Anomie, Strain, and Opportunity Structure: Robert K. Merton's Paradigm of Deviant Behavior

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a chapter in The Handbook of the History and Philosophy of Criminology, edited by Ruth A. Triplett. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018. 

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Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2018. "Anomie, Strain, and Opportunity Structure: Robert K. Merton's Paradigm of Deviant Behavior." Pp. 140-155 in The Handbook of the History and Philosophy of Criminology, edited by Ruth A. Triplett. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sociologist Robert K. Merton’s paper “Social Structure and Anomie,” which he originally published in 1938, counts among the most seminal theoretical contributions to the criminological study of deviant behavior (Merton 1938). The widely recognized and indisputable standing and influence of Merton’s most important criminological writing, however, cannot be understood to imply that his central ideas are readily understood in their proper intellectual and social context. In fact, it can be unequivocally stated that this condition is not attained, not even as the theory’s initial formulation is approaching its octogenarian anniversary. Yet, it is a testimony to the power of Merton’s work that his ideas have been discussed, applied, and tested, but have thereby also come to acquire a meaning and that are no longer necessarily tied up to the author’s original intentions.

This chapter will seek to clarify the theoretical objectives and scope of Merton’s work on anomie and strain as a sociology of deviant behavior and analyze some of its pathways and turning points in the history of sociology and criminological theorizing and research. This presentation and analysis of Merton’s relevant work should lead to a better understanding of his contributions to the field of criminology as well as offer a chapter in a historically informed sociology of scientific discovery and development. A range of systematic issues and challenges will hereby be addressed to offer a clearer picture of the theoretical value and research implications of Merton’s criminological paradigm.

Robert K. Merton: A Brief Introduction to a Long Life of Work

The discipline of sociology distinguishes itself from other social and behavioral sciences by always locating its themes of analysis within the broader contour of the societal contexts in which these themes are located. A short overview of Robert Merton’s life, therefore, is no mere excursion, but will help to situate his paradigm of deviant behavior.

Robert K. Merton was born July 4, 1910 as Meyer R. Schkolnick, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants (Calhoun, 2003; Deflem, forth.; Kaufman, 2003; Merton, 1996). Growing up in relatively dire economic circumstances in the slums of Philadelphia, Merton was nonetheless afforded educational opportunities, both because of his intellectual gifts and his mother’s encouragement to a life of learning. In his adult years, Merton was fond of recounting the centrality of his library card during childhood (Merton, 1996). A gifted student, Merton received a scholarship to begin attending Temple University in 1927, by which time he formally Americanized his name, which he had originally chosen as the stage name for his performances as an amateur magician. While at Temple, Merton one day by accident ventured into a sociology class that was taught by George Simpson, the scholar known for translating Durkheim’s (1897) famous book on suicide. Simpson exposed Merton to the world of sociological research and encouraged him to attend a meeting of the American Sociological Association. There he met Pitirim Sorokin, the eminent Russian-born sociologist who had just become chair of the newly formed Department of Sociology at Harvard University. Merton subsequently applied to and was admitted at Harvard in 1931, where he formally worked with Sorokin but was also exposed to the teachings of a then relatively unknown Talcott Parsons.

Merton’s talents as a sociologist were recognized early on his career, and he already published several valuable articles on sociology and sociological theory during his graduate student days. Upon receiving his Ph.D. in 1936, Merton taught at Harvard for two years before becoming professor and chair at Tulane University in 1939. Two years later Merton left Tulane for a position at Columbia University, where he spent the rest of his professional life. At Columbia, Merton would continue his stellar contributions to sociology, especially as a gifted theorist, in the company of stellar methodologically oriented colleagues, most notably the statistically inclined Paul Lazersfeld, with whom he would build one of the most renowned sociology graduate programs in the world.

Working in many different areas of sociology, Merton was always influential in forging new ideas and seeing them applied, tested, and used in various ways by a large number of sociologists. The wide influence of Merton’s work, then and now, is no coincidence as his theories were deliberately constructed to be valuable for empirical research. The impact of Merton’s work has even extended beyond the academia as some of his concepts and ideas, such as manifest and latent function and self-fulfilling prophecy, have become part of our everyday language. In 1994, Merton was awarded the National Medal of Science, the first sociologist to receive this highest honor for academicians in the United States. Robert Merton died on February 23, 2003, succumbing from cancer which he had fought for a number of years.

The Idea of Social Structure

It is indispensable for an adequate understanding of Merton’s paradigm of deviant behavior to clarify the central tenants of his sociological approach and perspective of society. Merton’s perspective can be adequately described as a paradigm, not a mere (explanatory) theory, as it also incorporates a set of assumptions on how deviant behavior is to be studied sociologically. Influenced by Talcott Parsons and broadly situated with in the so-called structural-functional school of sociology, certain aspects of Merton’s sociological perspective are important to consider for the reception of his work. With respect to its theory of society, the work of Merton is oriented at developing ideas that reveal the centrality of the social structure in social life. With respect to its sociological approach on how to study said dimensions and consequences of the social structure, Merton developed a unique perspective of theories of the middle range. Both of these ideas, it will be shown, are explicitly manifested in Merton’s paradigm of deviant behavior.

