Revisiting Merton: Continuities in the Theory of Anomie-and-Opportunity-Structures

Sanjay Marwah 
Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID

This is a copy of a publication in Sociological Theory and Criminological Research: Views from Europe and the United States, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Amsterdam: Elsevier/JAI Press, 2006. Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Marwah, Sanjay and Mathieu Deflem. 2006. ”Revisiting Merton: Continuities in the Theory of Anomie-and-Opportunity-Structures." Pp. 57-76 in Sociological Theory and Criminological Research: Views from Europe and the United States, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Amsterdam: Elsevier/JAI Press.


Although the influence of Robert Merton’s contributions in criminological sociology is widely acknowledged, there still remain misunderstandings about his theoretical project. In light of some of these ongoing ambiguities, this paper discusses recent criticisms of the Mertonian theory of deviant behavior and argues that a visionary sociological paradigm of anomie-and-opportunity-structures underlies Merton’s contribution. The status of this paradigm, however, has often been misconstrued and has impaired the elaboration of a genuinely Mertonian theory of deviant behavior. We therefore clarify the various theoretically relevant elements of the Mertonian paradigm and offer suggestions as to its operationalization for crime and deviance research. We argue that future research should identify, examine, and test differentiated aspects of the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm in order to arrive at a more consistent and substantiated conclusion on the validity of Merton’s project. We conclude that properly conceptualized and operationalized, the paradigm still holds great promise for sociological theory and research on deviant behavior.


The status of the late Robert K. Merton as a sociological giant on whose shoulders we all stand is undisputed. Among his lasting contributions to a plethora of sociological specialties, Merton’s (1938) work in criminological sociology through his seminal paper on “Social Structure and Anomie” has provided an important sociological framework for the analysis of deviant behavior in American society. The influence of Merton’s contribution to criminological sociology and other disciplinary perspectives in criminology is widespread (Braithwaite, 1980; Featherstone & Deflem, 2003; Rosenfeld, 1989). Yet, despite substantial modifications and revisions of Merton’s original theory and recent attempts by Merton and others to provide reinterpretations and clarifications (Deflem, 1989; Merton, 1995, 1997; Messner, 1988), there still remain certain misunderstandings and unclarities about this theoretical project (Bernard, 1987, 1990, 1995; Martin, 2000; Menard, 1995; Passas, 1995). Ambiguities in the reception of Merton’s paradigm in part stem from Merton being too abstract and unclear about the operationalization of his concepts for research purposes. However, because of the powerful analytical insights of Merton’s theoretical project, these shortcomings should not prevent the development and testing of a Mertonian theory of deviant behavior. On the contrary, we will argue that a visionary sociological paradigm of anomie-and-opportunity-structures underlies Merton’s contribution to the study of deviance. As such, our effort also presents an attempt to think with, rather than about Merton, an endeavor which itself follows Mertonian aspirations (Merton, 1949b).

This paper discusses Merton’s theoretical contribution to the sociological study of deviant behavior by linking a presentation of his original as well as his most recent contributions to the continually refined paradigm of anomie-and-opportunity-structures to some of the most prominent criticisms against and misunderstandings of Merton’s perspective. A clear and thorough presentation of Merton’s criminological paradigm is far from redundant, not only in light of certain misrepresentations of Merton’s work (Featherstone & Deflem, 2003), but also because of the continually “evolving character” of the paradigm over the course of some 50 years (Merton, 1995, p. 5). A clarification of these revisions and extensions in the Mertonian tradition will enable to better respond to some of the major objections that have been made against Merton’s theory and indicate the implications this has for the sociological study of crime and deviance. Based on this analysis, we argue that future research efforts should be directed at examining and testing different aspects of the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm with explicit attention to the scope, domain, and falsification requirements of its concepts and theories. Without such work first being done, temptations to take the Mertonian paradigm out of context and prematurely dismiss it might otherwise unjustly continue to exist.


Despite its enormous influence and popularity, Merton’s theoretical work in the area of deviant behavior has received an ambiguous reception in terms of the paradigm’s usefulness for research and the empirical validity of its propositions (Bernard, 1987; Gillis, 2004; Hilbert & Wright, 1979; Parnaby & Sacco, 2004; Piquero & Piquero, 1998; Pratt & Cullen, 2005; Rosenfeld, 1989). At a conceptual level, the notion of anomie has been praised as “useful and powerful” (Passas, 1995, p. 107) as well as condemned as “unnecessary and uncertain” (Besnard, 1990, p. 249). Much of the confusion in the secondary literature over the status and value of Merton’s theoretical project is due to the fact that Merton presented not one, but at least two theories in his original 1938 article and the related publications since (Merton, 1938, 1949a, 1957, 1964). On the one hand, Merton develops an anomie theory (of social organization) which postulates that an imbalance between cultural goals and socially acceptable means will result in a de-institutionalization of means. On the other hand, Merton presents a strain theory (of deviant behavior) to suggest that social barriers can restrict people under certain socio-economic conditions (such as anomie) from having access to the legitimate means to achieve culturally valid goals, presenting a pressure towards the adoption of illegitimate means to pursue culturally accepted goals (Featherstone & Deflem, 2003). In the secondary literature, however, Merton’s theory of anomie has often been mistaken for his theory of deviant behavior, a view that neglects that anomie and strain are two distinct concepts that refer to two different social realities, situated within an over-arching sociological paradigm. But Merton’s theory of deviant behavior was in its original formulations not fully developed to any degree of satisfaction, especially for research purposes. Merton has acknowledged as much, particularly when he recently suggested the incorporation of opportunity structures theory in his criminological perspective, referring to “the theory of anomie-and-opportunity-structures” (Merton, 1997, p. 519, 1995).

