The Strain Theory, also known as Anomie Theory, constitutes various concepts in sociological science that explicates various elements in a sociological structure that could lead to an individual exhibiting deviant behavior. The objective in writing this report is to conduct research in order to understand how the Strain Theory, as introduced by Robert Merton and expanded on by Robert Agnew, influences the pattern of criminal activity among Black Americans. The discussion will primarily focus on determining the reasons why a number of Black Americans resort to rule-breaking or deviant behavior as a means to assuage the stresses, pressures or strains caused by social relations with their family, the educational system, and the community. Part of the discussion also involves a review of opposing viewpoints that challenge the effectiveness of the Strain Theory in explicating underlying reasons or causes for deviant behavior among Black Americans.
Merton introduced the Strain Theory in 1938 during the Great Depression (Samaha 2005: 88). The Great Depression is one of the most unfortunate times in American history, which has influenced social interactions during that time and tipped the balance of the social structure. Merton’s observations could have influenced his development of the Strain Theory and why strain is perceived to mostly affect the underprivileged (Samaha :88). The basic foundation of the theory is social structure. The kind of social structures and the kind and quality of relationships and human interaction within these structures influence the behavior of human beings. According to Merton, although human impulses are biological, “the social order is solely a device for ‘impulse management’ and the ‘social processing of tensions’ (Merton 2000: 201). Therefore, the Strain Theory views impulses as innate to human beings but the kind of social structures and relationships determine how, when, and in what form those impulses will materialize. Basically, innate impulses are an individual’s responses to the external environment, while social structures and relationships serve as the stimuli. Moreover, social structures and interpersonal relationships could be considered as triggers to an individual’s responses. Therefore, when it comes to rule breaking and the display of deviant behavior, the Strain Theory suggests that the strains caused by social interaction in a specific social structure urge individuals to commit crime.
The Strain Theory could best be understood by defining a primary cause of strains brought about by a rigid social structure and social interaction. In the United States, the dream of living the “American Dream” is embedded in the culture. The goals of every individual include finishing school, getting a job, getting married and having children, buying a house and car, and earning enough money for the family’s future. Because the “American Dream” is a shared dream, Americans are compelled to conform. Strain occurs when individuals are not capable of coping with the standards set by that shared dream. Financial problems are primary sources of strain, and this affects familial relationships until the strain eventually influences individuals to commit crime. In the U.S., Black Americans disproportionately belong to majority of low-income households. According to the American Psychological Association, Black American children are three times more likely to live in a low income household than White children, fifty-three percent of African Americans have high cost mortgages while only eighteen percent of Whites is in the same situation, and unemployment among African Americans are relatively higher than those of Caucasians (American Psychological Association, N.D). The aforementioned social conditions put strain on this population, therefore, leading to criminal activity attributed to Black Americans.
Poverty affects family life and unemployment aggravates the situation. “African Americans are more likely than whites to be poor and to live in high-poverty communities. This contributes to racial differences in several types of strain conducive to delinquency” (Feld & Bishop 2011: 300). Since most Black American families are living in poverty, they are most likely to commit crimes so they can feed their family. In this situation, strain occurs when married couples fight over money and their conflicts threaten to tear their marriage and family apart. According to Anderson and Stewart (2007: 121), marital problems could be a result of elements or factors inherent in the family, but social and external factors intervene, like financial problems. “The social effects of racism and of economic discrimination are among the indirect or direct causes of an infinite number of Black family conflicts that often culminate in separation and divorce” (Anderson & Stewart 2007: 121). Other reasons include non-conformity and disorganization in the family. According to Sussman, Steinmetz, and Peterson (1999: 155), African Americans commit deviance when the interests and priorities of members of the family are not coordinated. African American men are more likely to commit crimes when there are financial strains in the home like “differences in spending priorities, personal clashes and religious differences” (Sussman, Steinmetz, & Peterson 1999: 155). When African American families face financial problems, most members resort to thievery and its other forms in order to obtain a source of income. Others turn into drug dealing and prostitution. In other cases, like marital conflicts and misunderstandings with other members of the family, African Americans resort to drug use to ease their stress and forget about their family problems, while others commit serious crimes like murder and physical abuse to deal with other members of the family (Andersen & Taylor 2007: 176).
Aside from the social structure in the family, educational systems could also lead to strains and therefore, deviant behavior exhibited by African Americans. Poverty and socioeconomic problems do not only affect family life. Since most African American families are living in poverty, they do not have enough resources to let their children go to school or finish college and earn a degree themselves. Unequal education opportunities are one of the primary problems in America, and it primarily affects the minorities including African Americans. “Structural variables such as lack of quality education coupled with discrimination in employment, result in disproportionate numbers of African American men who are unemployed, underemployed, or who just do not believe they can get a job” (Carroll 1998:10). Consequently, unemployment, which leads to poverty, and then to limited access to education leads to deviant behavior exhibited by African Americans. Limited access to education disorganizes or unbalances the social structure. While white privileged individuals get to school, earn a degree, get a high paying job and earn opportunities to attain their goals, African Americans who cannot afford to go to school are left with no choice but to work for low paying jobs. Primarily, the inequality unsettles African Americans, which then leads them to commit deviant behavior. Without a sense of purpose and guidance from influential members of the academe, African Americans resort to the life of crime. To get by, both adults and adolescents join illegal activities like drug dealing and other types of illegal transaction. Moreover, they are forced to join gangs and other groups that promote violence to feel the sense of belongingness, if they cannot accomplish that by going to school.
