Merton’s Strain Theory

Free «Merton’s Strain Theory» Essay Sample

Merton’s strain theory states that criminal activities occur when there is a gap between society’s shared goals and legal means of attaining them. In his theory, Merton pointed out that the most important goal of society is to achieve wealth (as cited in Einstadter & Henry, 2011). In order to receive it, there are numerous institutional means. The theory states that the problem occurs when the desire to reach goals surpasses the importance of utilizing the accepted methods (Einstadter & Henry, 2011). Thus, a crime is committed when individuals in society are more fascinated in attaining the desired goal as opposed to respecting the laws. In his argument, Merton blames society for focusing too much on achieving wealth and placing low emphasis on the need to abide by the regulations in seeking wealth.

The Strain Theory and White-Collar Crime

Merton’s strain theory can be used in explaining the existence of white-collar crimes. They consist of economic offences, corporate crimes, and occupational criminal activities. The measure of monetary success is relative and indefinite. Thus, at the whatever level or class one is, there is a desire to achieve more. Individuals in business with informal or formal employment face various strains in their desire to achieve economic goals, personal status, as well as prestige. According to Vito and Maahs (2011), this makes them commit white-collar offences, occupational crimes, and corporate malpractice.


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White-collar offences, including fraud, are mostly committed by lower-class persons because of the need to attain their monetary, status, and social prestige goals. They reject the available and accepted mechanisms of achieving them and turn to illicit and deviant methods, which Merton termed as innovation (as cited in Einstadter & Henry, 2011). Occupational crimes are committed by high-class persons, who pursue goals beyond their reach. Corporate crime occurs when a company cannot achieve economic goals in legitimate ways. The purpose of an individual is monetary success, which is applicable at the business level with the increased need to create more revenue in a competitive business environment.

According to Brightman (2011), all classes of individuals have desired monetary goals no matter their level in society. Thus, they experience goal blockage. According to Einstadter and Henry (2011), higher classes of individuals may have goals not within their reach. This economic strain is the main cause of white-collar crimes.      

The Strain Theory and Street Gangs

The underlying concept of Merton’s strain theory is the gap between society’s expected goals and legitimate means of achieving them. Crime is a result of the divergence between having great economic ambitions and the lack of mechanisms to attain them. In most cases, individual’s expected goals will be economic or monetary, prestige and status ones among others. In an endeavor to attain them, some people will pursue the accepted and institutionalized means. It is what Merton referred to as conformity (Vito & Maahs, 2011). However, some persons will reject the available channels because of the inability to achieve goals and use innovative ways, including illicit and gang activities.

The arising of a street gang can be explained by Merton’s strain theory. For instance, when individuals cannot achieve expected goals because of the lack of opportunities, they are likely to engage in street gangs or organized thugs. In addition, the strain may make people perceive or feel the lack of belongingness to society and the necessity to find their alternative identity, which can be a street gang (Siegal, 2010).

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Merton’s strain theory provides that criminal activities occur when there is a gap between society’s expected goals and available legitimate means of attaining them. When the latter are beyond individual’s reach, the one chooses to engage in criminal activities to achieve them. White-collar crime occurs when individuals in the corporate world with formal and informal employment engage in it to achieve their economic goals, personal status, as well as prestige. People are involved in street gangs and resort to criminal activities when they experience strain caused by the absence of equal opportunities to achieve goals.