It has been only recently in 1995 that Merton (1995) wrote an important retrospective piece on the evolution of the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm. In this paper, Merton particularly sought to emphasize the importance of ‘opportunity structures’ as the most neglected component of his original social structure and anomie article and the subsequent revisions to it:

Central to the first, 1938, formulation of SS&A paradigm in print was the sociological idea of a continuing interplay and frequent tension between the cultural structure (the distribution and organization of values, norms, and interests) and the social structure (the distribution and organization of social positions or statuses). This, of course, has been generally recognized in the ensuing critical examination of the paradigm. However, a correlative structural idea has often been overlooked... [T]he hypothesis of the social distribution of adaptations to the interaction between culturally defined goals and institutionally acceptable means is closely linked to the basic structural concept of differential access to opportunities among those variously located in the social structure (Merton, 1995, p. 6).

In Merton’s paradigm, opportunity structures are distinct from both the cultural and the social structure. Merton was interested in how people’s location in the social structure (their socio-economic status) relates to differential access to society’s opportunity structures, defined as the interplay between structural context and individual modes of behavior (adaptation). The notion of opportunity structure, then, is introduced to explain the distribution of choices across individuals and groups located across the social structure:

Opportunity structure designates the scale and distribution of conditions that provide various probabilities for acting individuals and groups to achieve specifiable outcomes. From time to time, the opportunity structure expands or contracts, as do segments of that structure. However,... location in the social structure strongly influences, though it does not wholly determine, the extent of access to the opportunity structure. By concept, then, an expanding or contracting opportunity structure does not carry with it the uniform expansion or contraction of opportunities for all sectors of a socially stratified population, a familiar enough notion with diverse implications (Merton, 1995, p. 25).

Thus, importantly, the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm does not imply a structuralist-deterministic perspective that neglects the role of human agency. Instead, perception of opportunities or expectations of particular roles will vary across individuals, demonstrating the importance of subjective and individual-level factors. Merton (1995) therefore recognizes that any sociological account of social behavior is incomplete and can be complemented by an analysis of individual-level processes. However, as a sociologist, Merton’s interests are to explain deviance as a social phenomenon, that is, at the macro level, in particular in terms of the effects of various (cultural, social, and opportunity) structures on the patterning and distribution of choices and adaptations. It was this aspiration —to construct a distinctly sociological explanation of deviance against the attribution of social malfunctions to “imperious biological drives”— that lay at the very foundation of the development of Merton’s project (Merton, 1938, p. 672).

In Merton’s paradigm, opportunities and opportunity structures are generically understood and can be applied to various kinds of social phenomena, not only economic success (Merton, 1995, p. 30). Opportunity structures, also, are not necessarily fixed or immutable. Merton’s theory underscores the importance of context, whereby some level of contingency is always operating and can influence outcomes or behaviors. Already in his original typology of individual adaptations in the 1938 article, Merton makes clear that countervailing forces, whether at the aggregate or individual level, exist to mitigate or, alternatively, accentuate existing individual-level or structural processes (Merton, 1938, p. 676).

Of special interest for the sociological study of deviance, Merton connects the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm with complementary conceptions such as ‘the accumulation of advantage and disadvantage’ and ‘structural constraints’ (Merton, 1968, 1995, p. 17). The former concept highlights how socially based structures (especially the socio-economic structure) are created and maintained. Because the adaptation of innovation, for instance, tends to be more prevalent among the lower classes, Merton sees processes of disadvantage operating to stratify and distribute opportunities so that members of the lower classes have a more difficult time achieving culturally accepted goals through legitimate means. As a result, the structural strain towards deviance will be more common for these disadvantaged groups (Merton, 1949a).

The embeddedness of the notion of structural constraints in the anomie-and-opportunity-structure paradigm makes theoretical sense inasmuch as strains and stresses at the structural level affect rates of deviant adaptations. In societies where socio-economic conditions constrain particular social categories more than others, the possibilities of alternative legitimate options and means to achieve culturally approved goals are limited and will influence deviant adaptations. Merton also discusses how motivations play a role in such behavior:

Although the term structural constraint is often construed to mean that the social structure only places limitations upon individual choice, it was emphatically argued in the introduction to the 1949 extension of SS&A paradigm that this structural mode of “functional analysis conceives of the social structure as active, as producing fresh motivations which cannot be predicted on the basis of one’s knowledge of man’s native drives. If the social structure restrains some dispositions to act, it creates others... [A]s Peter Blau has noted, in contrast to Durkheim’s fundamental and strongly sociologistic concept of “structural determinism,” which puts aside such psychological concepts as motives as irrelevant, the mode of structural probabilism represented by the SS&A paradigm conceives of culturally and structurally induced “motivation as an intervening mechanism through which structural constraints usually become effective (with a) theoretical focus on the structural conditions as the crucial explanatory concept to account for social relations and conduct” (Merton, 1995, p. 17).

