Agnews General and Mertons Strain Theories

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It is plausible to denote that the shared understanding of deviance underlies an entity charged with breaking a law or acting in a negative way. For the sociologist, a deviant is an individual departing from the societal norms, and this can either have positive or negative connotations. Murder, rape and robbery among others are crimes that depict negative deviant behavior. It is unexpected of people to speed. Nonetheless, some cities in the United States may not consider speeding as deviant behavior and thus, positive deviance. In this regard, one must evaluate why persons are deviant and the function deviance plays in the community. However, there is no definitive solution for either, rather multiple theories. The paper compares and contrasts Mertons structural strain theory with Agnews general strain theory as regards the query as to why individuals engage in crime or deviance.

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Deviance is a function of the conflict between the goals entities have and the opportunities accorded to legally acquire or obtain these goals. Robert Agnews general strain theory highlights the fact that strain at individual level may be resultant from the inadequacies and disappointments in achieving set and valued goals. (Agnew, 1992) This may also be a consequence from adverse relations/stimuli. Similarly, Merton connotes that strain is a consequence of the lack of culturally prescribed goals and lack of access to legitimate or institutionalized norms and means of goal attainment, for example, good education and jobs (Glick, 2005). Also, the two theories acclaim the fact that the inequality to means of success is mainly accrued to the lower class in society. It reveals the fact that achieving these goals is dependent on class. Consequently, the lower class society can be attributed to the feelings of anger, frustration and hate which underlie the boundaries of strain.

From this, it can be gathered that strain is limited in the affluent classes due to the underlying fact that opportunities such as education and vocational trainings are readily available for this cohort. The poor in the community have to contend with the conundrum of either accepting their condition whole-heartedly or the alternative which means achieving success through crimes such prostitution, theft and violence among others. Therefore, to relieve strain, the poor are coerced to utilizing deviant methods or rejection of socially accepted goals e.g. aggressiveness.

The social strain theory categorizes several variant types of strains under three primary sections. However, each of the categories is underscored by the kind of relationship with others. The first category suggests strain to be the failure to achieve the positively valued goals. The second category involves the elimination of positively valued stimuli from the entity. The third indicates strain as a presentation of negative stimuli. The first category can be attributed to influencing factors such as social class, expectations and what an individual considers to be fair to them. The second can be accrued to the loss of a positive stimuli such as a close friend which may transcend into retribution or an attempt to prevent or find a replacement to the stimuli and hence, the onset of deviant behavior. Sexual abuse, domestic violence and bullying schools can be connoted to be negative stimuli attributed to the presentation of negative stimuli that can lead to deviance. Some of the mentioned negative stimuli can be linked to child or juvenile delinquent behavior (Agnew, 1992).

Also, it can be said that the three strains as highlighted by Agnews general strain theory augment the probability than an individual is bound to experience as set of negative emotions from fear and frustrations. The alleviation of emotions creates a necessity for corrective action in which criminal behavior may act one of the possible responses. The degree of control of negative stimuli is dependent on an individual and those will lower power experience diverse negative emotions. However, Agnew connotes that criminal or deviant behavior is not the apparent result for pressure caused by strain (Agnew, 1992). There is a multiplicity of ways to mitigate or adapt to pressure. Some persons accept and take responsibility, others ignore, others take illicit substances and others seek retribution to those they perceive are the source of their strain.

In this light, Merton attributes conformity, retreatism, rebellion, innovation and ritualism as the five models of adaptation that underpin deviant or criminal behavior bound to occur when legitimate means to goal attainment are restricted (Glick, 2005). The theorist observed that Americans are vulnerable to powerful socialization processes that insist on the success ethic and thus, every citizen internalizes the cultural approved goal of success. Basically, it underlies material possessions, money and climbing the social status ladder based on acquired wealth and occupation. The society extends to directing the ways in which such success can be achieved which is through working hard in school, saving, deferred gratification and living a life of virtue. The juxtaposition of internalized and socially viable goals and the reality of limited chances and achievement to these opportunities lead to anomie. Therefore, it necessitates an individual to win by all means necessary. This leads to a life of crime.

Nonetheless, Merton denoted that there exist the diverse types of adaptation as aforementioned as not everyone enters into a life of crime. Conformity constitutes the conduct of most members of the society who accept the culturally approved success and have implemented a legitimate work ethic for success. Retreatism defines those individuals who have quit or given up on the societal goals of achievement and this includes the legitimate means of acquiring them. Therefore, they engage or indulge in deviant behavior such as drug addiction, alcoholism or even commit suicide (Agnew, 1992; Carson, 2007; Glick, 2005). Rebellion is linked to revolutionary groups or rebels who may purposely reject goals and rebel against the social order in an endeavor to being the desired changes to the society. The innovator refutes the legitimate means but not the end goals by substituting these means by a life of crime. The ritualists innately depart from the culturally approved goals of attainment. For this reason, Merton denotes they are deviant as the individual only outwardly shows conformity to legitimate means.

Summary CITATION Gli05 \l 1033 (Glick, 2005)Cultural goals Institutional means

Conformity + +

Innovation + -

Ritualism - +

Retreatism- -

Rebellion +/- +/-

Different studies have shown support for the general strain theory and acclaim the fact that exposure to strain leads to deviant behavior (Agnew, 1992; Wen-Hsu, 2011; Elite, 2010; Carson, 2007). Other studies have indicated that strain augments the probability of adopting a criminal lifestyle. However, there are limitations in the theory in which it fails to depict why some people are more prone to a life crime than others. Other studies have viciously challenged the connection of strain and the maturation of deviant behavior. In fact, Rosenfied denotes that as result of vicious talks and a consensus, Mertons strain theory was insinuated not to have explained the reasons for crime and deviance (Rosenfeld, 1989). The other theories such as the cultural and control theories of deviance do not preserve the interconnection between culture and social different from the strain theories (Rosenfeld, 1989).

Mertons theory which progressed and at aimed at improving the Agnews general strain theory can be attributed to a number of limitations as pertains explanation of deviance. Therefore, these limitations in explaining deviance can be extended to the Agnews general strain theory. The theory fails to look at crimes committed by the middle and upper classes such as fraud. It does not explain why an individual would choose one form of adaptation over another and fails to decipher the causes of such deviances as murder and rape among others which are usually not motivated by economic reasons.


From the study, it can be denoted that the theories attempt to explain the reason why individuals engage in criminal or deviant behavior. However, they employ a limited perspective that only factors economic motivations. The two theories highlight different form of adaptation. However, they fail to show the criteria which people use to choose between the diverse types of adaptations. Richard Cloywan and Lloyd Ohlin attempted to explain why the poor choose one or the other of Mertons adaptations by stressing the differential access to illegitimate means. The theories put forward a conceptualization that deviant behavior is only performed by the poor which is far from reality. Nonetheless, various studies support the link between strain and deviant behavior.


BIBLIOGRAPHY \l 1033 Agnew, R., 1992. Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30(1), pp. 47-88.

Featherstone, R. & Deflem, M., 2003. Anomie and Strain: Context and consequences of Merton's two theories. The sociological inquiry, 73(4), pp. 471-89.

Sullivan, M., 2001. Building on the foundation of general strain theory: Specifying the types of strain most likely to lead to crime and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38(4), pp. 319-463.

Rosenfeld, R. (1989). Robert Merton's Contributions to the Sociology of Deviance. Sociological Inquiry, 59(4), pp.453-466.

Yilmaz, I., 2015. General Strain Theory of Delinquency: the Developmental Process of Robert Agnews Works from a Historical Perspective. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 6(11), pp. 168-179.

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