Updated: Jan 19
Strain theory can be applied to help explain why youth in low-income, poverty stricken neighbourhoods choose to affiliate themselves with the ominous street gang culture. Neighbourhood children that seek acceptance and belonging in the community they live in, but don’t have the legitimate resources to keep up with the norm, find themselves gravitating towards a life of criminality through gang involvement (Cooper, 2016).
US social theorist, Robert Merton’s strain theory is prevalent throughout sociological literature. His refined perspective on the explanation of criminality gives readers a greater outlook on the causation between unlawful behaviour and the motivation behind it. Robert Merton’s belief was that crime occurs because there is a strain put upon persons in society that struggle or can’t attain middle-class standards through legitimate resources. Merton’s strain theory suggests that, due to the fact that individuals cannot make concessions to accomplish the middle-class status, these individuals choose to gain access to middle class standards through unlawful resources. Additionally, Merton believed that social class dynamics come into play, as well. Merton maintained that success was stressed for all, however, not all opportunities to attain success were distributed evenly due to various explanations, including social class, racial stratification, and ethnic backgrounds. Furthermore, Merton believed that access to the materials that make success attainable, cash, schooling, contacts, acceptance were also not always available to everyone throughout various social classes (Kapelos-Peters, 2008).
Society places high value on success, community standing, fame and wealth and as a result individuals from all facets of life find various ways to motivate themselves, so that these goals are attainable. Youths in low-income, poverty stricken neighbourhoods are no different from the rest of society, they see these same values being promoted throughout mainstream and social media, which in turn energizes their desire to reach them. The idea of having an opulent lifestyle, having numerous friends and attaining fame is appealing to most, even more so for a person that is distanced from ever obtaining it. Merton’s strain theory starts to become evident in these disadvantaged neighbourhoods, especially in youth living in low-income communities (Ortiz). As these young adults are exposed to society’s values and norms, they develop an intense craving for success, elevated standing in the community, fame and wealth. These youths begin to envision themselves in various types of successful roles, including university graduates, CEOs of large companies, professional athletes and some famous entertainers. They strive to make their dreams a reality, only to find that there are many “road blocks” hampering their path. From educational system failure to economic social class, living in an impoverished neighbourhood forces many neighbourhood youths to abandon their “dreams” and accept their lot in life. Their hopes and desires are shattered because of the underprivileged environment that encases their neighbourhood. As a result of being blocked from achieving their ambitions, some of these youths adapt to the strain by finding alternative ways of dealing with the pressure (Broidy, 1997, p. 275).
Merton recognised that when an individual experiences this sort of strain, he or she adapts in one of five likely ways, conformity, ritualism, retreatism, innovation or rebellion (Kapelos-Peters, 2008). The two latter modes of adaptation, innovation and rebellion, usually resulting in a form of criminality are prevalent in the gang culture. A person that uses innovation to adapt to the strain is an individual that accepts the cultural goals of society, however, he or she discards the predictable approaches of reaching these goals. The innovator creates ways, usually illegitimate, of accomplishing cultural goals. The innovator’s behaviour often manifests itself in the form of criminality, such as drug trafficking, prostitution and various other gang related activities. A person that uses rebellion to adapt to strain is an individual that not only rejects both the established cultural goals, but also the accepted means of attaining his of her goals. The youth gang member is a prime illustration of the Rebellion that Merton references where an individual rejects cultural norms seeks to create new values in order to accomplish their goals (Thompson, 2013). The youth gang member discards society’s traditional goals and the legitimate means of achieving success and instead choice alternative ways, usually through unlawful means, to accomplish desired goals.
The Toronto neighbourhoods surrounding the Jane Street and Finch Avenue West intersection are saturated with youth that have adapted to the strain placed on them by society through the process of innovation and rebellion and as a result they have gravitated towards the gang culture. Many youths living in this low-income area lack self-confidence, and believe that success is not attainable within the boundaries that they live in. They begin to form a criminal subculture with its own hierarchy, rules and procedures, that enables the members to chase after what society feels is important: wealth, recognition and respect. The gang culture, demonstrates Merton’s strain theory in action, as it gives youth an avenue to attain success through illegitimate actions such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, robbery, and extortion just to name a few. On any given night, you can walk through the disadvantaged neighbourhoods surrounding the Jane and Finch corridor and find young gang members affiliated with the Young Buck Killers street gang, dealing drugs in apartment building stairwells, outside the local strip mall, and in the lobby areas of various derelict community housing structures. Their drug transactions can easily deliver these gang members $650.00 in one evening. When you speak to these young men, they all have commonalities in life, low-level education as a result of dropping out of high school and being raised in a broken home. They have failed at meeting the standards that society has set out for them and have come to the realization that they will not be successful in life unless they adapt to the environment by creating a subculture that they can thrive in. The lavish lifestyle of high-end automobiles, luxurious jewellery, high roller status becomes temporarily available to them as they maneuver through their lives. These young men, all have the same goals and ambitions as any other youth their age in Canada, however, they feel that they have failed at school, at home and within the community they live in. As a result of their failures they admit to themselves that they will never attain their goals and ambitions through legitimate resources, these youths accept that they don’t belong in society and choose to rebel and adapt to the strain by joining the subculture of a street gang.
Merton believed that people adapted to strain because they couldn’t meet the standards set out by society. Youth in low-income housing complexes throughout Toronto are feeling the strain that Merton referenced. Many of these youths don’t want to join a street gang, however, it is seen by them as the only way to attain their desires because of various economical and educational barriers. In order to give children in these impoverished areas a chance at achieving success and avoiding a life of gang enrolment, we must create a collective strategy focused on helping at-risk youth achieve cultural norms through legitimate means (Revise Sociology, 2016). A unified approach that targets the contributing factors that cause strain theory to function within these neighbourhoods would certainly mitigate youth gang enrolment and battle the strain felt by the youth in these troubled areas. Additional social programs with role models and youth mentorship strategies that promote inclusion and critical thinking would also support young people, in these areas, in making positive life choices leading to successful endeavours. Sport or clubs that promote social cohesion through team building exercises, could give these at-risk youths a sense of belonging that they lack at home or school. Job mentorship programs would also be a valuable tool to help youth in these areas attain financial desires as well as give them a set of skills that could put them on the road to success. By developing a collective strategy involving education intervention, financial planning, teaming team building skills, and critical thinking development, society would be able to ease the stain it has placed on the youth of low-income communities and mitigate the chance of younger children joining the nefarious subculture.
Broidy, L. &. (1997). Gender and crime: a general strain theory perspective. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 275. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.humber.ca/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=humber&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA19992941&asid=faec2fdf08b2813fb0c4fa4894cb7ba5
Cooper, T. (2016, December 22). Social theories: explaining gang violence. Retrieved from www.criminologyjust.blogspot.ca: http://criminologyjust.blogspot.ca/2011/06/social-theories-explaining-gang.html#.WJFZOfkrLIU
Kapelos-Peters, A. (2008, February 18). musings. Retrieved from http://www.alexandrakp.com/text/2008/02/robert-mertons-personal-adaptations-to-anomie-aka-strain-theory/
Ortiz, M. (n.d.). Forensic Psychology. Retrieved from http://forensicpsychology.umwblogs.org/organized-crime/strain-theory/
Revise Sociology. (2016, April 6). Merton’s strain theory of deviance. Retrieved from https://revisesociology.com/2016/04/16/robert-mertons-strain-theory-of-deviance/
Thompson. (2013, May 23). Sociology Twynham. Retrieved https://sociologytwynham.com/2013/05/23/mertons-strain-to-anomie/