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Strain Theory


Robert Merton and Deviant Behavior

An Explanation of Strain Theory and Merton’s Typology of Deviance

Mar 4, 2009 Peter Lista

Typology of Deviance – Wikimedia Commons
Robert Merton’s views on deviant behavior, or strain theory, as well as his typology of deviance, has defined a longstanding paradigm in sociological research.

Robert Merton, an American sociologist, practiced a functional approach to deviant behavior within society. As a functionalist, Merton believed that social institutions act to further society and ultimately keep stability within the social structure. It is this framework from which Merton tried to understand how deviance shaped society (and vice versa).

Deviance Defined

Deviance can be described as, the characteristics of behaviors of individuals which violate group norms (including cultural mores and moral standards). The deviance, in order to be properly labeled, must induce a negative response from the group. The second piece of this definition is actually the most important in that; without the negative reaction, the behavior would not be considered deviant.

Strain Theory

Because deviance is found naturally within society, Merton believed that it was society itself which causes it. Further, Merton believed that when societal norms, or socially accepted goals (such as the American Dream), place pressure on the individual to conform they force the individual to either work within the structure society has produced, or instead, become members of a deviant subculture.

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Typology of Deviance

Merton also created a typology of the different options individuals have when deciding whether or not deviance from norms is an option. Often, they are shown in a chart that helps sociologists describe characteristics of the five different categories.

  1. Conformists
  2. Ritualists
  3. Innovators
  4. Retreatists
  5. Rebels


Conformists are the group which chooses to both accept the goals of society and accept the standard means by which to attain their goals. For example, in order to have a happy life by social standards, they gain a college education, work in a 9 to 5 job, and eventually complete their goal.


In comparison to the conformist, the ritualist will reject the goal but still go about the standard means of doing so. A ritualist may go through the motions of going to college and working 9 to 5, but will not attempt to fulfill the goal of earning excess amounts of money.


Innovators look to fulfill the goals of society but instead of going about it through established channels, as conformists do, they will find other means to reach their goals. Examples my include business moguls such as Steve Jobs, or groups such as the Mafia. Both examples took alternate routes to reaching the socially constructed goal.

Retreatists and Rebels

Both of these groups have rejected the goals and the means to reach them. The retreatist will stop engaging in society altogether and instead might live in solidarity or in communes with likeminded individuals. By far, the best example of this is the Hippie of the early 1960s. Rebels on the other hand, also reject both aspects but instead of leaving society, they try to change it. The movement of social and political activism among college students in the 1960s is a good example of this group.


One response to “Strain Theory

  1. Pingback: Sociology Paper On Deviance & Crime | Existentialism2010's Blog

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