Criminal Justice

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Strain Theory

  1. Introduction

Sociologists and criminologists have long endeavored to determine why some individuals engage in criminal activity while others do not. The exploration of this subject has taken researchers down many paths; some have looked for biological explanations for criminal behavior, while others have explored the social and cultural frameworks that may establish the conditions for criminality. In the latter context, further interest exists in understanding why some members of a given society will engage in criminal acts, while others who seem to exist in the same social and cultural constructs do not turn to crime. One of the most well-known theorists in this field is Robert Merton; Merton largely rejected biological explanations for criminal behavior, and instead attempted to determine what sort of social conditions and circumstances might underpin the manifestation of criminal behavior. Among Merton’s theories and suppositions about the sociological basis for criminal behavior are two of his most well-known theories: anomie theory and strain theory. While these are, in effect, two different theories intended to explain different sets of circumstances and the results wrought by such circumstances, they are inextricably linked. It is impossible to fully understand or even effectually discuss one of these theories without exploring the other, and without giving consideration to the ways in which they overlap and intersect.