Merton’s notion of the social structure refers to the constellation of positions and networks in a variety of social spheres, involving the distribution of both material as well as symbolic goods (Merton, 1968). This concept of the social structure intimately refers to the hierarchies that may exist in the social order to place some segments of the population higher or lower and in otherwise more or less advantageous position, such as is indicated for instance by the notions of lower, middle. and upper classes. Importantly, moreover, Merton does not restrict the social structure to the material order of the distribution of wealth but also recognizes the role of the symbolic order, especially as it relates to values and norms. Additionally, Merton argues that location in the social structure imposes constraints but also creates opportunities. In this sense, Merton’s work uses insights from, and extends beyond the limitations commonly associated with, so-called consensus and conflict models in sociological theorizing. Merton therefore also relies on the works of both Marx and Durkheim in a complementary fashion (Cullen and Messner, 2007, pp. 26-28).

Within the context of his concept of his structural perspective, Merton adopts a sociological approach that is understood as an explicit, albeit sympathetic critique of (conventional) functionalism, especially as it was suggested in the work of Talcott Parsons (1951) and often implicitly present in much of the sociology of the day. Indeed, in the years after World War II, the United States had begun to witness unprecedented levels of economic prosperity and expanded opportunities. Political and legal gains in terms of rights extending to ever broadening segments of the population were generally held to further promote these beneficial societal conditions. Merton did not unreservedly accept this overly optimistic vision and instead focused on the functional as well as conflictual dynamics of the post-war American social structure.

Radically minded sociologists would, especially from the 1960s onwards, develop various forms of conflict theory on the basis of complete inversions of functionalism. But Merton’s response was more balanced in developing an appreciation of both the limits and possibilities of functional analysis. In his seminal paper on manifest and latent functions, Merton (1968: 73-138) specifically critiques three postulates of functionalism. One, the postulate of the functional unity of society is questioned as social developments may not always benefit the whole of the social system and its population. Two, Merton criticizes the postulate of universal functionalism because social institutions cannot be assumed to have positive functions merely for the fact that they have persisted to exist. And, three, the postulate of indispensability is to be rejected because the functionality of certain social arrangements may still imply that alternative arrangements could also fulfill said functions. From this general orientation, Merton goes on to introduce new ideas, specifically the concepts of dysfunction, non-function, and the twin pair of manifest and latent functions. What is important about this broadening of functional analysis is that Merton explicitly recognizes the ambivalence of the social order as providing both constraint and opportunity.

Unlike Parsons, Merton refused to develop a theory of the whole of the social order, instead opting for theories of selected areas of inquiry, an approach he referred to as theories of the middle range (Merton, 1968: 32-72). Defining theory as “logically interconnected sets of propositions from which empirical uniformities can be derived” (Merton, 1968: 39), theories of the middle range are situated in between the (more empirical) working hypotheses of social research, on the one hand, and the all-inclusive efforts of a (very abstract) unified theory of society as a whole, on the other. As such, Merton rejects the Parsonian effort to formulate a total theory of society in favor of a general theoretical model of more select themes and issues within the broader social order. As sociology is as yet a relatively young science, Merton argues, theories of the middle range cannot and need not be derived from a single all-encompassing social theory, though they may gradually, as research accumulates, develop into such a theory by bringing together useful insights from various traditions.

Over the course of his career, Merton applied his sociological perspective to a wide variety of social themes, such as the bureaucratic organizations, the dynamics of group behavior, the sociology of knowledge, and science community. In the next section, it will be shown, Merton’s paradigm of deviant behavior stands among the best illustrations of Merton’s theoretical ambition to develop a sociological middle-range theory of the social structure in both its constraining and opportunity-creating characteristics.

Social Structure and Anomie: A Sociology of Deviant Behavior

Merton’s most central criminological paper, “Social Structure and Anomie,” was originally published in 1938 in the American Sociological Review. In the following decades, the paper became the most cited article in sociology (Cole, 1975, p. 175), and it has since remained among sociology’s most influential contributions. For reasons I will discuss later in this chapter, the original publication of Merton’s theory remains heavily cited today even though Merton strengthened and expanded that version considerably in an updated chapter in 1949 (Merton, 1949). Moreover, a companion piece appeared in the 1957 edition of his book, Social Theory and Social Structure (Merton, 1957), in which 1968 enlarged edition of that work both pieces are included as well (Merton, 1968: 185-214, 215-248). In the following pages, I will present the basic contours of the fully developed version of Merton’s theory.

