ROBERT K. MERTON'S
"DREAM MACHINE"
AN EXPLICATION OF
MERTON'S
"SOCIAL STRUCTURE
AND ANOMIE" (1938)
November 2009

Sociolog...




Law-breaking is typically understood as
something to be minimized and reduced. Our
governments launch "wars against ...
FUNCTIONALIST ARGUMENTS
IN SOCIOLOGY
•

•

•

Strange as it may seem at first, functionalist
theorists argue just this poi...
•

•

•

Another functionalist argument is that crime is
required for social progress.
Thus Durkheim argues that a society...
•

•

•

•

Because both of their acts defy normal expectations, however, the
acts of the genius may be hard to tell apart...
•

•

•

•

Similar to Durkheim's argument, thinkers of the Chicago
School of sociology, such as Ernest Burgess, argued th...
•

•

•

But Robert K. Merton's version of functionalism
differs from both of these arguments.
Like Durkheim, Merton argue...
•

•

Picturing society like a vast machine, Merton
argues that a society should best be
considered as a cross between the...
•

•

•

•

In American society, argues Merton, the "goal"
guiding it all is a vision of how life ought to be: the
so-call...
•

•

•

In addition to this vision of the good life, society
also instructs us as to the correct ways to achieve
this goa...




If society operated in practice as it says it does
in theory... then all people would be born into
society, receive ...
•

•

•

•

However, Merton argues that this is not the case,
for not everyone has equal access to these
institutions in A...
•

•

Such inequality creates tension in the social
system, a "strain" that could potentially lead
individuals to call it ...
THE MODES OF ADAPTATION
•

•

The most common response, Merton argues,
is that people do their best with the means
availab...
•

•

•

Numerous techniques are employed to keep
individuals committed to conformity to the
American Dream.
Consider the ...
•

•

Merton argues that widespread conformity is
required for the stability of a society.
Indeed, it is required for a gr...






But not everyone in society remains committed
the American Dream.
Many, in fact, resign themselves to the fact
th...
•

First, individuals may reject society's goals, but
remain committed to society's institutions of
advancement. Rather th...
•

Alternatively, people—realizing they will never
reach their anticipated goal—may reject society's
institutions altogeth...


Such individuals effectively drop out of society.
And like innovation, their rejection can be
either deviant but legal ...
•

•

•

•

White Collar Crime? Merton's theory enables us to account for
broad patterns of human behavior, and is typical...
Functionalism
•

•

•
•

•

•

Merton's pathways typify four different ways of responding to the
fact of social inequality...
•

Merton allows, however, for a fifth mode of adaptation as an
alternative to other four: the path of rebellion. Unlike t...
CAPE SOCIOLOGY UNIT  TWO Robertkmerton crimeanddeviance
CAPE SOCIOLOGY UNIT  TWO Robertkmerton crimeanddeviance
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CAPE SOCIOLOGY UNIT TWO Robertkmerton crimeanddeviance

  1. 1. ROBERT K. MERTON'S "DREAM MACHINE" AN EXPLICATION OF MERTON'S "SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND ANOMIE" (1938) November 2009 Sociology
  2. 2.   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?
  3. 3. FUNCTIONALIST ARGUMENTS IN SOCIOLOGY • • • 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 perceived enemy. By coming together, allowing people to see what they have in common and defining themselves against what they are not, individuals acquire a "collective cohesion."
  4. 4. • • • 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.
  5. 5. • • • • 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 of civilization? 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.
  6. 6. • • • • 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.
  7. 7. • • • 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.
  8. 8. • • 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 goals. In a ideally organized society, the means will be available to deliver all of its members to their goals.
  9. 9. • • • • 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.
  10. 10. • • • In addition to this vision of the good life, society also instructs us as to the correct ways to achieve this goal. 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.
  11. 11.   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.
  12. 12. • • • • 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 throughout society.
  13. 13. • • 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 theory"). 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 following flowchart:
  14. 14. 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 conformity.
  15. 15. • • • Numerous techniques are employed to keep individuals committed to conformity to the American Dream. Consider the "successary" that pervades today's corporate (and educational!) environments. 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 rewards.
  16. 16. • • 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!
  17. 17.    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.
  18. 18. • 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 example: • "I may not be wealthy, but education is good for its own sake" "Hard work is good in itself, not for where it gets you" • Both are examples of Merton's path of ritualism.
  19. 19. • Alternatively, people—realizing they will never reach their anticipated goal—may reject society's institutions altogether. • • "Why should I stay in school—what good will it do me?" "Why should I work hard for others? The game is rigged!" • • 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 these goals.
  20. 20.  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).
  21. 21. • • • • 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."
  22. 22. Functionalism • • • • • • 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 functionalist? 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 inadequacies. 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.
  23. 23. • 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 social system: • "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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