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Sociology: Criticism of Merton's Strain Theory: A Critique and How it Fits With the Functionalist Theory of Deviance

Updated on June 14, 2016

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A Sociology Essay

Prompt: Discuss how Robert Merton’s strain theory fits into the functionalist theory of deviance and crime. Critically evaluate strain theory and the functionalist theory of deviance and crime from the perspective of conflict, feminist and symbolic interactionist theories.



Singapore. Singapore Department of Statistics. Singapore's Resident Population, 2003-2007. Feb. 2008. 17 Mar. 2008 <>.

Byym, Robert J., and John Lie. Sociology Your Compass for a New World. 3rd ed. United States of America: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 195-200, 13-19

The functionalist and strain theories both show some relationship between deviance and social structure. While the functionalist theory seeks to explain the functions of deviance and crime in society, the strain theory helps to deepen our understanding by connecting these ideas to the antagonistic relationship between cultural goals and institutionalised means.

Functionalists believe deviance functions as a tool for society to define (or redefine) morality (Brym and Lie, 2007:195). Strain theory is closely entwined - of the adaptations, rebellion and innovation have the highest entrenchment in criminal activity, while ritualism and retreatism are more likely considered as social diversions or social deviations. Conformity involves breaching no social norms (Brym and Lie, 2007:196), demonstrating how strain theory offers further insight to the functionalist views using the different adaptations that vary in the levels of moral outrage they cause.

Both theories point to the building of social solidarity and development of social change as an outcome of deviance and crime (Brym and Lie, 2007:195). When there is conformity, social identities are fostered; in the face of rebellion and innovation, this group identity is strengthened or reshaped. This is important for the progress and daily function of society.

One critique of the strain theory is that it overemphasizes the role of social class in crime and deviance (Brym and Lie, 2007:197). Strain theory applies best to lower classes as they struggle most with the lack of resources to reconcile their goals. However, if we examine the wide spectrum of deviant and criminal acts, strain theory account inadequately for crimes beyond the narrow scope of street crimes; crimes considered as white-collar crimes are more rampant among the middle and upper-classes who suffice materially.

The motivations behind white-collar crime offenders can be sophisticated. Functionalist and strain theory assume people’s inherent goodness; people are driven by social factors to crime and deviance. However this is not always true. The control theory balances this by providing an opposing perspective. By assuming all people are bad it suggests people will commit crime and deviant acts unless social controls such as policing were in place (Brym and Lie, 2007:198). This better explains cases of many highly-educated officials embezzling company funds thinking they would not get caught; they do not need the money but their motivations are that of greed.

The functionalist and strain theory provides the most comprehensive explanation of the relationship between macro social structure and deviance and crime. However, it neglects the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects which can be examined through the symbolic interactionist approach. This approach deals incorporates more intricately with the idea of socialization – how unique peer groups influence the meanings and symbols an individual attaches to certain behaviours or ideals. For example using the labelling theory, it demonstrates how an individual within his social circle (family, friends…) could be labelled as deviant based on their values they impose on him (Brym and Lie, 2007:198). This takes incorporates the differences in social dynamics across different peer groups in society, allowing for processes like resocialisation to interpret deviance. The metamorphosis of culture, primary and secondary socialization also enhance the socio-cultural context of deviance and crime – in this aspect, the functionalist (focusing on macro structures) framework is more rigid and too general.

The learning theory also aptly illustrates the above through Sutherland’s differential association theory which further extends the idea of people’s propensity to turn to deviance and crime having been socialised in contexts with differing levels of exposure to it (Brym and Lie, 2007:197). In fact this theory successfully bridges the gap between social class differences, unlike the functionalist and strain theory whose ideas resonate best with the lower classes.

However, the drawback of labeling theory is how it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When judges and policemen operate, they are now primed to label certain stereotypes of individuals as deviants and criminals. This stigmatization has a direct and often unfair impact on the individuals labeled as deviant. Typically, these would be those fringe members of the in group, or the out group being labeled by the reference group. These individuals are relatively powerless – a phenomenon best explained by the conflict theory.

The conflict theory originating from Marx, speaks of the struggle between the powerful (bourgeoisie) trying to remain lord of the powerless (referring to the working class; proletariat) who fight to have a better life. This macro structure keeps society functioning orderly. When applied to deviance and crime, the powerful (often the elites and wealthy of society who are the often reference group) label the powerless as deviants or criminals (Brym and Lie, 2007:199). In reality, many wealthy politicians illustrate this when they label individuals who pose threats to their authority as criminals. However, because they have the resources, they are able to buy themselves out of crime, an example of corruption. This perpetuates the cycle of labeling perpetuates when the powerful face less severe punishment (compared to the powerless). This could complement the functionalist theory, suggesting how moral outrage is very much influenced by the powerful – who not only monopolise resources but also craft the rules about deviance and crime in order to best suit their agenda – which is to remain at the top rung of society. We also see how the conflict theory directly applies to strain theory which applies best to the lower classes; it is this conflict which predisposes the lower classes to lack access to the resources to realize the dreams, causing them to resort to street crime as a solution.

From the perspective of feminism, functionalist and strain theories fail to enlighten us about crime and deviance with regards to gender inequality. As most societies are patriarchal, more crimes committed by men against women, but there lacks sufficient insight to explain this. The feminist theory proposes to examine deviance and crime from the angle of gender, borrowing ideas from gender roles and differences to explain deviance and crime in society. This is one drawback of the strain and functionalist theories – the inability to explain the gender inequality.

Today, deviance and crime has taken a new spin – globalization has widened the rich-poor income gap, stratifying societies into more distinct classes, which may increase the relevance of strain and functionalist, and even conflict theories of deviance and crime. However, with internet, and ease of travel, there is not only new types of crime like cybercrime, but also the changing and dilution of population demographics, and blurring of social classes, making strain functionalist theories harder to apply across societies. In Singapore, non-residents comprise 22% of the population (Singapore Department of Statistics, Feb 2008). In applying the labeling theory to Singapore, foreigners and migrants, particularly those engaged in hard labour jobs are often stigmatized due to their race, and are often unfairly associated with deviant behavior.

With the increasingly equalitarian treatment of both genders, feminist theory can help to explain us to understand the changing dynamics of female deviance, which strain and functionalist cannot adequately tackle.

As societies show a trend - moving from collectivist cultures to more individualistic culture, individuals are being socialized in different ways, and symbolic interactionists theories may provide additional insight into deviance and crime that the strain and functionalist theories may overlook.


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