10 Strain Theory Examples (Plus Criticisms of Merton)

mertons strain theory

Merton’s Strain Theory is a sociological theory developed by Robert K. Merton in the 1940s. It suggests that an individual’s inability to achieve culturally valued goals causes frustration, which can lead to retreatism, deviant behavior, and often illegal behavior.

An example of strain theory is someone turning to crime to earn money after losing their job.

This theory, which is also referred to as classic strain theory by criminologists, attempts to explain why some individuals turn to deviance in order to achieve success, while others remain law-abiding citizens.

Origins of Strain Theory

The origin of Merton’s theory is often credited to the work of Emile Durkheim, whose theory of “anomie” poses questions about the aspirations of members in various classes and what ends they purse to attain those goals (Marks, 1974, pp.334-336).

Classic strain theory suggests that crime is concentrated amongst lower-class individuals.

In particular, Merton states that Americans are expected by society to strive for wealth and prosperity, yet those in the lower classes are frequently blocked from reaching this for a number of factors.

As a result, he believed that because people from lower classes have more difficulty reaching their goals, they are more prone to pursue illegal paths to obtain them (Jang & Agnew, 2015, pp. 495-496).

10 Examples of Merton’s Strain Theory

  1. A student who is unable to gain acceptance into their desired college due to their family’s lack of financial resources. The student turns to illegal ways of raising money to attend school, or cheating on exams to falsify grades for scholarships or entrance.  
  2. An individual may steal a luxury car in order to fit in with other peers who can afford such a vehicle.
  3. An individual is unable to gain employment due to their lack of qualifications or experience. They may then resort to theft or fraud in order to make a living.
  4. An individual who is unable to gain access to the same social circles as their peers due to their low income. They may then turn to crime for acceptance.
  5. An individual who is unable to afford the latest technology due to their financial status. They may then turn to shoplifting in order to possess the same luxury items as their peers.
  6. An individual is rejected or emotionally abused by a parent; this strain causes them to engage in deviant behavior.
  7. An individual is bullied by peers or a social group; this strain causes them to commit a crime or engage in deviant behavior.
  8. An individual is discriminated against by a group of people; this strain causes them to commit crime or engage in deviant behavior.
  9. Loss of job causes someone to turn to crime to earn money.
  10. A single parent home causes strain that in turn makes it more probable that a teenager will turn to delinquency.

Case Studies

1. Family Strain

Case 1: A single parent home causes strain that in turn makes it more probable that a teenager will turn to delinquency.

Researchers have found that there are lingering negative effects of lacking a fatherly figure during childhood that continue through adolescence.

They state that an absent father increases the likelihood of adolescents smoking and or incidence teen pregnancy.

The data they have compiled also suggests that it can hinder high school graduation, and result in increased behavioral problems and decreased mental capability (McLanahan et al., 2013, 425-427).

Osgood et al.(1996) supports Merton’s theory in their research regarding a lack of an authority figure in a potential teenager’s life.

They state that the absence of “someone whose role in a situation carries a responsibility for attempting to exert social control in response to deviance” is a great detriment to a younger person. They are more likely to commit a deviant act (p. 640).

2. Poverty Strain

Case 2: An individual who is unable to afford the latest technology due to their financial status. They may then turn to shoplifting in order to possess the same material possessions as their peers.

According to Merton, people are driven to engage in deviant behavior when their motivations, or the rewards to be gained from a certain behavior, outweigh the risks.

He identified five particular motivations for people to engage in shoplifting: financial gain, revenge, a sense of power and entitlement, a way to feel special, and a form of rebellion.

However, Kraut (1996) suggests that with external constraints in place, the rate of people shoplifting dropped drastically.

He found that shoplifting was attributed to desire, and supports Merton’s theory, in that if the gains outweigh the risk, people are more likely to steal from stores (pp. 363-364).

3. Social Strain

Case 3: An individual is bullied by peers or a social group; this strain causes them to commit a crime or engage in deviant behavior.

People who are being bullied or socially excluded may feel like they have no other choice than to engage in deviant behavior as a way to cope with the uncomfortable situation.

Merton’s theory suggests that deviant or criminal behavior can be a reaction to feeling powerless or ignored in social circles in society.

In his book, Klein (2013) follows a series of tragic school shootings that were committed by younger people who were bullied. He draws conclusions between violence retaliation and the trauma of being bullied in a social setting (pp.3-227).

