The Strain Theory and Societal Norms
Discuss about the Understand of Societal Characteristic.
Sociological theories endeavour in determining the various causes of human behaviour in a particular given setting. It is important to understand the societal characteristic and instinct of human beings to analyse their behaviour in various environments and social settings.
The strain theory states that the society has created immense pressure on the individual human beings by making certain standards and norms that must be followed or achieved in order to be part of a social order ta a given point of time (Akers 2013). In other words an individual human being must achieve certain material and social accomplishments in order to get the moral permission to be in that particular society. These yardsticks of social achievements may be different in various social settings. Therefore the yardstick for a successful man may be different in Australia and it may be different in African countries. The settings of the societal norms is not determined by a group of individuals or one single individual but it is determined by historical evolution of the society. The strain theory states that the individuals commit crime or become deviant under the social pressure to follow such norms in order to be called successful. The social deviance theory states that there are individuals of different categories who are deviants or conformists (Downes, Rock and McLaughlin 2016). The deviants can be farther divided into categories such as people who do not follow the means but conform to the ends, people who follow the means but are not happy with the ends, and people who are not following either the means nor the ends. The deviants may be deviant because of many factors. Some are rebel from the very beginning of their conscious journey, and some become rebel because of various incidents that happen in the course of their life.
The strain theory in sociology and criminology was first devised by Robert K Merton in 1938. “The theory states that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (such as the American dream) though they lack the means, this leads to strain which may lead the individuals to commit crimes.” There are two kinds of strains that are found to be working among the individuals which lead them to commit crime or become deviant. These are Structural and Individual strains. The structural strain is as well understood is the strain which is developed because of the structure of the social order and which comes down to the individual level in order to shape the perception of the individual about his or her needs. Example can be engaging in bank robbery due to social pressure of earning more money and achieving status. The individual strain is the strain that is developed by the individual to satisfy the various personal sense gratification and needs, these are not structured by the society. Example can be raping a women to satisfy the sexual desires of the individual, this need is not structured by the society (Watts and McNulty 2013).
Categories of Deviants and Types of Strains
Robert King Merton who devised this theory in 1938 was an American sociologist who studied the various causes which leads the individuals to commit crime or engage in social deviance. Later on further research was done on the dield and in 1992 the General Strain Theory was devised by Robert Agnew (Agnew 2017). The research by Merton was influenced by the social condition of the United States in the beginning and mid 1900’s. The question that led the researcher into a study in this particular field is the fact that the rates of deviance and the nature of deviance varied in various societies. Also the definition of deviance is also different in various societies. In United States the level of social success is very high. If a person is not really situated in a place where the income is high the person will not be able to achieve the desired ends. Merton has stated “When faced with strain, people have five ways to adapt:
- Conformity: pursing cultural goals through socially approved means.
- Innovation: using socially unapproved or unconventional means to obtain culturally approved goals. Example: dealing drugs or stealing to achieve financial security.
- Ritualism: using the same socially approved means to achieve less elusive goals (more modest and humble).
- Retreatism: to reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it, then find a way to escape it.
- Rebellion: to reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them.”
The beginning of the 1900s was a year that changed the United States in many ways. There were new institutions that were coming up to support the social transformation of the country in the new century. The country was moving in light’s speed from a semi-rural society to an advanced industry based urban civilisation. In the first ten years of the 1900s “over eight million immigrants poured into the United States in search of jobs and opportunity”, 50 years prior to the turn of the century most of the Americans were living in the rural areas. However by the year 1910 “almost 50 percent of Americans resided in cities.” Therefore there was the emergence of the industrial organisations that catalysed such a change of course in history in the American society. “As the nation became increasingly industrialized, the economy came under greater control of large corporations, which were overseen by a relatively few powerful executives” (Tindall and Shi 2016). The policy that was taken up by the government of the day was called “laissez faire” which was actually the policy of very less state intervention into the business activities of the public. Therefore people could make as much profit as they wanted. The 1920’s on the other hand changed the political scenario of the world to a large extent because of the World War 1, the war had just ended, and many of the countries were economically devastated. However America continued to grow which ensures a large number of immigrants coming in to take shelter of the country. Soon the country started closing doors for the immigrants in fear of over population and religious and demographic changes. “Electing Republican presidents who favored business expansion rather than regulation, the American public enjoyed apparently unlimited prosperity”, “Additionally, the first radio broadcasts and motion pictures expanded Americans' access to news and entertainment” (Adams 2017). Therefore there was the emergence of the new institution of entertainment industry that also took part in transmitting the message of constructing the yardstick of “success” through planning and strategy.
Robert King Merton and General Strain Theory
In 1930 the worldwide phenomenon of Great Depression that began in the United States had changed the course of world economy all together. It is one of the greatest economic crisis that the human kind ever faced. In the United States the great depression started in the September 1929 after a major crash in the stock market. “Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by an estimated 15%.”