The central objective of Merton’s “Social Structure and Anomie” paper was to develop a distinctly sociological theory of deviant behavior, which Merton felt was urgently needed considering that explanations of various forms of human behavior were still dominated by models that posited biological impulse and/or psychological abnormality versus social and individual restraint. Merton’s theory is instead oriented at providing a distinctly sociological explanation that can account for the fact that rates of deviant behavior vary among differing structural conditions.

Merton’s structural analysis begins from a distinction between the cultural goals and the institutionalized means of society as two its most defining elements. The cultural goals refer to those values the members of a society are meant to aspire to as legitimate objectives. The institutionalized means are the proscribed and legitimate resources to achieve those goals. Cultural goals and legitimate means are, according to Merton, not necessarily in a state of harmony or balance as one or the other may be more or less emphasized and devoted attention to. Merton contends that this possibility of imbalance between goals and mans is, in the case of American society, an important reality.

Importantly, Merton’s analysis does not abstractly apply to deviant behavior as such, but is developed specifically to apply to the United States as a theory of the middle range. In the United States, Merton argues, the dominant cultural goal emphasizes individual success, especially as it is expressed in monetary terms. The institutional means to achieve this goal is to apply oneself diligently and to work hard. Importantly, however, Merton argues that a striking imbalance exists between goals and norms because the dominant goal of monetary success is emphasized much more than are the legitimate means to reach them.

The disjunction between the cultural pressures that exist to be successful and make money regardless of the legitimate means to reach this goal leads to a state Merton describes, following a term popularized in sociology by Emile Durkheim (1893), as anomie or normlessness. This condition of anomie, which Merton argues to describe American society as a whole, implies a demoralization conceived as a de institutionalization of the legitimate means or a breakdown of any sharp separation between legitimate and illegitimate means (Merton, 1968: 189-190). The entrenchment of the success theme in American culture, Merton argues, is transmitted through socialization in the family and in the school system, where individual ambition and the American Dream make up the core values of the American cultural structure.

Within the anomic structure of American society, individuals can resort to different types of adaptation which, in a now famous typology, Merton schematically visualizes as seen below, whereby (+) stands for acceptance, (—) denotes rejection, and (+/—) denotes substitution of goals and means.

                      Table 1. Merton’s Modes of Adaptation

                                                     Cultural Goals                  Institutionalized Means

                      1. Conformity                  +                                              +
                      2. Innovation                    +                                             —
                      3. Ritualism                     —                                             +
                      4. Retreatism                   —                                             —
                      5. Rebellion                    +/—                                         +/—

In the first mode of adaptation, members of society conform both with respect to cultural goals and institutionalized means. This form of behavior is the most widespread, Merton argues, for otherwise the social order would break down. Merton’s attention goes to the other forms more, not because of their relative prevalence as they are less frequent, but because of his theoretical focus on deviant behavior. Sociologically, indeed, the four remaining modes of adaptation are forms of deviant behavior relative to the characteristics of the social structure, even though socially and legally they may not always be recognized as such. The type of innovation, referring to those forms of deviant behavior whereby people resort to illegitimate and potentially illegal means to achieve success goals, is of special interest from Merton’s structuralist viewpoint because innovation is more likely as a mode of adaptation when the dominant cultural goal is accepted but the avenues for employing legitimate means are blocked, thus exerting a pressure or strain towards deviant behavior.

The next types, ritualism and retreatism, are sociologically significant because they are typically not treated as illegal nor even socially considered illegitimate. Ritualism implies the continued reliance on legitimate means even though the objectives are out of reach, such as is the case when a job is dutifully executed day by day even though upward mobility is excluded. In the case of retreatism, individuals withdraw from society altogether to live at the margins without interference from, nor demands being placed on, the surrounding social order. The type of rebellion is again more problematic, not because of its incidence as it is again a very rare phenomenon, but because of its potential impact on the social order by seeking to substitute society’s dominant goals and means for a new form of social life altogether. Such substitution attempts might be pursued peacefully, but could also imply violent means.

A final important component of Merton’s paradigm of deviant behavior goes to the core of its structural orientation as he explains the conditions under which the five modes of adaptation are more or less likely. Indeed, to Merton, it is the individual’s location in the socio-economic structure which will determine how they will respond to the anomic conditions of American society. Most importantly, Merton argues, the dominant goal of individual success is widely shared (as a characteristic of the cultural structure), while there are differences in the opportunity structure of having access to the legitimate means to reach those goals. This differentiality in American society refers to the social structure as the organized set of relations in which people are implicated.

From Anomie to Strain and Opportunity Structure

The idea of structural differences in opportunity is one which Merton further elaborated on considerable time after the original formulation and extension of his theory of deviant behavior, specifically in 1995 when he published an article entirely devoted to the central notion of the opportunity structure (Merton, 1995). The underlying idea behind this clarification and strengthening of the original theoretical project as it was introduced in 1938 and extended in 1949 and 1957 is that the Mertonian paradigm of deviant behavior has a distinctly “evolving character” (Merton, 1995, p. 5). Of special note hereby is the need to clarify the theories of both anomie and strain that are embedded within the Mertonian paradigm.

