Strain Theories of Criminal Behaviour Essay

Strain Theories of Criminal Behaviour Essay

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Strain theories of criminal behaviour have been amongst the most important and influential in the field of criminology. Taking a societal approach, strain theories have sought to explain deficiencies in social structure that lead individuals to commit crime (Williams and McShane 2010). Strain theories operate under the premise that there is a societal consensus of values, beliefs, and goals with legitimate methods for achieving success. When individuals are denied access to legitimate methods for achieving success, the result is anomie or social strain. This often leads an individual to resort to deviant or criminal means to obtain the level of success that they are socialized to pursue. This is the basic premise of strain theory. This paper will explore the evolution of strain theories by first examining their intellectual foundations which laid the foundation for Robert Merton’s theories of anomie and strain. Merton’s strain theory will be discussed in detail including the modes of adaptation that people use when faced with societal strain. Finally, the paper will conclude with the strengths and weaknesses of Merton’s strain theory and an examination of the criminological theories and social policies it has influenced.
To gain an accurate understanding of strain theories it is best to first examine their intellectual foundations. One of the most important influences on the development of strain theories was sociologist Emile Durkheim. A structural functionalist, Durkheim argued that deviance and crime were not only normal, but also served a function in society. Durkheim believed that crime served the purpose of displaying to members of society what behaviours and actions are considered unacceptable as determined by societal co...

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...y are bombarded from birth that they should desire and pursue money, power, fame, and success. Without achieving these goals they are seen as failures. Strain theories have shown that placing too much emphasis on individual success and the pursuit of happiness through the accumulation of power and wealth, can lead to an increase in crime.


Featherstone, R., & Deflem, M. (2003). Anomie and strain: Context and consequences of Merton’s two theories. Sociological Inquiry, 73(4), 471-489.
Murphy, D., & Robinson, M. (2008). The maximizer: clarifying Merton’s theories of anomie and strain. Theoretical Criminology, 12(4), 501-521.
Willis, C. (1982). Durkheim’s concept of anomie: Some observations. Sociological Inquiry, 52(2), 106-113.
Williams, F., & McShane, M. (2010). Criminological Theory, (5th Edition). New Brunswick, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

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