The question, which I am faced with, is a question which many criminologists have sought to answer, prompting numerous speculations, sentiments and perspectives that don’t necessarily coincide with each other, but what they do agree on is that the idea that unattainable cultural goals lead to criminal deviancy is called the strain theory. In this essay, I plan to critically examine strain as introduced by Merton and expanded on further on by others, such as Agnew. To put into plain words the meaning of cultural goals and how the pressure to achieve these goals occur nowadays, and importantly why some of these cultural goals are unattainable. At that point, I will explain my thoughts to the current question with reasons regarding why I am partially convinced. Merton first developed the strain theory in the 1940s to explain the rising crime rates being experienced at the time. Merton himself defined the theory as “the perceived relationship between the creation and pursuit of culturally desired goals, and one’s ability to achieve those goals through socially permitted conduct.” (1938: 673) Generally, the strain theory is a theory that expresses that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals, though they lack the means or methods and this leads to individuals finding ways to cope with the pressure, which may include deviant behaviour. Merton uses the example of the American dream where he argues that the American public is assured, by a set of meritocratic principles, that equality of opportunity was available to all, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity (Merton, 1938), “The ‘American Dream’ encourages individuals to pursue a goal of success which is largely measured in terms of the acquisition of wealth and material possessions. People are expected to pursue this goal through legitimate means such as education and work. The dominant cultural message is if you are ambitious, talented and work hard, then income and wealth will be your reward,” (1938: 675) However, Merton points out that “these goals are not attainable by all, the structural organisation of the USA means that the ways to achieve such goals are not fairly distributed and it is difficult, if not impossible for some to achieve financial success. (1938:675) At that point, he then goes ahead to state that the gap between their goals and their current status causes strain and when faced with strain people have five ways to adapt, “1. Conformity: they continuing to pursuing cultural goals through socially approved means.2. Innovation: they begin to use socially unapproved or unconventional means to obtain culturally approved goals.3. Ritualism: they use the same socially approved means to achieve less elusive goals.4. Retreatism: they reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it, then find a way to escape it.5. Rebellion: they reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them.” (1938:677) But I will only be focusing on the adaptions that leads to criminal behaviour due to chasing those unattainable goals.Cultural goals are of significance in the theory, but what exactly is a cultural goal or goals? My understating of cultural goals are goals that society prescribe and beseeched those within the society to achieve. For example, back when Merton wrote the theory the cultural goal was to be rich and successful (his example of the American dream). But things aren’t the same anymore, these days society feeds us more than just monetary success as explained by Agnew, “classic strain theories of Merton (1938), A. Cohen (1955), and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) focus on only one type of relationship: relationships in which others prevent the individual from achieving positively valued goals. They focused on the goal blockage experienced by lower-class individuals trying to achieve monetary success or middle-class status. More recent versions of strain theory have argued that adolescents are not only concerned about the future goals of monetary success/middle-class status, but are also concerned about the achievement of more immediate goals such as good grades, popularity with the opposite sex, and doing well in athletics.” (1992:49) Life has evolved to the stage where being rich or successful is only half the job done, now you need to be rich, successful, have a beautiful partner, be beautiful yourself, have white teeth, be in shape, raise kids, drive the best car, have the biggest house, spend time with your family, have many friends, be of influence within the society, win awards, have a master’s degree and even have pets. Cultural goals aren’t the only things that have changed, even the way they are now being perceived has also changed. Before it was by word of mouth, people telling you about the American dream, or by seeing, seeing your successful neighbours etc, now we have technology spreading the goals about, with the likes of the television where it is being shown “how we can become the perfect person,” “How we can get in shape” or “how we can gain more friends” etc, the news of goals we should be attaining is never far from our ears or eyes, this became especially true with the growth of social media, where you can see you peers achieving their goals and how it is like to live life at the top. The importance of them is also very much stressed within society, as explained by Merton “Many poor individuals, in particular, are in a situation in which they face strong economic/status demands, people around them stress the importance of money/status on a regular basis, and few alternative goals are given cultural support,” (1938:677) so whether it is a parent begging you to achieve good grade or if it is a billboard telling you to get a tan in order to be apparently more beautiful. The emphasis and stress placed on accomplishing such goals have taken away the joy achieved from them unless the goal is successfully achieved (Merton,1938), it is no longer fun to participate unless you are successful. It is the point at which the problems begin to occur, the strong emphasis on being able to achieve the goals trumps any importance on attaining it legally, they become two separate entities rather than one. Merton explains it perfectly when he says “The extreme emphasis upon the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success in our own society militates against the completely effective control of institutionally regulated modes of acquiring a fortune. Fraud, corruption, vice, crime, in short, the entire catalogue of proscribed behaviour, become increasingly common when the emphasis on the culturally induced success-goal becomes divorced from a coordinated institutional emphasis.” (1938:679) When people begin to think of them as separate then the idea of “cheating” becomes more appealing and becoming “innovative” is much easier as the reward of