Another framework sociologists use to understand the world is the structural functional theory. Its central idea is that society is a complex unit, made up of interrelated parts. Sociologists who apply this theory study social structure and social function. French sociologist Émile Durkheim based his work on this theory. 

Functions of Deviance

Durkheim argued that deviance is a normal and necessary part of any society because it contributes to the social order. He identified four specific functions that deviance fulfills:

  1. Affirmation of cultural norms and values: Seeing a person punished for a deviant act reinforces what a society sees as acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Sentencing a thief to prison affirms our culturally held value that stealing is wrong. Just as some people believe that the concept of God could not exist without the concept of the devil, deviance helps us affirm and define our own norms.
  2. Clarification of right and wrong: Responses to deviant behavior help individuals distinguish between right and wrong. When a student cheats on a test and receives a failing grade for the course, the rest of the class learns that cheating is wrong and will not be tolerated.
  3. Unification of others in society: Responses to deviance can bring people closer together. In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, people across the United States, and even the world, were united in their shock and grief. There was a surge in patriotic feeling and a sense of social unity among the citizens of the United States.
  4. Promoting social change: Deviance can also encourage the dominant society to consider alternative norms and values. Rosa Parks’s act of deviance in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional.

Strain Theory of Deviance

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.

Example: In a class of graduating high school seniors, 90 percent of the students have been accepted at various colleges. Five percent do not want to go to college, and the remaining five percent want to go to college but cannot, for any one of a number of reasons. All of the students want to succeed financially, and attending college is generally accepted as the first step toward that goal. The five percent who want to attend college but can’t probably feel frustrated. They had the same goals as everyone else but were blocked from the usual means of achieving them. They may act out in a deviant manner.

Institutionalized Means to Success

In the 1960s, sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin theorized that the most difficult task facing industrialized societies is finding and training people to take over the most intellectually demanding jobs from the previous generation. To progress, society needs a literate, highly trained work force. Society’s job is to motivate its citizens to excel in the workplace, and the best way to do that is to foment discontent with the status quo. Cloward and Ohlin argued that if people were dissatisfied with what they had, what they earned, or where they lived, they would be motivated to work harder to improve their circumstances.

In order to compete in the world marketplace, a society must offer institutionalized means of succeeding. For example, societies that value higher education as a way to advance in the workplace must make educational opportunity available to everyone.

Illegitimate Opportunity Structures

Cloward and Ohlin further elaborated on Merton’s strain theory. Deviant behavior—crime in particular—was not just a response to limited institutionalized means of success. Rather, crime also resulted from increased access to illegitimate opportunity structures, or various illegal means to achieve success. These structures, such as crime, are often more available to poor people living in urban slums. In the inner city, a poor person can become involved in prostitution, robbery, drug dealing, or loan sharking to make money. While these activities are clearly illegal, they often provide opportunities to make large amounts of money, as well as gain status among one’s peers.

Reactions to Cultural Goals and Institutionalized Means

Merton theorized about how members of a society respond to cultural goals and institutionalized means. He found that people adapt their goals in response to the means that society provides to achieve them. He identified five types of reactions:

  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.
Merton’s Goals and Means

Method of adaptation

Cultural goals

Institutionalized means
















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