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Sociology: Strain Theory

Robert Merton’s Social Experiment

By Nathaniel ReidheadPublished 6 years ago 5 min read

Strain Theory: Robert Merton’s Social Experiment

In 1957, Robert K. Merton developed the Strain theory. It is a sociological and criminological term that primarily suggests that those who cannot hope to achieve some kind of “American dream” will receive the constant burden of not necessarily being rejected for not achieving their goals, but not having the resources that others were granted, to achieve the goals themselves. Therefore, people, specifically adolescents, resort to committing crimes. Today, Strain theorists acknowledge that this is not always the case, but instead that it is only for some but not most individuals. Ryan E. Spohn’s article, published in 2012 regarding criminogenic strain and influence on peers, searches to explain in what conditions and environments tend to result, specifically, the adolescent populace into deviant adaptations.

In 1992, Robert Agnew argues that a criminogenic environment will increase the effect of strain on delinquency whereas in 1993, Mark Warr’s research suggests that adolescent delinquents are not so much as influenced by the environment itself but rather when the adolescent in question is enmeshed with a network of delinquents within the environment. Ryan E. Spohn agrees with Warr and adopts the hypothesis. In his research, he finds that peer pressure and having delinquent friends actually reduces both the direct and indirect strain on delinquency.

Merton previously developed the anomie/strain perspective in 1938; in short, an anomie means confusion due to a lack of social and ethical norms. It was suspected that those who were most impressionable lacked definitive social and ethical norms, therefore, were at high risk of resorting to delinquent behaviour. Those who were suspected of this regression? Adolescents due to the lack of experience and knowledge; logically this would make sense, but statistically, it would prove to be inconsequential to what the real issue is.

As stated under the subsection “Strain and Delinquent Friends” of the “General Strain Theory” column in Spohn’s article, the presence or absence of delinquent friends is one of the best predictors of delinquent behaviour that general plays a central role in many common theories of delinquency. Unfortunately, the article goes on to continue to explain that the conditioning affect between delinquent friends and peers are less clearly documented; in reports by the adolescents themselves, the number of delinquent friends generally had a substantial, positive effect on one’s own delinquency. To this effect, it may be concluded that the lack of peer influence may result in an even greater substantial loss of personal ethical foundation.

To clarify, the information provided suggests that a person, or more specifically an adolescent, may be more prone to developing a criminogenic behaviour in comparison to an adolescent or peer who does happen to be surrounded and influenced by other negatively affected delinquents. This is explained due to the previously mentioned 1938 anomie/strain perspective. As an impressionable adolescent with no influences, positive or negative, social and ethical norms are likely to be more confused than an impressionable adolescent with both good and bad influences via delinquent peers.

Spohn argues that strain will have little impact on youth who are exposed to friends with high levels of delinquent involvement and are exposed to peer pressure to commit delinquency, yet will retain a significant, positive impact on youth with few or no delinquent peer influences. Referred as the irrelevance hypothesis, a high level of exposure to friends that are delinquent, combined with an exposure to a high level of peer pressure to commit delinquency, might render the presence or absence of strain irrelevant as a cause of delinquency.

To prove his theory, Spohn develops a social experiment to measure in what instances and variables influence delinquency. To clarify, a “delinquent” is defined by a modified version of the index offenses scale from the National Youth Survey published by Elliot and Huizinga in 1983. The scale includes specifically six serious and different offenses such as theft or attempting to steal goods worth more than $100, stealing or attempting to steal a motor vehicle, breaking and entering, gang fighting, strong-arm tactics intended to be threatening, and assault. Note that the specified offenses must be committed within a 12-month period to legally classify an individual as “delinquent.” Furthermore, to also decipher as to which variables correctly represented the strain influences, Spohn lists five instances: Negative life events, history of victimization and recent victimization, history of abuse, and as well as recent abuse. Negative emotions were also decided as a hypothetical variable linking the strain principles and the control variables: Household income, parental education, violent community, witnessed violence, Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic or other racial ethnicities, age, sex, female-headed household, number of children, social support, and early deviance.

Looking over the experiment all together is astounding to realize how much detail and how many variables were considered. Overall, Spohn’s research seemed well thought out and highlighted many important factors. Indirect results showed that as the influence of delinquent peer pressure decreased the effect of negative emotionality on serious delinquency, therefore, it becomes positive whereas direct results state that the general trend is the effect of strain on delinquency decreases as levels of delinquent peer pressure increases. In conclusion, delinquency is not necessarily always influenced by environment or even in all actuality, by direct delinquent influence, but by the lack of peer influence regardless. As Spohn’s irrelevance hypothesis suggests, strain itself will not play a substantial part in youth’s delinquency. Having delinquent peers still provides an adolescent with both good and bad morals whereas having no delinquent peers or any peers at all, might render an impressionable adolescent in a state of ethical and social confusion, thereby resulting in a sporadic, immoral and questionable behaviour.


About the Creator

Nathaniel Reidhead

Hey everyone, call me Nathan. I am a student at MSSU and I am a psychology major. I love to write stories and poetry and even essays.

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