success surpasses the risk of “cheating”, especially when success cannot occur without a little help. If the goals are high in importance and the individual has little alternatives then the deviant behaviour is looked at as the way forward (Agnew, 1992).The next step would be to ask ourselves the question of why such goals are unachievable for some but yet can be accomplished by others? The answer would seem to be within the structure of society itself, not everyone can be rich and have millions of pounds because if such was to exist then money would lose its value, as everyone has it, thus in that sense is anyone rich at all? Added to the fact that it could lead to economic markets crashing and failing, society cannot allow such to happen hence why the regulation on money is so strong and it is not easily accessible and it is the lower classes that suffer the most. (Featherstone and Deflem, 2003) The saying that the rich keep on getting richer while the poor keep on getting poorer applies to society nowadays, as it takes money to earn serious money through things like investing, starting a business or creating a product. As mentioned earlier, monetary success is not the only goal that people aim for these days, but yet even in the other categories, a blockage will still be experienced, as explained by Agnew “There is a youth subculture that emphasizes a variety of immediate goals. The achievement of these goals is further said to depend on a variety of factors besides social class: factors such as intelligence, physical attractiveness, personality, and athletic ability. As a result, many middle-class individuals find that they lack the traits or skills necessary to achieve their goals through legitimate channels.” (1992:54) Not everyone is born beautiful or can afford plastic surgery to enhance their features, hence the growth in back alley operations, not everyone is smart and can get good grades, hence the growth in cheating over the past few years etc.Essentially life is not fair and even when there are no Man-made obstructions to achieving some of these goals, natural obstructions will still be there. It was not an original thing for certain goals to be unachievable but it became surprising when people began to become “innovative” to achieve those goals, and according to Featherstone and Deflem it was down to the cultural emphasis increasing over the years, due to an increase in technology,” While the success value is dominant across society, legitimate means are not equally accessible, it is the combination of the increased cultural emphasis and the social structure which produces intense pressure for deviation. Hence, the deviant form of innovation is disproportionately present in those strata where legal opportunities for reaching the cultural goals are less or not accessible,” (2003:473) But according to Agnew it was due to the cost of crime being reduced and the benefits being perceived as high, “criminal coping will be more likely when individuals encounter situations where the costs of crime are low and the benefits are high.” (1992:49) Irregardless of the reason, when people are faced with an unattainable goal they tend to become “innovative”, not all but some, hence why I am partially convinced by the idea that criminal behavior can be explained by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals. When society has placed the idea that achieving those goals will change your life for the better then the selfishness of human nature kicks in and we all aspire to achieve those same goals. When it becomes clear that we cannot all achieve those goals legally then we are faced with only two options (that doesn’t involve giving up totally or retreating from society), either we change our goals and aim for lesser goals or we find any means to achieving those goals whether legal or not, and with such emphasis being put on achieving those goals it is obvious that individuals will not want to aim any lesser, leaving them only the second option. Thus, society indirectly encourages criminal behaviour by putting out the message that these goals should be achieve by all costs, as explained by Featherstone “In this sense, it is the social structure that is postulated to be putting pressure on individuals to commit crime.” (2003:475) But the reason I am not fully convinced by the idea that criminal behavior can be explained by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals is because we cannot explain all of criminal behaviour based on that theory (Keith, 2011), in order words there are holes in the theory as explained by Agnew ” These theories are unable to explain the extensive nature of middle-class delinquency, neglect barriers to goal achievement other than social class, and do not fully specify why only some strained individuals turn to delinquency.” (1992:55) I believe that by just examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals we cannot fully explain criminal behavior. But rather there are other factors that are to be considered alongside the strain experienced such as emotions, personal experiences, social supports, moral beliefs, inclusivity within society and even the level of strain they are facing etc (Keith, 2011). Agnew also provided other factors to take into account alongside the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals, “the choice of crime and deviance as a coping mechanism may arise from internal and external factors, as some factors may provide the proper conditions for crime and deviance. Specifically, social supports, temperament, intelligence, values, self-esteem, moral beliefs, deviant peer association, prior crime and deviance, and self-efficacy, these are instrumental in selecting crime and deviance as a form of coping with strain.” (1992:55)Emotions play a big part in whether individuals turns to crime or not, Agnew states that “strain produces negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, frustration, depression, fear, or hopelessness. Negative emotions, especially anger, create pressure in the individual that needs to be alleviated. Anger is more likely to lead to crime than other negative emotions because angry people perceive lower costs of committing crime, they justify criminal acts and feel less guilt, and they are unable to discuss and resolve problems calmly and rationally. Moreover, anger creates a sense of power and a desire for revenge.” (2006:16) When emotions are involved people tend not to think straight and thus make regrettable decisions, emotions such as anger are especially strong as they take over the individuals brain and suppress any rational thinking or any other feelings, most of humanities worst crimes have been committed under the clouds of anger. Other emotions such as desperation are also strong because when we become desperate we are willing to do nearly anything to get us