Consistent with Merton’s emphasis on rates and aggregates of behavior, constraints and opportunities from various structural sources concentrate certain types of dispositions in certain social positions. Motivations as opportunities are still structural in nature and can be considered to have structural properties. The distribution of the effects of anomie in a Mertonian sense works through these processes so that the cultural structure is also implicated in emphasis of particular culturally accepted goals and approved institutional means in society at large.

The anomie theory in Merton’s paradigm, although not discussed in detail in Merton’s (1995) recent article, is also important to explain the presence and strength of cultural goals and the significance of the cultural structure. Thomas Bernard (1984, 1987) in this respect makes an important point in suggesting that Merton’s theory comprises both structural and cultural propositions. The structural arguments (on differential access to legitimate means) could be tested within particular societies, while the cultural arguments (on the diffusion of cultural goals) are more appropriately tested cross-culturally or internationally. Also, Merton’s concept of anomie cannot be tested at the individual level and is instead conceptually tied with (and explicitly based on) Durkheim’s notion of social morality (Merton, 1938, pp. 672-673, 1964, pp. 214-215; see Bernard, 1995; Deflem, 1989), which has independently been influential for criminological research (Kim & Pridemore, 2005; Thorlindsson & Bernburg, 2004). Applying the Durkheimian paradigm, Merton chose to focus on American society where, he argued, anomie was widespread (in comparison to other nations) at a structural level, but its effects were not uniformly distributed across society.

Merton’s concept of anomie, related to the American Dream and the premium it places on monetary success, signifies that norms may lose their power differentially in distinct socio-economic strata. Despite the attempt to attribute culture as the source of strain and deviance in Merton’s theory (Kornhauser, 1978), it is more appropriate to suggest that the cultural structure is where anomie is produced so that cultural goals and the norms to achieve them (institutional means) are given legitimacy and credence. These goals, means, and interests may be created and maintained through various processes, but they are always mediated through institutions, groups, and individuals. In any case, Merton’s conception of widespread consensus on these cultural attributes throughout society is subject to empirical examination (as are alternative perspectives).


Given the wide scope and unfinished nature of the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm, Merton’s theories have been the subject of numerous criticisms and revisions over the years. In what follows we will aim to use our presentation of the Mertonian paradigm to evaluate some of these criticisms from the secondary literature. This analysis will serve to assess the validity of the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm as a framework for research and analysis on deviant behavior. In particular, we will focus on the following criticisms and suggestions:

a) Appropriation of Merton’s theory for a micro, individual-level theory of deviance;
b) Assertion that the cultural structure alone explains the rate and distribution of deviance;
c) Identification of Merton as a structuralist who neglects human agency; and
d) Critique of Merton’s theory as a one-sided structural model rather than an integrated cultural-structural model.

We will argue that many of these criticisms of Merton’s theories have misinterpreted and even disregarded some of the central Mertonian formulations, mostly because critics have sought to defend alternative frameworks and models for the sociological study of deviant behavior.

Appropriation of Merton’s Sociological Theory at the Micro Level

In criminology and criminological sociology, Merton’s theories have particularly been challenged by social control and social disorganization theorists (Bernard 1984). With regard to the validity of some of the propositions and applicability issues, critics have focused on: 1) a limited utility of Merton’s notions of shared goals and their distribution across society; 2) a lack of clarity as to whether one is measuring aspirations or expectations; and 3) ambiguity as to whether strain and anomie refer to phenomena at the individual, group, or societal level.

With some exceptions (e.g., Messner & Rosenfeld, 1994), most of the direct empirical testing of Merton’s strain theory has focused at the group and individual levels and the explanation of juvenile delinquency. Cloward and Ohlin (1960) and Cohen (1955), for instance, focused on strains for juveniles in gangs in lower class areas and the resulting patterns of delinquency. Since many of the criticisms have come from social control theorists and, to a lesser degree, from social disorganization theorists, applicability questions focus on empirical testing and research at the individual level. Such a focus on individual behavior is problematic, not only given Merton’s explicit sociological orientation, but also given the undisputable empirical significance of contextual effects on crime and deviance. However, one of the underlying assumptions of social control and social disorganization theorists (as well as newer routine activities/lifestyle victimization theories) is that individuals motivated towards deviance are spread throughout society and any real explanation of crime and deviance must aim to explain conformity rather than deviance. Most social control theorists assume that differences in context are not primarily relevant in explaining deviant behavior and that individual-level factors play a more prominent role (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Hirshi, 1969; see Konty, 2005; Peter, LaGrange, & Silverman, 2003). Social disorganization theorists do recognize the importance of social contexts, but nevertheless work from the viewpoint that communities not organized to control its members are more prone to criminal and deviant behavior (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993). In the anomie tradition, Messner and Rosenfeld’s (1994) institutional-anomie theory is consistent with social disorganization inasmuch as they also regard institutions as the master variable in explaining crime and deviance. In the institutional-anomie model, however, economic institutions dominate, while for social disorganization theories, a lack of institutions and low level of organization are the major reasons for deviance.