Strengths of Merton’s Strain Theory

Cole (2004) writes that prior to his death in 2003 “Merton was undoubtedly, not only the most famous living sociologist of science, but also the most famous sociologist in the world” (p. 829).

Merton’s strain theory has been widely accepted by the academic community and has since become a major influence in the field of sociology.

It has inspired the work of many researchers, who have built on Merton’s ideas and offered their own insights into deviance and crime. It has been used to create a better understanding of the relationship between poverty and crime, and its underlying causes.

Furthermore, Merton’s theory has been credited with opening the door for a number of positive interventions, such as job training programs, mental health services, and educational support.

Sigfusdottir et al.(2016) used Merton’s strain theory as a framework to help to develop resources, policies, and programs for adolescents who might turn to a life of drug use, self-harm, or delinquency.

They suggest in order to get closer to understanding how environmental strains cause physiological reactions in adolescents, it is crucial to start with conduct more empirical studies on the causes of strain.

They conclude that this would have essential ramifications for educational, legal, mental health and physical health policies (pp. 1088-1090). Merton’s strain theory is still widely used today, and its strengths are evident by the vast amount of supporting research.

Criticisms of Merton’s Strain Theory

Two major criticisms of Merton’s Strain Theory were brought to light in Agnew’s (1985) A Revision Strain Theory of Delinquency.

Criticism 1

The first major criticism involves aspirations and delinquency.

According to strain theory, criminality is most prevalent when a person’s ambitions are high and their prospects of achieving them are low.

To test this hypothesis, multiple studies have been conducted, generally focusing on educational and vocational objectives.

However, the majority of the studies did not back up Merton’s theory, with findings showing that delinquency is most prominent when both hopes and expectations are low, and least likely when both are high.

Criticism 2

The second significant criticism was in regards to the relationship between social class and delinquency.

Merton’s proposed theories have asserted that delinquency is usually observed in the lower socio-economic class, as those individuals are considered to be deprived of the resources that allow them to attain financial stability or middle-class status.

Recent research data has put some of these assumptions into question.

Although the connection between social class and criminal behavior remains a contentious topic, the data shows that delinquency is frequently seen in the middle class and that the associations between classes and some types of delinquency may be insignificant (pp. 151-153).

Criticism 3

Cloward and Ohlin (as cited in Barkan & Bryjak, 2011) presented a theory critiquing strain theory called differential opportunity theory.

The theory argues that strain is not the key driver of deviance. Rather, it is differential opportunities to engage in deviance.

The theory explores how illegitimate means of committing deviant behaviors (such as by joining organized groups) directly affects the types of crimes that are committed.

In other words, the focus shouldn’t exclusively be on people’s restricted access to legitimate means, but it should also explore the accessibility of illegitimate means of getting money and power.

See Next: Role Strain vs Role Conflict


Cole, S. (2004). Merton’s Contribution to the Sociology of Science. Social Studies of Science34(6), 829–844. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4144345

Farnworth, M., & Leiber, M. J. (1989). Strain Theory Revisited: Economic Goals, Educational Means, and Delinquency. American Sociological Review54(2), 263. https://doi.org/10.2307/2095794

Jang, S. J., & Agnew, R. (2015). Strain Theories and Crime. International Encyclopedia of the Social &Amp; Behavioral Sciences, 495–500. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-08-097086-8.45088-9

Klein, J. (2013). The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools. New York: NYU Press.

Kraut, R. E. (1976). Deterrent and Definitional Influences on Shoplifting. Social Problems23(3), 358–368. https://doi.org/10.2307/799781

Marks, S. R. (1974). Durkheim’s Theory of Anomie. American Journal of Sociology80(2), 329– 363. https://doi.org/10.1086/225803

McLanahan, S., Tach, L., & Schneider, D. (2013). The Causal Effects of Father Absence. Annual Review of Sociology39(1), 399–427. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145704

Osgood, D. W., Wilson, J. K., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Johnston, L. D. (1996). Routine Activities and Individual Deviant Behavior. American Sociological Review61(4), 635. https://doi.org/10.2307/2096397

Robert Agnew. (1985). A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency. Social Forces. https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/64.1.151 Sigfusdottir, I. D., Kristjansson, A. L., Thorlindsson, T., & Allegrante, J. P. (2016). Stress and adolescent well-being: the need for an interdisciplinary framework. Health Promotion International, daw038. https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/daw038


Gregory Paul C. (MA)

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Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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