Merton's original theory of deviant behavior was situated within a broader theory of the organization of (American) society (Merton, 1968, pp. 185-214). In the secondary literature, especially in university textbooks, mention is regularly made of Merton’s anomie theory of deviant behavior and/or crime, when such a theory cannot exist on logical grounds alone (Featherstone and Deflem 2003; see Baumer, 2007). In fact, the concept of anomie introduced by Merton constitutes the first part in his sociological project to develop a theory of the central characteristics of the organization of American society. While it must readily be acknowledged that Merton used the term anomie in a manner not entirely consistent with Durkheim’s notion of deregulation (Deflem, 1989, 2015) and, additionally, that Merton’s use of the term is not always internally consistent as well, the notion of anomie refers to a particular state of society, logically independent from any theoretical explanation of deviant behavior. Anomie refers to a state of a de-institutionalization of means brought about by an imbalance that exists between (American) society’s cultural goals and institutional means whereby the goals are over-emphasized. The state of anomie thus characterizes American society as a whole, a condition that is especially brought about by the fact that the American dream is widespread even when the means to achieve it are not in reach. Evidently, also, anomie is a social condition, not an attribute of individuals.

Within the context of the idea of an anomic American society, Merton develops his theory of deviant behavior in terms of individual modes of adaptation. As such, Merton’s theory can be argued to move from a macro to a micro level “by tracing the individual-level consequences of cultural and social-structural phenomena” (Menard, 1995, p. 139). However, with respect to level of analysis, it must be emphasized that Merton focuses on rates of deviant behavior and the structural properties of society that emerge from the distribution of various modes of behavior. The differential distribution of rates of conformist and various forms of deviant behavior across the strata of the socio-economic structure are indicative of the pressure or strain exerted by the social structure (Merton, 1968, p. 194). Merton’s explanatory theory of deviant behavior, then, can best be described as a strain theory. In the extended version of the original “Social Structure and Anomie” article, Merton unfortunately writes that the social structure “produces a strain toward anomie” and that “there is a strain toward the breakdown of norms, toward normlessness” (Merton, 1968, pp. 211, 217). These formulations are obviously inaccurate as anomie refers to the social conditions under which the strain toward deviant behavior takes place.

The final idea that is central to Merton’s theory is that rates of the various forms of deviant behavior are not randomly spread across society, but are differentially distributed across the social structure in such a way that the attainment of cultural objectives is “readily possible for those occupying certain statuses within the society and difficult or impossible for others” (Merton 1968, pp. 216-217). Specifically, Merton argues, “the greatest pressures towards deviation are exerted upon the lower strata” (Merton, 1968, p. 198). The central reason for this particular strain is the fact that access to the legitimate means is blocked to some degree or another so that alternative means of success are relied upon even when they are illegitimate and possibly illegal. At the same time, Merton acknowledges that specific pressures towards (certain forms of) deviant behavior also exist in other social strata because of their respective structural constraints, a point that at times has been overlooked in the secondary literature (Cullen and Messner, 2007, p. 30). Merton refers to this element of the social order as the opportunity structure.

Following both Merton’s original papers and his relevant later works, the idea of the opportunity structure can be clarified as the third central structural notion alongside of the cultural structure and the social structure (Marwah and Deflem, 2006). First, the cultural structure refers to the distribution and organization of values, which in the case of the United States, Merton argues, primarily implies that the individual success theme is widely accepted. Second, the social structure in the Mertonian paradigm refers to the distribution and organization of positions in socio-economic terms. And third, the opportunity structure refers to distribution of conditions that provide probabilities for (categories) of individuals to attain certain desired objectives (Merton 1995, p. 25). The notion of opportunity structure Merton eventually considered to be so central to this criminological work that he chose to refer to his criminological perspective as “the theory of anomie-and-opportunity-structures” (Merton, 1997, p. 519).

On the basis of this clarified understanding of the cultural, social, and opportunity structures, Merton (1995, pp. 11-12) introduces an interesting distinction between the original four modes of deviant behavior as consisting of three forms of aberrant behavior (innovation, ritualism, and retreatism) and one form of nonconformist behavior (rebellion). The distinction is important inasmuch as Merton argues that the aberrant forms of deviant behavior are guided by a self-interested need to satisfy personal desires in socially unacceptable ways. Rebellion stands apart from the other deviant modes of adaptation by its deliberate attempt to challenge the existing cultural structure. As such, the value of the notion of opportunity structure is shown by revealing the differential distribution of modes of adaptation with sharply different social and, ultimately, normative implications. It is to be noted, moreover, that it may be tempting to associate Merton’s own personal experiences from his relatively poor background in Philadelphia to the higher elevations of American elite academe as an inspiration for the notion of opportunity structure. Merton himself has not altogether dismissed some “subconscious” merit to this idea, but also argued that his exposure to the scholarship of Durkheim while attending Harvard was far more consequential than any biographical impulses (Cullen and Messner, 2007, p. 13).

