Practice Question: How, according to Merton, are deviant subcultures generated ? (20 Marks) (UPSC 2019)

Approach: Introduction; Explain Strain theory, Emphasise on meanings of ‘deviance’ and ‘sub-cultures, Bring in examples, Criticism; Conclusion.



Sometimes people find that when they attempt to attain culturally approved goals, their paths are blocked. Not everyone has access to Institutionalized Means, or legitimate ways of achieving success. Strain Theory, developed by sociologist Robert Merton, posits that when people are prevented from achieving culturally approved goals through institutional means, they experience strain or frustration that can lead to deviance. He said that they also experience Anomie, or feelings of being disconnected from society, which can occur when people do not have access to the institutionalized means to achieve their goals.



American sociologist Robert K. Merton developed strain theory, a concept connected to both the functionalist perspective on deviance and Émile Durkheim’s theory of anomie. Merton asserted that societies are composed of two core aspects: culture and social structure. Our values, beliefs, goals, and identities are developed in the cultural realm. They form in response to existing social structures that ideally provide the means for the public to achieve their goals and live out positive identities. Often, though, people lack the means to achieve culturally valued goals, leading them to feel strain and possibly engage in deviant behavior.

Using inductive reasoning, Merton developed strain theory by examining crime statistics by class. He found that people from lower socioeconomic classes were more likely to commit crimes that involve acquisition (stealing in one form or another). He argued that when people cannot attain the “legitimate goal” of economic success through “legitimate means”—dedication and hard work—they may turn to illegitimate means of doing so. The cultural value of economic success looms so large that some people are willing to acquire wealth, or its trappings, by any means necessary.



  1. Conformists: Most people are conformists. They accept the goals their society sets for them, as well as the institution-alized means of achieving them. Most people want to achieve that vague status called a “good life” and accept that an education and hard work are the best ways to get there.
  2. Innovators: These people accept society’s goals but reject the usual ways of achieving them. Members of organized crime, who have money but achieve their wealth via deviant means, could be considered innovators.
  3. Ritualists: A ritualist rejects cultural goals but still accepts the institutionalized means of achieving them. If a person who has held the same job for years has no desire for more money, responsibility, power, or status, he or she is a ritualist. This person engages in the same rituals every day but has given up hope that the efforts will yield the desired results.
  4. Retreatists: Retreatists reject cultural goals as well as the institutionalized means of achieving them. They are not interested in making money or advancing in a particular career, and they tend not to care about hard work or about getting an education.
  5. Rebels: Rebels not only reject culturally approved goals and the means of achieving them, but they replace them with their own goals. Revolutionaries are rebels in that they reject the status quo. If a revolutionary rejects capitalism or democracy, for example, he or she may attempt to replace it with his or her own form of government.



  • Deviance provides the key to understanding the disruption and recalibration of society that occurs over time. Some traits that could cause social disruption will be stigmatized.
  • Systems of deviance create norms and tell members of a given society on how to behave by laying out patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
  • Deviance allows for group majorities to unite around their worldview, often at the expense of those marked as deviant. Social parameters create boundaries between populations and enable an “us-versus-them” mentality within the two groups.
  • Being marked as deviant can actually bolster solidarity within the marked community as members take pride and ownership in their stigmatized identity.
  • Some traits will be stigmatized and can potentially cause social disruption. However, as traits become more mainstream, society will gradually adjust to incorporate the formerly stigmatized traits.



In the U.S., many people strive for economic success, considered the key to having a positive identity in a capitalist and consumerist society. Education and hard work may help Americans to achieve middle- or upper-class status, but not everyone has access to quality schools or employment. Class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural capital influence a person’s likelihood of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Those who find themselves unable to increase their class standing feel a strain that may result in them engaging in deviant behavior such as theft, embezzlement, or selling goods on the black market to achieve wealth. The discussion of strain theory extends beyond crimes of acquisition. One could also frame the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police violence as examples of strain-induced rebellion. 



Sociologists have used strain theory to explain deviant behaviors related to acquisition and to support research that links social-structural conditions to culturally valued goals. In this regard, many find Merton’s theory valuable and useful. Some sociologists, however, question his concept of “deviance,” arguing that deviance is a social construct. Those who engage in illicit behavior to obtain economic success may simply be partaking in normal behaviors for individuals in their circumstances. Given this, critics of strain theory argue that characterizing crimes of acquisition as deviant may lead to policies that seek to control people rather than make society more equitable.

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