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In this case, the educational institution becomes the trigger that compels the population to commit deviant acts. Sometimes, losing a sense of purpose or direction compels African Americans to resort to suicide (Early 1992: 81). Moreover, Early (1992: 81) discussed that suicide cases of African Americans “are consistent with the assimilative effect of racial integration, which is seen as undermining the internal integration of the black community.” Carroll (1998: 10) also provides a reason why the outcomes of unequal access to education lead to suicide and other destructive behavior. The absence of opportunities for African Americans to improve their lives through education leads to emotional turmoil. African Americans sometimes get depressed and display maladaptive and self-destructive behavior. Aside from unequal access to education, African Americans resort to deviant behavior because when they attend school, their population is three times more likely to fail than White American students. Although grades are measured through academic performance displayed by all students, schools have noted that two thirds of those who fail their subjects in school belong to African American families (Brennan & National Council on Measurement 2006: 560). The failures highlight the differences between African Americans and Caucasians in school, and therefore, worsen the gap between the two populations that are initially caused by racism and social conflict. Although the number of African Americans that do not attend schools is already high, racism and social gaps in school leads to more from the population dropping out (Coleman 1996:153). In this particular situation, strain occurs because the educational system as a social structure fails to provide African Americans equal opportunities and fair circumstances in which they could be able to alleviate their difficult situations at home.
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Racism and social gaps are two primary causes of strain in the community. The issues discussed in both the family and educational social structures could also be applied in this particular section of the discussion. Socio-economic differences, unequal opportunities for personal and professional development, and social differences highlight the disadvantages and shortcomings of African Americans. Through social interactions and observations, both in the real world and through the lenses of the media, African Americans realize the unbalanced situation of African Americans and other privileged races. Burfeind and Bartusch (2011: 84) reviewed various sociological researches about communities in the U.S. and how social differences affect deviance. Based on majority of research studies, the availability of opportunities and access to various public services in various institutions like the family, education, and employment, among others, influenced the rate of deviance rates. The outcomes of the research revealed that Whites commit fewer crimes because they are offered more legitimate opportunities for education and employment. On the other hand, African Americans committed more crimes when “educational attainment and family income increased” but decreased when females head families. Another research conducted by William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson highlighted the various factors that influence community-level differences that affect deviance rates committed by African Americans. Wilson emphasized that the “diminished opportunities for legitimate employment, brought about the decline in jobs for low-skilled workers in the mass production system… in which some jobs require training and education” (Burfeind & Bartusch 2011: 84). The situation mostly affects African Americans living in ghetto territories or inner cities and consequently leads to disorganization in the community and the decline of control in these neighborhoods.
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Deviance on the community-level could also be viewed by reviewing the three types of strain described by Agnew in expanding Merton’s Strain Theory. The major types of strain include: (1) factors that prevent individuals from reaching their goals, (2) the presence of risks or threats that could remove positive stimuli from an individual’s possession, and (3) factors that serve as threats and sources of negative stimuli (Cordella & Siegel : 150). The first source of strain include barriers like lack of financial resources to go to school or lack of educational and career experience to be hired for a high paying job. On the community level, unemployment is a risk or threat that could remove positive stimuli from an individual’s possession. Nowadays, many people, especially those on low positions are being laid off due to recession, which consequently increases unemployment. Then unemployment leads to threats of being sent away from their own homes for failure to pay their rent or mortgage. The third strain could be observed in ghetto or inner city neighborhoods. Violence in the neighborhood becomes a source of worry or fear for other people. In ghettos or inner cities, families are being threatened by gangs and other violent groups continuously, unless members of the families give them food or money. Poverty pushes or strains people into desperation, and desperation consequently breeds violence.
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The Strain Theory has been widely used in sociology and criminology in order to study those elements in social structure that influence the behavior of individuals and the factors that lead to deviance. According to Siegel (2011: 212), the major premise of the strain theory is that goals and standards of living that many people are supposed to conform to bring strain to people who are unable to reach those goals and standards. Primary reasons for strain include the desire for wealth and comfortable life. When individuals fail to achieve that goal, they turn to crime for lack of means to cope. The strengths and advantages of the Strain Theory is that: (1) the theory highlights the role of competition and rivalry in deconstructing a social structure and that imbalance, injustice and inequality in society compels people to live a life of crime, (2) the theory criticizes social standards and emphasizes that changing patterns of deviance could start with adjustments in the social structure to maintain equality, and (3) the theory pinpoints the faults in society that lead to crime. Merton’s theory may offer a solution to decrease deviance in society, including cultural change. While everyone today is taught to value material things and wealth, problems brought about by deviance could be resolved through cultural change or transformation – the development of a social structure that lessens its value on material things and focuses on the development of a community that supports equal rights and protection of everyone regardless of race and a society that affords everyone legitimate opportunities for personal and professional development.
While the Strain Theory offers various advantages, there are criticisms about the theory. “Strain theory has some shortcomings. Because it is in the functionalist tradition, it assumes a consensus in values; it assumes that everyone values success and defines success in economic terms” (Shepard 2012: 177). One disadvantage of Strain Theory is that it fails to consider individual preferences and decisions. The kind of social structure could only influence some percentage of the population, but there are other individuals who innately choose to commit deviant acts despite the influences or conditions of society. Therefore, critics say that the Strain Theory only partially explicates the causes of deviance in the modern world but does not fully address other reasons for deviance, especially those that are driven by psychological conditions, like psychopathy. Other critics emphasize that delinquency is not exclusive to the underprivileged because even wealthy people commit crime and the Strain Theory cannot explicate reasons for such acts when some affluent people do not experience strains that the disadvantaged do. Overall, the Strain Theory could be used in some situations that involve disadvantaged individuals who suffer due to social circumstances but it cannot be applied to cases where deviance is not caused by social strains.