The Travels and Adventures of Anomie

A great many overviews and discussions have been devoted to the scope, direction, and meaning of Merton’s criminological paradigm (Featherstone and Deflem, 2003; Marwah and Deflem, 2006; Messner, 2010; Rosenfeld, 1989). Many a scholar has also found it necessary to clarify what Merton, right or wrong, really said and meant, especially with respect to the notion of anomie (Besnard, 1990; Deflem, 1989; Hilbert, 1989; Hilbert and Wright, 1979; Messner, 1988). Merton’s theory of anomie has been rebuffed as uncertain (Besnard, 1990) but also favorably received (Orrù, 1990), while his strain theory of deviant behavior has likewise been rejected (Kornhauser, 1978) and praised (Passas, 1995).

Disentangling some of the complex systematics and history of Merton’s criminological paradigm, the discussions on the concept and theory of anomie can first be considered, both with respect to its conceptual status and its historical place in modern sociology. Conceptually, Merton’s notion of anomie is centered on a relative state of normlessness that manifests itself as a de-instutionalization of (American) society’s legitimate means to pursue cultural goals. The concept has rightly been called an instrumental one because of this focus on means and can as such also be distinguished from the notion of anomie as it was used by Emile Durkheim in his studies on the social division of labor and on suicide (Durkheim 1893, 1897). As Merton himself argues, Durkheim primarily analyzed the effects of anomie (such as suicide), whereas Merton also discusses a cause of anomie as a result of the imbalance between goals and norms (Merton 1955, p. 30). Other sources of anomie, Merton suggests, are possible and should be examined as well.

The term anomie is derived from the Greek ‘anomia,’ denoting an absence of law and, more broadly, referring to deregulation or normlessness (Deflem, 2015). Historically, the term appears in Greek philosophy, biblical writings, and strands of Western philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries, before it appeared in the writings of the French 19th-century philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau, from whom Durkheim adapted the term and transformed it into a sociological concept. In the work of Durkheim, anomie refers to a state of deregulation whereby social norms either lose their effectiveness, such as during sudden periods of crisis, or are altogether absent, such as in the world of free trade and industry.

With regards to the notion of anomie, there is no direct line of conceptual continuity from Durkheim to the present as it was not until Merton’s re-introduction of the term that anomie became a widely used and applied concept in modern sociology, with implications that last until this day. As he has explicitly acknowledged (Merton, 1995, pp. 8-9), Merton relied on the term inspired by his reading of Durkheim as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s, a time when many of Durkheim’s seminal writings were not yet available in English translation (see also Cullen and Messner, 2007, pp. 20-21). At that time, Merton was already exposed to the writings of Durkheim (and of Max Weber) because the then still unknown Talcott Parsons was already teaching courses on theories that he would later publish in the first systematic presentation of the European sociological tradition (Parsons 1937). It is therefore also, at least in part, as a direct result of Merton’s reliance on Durkheim, via Parsons’ treatment, that the work of Durkheim came to occupy such a central role in post-World War II American sociology. And besides the obvious focus on the macro-structural conditions of society, Durkheim’s work also inspired the centrality of functional analysis in Merton’s sociology.

Merton’s and Durkheim’s concepts of anomie are not identical, but complementary nonetheless, in relating to a de-instutionalization of means and a de-regulation of goals, respectively (Deflem, 2015). In line with the distinction discussed earlier between the social and the cultural structure, moreover, the argument can be made that Merton’s theory of anomie includes propositions of both a structural and cultural nature, with distinct methodological implications for research (Bernard, 1984, 1987). Merton’s structural proposition, referring to the differential access to legitimate means that exists across socio-economic strata, is subject to empirical tests within societies. Yet, the cultural component of Merton’s anomie concerning the centrality and impact of culturally dominant goals must be tested cross-nationally as otherwise no or little variation will exist.

From the viewpoint of the history of sociological theory, it is to be noted that Durkheim’s concept of anomie was not widely used until Merton (and to some extent Parsons) re-introduced it and that it was not nearly as popular, during the formation of the modern-sociological era after World War II, as was Merton’s concept. Merton’s theory of anomie inspired hundreds of publications, both empirical as well as theoretical pieces, during the period of American sociology when the structural-functionalist paradigm was dominant (Featherstone and Deflem, 2003). Among these works were conceptual writings on the meaning of the term anomie, especially its status as describing either a macro condition of society or the characteristics of individuals who are exposed to such a condition (Deflem, 1989). This debate inspired one of the most famous operationalizations of anomie to develop a scale of the subjective perceptions of those individuals who are subjected to a social state of anomie. Leo Srole (1956) developed this scale, but as he was well aware of the demarcation between the macro and micro levels of analysis, he introduced the notion of anomia (in its Greek original form) as a psychological concept. The old-English term ‘anomy’ was at one time also suggested as an individual-level corollary to the macro concept of anomie (McClosky and Schaar, 1965), but none of these terms besides anomie have survived.