This incident had increased the rate of poverty to a great extent. The people who were in earlier days living in great luxury now found it difficult to even survive comfortably. However once when someone has got the taste of living a life of luxury, it is difficult for them to accept a life in economic constraint. This is the reason that the crime rates swore up across the world. In order to earn money by any means people started resorting to crimes and various means of earning money by dubious means (McShane 2013).
The various organisations and institutions that can be discussed in details in relation with the strain theory at the time when the theory was first devised were the industries, the entertainment and media industry, the academic industry and so on and so forth.
To discuss these industries one by one it can be started with industries. The industrial revolution and the organisations that came into existence because of this phenomenon changed the perception of the human beings about living a successful life. This industrial revolution emphasized the fact that a successful individual is who has all the amenities at his or her disposal. All the products that were shown in the advertisements produced by the industries were supposed to be very important to survive and lead a “successful” social life. Need was created artificially by fetishizing the desires of people. The desires were itself catalysed. Crime rates increase in more industrialised society (Robert 2018). The white collar crimes that include the rich people of the social ladder is mainly because of such fetishization.
The entertainment and media industry on the other hand plays a very important role as an institution in establishing the social norms of setting yardsticks for success which create pressure on the individuals to commit crimes. The mainstream entertainment is always engaged in displaying a rich lifestyle as a yardstick of success. It is perceived by the viewers of such films or media products that the lifestyle led by the characters in the media is actually how a successful life should be lived. There are films which actually glorifies monetary crimes like big bank robberies and similar incidents. The people get inspiration to commit crimes from such media products. The advertisement industry is beyond question engaged in fetishization. Every new product is presented in a way that seems without the particular product life would not be as “good” as it should be. Fetishization included all kind of products that came out as a result of industrial revolution including shoes, dress, cosmetics, cars and motor bikes. Without a Harley Davidson motorbike a man was not a man enough, without wild spice deodorant his sexual appeal was considerably low, on the other hand a woman must be dressed up perfectly with flawless make up to be a complete and perfect woman who embodied “beautiful”. This was the level of fetishization that was created by the media. The means of achieving such ends were not defined. Therefore men did not mind stealing or engaging in fraud, many women engaged in prostitution. Men were also not behind in the profession, prostitution was rampant in the gay clubs and bars. Murder, fraud, robbery were becoming common. This is how strain theory can be used to explain such crimes and how entertainment industry as an institution played an important role in causing such crimes based on the strain theory (Stinchcombe 2017).
Institutions and Social Deviance
One of the worst effected institution that both contributes to and suffers from the defiance and crime due to strain is the academic institutions. When the primary yardstick of deciding a successful student is his or her result, it is natural that the students who perceive it difficult to academically perform well and score good marks would engage in defiance of the rules and regulations set by the institution in order to achieve the ends by dubious means. Therefore the problem of cheating in exams are rampant in schools and colleges. Plagiarism and copying without permission are other crimes that were seen to be happening in this institution which was resulted from the social strain on the students.
In 1992 the General strain theory of sociology and criminology was developed by Robert Agnew (Agnew 2007). This theory was mainly based on the ground that Merton’s theory did not explain the crimes that did not include financial gain to the perpetrator of the crimes. This theory explains criminology with a little difference from the strain theory developed by Merton. It stated that due to “strain or stress people become distressed or upset which may lead them to commit crime in order to cope” (Agnew 2014). Therefore this theory suggests, even without the scope of financial gain, people may commit crimes due to strain.
The societal pressure and circumstances has been historically creating havoc and forced individuals in committing crimes that otherwise they would not have committed in other situations. The Strain theory successfully explains such phenomenon and delves deep into the causes behind crimes committed by individuals. The theory has been impacted and it has impacted many of the institutions and organisation of the time when the theory was constructed. The above discussion shows how industrial organisations, entertainment industry and academic institutions were especially affected by the Strain theory and how they contributed to the strain theory of criminology.
Adams, J.T., 2017. The epic of America. Routledge.
Agnew, R., 2007. Pressured into crime: An overview of general strain theory.
Agnew, R., 2014. General strain theory. In Encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice (pp. 1892-1900). Springer, New York, NY.
Agnew, R., 2017. Revitalizing merton: General strain theory. In The origins of American criminology (pp. 143-164). Routledge.
Akers, R.L., 2013. Criminological theories: Introduction and evaluation. Routledge.
Downes, D., Rock, P. and McLaughlin, E., 2016. Understanding deviance: a guide to the sociology of crime and rule-breaking. Oxford University Press.
McShane, M. ed., 2013. An Introduction to Criminological Theory. Routledge.
Robert, A., 2018. Stability and change in crime over the life course: A strain theory explanation. In Developmental theories of crime and delinquency (pp. 101-132). Routledge.
Stinchcombe, A.L., 2017. Merton’s theory of social structure. In The idea of social structure (pp. 11-33). Routledge.
Tindall, G.B. and Shi, D.E., 2016. America: A narrative history. WW Norton & Company.
Watts, S.J. and McNulty, T.L., 2013. Childhood abuse and criminal behavior: Testing a general strain theory model. Journal of interpersonal violence, 28(15), pp.3023-3040.
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