Critics of Merton coming from these theoretical camps miss out the important contribution made in the anomie-and-opportunity-structures framework, highlighting structural location and differential access to opportunities as important institutional parameters. The level of organization in communities or the importance of non-economic institutions is dependent on their competitiveness levels and relative access to resources. Furthermore, communities are not solely organized for the purpose of control of its members, but they also compete in the broader society and economy. For social disorganization theorists, competition is natural and involves distinct pathways and processes. Yet for Merton, competition is clearly social in terms of status and resources. The concept of opportunity structures highlights the importance of stratification of institutions and ability to organize and compete. Additionally, the concept of institutions in social disorganization theories seems more oriented towards internal organization and stability, but it does not adequately highlight the external sources of stability and organization. Therefore, as Merton (1976) himself has argued, the theories of social disorganization and strain can be complementary, focusing on different aspects of similar or related social phenomena, whereby unavoidably “each theory typically neglects other questions” (p. 32). Merton categorizes his own theory as one focused on deviant behavior, while he views social disorganization theories as examining “the defective arrangement or breakdown of systems of statuses and roles” (p. 28).

It is in our view a central misinterpretation of Merton’s model to use it for the analysis of individual deviant behavior. More recent versions of criminological strain theories, such as general strain theory (Agnew, 1992; Paternoster & Mazerolle, 1994), rewrite Merton’s theory in social-psychological terms to argue that strained individuals are frustrated and therefore more likely to commit crimes. While Merton has given some credence to the related notion of ‘anomia’ as the individual expression of the social state of anomie (Merton, 1964), he is otherwise quite clear that he is interested in studying the rates of deviance, their distribution, and structural strain (Merton, 1959, 1995). Hence, since even the analytical scope and research domain of general strain theorists are different from Merton’s original contribution, a dismissal of Merton’s theory is premature on the grounds of these criticisms alone.

The Cultural Structure as the Source of Strain

Ruth Kornhauser (1978) has popularized the notion that Merton’s strain and anomie theories rely only on a notion of the cultural structure to explain the presence of strain and deviance. For Kornhauser, Merton’s conception of strain derives from the broader culture, which Merton assumes to be largely uniform throughout society. Kornhauser maintains that this uniformity of culture implies that strain is constant and that most individuals are strained, so that strain cannot provide any real explanatory power at all. She also suggests that Merton actually uses a ‘control’ variable to explain the concentration of the innovation mode of individual adaptation among the poor and lower classes. The prevalence of innovation in the lower socio-economic strata of society would mainly come about because of defective socialization in the culturally accepted values of society. For Kornhauser, a strain towards deviance seems to be inherent in human nature, inasmuch as insatiable needs and their gratification exist for all human beings. A strain theory of deviant behavior would then be incomplete as it would only look at the benefits of crime and deviance, not the costs.

Kornhauser focuses on culture in a fashion similar to cultural models of crime and deviance. But, ironically, a stable social structure preventing disorder and crime in Kornhauser’s conception of social organization requires a strong culture, albeit grounded and embodied in the same social structure. As mentioned before, social disorganization theories accord prominence to the institutions of control, but the conception of such institutions is oriented towards a universal process of establishing structural stability. Stability and organization exist if members of communities are referenced to cultural differences between communities in terms of structural characteristics (Kornhauser, 1978, p. 75). People in poorer, more heterogeneous, and more mobile communities tend to have less controls and are more prone to deviance, because they lack the ability to realize common interests and values. Controls are primarily developed for the purpose of ensuring cooperative results and maintaining order. But as such outcomes often require a common morality and a specification of structural roles and obligations, the argument becomes circular and tautological.

Notions of cultural strain that are attributed to Merton’s theory seem to be misguided and a priori motivated by a desire to dismiss Merton’s criminological theory entirely. However, Merton never suggested that structural strain or anomie were equivalent to individual strain or anomia. Also, Merton argues that the characteristics of the cultural structure and the presence of anomie, but not the tendency towards strain, are widely spread in American society. Given this conception, Merton’s primary interest had to be in explaining structural strain, for the cultural structure cannot be the source of any strains to deviance in particular groups. In societies where the cultural goals are overemphasized, Merton would foresee high levels of deviance across the board, but the form and concentration of deviation would always remain dependent on people’s variable positioning in the social structure and their differential access to opportunity structures. Thus, Merton stresses distributional forces that in the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm are mainly tied to the social and opportunity structures. Bernburg (2002) similarly argues that Merton’s perspective incorporates stratification and distributional concerns. Merton’s argument is that a society’s culture reflects some level of consensus and sharing of values, but that anomic tendencies are created by the uneven distribution of means to reach the culturally emphasized goals. The attribution of cultural determinism to Merton’s paradigm is unfounded given that the critics emphasizing the problem of the constancy of strain could be similarly accused of being structural (and surprisingly, even cultural) determinists.

The Neglect of Human Agency

Another re-occurring criticism of the anomie-and-opportunity-structures theory focuses on the neglect of human agency and individual-level factors. Most clearly, Douglas Porpora (1989) has argued that macro-level models too exclusively concentrate on uncovering law-like generalizations about social facts at the expense of intervening, psychological processes involving human actors. For Porpora, a ‘sociological holist view’ represents structures as external to individuals and as operating in a mechanical and independent manner, divorced from human interests. Porpora does not cite Merton’s theories, but the criticism matches those that have been developed against Merton in similar terms, most notably in self-control theory (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).