Merton’s use of the anomie concept was influential beyond the world of criminological research as well. Most strikingly, it directly influenced a conceptual exposition by Talcott Parsons in his famous theoretical work on the social system (Parsons, 1951). Rather than building on Durkheim’s concept of anomie, Parsons turned to Merton’s work to develop a perspective of deviance and social control, whereby he employs the concept of anomie to refer to a disjunction between idealized expectations and attained realities, which invokes various mechanisms of social control.

From the 1970s onwards, the concept of anomie declined in sociological usage, both theoretically as well as in empirical research, right along with the general decline of the dominance of structural functionalism (Featherstone and Deflem, 2003). It is no coincidence that concepts such as conflict, crisis, and alienation gained in attention during that time, as the notion of anomie can indeed be considered a non-conflict theoretical construct that provides an alternative to such Marx-inspired terms. Since then, however, two intellectual movements have taken place to bring anomie back (Deflem, 2015). One, Durkheim’s concept of anomie has been discussed in both theoretical and empirical respects in contemporary work on social change. Examples include the theoretical discussion of anomie in the work of Jürgen Habermas (1981) and empirical research on organizational changes under conditions of advanced capitalism (e.g., Johnson and Duberley, 2011). Two, of most relevance here, Merton’s concept of anomie has in recent years also been discussed anew, treating the concept as a central reference point in a theoretical framework that is now considered to be of classic standing (Adler and Laufer, 1995; Passas and Agnew, 1997). This re-appraisal of Merton’s work relates more closely to his criminological work and as such connects intimately with his strain theory.

The History and Systematics of Strain

For a discussion of the impact and merits of Merton’s theory of strain, it will be instructive to take a closer look at the history of the reception of Merton’s relevant writings, in particular the “Social Structure and Anomie” paper in its various appearances. Among the theoretical contributions in criminological sociology, Merton’s work on anomie and strain is among the most discussed and influential. However, the high rate of citations to Merton’s publications also betrays certain qualitative characteristics of how his work has been used and received (Featherstone and Deflem, 2003). The number of citation’s to Merton’s “Social Structure and Anomie” paper was at its highest in the 1960s, during the absolute heyday of the structural-functional paradigm, then took a turn downward in the 1970s, but thereafter increased again.

The finding of a renewed interest in Merton’s criminological work is counterintuitive to the undeniable fact that structural-functionalism has remained marginalized in the field since its decline in the seventies. A closer looks reveals that the citations in the later decades have shifted from references to the chapter in the various editions of Social Theory and Social Structure towards citations of the original 1938 article published in the American Sociological Review. This shift, it can be safely inferred (Featherstone and Deflem, 2003), implies a decreased use of Merton’s work in criminological research as the original 1938 formulation of the paradigm is far from sufficiently developed for such purposes. Merton himself indeed introduced the 1949 version of the article as “thoroughly revised and extended” because many propositions were “undeveloped in the earlier paper” (Merton, 1949, p. 275, note 1). Renewed references over the past decades to Merton’s “Social Structure and Anomie” paper from 1938, therefore, are mostly ceremonial, indicating that Merton’s work is now considered a classic contribution. And as a classic, Merton is no longer a contemporary who directly guides research and inspires relevant theorizing.

The ceremonial status of the Mertonian paradigm has distinct implications for its reception and understanding. Besides the fact that Merton’s work is not always well understood as implying two theories (anomie and strain) and three different types of structure (cultural, social, and opportunity) as well as because of the conceptual confusion that exists over the concept of anomie, there has also been a shift in the secondary literature from Merton’s anomie theory of social organization towards his criminological theory of strain. Historically, the reasons for this shift can be attributed to a so-called ‘balkanization’ or decomposition of sociology, whereby newly formed fields of inquiry, such as criminology, have separated themselves from their sociological roots (Horowitz, 1993). Once central to the development of sociology as a whole and to sociological theory in particular, the sociology of deviant behavior is now indeed mostly relegated to the margins of sociological scholarship and finds itself largely positioned outside of the discipline’s boundaries in the newly institutionalized setting of criminology.

The increased popularity of Merton’s paradigm in criminology has come at a distinct price. Most criminological theory and research focuses on crime, criminal behavior, and crime rates. On conceptual grounds alone, therefore, Merton’s theory of deviant behavior (not of crime) does not fit well in the institutional field of much of criminology that is focused on the causes of crime. Among proponents of crime construction perspectives, conversely, Merton is generally not considered useful because of his functional roots and emphasis on providing explanatory, rather than interpretive theoretical frameworks.

