Length: 4:10; 3:07
Access: YouTube (clip 1; clip 2)
Summary: Robert Merton’s strain theory was an early sociological theory of crime. Merton argued that mainstream society holds certain culturally defined goals that are dominant across society (e.g. accumulating wealth in a capitalist society). His strain theory focused on whether an individual rejects or accepts society’s cultural goals (wanting to make money) and the institutional means to attain those goals, resulting in a typology of criminals and non-criminals: 1) Conformists accept the culturally defined goal of success and the institutional means society defines as appropriate to reach that goal (e.g., advancing one’s education); 2) Innovators accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, but cannot or do not follow society’s rules (e.g. lacking money for education, disregarding the law) in their pursuit of wealth; 3) Ritualists do not believe they can attain the culturally defined goal of accumulating wealth, but continue to work through society’s acceptable pathways because they are supposed to; 4) Retreatists reject the goal of wealth and the means society deems acceptable, thereby escaping society often through substance use; and 5) Rebels redefine society’s goals and create new institutional means or work outside the system to pursue them (see this framework visually). These types are well illustrated through characters in The Wire. In this first clip, gang leaders Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell debate how they can reclaim their top “real estate” for selling heroine. Avon states how he is a gangster, or from Merton’s perspective, an innovator. In contrast, Stringer Bell pushes to work with Marlo (another gangster not shown in these scenes) and eventually desist from the drug trafficking scene, making “straight money” as a conformist. In the second clip, Johnny and Bubbles (two drug users in the show) debate how to make money, with Bubbles wanting to get paid helping the police, thus working toward being a conformist. But Johnny ultimately convinces Bubbles to help him innovate through petty crime simply to feed his addiction (i.e., becoming a retreatist). Note: this is an edited version of Dr. Mayeda’s original blog post on The Cranky Sociologists. See our other posts using The Wire to teach rational choice theory, class consciousness, and cultural capital.
Submitted By: David Mayeda, PhD