By David Mayeda

Back in the 1950s as criminologists began to more seriously explore the sociological causes behind crime, Robert K. Merton put forth his perspective through strain theory. Merton argued that mainstream society holds certain culturally defined goals that are dominant across society. In a capitalist society, the dominant goal that most people aim for is accumulating wealth. Merton further argued that this goal of becoming financially wealthy was so powerful that the goal of getting rich itself had become more important than the means by which one attained wealth. In other words, whether you got rich via conventional/legal means, or via unconventional/illegal means, it didn’t matter, as long as you got your coin. For Merton then, there was anomie (normlessness) regarding the means.

Merton furthered this perspective by providing a framework by which sociologists could typologise criminals and non-criminals – strain theory. Strain theory argues that one must consider if an individual rejects or accepts (1) society’s cultural goals (wanting to make money), as well as (2) the institutional means by which to attain those goals.

To this end, five typologies were established:

  1. Conformists, who accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, as well as the institutional means society defines as appropriate to reach that goal (e.g., advancing one’s education, steadily working, saving money). Conformists follow rules and believe doing so will pay off financially.
  2. Innovators, who also accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, but do not follow society’s rules (i.e., laws) in their pursuit of attaining wealth. Innovators may not have the means to attain financial wealth (e.g., not enough money to further advance education), and/or simply not believe in the law. Hence, innovators turn to crime.
  3. Ritualists are those individuals who do not believe they can attain the culturally defined goal of accumulating financial wealth, but who continue to do so through society’s acceptable cultural pathways simply because they are supposed to (e.g., going to work and school, despite feeling such actions will never pay off).
  4. Retreatists are people who reject the goal of financial wealth, as well as the means society deems acceptable to get rich. Hence people in this group escape, or retreat from society, often times through substance use.
  5. Rebels are the last group who redefine society’s goals and create new institutional means of pursuing their unique goals. Rebels work outside of the established system. (See the framework mapped out by clicking here):

Okay, so let’s apply this theory to some examples from HBO’s television drama series, The Wire. In this first example, we see two snippets from Season 3 when characters Avon Barksdale (a west Baltimore drug kingpin recently released from prison) and his right-hand man, Stringer Bell, debate how they can reclaim their top “real estate” (or “corners”), where they would have the younger members of their crew sell heroine. Though not seen in these snippets, a new player named Marlo has entered the west Baltimore market and violently taken the most lucrative corners from Avon’s crew.

Listen to Avon and Stringer Bell discuss the pros and cons of going against Marlo versus trying to work with him. And more importantly listen to Avon – despite already having achieved extensive wealth – state how he would rather habituate by remaining a gangster, or from Merton’s perspective, an innovator. In contrast, listen to Stringer Bell push to work with Marlo and eventually desist from the drug trafficking scene, making “straight money,” much more so as a conformist.

Let’s also examine two other characters from The Wire – “Bubbles” and Johnny. In the early parts of this series, Bubbles and Johnny would be defined predominantly as retreatists, who aspire incessantly to get high on heroine. But over the series, Bubbles changes. As the two comrades walk down the street in this scene, listen to Bubbles talk of wanting to desist by becoming a “snitch” for the police. In other words, he is working towards becoming a conformist. Johnny, however, wants none of this:

Johnny temporarily convinces Bubbles to help him rip off the man on the ladder. And note in this particular scene,  Bubbles and Johnny are both innovators – working to get money via illegal means. Still, I would argue Johnny’s status stands predominantly as a retreatist, who innovates through petty crime simply to feed his retreatist addiction (i.e., retreat from society). And again, while Bubbles is an innovator in tandem with his friend in this scene, he is clearly working towards a life of conformity, seen more clearly when he disappears and decides not to take the money.

More analyses through The Wire on the way..

5 thoughts on ““The Wire” and Robert Merton’s Strain Theory

  1. You seem to be missing a major point. Social norms are not the same across all sub-sections of society, as exemplified in season 4 of the Wire. Kids like Namond are [i]conforming[/i] to social expectations when they embark on a criminal career, and Stringer is innovating like a motherfucker by attempting to merge two culturally and financially distinct worlds.

  2. Within the show itself, all we see is crime, so it appears all youth (e.g., Namond and his friends) engage in levels of criminal activity. However, I wouldn’t say a majority (i.e., over 50%) of youth in such communities are criminogenic. There’s certainly a degree of conformity to engage in crime where crime is more common. Still, I’ve worked in schools in “the hood,” and most of the kids are good kids who conform to non-criminogenic behaviors, only dabbling in low-level/primary deviance. Regarding Stringer, he certainly is doing something innovative when trying to invest drug money into spheres outside the drug world. Point was he sees a non-violent world, and is trying to move towards that – he’s trying to conform to the mainstream using the resources he has.

  3. I would say that Avon is a conformist to the culture in which he was raised. He is also a rebel in that his goal is not just to make money, but to be the most powerful gangster (this definitely could be defined as a goal within his corner of society). Stringer is an innovator, he does not care if his money comes by legal means or not, so long as he maximizes profit and minimizes chances of death and incarceration.

  4. I think Merton misses the point that it is not normlessness, but a rejection of dominant norms due to the inability to achieve and access socially valued roles (and those roles and goals), and the emergence of a new society with it’s own practices, values, and norms. Johnny is articulating a particular set of norms and social practice which reject the dominant society’s norms. The ethical aspect of norms is clearly there with the ‘snitch’ debate, and Bubs is, in a way, the ‘innovator’ who rejects the localised norms espoused by Johnny because he realises the system screws them. I think there’s a problem when we tend to look at crime as something unusual or an extreme because we are implicitly coming from our own normative perspective.

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