Porpora’s criticism highlights a critical aspect of the Mertonian paradigm, namely the significance it attributes to the purposive nature of human behavior. In the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm, despite the importance given to structural strain, the specification of cultural goals and norms, and the structurally variable modes of adaptations, the impact of structures is clearly acknowledged as being mediated by human agents. Still, human behavior (actions and choices) involves structurally influenced (not determined) motivations to achieve goals and make choices for particular purposes. In the case of deviant behavior, as with other types of behavior, these purposes are located at the individual level, but they achieve the status of a structural property through the concentration of strain for similarly located individuals. Of course, people in similar positions and locations are bound to make similar choices, but only in a probabilistic sense. Once the structural property is achieved, the persistence of different structures only reflects the strength of the choices and adaptations of individuals within the society. Because human beings develop interests and give credence to values, the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm is consistent with a conceptualization of structures as produced and reproduced through the actions and choices of individuals.

Porpora’s non-deterministic conception of social structure, which holds that “people are motivated to act in the interests structurally built into their social positions,” is actually not far removed from Merton’s perspective (Porpora, 1989, p. 200). Specifically, Porpora’s conception is similar to the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm in its emphasis of structurally induced (cultural and social) motivations or interests as being critical in understanding structural strain. Porpora (1989) indeed argues that there is a “dialectical causal path that leads from structure to interests to motives to action and finally back to structure” (p. 200).

Yet, a crucial difference between Merton’s theory of the social structure and Porpora’s dialectics of structure and motivations is presented in the addition of the notion of opportunity structures in Merton’s paradigm. Opportunities to achieve specific goals or outcomes are lacking in Porpora’s conception, but it is precisely the opportunity structures component of the Mertonian paradigm that renders the deterministic critique mute. It is indeed through the interaction of all three kinds of structure (cultural, structural, and opportunity structures) that the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm conceives of human behavior (including deviant behavior) as having structural properties and structural origins only in a probabilistic sense at the aggregate level. Aspects of human agency intervene in the actualization and perception of structural opportunities to shape the process through which certain structures will more or less likely produce certain kinds of behavior at the aggregate level (see also Cohen, 1985; Messner & Rosenfeld, 1994).

Merton (1949a) has himself acknowledged that his work “has largely neglected but not denied the relevance of the social-psychological processes” that link social structure and modes of adaptation (p. 257). Merton (1959) has also admitted that his efforts to distinguish between socially generated pressures and vulnerabilities to these pressures was lacking and that it would still be “necessary to identify other sociological variables that intervene between structurally induced pressure for deviant behavior and actual rates of deviant behavior” (p. 188). Among the extensions of Merton’s paradigm, Albert Cohen’s (1965) attempt to integrate Merton’s perspective with a Meadian role theory is among the most influential bridge-building constructs in this respect. Likewise, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960) extended the Mertonian framework to account for the differential nature of the illegitimate opportunity structure. Merton (1995) acknowledges that Cloward and Ohlin provided a necessary addition to his theory, although his own theory focuses primarily on legitimate opportunities (see Marwah 2001). Merton has generally responded favorably to the efforts to integrate his framework with related theoretical perspectives (Merton, 1957, pp. 231-233, 1995, pp. 33-44). Most recently, for instance, Merton received the criminology of Edwin Sutherland as a theoretical complement to his strain theory (Merton, 1997; see also Bernburg, 2002; Cullen, 1988). Conversely, as Merton (1995, pp. 38-44) observes, the notion of opportunity has been acknowledged by other criminologists like Sutherland and Cohen, although codification of the concept was not accomplished consciously and explicitly in their theories.

A One-Sided Structural Model?

Although Merton’s paradigm is less deterministic than most structural models, there still exists the view that structural sociology can never adequately stress the importance of culture in human behavior. Rubinstein (1992, 1993, 1994) uses Merton’s anomie-and-opportunity-structures model as an exemplary of such tendencies in structural sociology. In Rubinstein’s view, structuralist perspectives like Merton’s not only neglect human agency, but also ignore the role of culture at the individual level. Both sociologists and economists would share this tendency of using structure to explain human behavior. As both fields in Rubinstein’s characterization tend to ignore how human actors have cultural predispositions and a will to make choices (moral or otherwise), these scientific disciplines would deterministically favor structural or exogenous explanations. The difference between economists and sociologists is that the later view social order on the basis of competing groups and collectivities, while the former view order as composed of disaggregated and competing individuals. For Rubinstein (1993, 1994), sociological and economic efforts to make human actors featureless downplay the importance of human will and human culture. Both will and culture for Rubinstein are individual properties and as such his model of human behavior and action is closer to the rational actor models of the economists. Further, Rubinstein views any structural level properties as wholly incomplete and ideological in their convictions of the influence of opportunity structures on individual outcomes. Also, he does not accept the existence of a cultural structure as the notion is used in the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm.

Based on these considerations, Rubinstein (2001) provides a reconceptualization of structuralist perspectives, in which he suggests that culture emerges and is articulated in practical contexts. According to his argument, culture and structures of opportunity are intimately linked. Rubinstein contrasts this approach with structural sociology by emphasizing that culture is only partly instrumentally devised and that its content is indeterminate and open to opportunistic reading by actors. Actors’ personality traits, decisions, and choices are considered as more important than structural and larger cultural institutional factors in explaining individual behaviors including criminal behaviors. Therefore, Rubinstein (2001) characterizes Merton’s theory as explaining crime in terms of blocked opportunity, while providing “no ‘rational’ reason for class and ethnic-based exclusion from the legitimate opportunity structure” (p. 49). Rubinstein sees both access to opportunity structures and cultural resources as individually determined.

