Deviance: Robert Merton

Deviance: Robert Merton

Robert Merton

It was Durkheim who used the concept of anomie to refer to a situation of normlessness, where there is a lack of cultural guides to behaviour that can regulate the actions of individuals, or alternately, a situation in which a person's unlimited aspirations exceed the opportunities available to them. It was one of the principle reasons he used to explain suicide. In this contaxt, Durkheim believed that a 'healthy' society was one in which what people had, more or less fitted in with what they thought they deserved.

Robert Merton argues that both human goals and constraints on behaviour are socially based (we learn them), and that desires are socially derived, via socialisation, into cultural goals such as occupational status or financial success. These aspirations derive from the cultural values of a particular society.

The constraints on the attainment of these socially based goals are influenced by two factors: cultural norms and institutionalised means. Hence, norms instruct people in the actions people may legitimately use in the pursuit of goals, and institutionalised means refers to the actual distribution of opportunities for achieving the cultural goals by legitimate means.

Goals and norms refer to cultural factors, while institutionalised means 'brings in aspects of the social structure'. Merton argues that strain occurs as a result of the frustrations and injustices emerging from the interrelationship between cultural goals, cultural norms and the institutionalised opportunities available within the social structure.

Not everyone can become rich and successful, the American/British dream is not achievable by all, the opportunities for success are limited, and from this strain, disjunction occurs.

Thinking about this, it is fairly clear that cultures that promise a great deal to their members run a high risk of problems if these promises cannot be met. Add to this the individualistic nature of British and American culture and it becomes clear that failure can be understood as a painful personal experience.

The disjunction leads to a weakening of the commitment to culturally defined goals or norms - or both - and this is what Merton suggests creates anomie. So when individuals (or groups) discover, for example, that no matter how hard they work or try, they cannot achieve the levels of satisfaction or material wealth to which they have been taught to aspire, deviant behaviour may be the result.

'It is only when a system of cultural values extols, virtually above all else, certain common success goals for the population at large, while the social structure rigorously restricts or completely closes access to approved routes of reaching these goals for a considerable part of the same population, that deviant behaviour ensues on a large scale.' (Merton, 1957)

Merton then sets out a typology of modes of adaptation in terms of conformity, or non-conformity, to cultural goals and institutionalised means:

1. Innovation - accepting cultural goals but employing illegitimate means, for example, property theft, cheats.

2. Ritualism - adherence to means whilst ignoring the goals, for example, bureaucratic adherence to routine - going through the motions.

3. Retreatism - withdrawal, opting out of socially defined desirable behaviour, for example, alcoholics, addicts.


4. Rebellion - not only rejection of goals and means, but a positive attempt to replace them with alternative values, for example, political revolutionaries, religious prophets.

Merton's analysis suggests that deviant behaviour is functional. First, for the individuals involved, since it enables them to adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves. And second, for society as a whole - since modes of individual adaptation help to maintain the boundaries between acceptable and non-acceptable forms of behaviour.

  1. Non conformity, such as ritualism, is not really the same as deviance (indeed with ritualism you do the actions, but have the wrong thoughts - it's nearer blasphemy). It does not convey the same stigmatising quality as in the label 'deviant'.
  2. The assumption of cultural consensus is implicit in the idea of cultural goals, and ignores the possibility of sub-cultures and a pluralistic culture, where cultural goals might differ considerably.
  3. It does not really provide a causal theory as to why some groups might adapt via rebellion and others by retreatism. Obviously some form of socialised commitment and differential associations becomes crucial for influencing perceptions of the alternatives to conformity. It does not explain movement into deviant careers.
  4. It does not take into account that just as legitimate means to success are limited, that so too are the illegitimate opportunities. Not everyone has equal access to criminal sub-cultures. An analysis of the opportunities for deviant activity is required.

However, Merton never claimed that his typology was a total theory of deviance and many of the criticisms of his work were picked up on and improvements attempted by sub-cultural theorists.