Visualising Strain Theory

Although examples of Merton’s “Responses to Strain” are fairly straightforward I always think it helps students if they can visualise the basic idea involved – something this simple image I came across on Twitter (apologies, but I don’t know who created it) does very well, I think.

So, on the basis you can take a good thing and make it even better (probably) by adding a bit of movement I thought it would be helpful to create a PowerPoint Presentation based around the graphic (and also to add some “ends / means” text into the mix; mainly because I can, but also because it’s helpful to associate different forms of response with different combinations of cultural goals and structural conduits).

The PowerPoint has both click-to-advance and auto-advance versions and its main use, as I see it, is as a visual teaching aid when introducing and discussing response to strain. There’s also, if you prefer, a video version of the Presentation.


This development in functionalist theory was pioneered by Merton (1938) when he used the concept of anomie to explain crime and deviance as an individual response to problems at the structural level of society – an explanation, as Featherstone and Deflem (2003) note, based around two concepts:

1. Structural tensions: For societies to function, people have to be given incentives to perform certain roles (the cultural goals – or ends – of social action). Merton argued that, for societies like Britain and America, a fundamental goal was ‘success’ and, as part of the collective consciousness, such goals become incorporated into the general socialisation process – people are encouraged to want success. However, when societies set goals they must also set the structural means towards their achievement and the blocking or unavailability of the means to achieve desired goals results in:

2. Anomie: For Merton, this represented a situation in which, although behavioural norms existed, people were unable – or unwilling – to obey them and this resulted in a (psychological) confusion over how they were expected, by others, to behave. If societies failed to provide the means towards desired ends, people would resolve the resulting anomic situation by developing new and different norms to guide them towards these ends.


A classic expression of this idea is that “success” (however it may actually be defined) is a universal goal in our society, learnt through the socialisation process: As Akers and Sellers (2004) put it:

‘Everyone is socialised to aspire toward high achievement and success. Competitiveness and success are taught in schools, glamorised in the media, and encouraged by the values passed from generation to generation. Worth is judged by material and monetary success.’

Socialisation, therefore, stresses socially approved (legitimate) means to achieve this goal. As Akers and Sellers suggest:

‘Success is supposed to be achieved by an honest effort in legitimate educational, occupational, and economic endeavours. Societal norms regulate the approved ways of attaining this success, distinguishing them from illegitimate avenues to the same goal.’

However strains occur at the structural level when people are denied opportunities to realise their success goal through legitimate means (such as work). Thus, although everyone ‘wants success’, only a limited number can actually achieve it through legitimate means. The tension between ‘socialised desires’ and society’s inability to satisfy those desires through legitimate means results, for Merton, in anomie – something, in turn, manifested in a number of general individual responses, as shown in the following table.


Structural Means

Cultural Goals


Conformity (law-abiding)

Shop worker



Entrepreneur / thief



Office worker




Drug addict


Denies legitimacy of means and goals


√ = accepts, x = rejects


Strain theory combines macro theories of structure (tensions) and micro theories of action (how individuals respond to anomie) to produce a reactive theory of deviance that has been criticised in terms of:

1. Scope: Although the theory may, arguably, explain ‘purposeful crime’ (such as theft, an ‘alternative’ way of achieving economic success), it’s less convincing when dealing with what Cohen (1955) calls ‘purposeless crime’ (such as juvenile delinquency).

2. Cultural values: The idea of ‘shared values’ is difficult to demonstrate empirically in culturally diverse societies such as Britain in the 21st century. ‘Success’, for example, may mean
different things to different people. In addition, cultural diversity exposes people to different, frequently contradictory, socialising influences. If goal diversity exists, then how are people socialised into the same general kind of ‘success values’?

3. Choice: There is little or no conception of people making rational decisions about whether to conform or deviate. People simply respond in broadly predictable ways to structural strains.

4. Conformity: People are either conformists or deviants, but the question here is the extent to which there is always an easy distinction between ‘deviants’ and ‘non-deviants’. Clarke (1980) argues that even those heavily involved in criminal behaviour actually spend a large proportion of their time conforming to conventional (noncriminal) social norms and values.

5. Operationalisation: Agnew (2000) has noted the difficulties involved in measuring concepts such as social strain, cultural goals and individual aspirations, whether using subjective measures (exploring how respondents feel about how they have been treated by society), or objective approaches that involve identifying causes of strain (such as divorce or unemployment) and measuring their relationship to criminal involvement.

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