Social Movement Theory: Structural-Strain Theory Research Paper Starter

Social Movement Theory: Structural-Strain Theory

(Research Starters)

This article focuses on structural-strain theory. It provides an analysis of the history, applications, and strengths and weaknesses of the theory. An overview of the origins and main principles of structural-strain theory is included as well as a discussion of the application of structural-strain theory as applied to social movement formation. The main criticisms of structural-strain theory are also explored.

Keywords Anomie; Conformity; Durkheim, Emile; Individual Strain; Innovation; Reaction Formation; Rebellion; Social Movements; Social Movement Theory; Sociology; Strain; Structural-Strain Theory

Social Movement Theory: Structural Strain Theory


The following is an analysis of structural-strain theory. Structural-strain theory argues that structures in society may promote deviance and crime. Sociologists and criminologists use structural-strain theory to analyze and predict deviant behavior. Understanding the history, applications, and strengths and weaknesses of structural-strain theory is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of deviant social movements and subcultures such as gangs. This article explains structural-strain theory in three parts:

• An overview of the main principles, history, and contributors to structural-strain theory.

• A description of how structural-strain theory is applied to analyze and understand why deviant social movements form.

• A discussion of the main criticisms of structural-strain theory.

The Main Principles of Structural-Strain Theory

Structural-strain theory refers to the idea that social structures put pressure on individuals to engage in deviant and criminal behavior. Structural-strain theory is part of a larger body of ideas called strain theories. Structural-strain theory, and all strain theories in general, is a structural-functional explanation of deviance and criminality (Featherstone & Deflem, 2003). The concept of strain refers to the pressure on lower economic classes to engage in any means necessary to achieve society's goals of monetary success. Sociologists use individual and group expectations, and a combination of income, education, and occupation, to measure strain.

There are two main types of strain in society that may promote deviance and crime: structural strain and individual strain.

• Structural strain refers to the cycle of inadequate regulation at the societal level that negatively impacts how an individual perceives his or her needs, means, and opportunities.

• Individual strain refers to the problems individuals experience as they work to meet needs and satisfy desires (O'Connor, 2007).

The History of Structural-Strain Theory

Structural-strain theory, developed by Robert Merton in the 1930s, was based on Emile Durkheim's theory of anomie. Anomie refers to idea that the problems in society, such as crime and deviance, result from social deregulation. Building on Emile Durkheim's ideas about anomie, Robert Merton, Albert Cohen, Richard Cloward, Lloyd Ohlin, and Robert Agnew each developed and contributed to structural-strain theory. Merton, Cohen, Cloward, Ohlin, and Agnew's strain theories assert that the frustration and stress caused by goal blockage increases the likelihood of deviance, criminality, and delinquency (Agnew, 1987).

The field of sociology quickly embraced structural-strain theory as a structural explanation for deviant behavior. Strain came to be understood as the social-psychological mechanism that caused deviant behavior from the effects of anomie. Structural-strain theory was the dominant explanation for deviance from the 1930s through the 1960s. But, starting in the 1970s, scholars began to question the empirical support and evidence for structural-strain theory. This skepticism within the field of sociology towards the structural-strain theory lasted into the 1970s and 1980s, but the theory experienced a rekindling of interest in the 1990s (Featherstone & Deflem, 2003).

Structural-strain theory belongs to the larger body of interdisciplinary work called social movement theory which began in the late nineteenth century. Social movement theory refers to the study of social mobilization including its social, cultural, and political manifestations and consequences. Social movement scholarship is often motivated by a desire for social change and integrates scholarship and activism. In the case of structural-strain theory, social movement theorists study strain to understand how and why deviance and criminality occurs. The interdisciplinary history of social movement theory includes six main areas of study:

• Structural-strain theory,

• Relative deprivation theory,

• Resource mobilization theory,

• Mass society theory,

• Value-added theory,

• New social movement theory.

Social movement theory proposes that social movements are, in many instances, created through the use and manipulation of frames. Social movements, including deviant social movements (such as gangs), influence and control their members through tactics such as mobilizing fear, engaging in frame appropriation, social constructionism, and counterframing (Snow & Benford,1992).

The Main Contributors to Structural-Strain Theory

There have been five main contributors to structural-strain theory. Building on Emile Durkheim's ideas about anomie, Robert Merton, Albert Cohen, Richard Cloward, Lloyd Ohlin, and Robert Agnew developed and evolved versions of structural-strain theory used today by sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists.

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), a protégé of Auguste Comte, was a French sociologist concerned with the problem of the individual and society as well as issues of solidarity and social cohesion. Durkheim's theory of anomie, introduced in Suicide (1897), became the foundation for structural-strain theory. Anomie refers to the idea that problems in society, such as crime and deviance, result from social deregulation. According to Durkheim, people's social roles or functions hold society together. He developed two important theories:

• Organic solidarity, which relates the bonds of a population of people with their employment, labor, and social roles, and;

• Mechanical solidarity, the bonding of a small group of people around similar interests, values, and beliefs.

Organic and mechanical solidarity promote social cohesion and collective conscience. Durkheim's theories of cultural differentiation and structural differentiation influenced the field of sociology by explaining how cultural and social structures could foster social cohesion and divisiveness.

• Cultural differentiation refers to the idea that the degree of consensus over cognitive orientations and cultural codes among the members of a population is related to their interpersonal interaction, level of emotional arousal, and rate of ritual performance.

• Structural differentiation, a term borrowed from Spencer, refers to the idea that the degree of differentiation among a population is related to the level of competition among these actors, the rate of growth in this population, the extent of ecological concentration of this population, and the rate of population mobility.

Durkheim, over the course of his life, moved from a macro focus on structural processes to a micro focus on social, psychological, and interpersonal processes such as co-presence, ritual, interaction, and emotional arousal. To learn how individuals related to society, he studied the social structure, societal norms, laws, community, groups, and societal roles in French society. In his research, Durkehim looked for the causes and functions of social phenomena. Durkheim may be most famous for his observations of suicide rates among certain social groups, which underscores his interest in the power of social cohesion (Turner, 1990).

Robert Merton

Robert Merton (1910–2003) made significant contributions to the sociology of deviance. Merton's work on social structure and anomie is considered to be a classic in sociology. In addition, Merton's work is often used in the field of criminology. Merton argued that the cultural system in the United States encouraged everyone to pursue financial success over all other goals. Merton's version of strain theory, which posits that social structures may encourage actors to commit criminal acts, preserves the theoretical link between culture and social structure. Merton was heavily influenced by the work of Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian sociologist who used quantitative methods to study the variables of social change (Rosenfeld, 1989).

Merton developed two theoretical elements in his social-structure-and-anomie paradigm: a strain theory and an anomie theory. Building on Durkheim's concept of anomie, Merton considered the anomie concept to explain deviation from socially prescribed patterns of conduct. Merton's theory of anomie refers to the “deinstitutionalization of social norms that occurs when there is a disjunction between cultural goals and institutional...

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