out of that circumstance whether it takes criminal conduct or not.Another huge factor to be considered is the traits of the individual if they have traits such as intelligence, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills, creativity, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Then they will have better-coping skills and can cope with disappointments and better yet find a legal and logical way to eventually achieve their goals (Agnew, 2006). These traits also affect strain itself, when one is in possession of such traits they may not feel as much strain as those who have coping problems. This also ties into personal experiences of the individual, as Polizzi explains, “How an individual reacts to the experience of strain will likely be influenced by the circumstances of his or her social situation as well as the expectations this situation imposes on personal experience. Certain social contexts will demand a specific response to the experience of strain that from another perspective is likely to be viewed as deviant or criminal.” (2011:1053) If the individual has been exposed to crime and hangs around with deviant peers then their automatic response to strain will be deviant, but to them their behaviour is normal because that is what they have been exposed to and vice versa, if the individual has grown up adhering to all the rules of society then becoming deviant to cope with the strain, is not a likely outcome.Social support is similarly an important factor to consider, what I mean by social support is when those that surround you within the society help and support you during a difficult time or a time when you begin to experience strain. Agnew explains why those with high amounts of social support are less likely to become criminal deviant, “Those who lack conventional social supports will be more likely to respond to strain with a crime. This is because those who have conventional social supports can rely on a variety of people to help them cope with strain such as parents, teachers, friends, romantic partners, neighbourhood residents, and church members.” (1992:53) It is easy to see why those without or with low social support can easily fall into deviancy because they have no one to counsel them or support them. It is even worse when the social support they do have turns against them, this could include such things as hostility from parents, rejection by peers and negative experiences at school. (Polizzi, 2011) Such things could drive anyone over the edge and that is not comparable to someone already facing strain from the society.Moral beliefs are likewise a factor because if the individual has moral beliefs and exercises them regularly then becoming deviant will be an unlikely response to strain. Unsurprisingly society also affects an individual’s moral belief, as kids, we are taught what is right and wrong by those around us within the society, our parents, teachers and even our neighbours, but when those spaces are void it is often filled with other things such as tv shows, peers and social media. The problem is that we are taught what is right and wrong according to each of those sources, so if they are deviant then we are taught that deviancy isn’t as wrong as society makes it out to be and those who are brought up in those kinds of situations are more likely to result to deviancy as a coping mechanism to strain. Agnew explains that “the larger social environment may affect the individual’s coping to particular strains by influencing the individual’s beliefs regarding what is and is not wrong.” (1992:62) Society seems to be the biggest factor in whether an individual turns deviant or not, either if it is by providing strain to the individual or by influencing how the individual copes with the strain itself.Another influence the society has on the individual which determines whether he copes with the strain with a deviant behaviour or not is social inclusivity. Social inclusivity refers to being involved in the society and having ties to the society, such as being a teacher or a priest within the society. If one is in such position and has many ties within the society then becoming deviant is less likely because they are more involved within the society and becoming deviant will be taking away from the society in which they already give to. But those that are outsiders, that are not within the society or do not have any strong bonds to the society are likely to become deviant because they believe they do not owe society anything due to their position in life. Keith states that “those low in social control, or those who do not believe crime is wrong, those who have few emotional bonds with conventional others, and those who are not invested in conventional activities within the society will be more likely to cope with strain through crime.” (2011:872) The feeling of being part of something, like a family or the society as a whole, would make a sane individual because let us face it psychotic people have been known to kill family members, less likely to become deviant toward the group they are part of for obvious reasons.The most apparent factor on the individual which determines how they cope with strain is the amount of strain they are facing, one person failing to provide for their family will be facing more strain than someone under pressure to pass a test, it is more likely that the person suffering from the bigger pressure is willing to go the extra length, even if it means criminal deviancy, because they are in the more despairing situation. Keith states that “strains that are seen as high in magnitude, viewed as unjust, associated with low social control or create some incentive for criminal coping are more likely to result in crime,” (2011:885) and it is hard to argue with that statement as I have previously shown why each of those factors affects one’s decision to cope with strain through criminal behaviour.The question asked, “how convinced are you by the idea that criminal behaviour can be explained by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals?” After going through the meaning of strain and how it affects individuals I am partially convinced that we can explain criminal behavior by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals, the reason for my partiality is due to the fact that I believe that the actual strain is not the only factor in which we can use to explain criminal behavior, although it is a big factor. I have showed why we have to consider other factors such as emotions, personal experiences, social supports, moral beliefs, inclusivity within society and even the level of the strain they are facing when trying to explain criminal behaviour by examining the tension between an emphasis upon the attainment of particular cultural goals and the actual ability to secure those goals.
September 4, 2019 0 Comments