who is bored with his life and decides to engage in criminal activity. He feels that he must do what he wants rather than follow cultural norms.

The role strain theory is based on the following assumptions:   

  • A person feels a strong sense of social responsibility.  The longer the individual is exposed to this, the more likely he is to commit a crime.   
  • The individual feels they cannot achieve their goals but are forced to play a role that does not meet their values.   
  • The individual is blamed for the strain and sees no chance of achieving their goals so that they may carry out a criminal act

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Routine Activity Theory

This theory thrives on the assumption that crime is inevitable. Once criminals find a way to realize their goals, they will continue to re-offend in the same way.

Although it is easy to predict the pattern of this crime, there’s great difficulty in preventing or stopping it. The routine activity theory applies to crimes that have a pattern.

Another example of routine activity theory could be an individual who commits a crime near his home on the same day of every month. Although law enforcement officers know about this, it is impossible to prevent the crime from taking place.

The Illegitimate Opportunities Theory

Illegitimate opportunities theory emphasizes that increased crime is because illegitimate opportunities are more than legitimate ones.

For example, an individual may see that his neighbor is not at home and decides to break into his house one day. The opportunity was there for the taking, so he took it.

Also, an individual may be walking on the street and see a wallet lying there. He feels he has no way of knowing who it belongs to, so he takes the opportunity and keeps the wallet. This is called an illegitimate opportunity. Most crimes are committed in this manner rather than calculated.

The illegitimate opportunity theory works on the following assumptions:

  • Criminal behavior occurs when individuals have the chance to do so and are not interrupted.
  • When individuals who are not criminals have the opportunity to commit a crime but do not, we say they choose not to because of social controls such as guilt.
  • Whenever a criminal has the chance to commit a crime but doesn’t do so, we say that they didn’t commit the crime because they were interrupted.
  • When individuals feel that a given opportunity is legitimate or illegitimate, it becomes easier to predict if their behavior is criminal.

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The Control Strain Theory

Control theory is based on the assumption that people do not engage in crimes because they want to. Criminals have very little control over their actions.

According to control theory, there are several basic motives for committing crimes:   

  • To meet personal needs, such as food and shelter   
  • As a means of gaining status or respect in society   
  • As a means of gaining pleasure 
  • To gain revenge   

If any of these basic needs are not being met, criminals will take action to fulfill them.

The Suicide Strain Theory of Crime

This theory states that all crime is the act of an individual who wishes to commit suicide.  

An example of this would be an individual who is very unhappy with their life. He decides to rob a bank and shoots a bank teller, killing himself in the process. In this case, the suicide strain theory can be applied.

The Suicide Strain Theory of Crime is based on  the following assumptions:  

  • All crime is committed because of psychological strain and problems in the offender’s life. 
  • Crimes are often carried out in the heat of the moment. 
  • Many criminals commit suicide because they have no way out or solution to their problems and life stresses.
  • Suicidal strain theory also says that when a person feels suicidal, they will commit crimes to make the world conform to their ideal standards.
  • Crimes are not premeditated out of rational thought, but they occur impulsively and in the spur of the moment when a person feels very stressed and has no way out.

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 Take Away   

The strain theory is a framework for understanding how people react to the challenges and pressures of everyday life. With this knowledge, you can better understand why your customers behave in certain ways—responding or not responding as expected.

It would be best if you learned about these theories. This way, you will be more aware of what might trigger people’s behavior and make changes accordingly.

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