Strain theory is a branch of social structure theory that sees crime as a function of the conflict between an individual’s recognizable goals and the means available to legally obtain them. It argues that people who are unable to achieve their goals or standards of success through legitimate means will turn to other avenues which promise economic fulfilment or social recognition. In addition, strain theory posits that individuals will adapt to discrepancies between their goals and their current means through one of five types of deviance: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. As a result, crime and deviant behaviour can be viewed as the inevitable result of a host of conflicting cultural and institutional influences within society that inform individual success goals. Strain theory also suggests that crime is the result of negative affect and strain produced by a variety of stressors such as the failure to realize positively valued goals, the disconnect between an individual’s expectations and achievements, and the removal of positive stimuli.
Strain theory was developed by American sociologist Robert Merton, who proposed a typology of deviance based upon two criteria: an individual’s motivations or adherence to set goals, and their belief in how to attain said goals. The major versions of strain theory describe particular strains most likely to result in criminal activity, why strains increase crime, and the various factors that prompt or otherwise dissuade a person from responding to strains with criminal activity; however, all strain theories acknowledge that it is only a minority of individuals undergoing strains that turn to crime as an alternative. Emile Durkheim developed Merton’s classic strain theory into a modern context of crime and deviance, investigating powerful cultural and psychological motivations that influence an individual to turn to deviant subcultures and illegitimate enterprises.
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