As a result of its criminological appropriation, Merton’s relevant paradigm has suffered from being subjected to empirical tests that rely on crime statistics rather than an analysis of modes of deviant behavior. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, such research especially focused on juvenile delinquency, from which eventually developed the notion of subcultural theories of crime (Clinard, 1964; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1955, 1965). Some criminologists relying on Merton to research criminal behavior have even explicitly introduced the idea of a Mertonian theory of crime (Braithwaite, 1980; Farnworth and Leiber, 1989). This conception is, of course, wholly inconsistent with Merton’s theory of deviant behavior and indicative of a highly unfortunate oversight as Merton –more clearly than is usual for a scholar not considered part of the constructionist tradition– is clear that not all deviant behavior in his model is socially considered to be crime (Heckert and Heckert, 2004). Merton’s relatively recent specification of nonconformist and aberrant behavior (Merton, 1995) as well as earlier formulations (Merton, 1968) clearly show that his strain theory acknowledges the relevance of societal reactions on deviant behavior. The adaptation of ritualism, most clearly, is a form of behavior that, while deviant relative to the structural conditions of (American) society’s goals and means, is not considered problematic, let alone treated as a crime (Merton, 1968, p. 204). Merton even suggested that some degree of certain forms of deviant behavior may have objective consequences that are functional to the group (Merton, 1968, p. 236).

Against the crime-obsessed focus in criminology, it is more than useful with respect to historical accuracy and intellectually honesty alike to acknowledge that Merton coined the very term ‘deviant behavior’ as a deliberate corrective and alternative to the notion of crime. As Merton himself has clarified (Merton, 1995, p. 7, note 9), in the 1938 version of his “Social Structure and Anomie” article he uses the expression “deviate behavior” (Merton, 1938, p. 672). In later versions, however, Merton consistently uses the term of deviant behavior. Given the prominence of his scholarship, Merton can therefore be seen as the founder of the sociology of deviant behavior but not of criminology as the study of crime. For that reason, indeed, Merton defined himself as “not a full-fledged criminologist” but a “disciplinary outsider” to the field of criminology (Merton, 1997, p. 517).

Besides a misunderstanding of Merton’s strain theory of deviant behavior as a theory of crime, the criminological shift in the reception of the Mertonian paradigm has often also been treated in individualistic terms. Most outstanding in this respect has been the development of so-called ‘general strain theory’ (Agnew, 1992, 2011). Not to be confused with the strain-theoretical component in Merton’s paradigm of anomie-and-opportunity-structures, this theory is a social-psychological theory of criminal behavior and delinquency, which has abandoned the intentions of Merton’s structural work. Merton has dismissed the approach as reductive (Cullen and Messner, 2007, p. 21). In this respect more closely related to Mertonian (and Durkheimian) ambitions has been the development of institutional-anomie theory (Messner, 1988; Messner and Rosenfeld, 1994). Institutional-anomie theory centers on the criminological implications of the regulatory capacities of social institutions, such as the family, under conditions of the relatively unregulated (anomic) free-market structure that dominates in advanced capitalism. What such a perspective appropriately brings out is the fundamental notion of Merton’s paradigm of anomie-and-opportunity-structures that deviant behavior arises under specified structural conditions as “a ‘normal’ (that is to say, an expectable) response” (Merton, 1968, p. 185). To Merton, this sociological irony is central to his perspective as it demonstrates that certain aspects of the cultural structure are observed to be “generating patterns of conduct that subverted or departed from the very structures that were inducing them” (Merton cited in Cullen and Messner, 2007, p. 12).

From the viewpoint of the systematics of criminological research, the popularity of Merton’s paradigm has had ambiguous implications (Marwah and Deflem, 2006). While Merton is canonized in criminology and criminological sociology as a classic contributor, the empirical validity of his work has at times been questioned (Bernard, 1987; Pratt and Cullen, 2005; Rosenfeld, 1989). Among the reasons for this relatively unfavorable reception with respect to validity, it must be pointed out that few empirical tests exist that have relied upon propositions derived from Merton’s original theory (of the middle range) and have instead relied on official crime numbers or individual-level data, and have poorly understood the demarcation between, and precise respective scope of, Merton’s theory of anomie, strain, and the opportunity structure. It is perhaps not an overstatement to argue that an adequate empirical test of Merton’s theory of anomie-and-opportunity-structures does not yet exist.

In view of such concerns, Merton (1995) has not only specified the centrality of the opportunity structure in his paradigm, but also offered several guidelines on how the theory must be understood to be properly researched (Marwah and Deflem, 2006). Among the guidelines, Merton suggests, the theory has to be seen as a probabilistic, not a deterministic model. The structural positionality of actors and the surrounding social condition of a degree of anomie, in particular, can only be conceived as increasing the likelihood of various modes of adaptation, including those that are deviant and potentially treated as criminal. Additionally, Merton argues, blocked access to means will evidently hinder reaching cultural goals, but merely providing access to means will not necessarily imply that new possibilities will be effectively used. To Merton, the role of motivation and human agency cannot be disregarded in this respect.