Reviewing these criticisms, it is clear that Rubinstein does not sufficiently explore Merton’s integrated cultural and social opportunity structural model, which does not exclude the importance of agency and actor choices and decisions. While there is clearly a difference in emphasis between Merton’s (structural strain) and Rubinstein’s (individual interpretations) models, the individual cultural model can pose a limitation to Merton’s paradigm only in bringing out that the sociological paradigm does not offer a psychological analysis (Rosenfeld, 1989, p. 455). The individual (subjective) element of opportunity structures (relative to the cultural and structural levels) suggests that the paradigm can only be conceived as a probabilistic model at the level of individual behavior, a point that has been stated explicitly by Merton (1995) himself. Since Durkheim, sociology defines itself by uncovering the causes and outcomes of such social facts at an aggregate level. However, if different individuals select the opportunities they are confronted with in different ways, the persistence of structural effects suggested in the Mertonian paradigm may perhaps limit the explanatory power of the paradigm to exclude the determinants of individual choices. Individual attributes and personality characteristics can still override similar choices being made by individuals in the same structural locations.

Aside from the need to empirically determine which factors are important, the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm does have the advantage of not being dependent —as individual-level models are— in trying to explain motives and actions based on psychological and mental processes. Measures for these later processes are not easily available. More importantly, an essentialist perspective that conceives of behavior only at the individual level would lead to deny that human actors can be influenced through their interactions with other actors and their shared structural locations (Fuchs 2001). What instead should be proposed, and what is offered in the Mertonian paradigm, is a social-realist theory which acknowledges the interplay between structure and culture, on the one hand, and human agency, on the other hand. Any separation among these relevant components is always analytical. As Cruickshank (2000) argues, “whilst structure, culture and agency are always intertwined in reality, to study their interplay, it is necessary to use a theoretical abstraction to separate the different factors” (p. 83).


An explicitation of Merton’s mature version of the anomie-and-opportunity-structures theory, with which we started this article, clarifies the strength of the paradigm relative to its most common criticisms. Especially with the elaboration of the notion of opportunity structure, Merton (1995) has now clarified that the social structure is defined as the organization and distribution of status positions, not institutionalized means. Compared to the earliest versions of the paradigm, this version separates positions from means and locates the production of these means in a differential structure. Merton now clearly recognizes the necessity of including the production and distribution of means into separate realms, each subject to different dynamics. In the older versions of the paradigm, the distribution of means was awkwardly mixed with the production of means and related with the social structure in unclear ways.

Merton (1995) also provides more specific guidelines on applying the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm, which has distinct consequences for theorizing and research in structural sociology. A first guideline is that access to opportunities does not necessarily entail actual utilization of those opportunities (Merton, 1995, p. 8). Acting individuals and their definitions of the situation (e.g., the opportunities perceived and used by them) are important to predict ultimate outcomes such as deviant behavior. Merton has chosen to give individuals and their motivations a place in his paradigm, despite its emphasis on structural factors and extra-individual environments. Merton recognizes that structures are analytical abstractions that are unable to operate without actors. These abstractions are useful to help understand the organization and relationships between actors and the creation of objective situations and contexts in which actions occur.

An additional guideline suggested by Merton (1995, p. 8) relates to how differential access to opportunity is a probabilistic, not a deterministic concept. The role of structures of any kind in Merton’s paradigm are in shaping and influencing actor behavior and choices. For example, the existence of anomie in the broader society only increases the likelihood of certain adaptations under specified conditions. The paradigm is thus fully probabilistic in its ability to explain social phenomena such as deviant behavior.

Further specifying the original model of individual adaptations, Merton now differentiates rebellion, called nonconformist behavior, from innovation, ritualism, and retreatism, termed aberrant behavior. The aberrant types of adaptations involve more self-interested conduct, as “aberrants try to hide their violations of social norms even as they regard the norms they violate as legitimate… As a result, their rule-breaking is socially defined simply as an effort to satisfy their personal interests in normatively unacceptable ways” (Merton, 1995, p. 12). Aberrants, unlike rebels, do not challenge the existing values and goals of a society or group’s culture, but rather seek to satisfy their own personal needs. These are precisely the types of persons who are innovators accepting the broader goals, but using illegitimate means to achieve these goals.

Finally, the differentiation of nonconformist and aberrant behavior also shows that Merton’s model incorporates the societal reactions towards deviant behavior, a point that has occasionally been overlooked in discussions of Merton’s theory (Heckert & Heckert, 2004). Merton’s recognition of the reactions by society and its definitional power to turn deviance to crime (or not) is most clear in the case of ritualism, a mode of adaptation which is “not generally considered to present a ‘social problem’” (Merton, 1957, p. 204), but which Merton describes as a case of over-conformity (Merton, 1957, pp. 236, 238-241). In fact, Merton additionally makes the stronger claim that deviant behavior is not necessarily dysfunctional, but that some “degree of deviation from current norms is probably functional for the basic goals of all groups” (Merton, 1957, p. 236). In this respect, then, Merton’s theory can make a considerable advance in criminological theorizing by its attempt at integrating a causation perspective of deviance in a constructionist perspective of crime. A problematization of the nexus between deviance and crime is at the heart of Merton’s theory of anomie-and-opportunity-structures.


