CAPE SOCIOLOGY UNIT TWO Robertkmerton crimeanddeviance
ROBERT K. MERTON'S
AN EXPLICATION OF
AND ANOMIE" (1938)
Law-breaking is typically understood as
something to be minimized and reduced. Our
governments launch "wars against crime" and
strive to lower crime rates.
But what if someone told you that, just like
schools and businesses, families and religion,
criminality is actually healthy for a society?
That without crime, society would fall apart?
Strange as it may seem at first, functionalist
theorists argue just this point! Just like many other
institutionalized behaviors, crime has an important
function in society.
For example, both Émile Durkheim and G. H.
Mead argue that crime allows the members of a
society, who are otherwise quite different, to join
together in condemning the criminal, a commonly
By coming together, allowing people to see what
they have in common and defining themselves
against what they are not, individuals acquire a
Another functionalist argument is that crime is
required for social progress.
Thus Durkheim argues that a society must not be
overly repressive: it must provide enough freedom
of action for the criminal to behave in ways that
hurt it, in order to give enough space for the
"genius" to act in ways that benefit it.
One step ahead of the rest of us, the genius
develops new and progressive ways of living; thus
a society lacking tolerance of such behavior will
be a stagnant one.
Because both of their acts defy normal expectations, however, the
acts of the genius may be hard to tell apart from the criminal.
Durkheim asks whether Socrates was in fact a "corrupter of the
youth of Athens" by teaching them to rethink convention, as he was
charged in his day... or was he instead furthering the development
Similarly, we might ask whether the civil disobedience of Martin
Luther King Jr. and other activists for civil rights in the United States
was criminal, as many charged at the time... or instead challenging
the United States to rethink its social structure?
In our own day, is the so-called "Dr. Death," Jack Kevorkian,
committing murder by enabling physician assisted suicide... or
leading us to a more humane standard of our society, as he and his
supporters claim (“When society reaches the age of enlightenment,
then they’ll call me and other doctors Dr. Life”)?
Durkheim might argue that only time will tell.
Similar to Durkheim's argument, thinkers of the Chicago
School of sociology, such as Ernest Burgess, argued that the
disorganized areas of cities which attracted criminal behavior
could be a social good, within limits.
On the one hand, such disorganization was an inevitable
part of a city's growth: if it did not occur, the city would not be
expanding and would be stagnant!
On the other hand, while disorganized areas were prime
targets for vice, they also gave rise to new progressive
groups: missions, bohemians, and utopian communities that
would not be tolerated in stricter areas of the city.
Therefore, dis-organization was necessary for society's reorganization; and society's allowing for crime was required in
order to allow for social progress.
But Robert K. Merton's version of functionalism
differs from both of these arguments.
Like Durkheim, Merton argues that deviance and
crime are "normal" aspects of society, but he does
not argue that crime is required to generate
solidarity or to achieve social progress.
Instead, Merton suggests that there is something
about American social structure—here, its
distribution of wealth and opportunity—that
requires crime to maintain society's very stability
in the face of structural inequality.
Picturing society like a vast machine, Merton
argues that a society should best be
considered as a cross between the cultural
"goals" of a society—what it holds its members
should strive for—and the "means" that are
believed, legally or morally, to be legitimate
ways that individuals should attain these
In a ideally organized society, the means will
be available to deliver all of its members to
In American society, argues Merton, the "goal"
guiding it all is a vision of how life ought to be: the
so-called American Dream.
On the one hand, this dream is a particular vision
of what constitutes success: wealth, respect, a
good job and family, a house in the suburbs.
On the other hand, this vision also instructs us
that through hard work, anyone can make it.
If someone fails to succeed, therefore, the
American Dream informs them that they simply
need to work harder and be patient.
In addition to this vision of the good life, society
also instructs us as to the correct ways to achieve
These are society's institutions, primarily
education and employment, that are perceived as
the proper vehicles to success.
Such paths Merton terms society's "legitimate
means" to success: studying hard and making the
grade at school leads to a diploma; a diploma and
good educational record leads to a good job; and
hard work for an employer will lead us towards the
attainment of success.
If society operated in practice as it says it does
in theory... then all people would be born into
society, receive a good education and job, and
gradually acquire the statuses of the good life.
The social machine would function smoothly.
However, Merton argues that this is not the case,
for not everyone has equal access to these
institutions in American society.
Rather, many find their pathway blocked to
society's prescribed goal.
