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Merton’s strain theory Essay

Merton used Durkheim’s concept of anomie to form his own theory, called Strain Theory. Merton argued that anomie is not created by dramatic social change, but rather by a social structure that holds the same goals to all its members without giving them equal means to achieve them. Merton stated that all members of a capitalist society have goals such as “wealth, status and personal happiness”, (Merton, 1938) and that the means available to achieve this success are unevenly distributed throughout society. Merton believes that this lack of integration between society goals and what society realistically permits causes the less dominant or lower class group to suffer ‘strain’ which results in alternate or illegitimate ways of achieving those goals. (Merton, 1938)

Merton did not mean that everyone who was denied access to society’s goals became deviant. He presented five modes of adapting to strain. Conformity is the most common mode of adaptation. Individuals accept both the goals as well as the prescribed means for achieving those goals. Conformists will accept, though not always achieve, the goals of society and the means approved for achieving them. The people who make up this unit are mostly middle and upper-class individuals. The innovators are typically lower-class people who desire a high-class life and focus on achieving it.

Their means of success would be ones such as robbery, embezzlement or other such criminal acts. Ritualism, the third adaptation, is made up of the people who abandon the goals they once believed to be within their reach and dedicate themselves to their current lifestyle; they play by the rules and have a daily safe routine. Retreatism is the adaptation of those who give up not only the goals but also the means. They often retreat into a world of alcoholism and drug addiction. The final adaptation is rebellion, which occurs when the cultural goals and the legitimate means are rejected and are substituted by the individuals own goals and means. (Merton, 1938)

Shoplifting is defined as “the theft by a person of goods or merchandise exposed for sale.” (Denver Crime Definition, 2002) Accurate data on shoplifting is not widely available because it’s largely considered a ‘petty’ crime and its occurrence is not always reported to police. A study of the reported cases of shoplifting found that it occurs most at liquor outlets, pharmacies and general stores. To a lesser extent reported shoplifting occurs at service stations, news agencies and restaurants. (A.I.C. no.221, 2002)

The people at most risk of victimization are those who work at general stores, service stations, pharmacies and liquor outlets. (A.I.C. no.221, 2002) Shoplifting primarily affects the stores owner/s and employees as it hinders revenue, raises operational costs and creates inaccurate stock levels. Shoplifting also causes stress among co-workers which can lead to stressful working environments. (A.I.C. no.11, 2004) Shoplifting has a high involvement of both female and juvenile offenders and the majority of shoplifters are of low class or unemployed. (A.I.C.: Australian Crime Facts & Figures, 2004)

People shoplift because they are unable to gain access to the institutional means to achieve the goals they desire – whether it is food to feed themselves or their families, or materialistic items to increase their status. This relates to shoplifting as the vast majority of cases as it is done predominantly by the lower class or unemployed population. This also explains why there is a lack of middle and high class participants in shoplifting, as they have greater access to legitimate means to achieve their goals. (Merton, 1938)

Shoplifting is often done by the unemployed as an act of innovation, not retreatism, rebellion, or ritualism. The unemployed desire the achievement of cultural goals of society but have an illegitimate access to the institutional means. Conformity can be used to explain why the majority of people do not shoplift, people who conform iternalise both the cultural goals of society and the structural means for doing so. (Merton, 1938)

There are a few areas that Merton’s strain theory fails to explain in relation to shoplifting. His theory does not explain shoplifting committed by people who have high financial status; these people are not conformists, nor are they innovators. However, Merton’s strain theory fits well with explaining the majority of shoplifting. He predicted that most criminals fall into the innovator category, which does explain the majority of shoplifting cases.

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