Strain Theory and Merton’s Theory of Anomie


Various theories seek to explain crimes, who perpetrate them, and for what driving forces make perpetrators commit crimes. These theories are subdivided into categories according to the reasons why crimes are committed. The strain theory and Merton’s theory of anomie seek to explain the social reasons behind criminal acts. This essay will discuss these two theories and their application to criminal justice.

Strain Theory

The strain theory claims that personal goals are limited by the socially acceptable means of attaining them thereby creating a strain. According to this theory, every person has goals associated with social classes and statuses, in terms of social recognition, cultural recognition, economic well-being, and political status. The accepted social means of acquiring these goals include thrift, education, and working hard (Siegel, 2011). Some people are able to attain these goals within the socially acceptable means while others do not have the means to live these goals.

Those who do not have the means may adapt to the situation using five suggested modes. Conformity as a mode of adaptation suggests that the person accepts the means and goals, as well. Innovation suggests that to adapt to strain people may accept the goals but not the means. Another possible way of adapting to stress happens in retreatism whereby a person denies both the goals and the means. In ritualism, a mode of adapting to strain, a person accepts the means but no longer pursues the goals (Anderson, Dyson, Langsam, & Brooks, 2007). The mode of adaptation used depends on the individual reactions to the feelings resulting from strain.

Strain Theory and Crime

According to the strain theory, the sources of strain are failure to attain goals, the disjunction of expectations and achievements, lack of positive stimuli, and encounters of negative stimuli. The above-mentioned sources lead to anger, frustration, fear, depression, and disappointment. As a result of these feelings, the person experiencing a strain may indulge in antisocial behaviors such as violence, burglary, drug abuse, and delinquency (Siegel, 2011). Some of the antisocial behaviors that result from strain may be criminal, against the state laws and regulations.

Personal Opinion on Strain Theory and Crime

To some extent, the strain theory explains the cause of criminal acts and the existence of a criminal career, but it’s not adequate. The theory asserts that people indulge in crimes due to frustrations, feelings of anger, and deprivation. Crime is more than just emotions it is a cognitive process in which the criminal makes decisions. The sources of strain can be handled in ways other than indulging in crimes. The failure to satisfy personal goals will only contribute to criminal acts when the people involved turn to criminal activities.

Merton’s Theory of Anomie

The word anomie was adapted by sociologist Robert Merton from Emile Durkheim, and it means lack of control in a society. It is created by the societal change in which the society’s tradition, values, and beliefs that hold it together are broken due to change. Society may still be held together but by other forces such as interdependence among its members. The existence of anomie creates an anomic society that has a little social control function. In an anomic society, the people are not held together by their social values and beliefs but their own benefits from their social relations (Anderson, Dyson, Langsam, & Brooks, 2007).

Merton’s Theory of Anomie and Crime

Robert Merton applied the ideas of Emile Durkheim on anomie to criminology. He suggested that rapid change in the social settings and climate may lead to deviance from the stipulated and expected behaviors. For instance, if a person’s way of earning is termed illegal due to changes in the constitution they may turn to illegal acts that will serve as alternative means of income. Once social changes occur, there is a strain that provokes some people in society to adopt unacceptable behaviors. These unacceptable behaviors include gangs and group formations that may violate the laws to achieve their set goals and people turning to criminal careers (Siegel, 2011).

Personal Opinion on Merton’s theory of Anomie and Crime

Social change does not give people the right to indulge in criminal activities, it just creates a wanting situation. The way a person reacts to a situation is purely personal and should not be solely blamed on anomie. People indulge in criminal activities because they refuse to accept change and their capabilities. Anomalies create a change in the environment, and it affects all the people in that environment, but not all the people affected negatively indulge in crimes. Anomie does contribute to crime by creating a wanting situation, but it is the individuals who turn to criminal acts.


There are many causes of criminal acts, which can be, explained in theories such as the strain theory and Merton’s theory of anomie. The causes of crime can result from personal frustrations as asserted by the strain theory. The change in a society’s way of operating may also cause individuals in the society to result in criminal acts. The causes of criminal acts only contribute to criminal acts by creating a wanting situation, but the choice to indulge in criminal activities rests solely on an individual.


Anderson, J. F., Dyson, L., Langsam, A., & Brooks, W. J. (2007). Criminal justice and criminology: Terms, Concepts, and Cases. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Siegel, L. J. (2011). Criminology. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

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LawBirdie. (2023) 'Strain Theory and Merton’s Theory of Anomie'. 16 September.


LawBirdie. 2023. "Strain Theory and Merton’s Theory of Anomie." September 16, 2023.

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LawBirdie. "Strain Theory and Merton’s Theory of Anomie." September 16, 2023.