Does everyone have equal opportunity for quality
education in the United States?
Does everyone have equal opportunity of work?
Merton argues that they do not: rather, such
opportunities are differentially distributed
Such inequality creates tension in the social
system, a "strain" that could potentially lead
individuals to call it into question (hence,
Merton's theory is often nicknamed "strain
However, rather than joining together to
challenge the system's inequality, Merton
argues that people generally respond via one
of four modes of adaptation to blocked
opportunity, which we will explain via the
THE MODES OF ADAPTATION
The most common response, Merton argues,
is that people do their best with the means
available to them, and remain committed to the
belief that they will eventually reach society's
goals... regardless of whether they ever
achieve them or not.
Merton calls this response the path of
Numerous techniques are employed to keep
individuals committed to conformity to the
Consider the "successary" that pervades
today's corporate (and educational!)
These motivational tools—like the one about
"success" to the right, which teaches that
"success is a journey, not a destination'"—
instructs workers to continue in their path and
persevere, despite the lack of immediate
Merton argues that widespread conformity is
required for the stability of a society.
Indeed, it is required for a group of people to
even be considered as a "society," for in order
for us to characterize a group in terms of their
shared "cultural goals" or institutionalized
"means," there must be a substantial majority
of people who believe in such values and
behave as if these were the norm!
But not everyone in society remains committed
the American Dream.
Many, in fact, resign themselves to the fact
that they will never reach their goal.
Just as Merton argues that those who are
remain committed to society's goals can take
two paths, so too does he theorize the
rejection of society's goals can be of two sorts.
First, individuals may reject society's goals, but
remain committed to society's institutions of
advancement. Rather than value education or
work as means to success, such individuals come
to see the "means" as ends in themselves! For
"I may not be wealthy, but education is good for its
"Hard work is good in itself, not for where it gets
Both are examples of Merton's path of ritualism.
Alternatively, people—realizing they will never
reach their anticipated goal—may reject society's
"Why should I stay in school—what good will it do
"Why should I work hard for others? The game is
Merton calls such responses those of retreatism:
people who reject both the goals advanced by a
society, and its accepted means that get them to
Such individuals effectively drop out of society.
And like innovation, their rejection can be
either deviant but legal (for example,
becoming a hermit, or submitting to
alcoholism), or many include criminal activities
(such as illegal forms of drug use or abuse).
White Collar Crime? Merton's theory enables us to account for
broad patterns of human behavior, and is typically used to show
how groups who feel greater disparities between the society's
"goals" and the "means" prescribed to attain them—people less well
off—will tend to feel greater pressures to deviate.
However—particularly after Sutherland—we might question why
individuals who are apparently well-off would feel any pressure to
commit criminal acts? Though rarely acknowledged, Merton argues
that this might occur for two reasons.
First, the American Dream is more like a moving horizon than a
fixed destination: no matter how much one achieves, there is
always the pressure to "keep up with the neighbors" and to attain a
higher standard of living.
Second, American society values and rewards the goal of
achievement over the means by which it is attained. Deviant, or
even criminal acts, by the well-off may well be forgiven, or even
understood as "business as usual."
Merton's pathways typify four different ways of responding to the
fact of social inequality in the United States.
But, to return to our earlier concern, how are such adaptations
Why are paths of criminality useful and healthy for society?
The answer lies in the one feature they all have in common. For
each of the four paths, the response to inequality is essentially
individualist: a person blames herself for her lack of achievement.
In doing so, she implicitly helps society preserve and maintain itself,
for, despite its social inequalities, people blame their own
shortcomings—and fail to call into question the system's
Thus crime too is functional... for while it may be unpleasant to
those who are its victims, it channels those who might join to
challenge the overall social system into a less threatening
response. In this way, crime serves to release social tension and let
off steam, thereby preserving the stability of the social system.
Merton allows, however, for a fifth mode of adaptation as an
alternative to other four: the path of rebellion. Unlike the other
modes of response, rebellion is a group response, seeking to
replace the goals and/or the institutional means of an unequal
"The game is rigged... let's change or replace it!"
According to functionalist analysis, the presence of such an
attitude represents a failure of a society to maintain and
reproduce itself. Those who do not benefit from society's
orderings do not adapt by taking individual responsibility, but
respond—for better or for worse, depending on one's view of
the society—with a stance which challenges and thereby
threatens the stability and reproduction of the social system.
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