The theoretical broadening of the Mertonian paradigm to include attention to both structure and agency is not inconsistent with its original and lasting ambitions. While a whole-sale turn towards individualistic theories (Konty, 2005; Peter, LaGrange, and Silverman, 2003) cannot be accepted in the Mertonian framework, Merton unambiguously acknowledges “the relevance of the social-psychological processes determining the specific incidence” of various modes of adaptation, which are after all individual (Merton, 1968, p. 312). Concerns over this ‘missing link’ in Merton’s paradigm of anomie-and-opportunity-structure were already expressed in the 1950s and 1960s, when reformulations were suggested to allow for a micro-theoretical correction or addition to Merton’s structural project (Cloward, 1959; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1965).

It is of note that Merton has always responded favorably to scholarly efforts aimed at intellectual integration. Merton has especially welcomed such attempts when they are oriented at incorporating interactionist models in his paradigm in order to account for the intervening variables that exist between the social structure and individual modes of adaptation (Merton, 1968, pp. 231-233, 1995, pp. 33-44). Likewise, he has recognized the subjective experiences of anomia within their appropriate structural context (Merton, 1959, 1964). Thus, it is mot surprise that in Merton’s final published contribution on criminology, written on the occasion of receiving the Edwin Sutherland Award from the American Society of Criminology in 1996, he writes that he considers differential association theory complementary to his own idea of anomie-and-opportunity-structures (Merton, 1997). The idea of this potential integration confirms that multiple sociological theories of deviant behavior are possible within the context of anomie because of the separation of an anomie theory from a strain theory in Merton’s criminological paradigm (Featherstone and Deflem, 2003).

The Future of Merton’s Criminological Paradigm

There is no rational way to deny the importance and impact of Robert Merton’s paradigm of anomie-and-opportunity-structures for criminological research and theorizing since its initial formulation and the dominance of the structural-functional school of sociology right up to the present day. Conceived as a distinctly sociological perspective of deviant behavior that is duly focused on the structural determinants of rates of deviant behavior, Merton’s contribution stands on solid grounds in an intellectual line that began with the classic works of Emile Durkheim and that has continued to inspire relevant scholarship today. It is a testimony to the value and strength of Robert Merton’s thinking that what began as a relatively modest attempt to illuminate the structural conditions of deviant behavior has over the years inspired so much research and debate in sociology and criminology. It is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the now seminal and classic standing of Merton’s paradigm and theories that there also exist a fair number of misunderstandings and faulty interpretations of his work and that discussions on the meaning of his concepts and ideas are not yet settled.

Importantly, Merton’s criminological paradigm cannot be treated in isolation from its broader scholarly framework in the development of post-Word War II modern sociology in the United States as well as the societal context in which this intellectual development took place. The Durkheimian wave in modern American sociology provides a clear intellectual basis for Merton’s theories, which contemporary work, conducted on both the theoretical level and in empirical research, must acknowledge. This condition of the theoretical embeddednness of Merton’s anomie-and-opportunity-structures paradigm is not always met in its applications to the extent that criminological research is divorced from any disciplinary roots, whether they are sociological or not. Although Merton’s theories continued to inspire empirical investigations today (e.g., Brownfield, 2014; Murphy and Robinson, 2008; Parnaby and Leyden, 2011), they are all too often no longer connected to their underlying assumptions from the structural and functional paradigm, which has not sufficiently recovered from the attacks it had to endure since the ascension of constructionist and radical-sociological perspectives. Relatedly, Merton’s direct influence in criminology as the basis for research of contemporary conditions of deviant behavior is typically conducted under the heading of a social-psychologically understood strain theory, with the anomie component missing or merely assumed to exist (Chamlin and Sanders, 2013).

From the viewpoint of the sociology of science, the conditions of relative change and continuity that mark American society as well as other national cultures in an increasingly globalized world provide for the contemporary social circumstances on which the Mertonian perspective can be applied. Merton specified his paradigm very distinctly in the context of American society in the post-World War II era, yet its implications can be examined in other socio-historical contexts that share relevant characteristics. As Merton himself has acknowledged, his theory of anomie must be examined comparatively (Merton 1997). In this respect, it is interesting to note that the concept of anomie, both in the tradition of Durkheim and Merton, has witnessed a renewed attention in recent decades in social settings that are decidedly broader than the American context (Burgi, 2014). Indeed, especially under the influence of momentous societal changes since the late-20th century, such as the collapse of communism, the globalization of free-market capitalism, and the continued fragile nature of the political world order, anomie has again been employed more commonly among sociologists to refer to relevant processes of deregulation and norm-ineffectiveness (Deflem, 2015). While a full-fledged renewal of the anomie tradition as it existed in the 1950s and 1960s is unlikely, this renewed attention, which has already inspired some cross-national criminological research (Zhao, 2008), may be the most promising avenue for continued fruitful work in the tradition of the Mertonian paradigm. Should these opportunities be found to be productive and continue to be explored, there may still be life for Merton and Durkheim after Marx.

Key-words: Anomie; Deviant behavior; Opportunity structure; Social structure; Strain


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