In this paper we have provided an analysis of Robert Merton’s anomie-and-opportunity-structures theory in view of ongoing developments in the elaboration and refinement of the Mertonian paradigm. Particularly relying on Merton (1995)’s recent retrospective piece on the paradigm, we have argued for the centrality of the notion of opportunity structure in the Mertonian framework. Taking this important recent development into account, our discussion revealed that the Mertonian paradigm may continue to hold great promise in current theory and research examining deviant behavior, an insight that has already spawned a renewed interest in empirical research in the anomie-and-opportunity-structures tradition (e.g., Hagan & McCarthy, 1998; Passas, 1990, 2000). While further empirical research is surely needed complimentary to our analysis, it is clearly unfortunate that the theory of deviant behavior in the Mertonian paradigm has in some of the secondary literature been subject to unjust criticisms and misinterpretations. Upon more careful examination, the paradigm can hold strong because it incorporates many of the concerns of social scientists to develop an integrated cultural-structural model of human behavior and include both structural and human agency elements in such a model.

Many of the misattributions leveled against Merton by researchers who are theoretically positioned outside the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm in reality demonstrate the objectives and limitations of their own approaches. Social-control and social-disorganization theorists, for instance, give overriding importance to institutional factors. The former criminologists ignore contextual factors, such as socio-economic conditions, whereas the latter tend to be structural determinists and, surprisingly, move towards being cultural deterministic. The realist-Marxist conception of social structure that is adopted by Porpora has a certain similarity with the one used in the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm, except that the latter paradigm incorporates cultural and opportunity structures as well. Given that the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm incorporates or at least acknowledges the importance of human agency in social science behavior, future models using this paradigm will have to acknowledge the probabilistic nature of any structural modeling. Nevertheless, structural properties of behavior exist and the anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm goes further than most existing models in describing the parameters making up such structures.

Finally, the criticisms against a Mertonian structural model as ignoring voluntaristic, individual-level variables have their own limitations, mainly arising from a downplaying of the existence of supra-individual structures and, especially, the existence of cultural and opportunity structures. Such approaches explore the psychological and mental processes of individuals but are subject to problems of making any generalizations across individuals. It is clear that scholars adhering to such absolute criticisms about structural sociology do not approve of any research showing the importance of structural effects on human behavior, particularly the role of power and stratification underlying conceptions of cultural, social, and opportunity structures. If Merton’s oeuvre is to have any meaningful impact in the future of our discipline, it should at least be its legacy that it is a truly sociological contribution.

  • Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology 30, 47-87.
  • Bernard, T.J. (1984). Control criticisms of strain theories: An assessment of theoretical and empirical adequacy. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 21, 353-372.
  • Bernard, T.J. (1987). Testing structural strain theories. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 24, 262-280.
  • Bernard, T.J. (1990). Twenty years of testing theories: What have we learned and why? Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 27, 325-347.
  • Bernard, T.J. (1995). Merton versus Hirschi: Who is faithful to Durkheim’s heritage? In F. Alder & W.S. Laufer (Eds), The legacy of anomie theory. Advances in criminological research, Volume 6 (pp. 81-90). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  • Bernburg, J.G. (2002). Anomie, social change and crime: A theoretical examination of institutional-anomie theory. British Journal of Criminology 42, 729-742.
  • Besnard, P. (1990). Merton in search of anomie. In J. Clark, C. Modgil, and S. Modgil (Eds), Robert K. Merton: Consensus and controversy (pp. 243-254). London: Falmer Press.
  • Braithwaite, J. (1980). Merton’s theory of crime and differential class symbols of success. Crime and/et Justice 7, 90–94.
  • Bursik, R.J., Jr., & H.G. Grasmick. (1993). Economic deprivation and neighborhood crime rates, 1960-1980. Law & Society Review 27, 263-283.
  • Cloward, R., & L.E. Ohlin. (1960). Delinquency and opportunity: A theory of delinquent gangs. New York: The Free Press.
  • Cohen, A.K. (1955). Delinquent boys. New York: The Free Press.
  • Cohen, A.K. (1965). The sociology of the deviant act: Anomie theory and beyond. American Sociological Review 30, 5-14.
  • Cohen, A.K. (1985). The assumption that crime is a product of environments: Sociological approaches. In R.F. Meier (Ed.), Theoretical methods in criminology (pp. 223-243). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Cruickshank, J. (2000). Social theory and the underclass: Social realism or rational choice individualism? In M.S. Archer and J.Q. Tritter (Ed.), Rational choice theory: Resisting colonization (pp. 75-92). London: Routledge.
  • Cullen, F.T. (1988). Were Cloward and Ohlin strain theorists? ‘Delinquency and Opportunity’ revisited. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 25, 214-241.
  • Deflem, M. (1989). From anomie to anomia and anomic depression. Social Science and Medicine 29, 627-634.
  • Featherstone, R., & M. Deflem. (2003). Anomie and strain: Merton’s two theories. Sociological Inquiry 73, 471-489.
  • Fuchs, S. (2001). Against essentialism: A theory of culture and society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Gillis, A.R. (2004). Institutional dynamics and dangerous classes: Reading, writing, and arrest in nineteenth-century France. Social Forces 82, 1303-1331.
  • Gottfredson, M.R., & T. Hirschi. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Hagan, J., & B. McCarthy. (1998). Social capital theory and the renewal of a strain-and-opportunity paradigm in sociological criminology. Sociologie et Societies 30, 133-145.
  • Heckert, A., & D.M. Heckert. (2004). Using an integrated typology of deviance to expand Merton’s anomie theory. Criminal Justice Studies 17, 75-90.
  • Hilbert, R.E., & C.W. Wright. 1979. Representations of Merton’s theory of anomie. The American Sociologist 14, 150-156.
  • Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Kim, S.-W., & W.A. Pridemore. (2005). Social change, institutional anomie and serious property crime in transitional Russia. British Journal of Criminology 45, 81-97.
  • Konty, M. (2005). Microanomie: The cognitive foundations of the relationship between anomie and deviance. Criminology 43, 107-132.
  • Kornhauser, R. (1978). Social structures of delinquency: An appraisal of analytic models. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Martin, R. (2000). Anomie, spirituality, and crime. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 16, 75-98.
  • Marwah, Sanjay. (2001). Contrasting notions of opportunity in crime and violence theory and research. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Anaheim, CA, August 2001.
  • Menard, S. (1995). A developmental test of Mertonian anomie theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 32, 136-174.
  • Merton, R.K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review 3, 672-682.
  • Merton, R.K. (1949a). Social structure and anomie: Revisions and extensions. In R.N. Anshen (Ed.), The family: Its functions and destiny (pp. 226-257). New York: Harper.
  • Merton, R.K. ([1949b] 1968). On the history and systematics of sociological theory. In his Social theory and social structure (pp. 1-38). New York: The Free Press.
  • Merton, R.K. ([1957] 1968). Continuities in the theory of social structure and anomie. In his Social theory and social structure (pp. 215-248). New York: The Free Press.
  • Merton, R.K. (1959). Social conformity, deviation and opportunity structures: A comment on the contributions of Dubin and Cloward. American Sociological Review 24, 177-189.
  • Merton, R.K. (1964). Anomie, anomia, and social interaction: Contexts of deviant behavior. In R.M. Clinard (Ed.), Anomie and deviant behavior (pp. 213-242). New York: The Free Press.
  • Merton, R.K. (1968). The Matthew effect in science. Science 159, 56-63.
  • Merton, R.K. (1976). Social problems and sociological theory. In R.K. Merton & R. Nisbet (Eds), Contemporary Social Problems, 4th edition (pp. 1-43). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Merton, R.K. (1995). Opportunity structure: The emergence, diffusion, and differentiation of a sociological concept. In F. Adler and W.S. Laufer (Eds), The legacy of anomie theory. Advances in criminological research, Volume 6 (pp. 3-78). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  • Merton, R.K. (1997). On the evolving synthesis of differential association and anomie theory: A perspective from the sociology of science. Criminology 35, 517-525.
  • Messner, S.F. (1988). Merton’s social structure and anomie: The road not taken. Deviant Behavior 9, 33-53.
  • Messner, S.F., & R. Rosenfeld. (1994). Crime and the American dream. Second Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  • Parnaby, P.F., & V.F. Sacco. (2004). Fame and strain: The contributions of Mertonian deviance theory to an understanding of the relationship between celebrity and deviant behavior. Deviant Behavior 25, 1-26.
  • Passas, N. (1990). Anomie and corporate deviance. Contemporary Crises 14, 157-178.
  • Passas, N. (1995). Continuities in the anomie tradition. In F. Adler and W.S. Laufer (Eds), The legacy of anomie theory. Advances in criminological research, Volume 6 (pp. 91-112). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  • Passas, N. (2000). Global anomie, dysnomie, and economic crime: Hidden consequences of neoliberalism and globalization in Russia and around the world. Social Justice 27, 16-44.
  • Paternoster, R., & P. Mazerolle. (1994). General strain theory and delinquency: A replication and extension. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 31, 235-263.
  • Peter, T., LaGrange, T.C., and R.A. Silverman. (2003). Investigating the interdependence of strain and self-control. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 45, 431-464.
  • Piquero, A., & N.L. Piquero. (1998). On testing institutional anomie theory with varying specifications. Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention 7, 61-84.
  • Porpora, D.V. (1989). Four concepts of social structure. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 19, 195-211.
  • Pratt, T.C., & F.T. Cullen. (2005). Assessing macro-level predictors and theories of crime: A meta-analysis. Crime and Justice 32, 373-450.
  • Rosenfeld, R. (1989). Robert Merton’s contributions to the sociology of deviance. Sociological Inquiry 59, 453-466.
  • Rubinstein, D. (1992). Structural explanation in sociology: The egalitarian imperative. The American Sociologist 23, 5-19.
  • Rubinstein, D. (1993). Opportunity and structural sociology. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 23, 266-283.
  • Rubinstein, D. (1994). The social construction of opportunity. The Journal of Socio-Economics 23, 61-78.
  • Rubinstein, D. (2001). Culture, structure & agency: Towards a multidimensional society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Thorlindsson, T., & J.G. Bernburg. (2004). Durkheim’s theory of social order and deviance: A multi-level test. European Sociological Review 20, 271-285.

See related writings on sociological theory.