Alex Thio -- A Critical Look at Merton's Anomie Theory | Deviance (Sociology)

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For more than thirty years Merton's anomie theory has been influential in American sociology in general and the sociology of deviance in particular. Although it may appear in various guises (Merton, 1968: 185-248; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960), the theory appears to be based on the following syllogism. (1) The disjunction between aspirations and the opportunity for real- izing aspirations produces pressures toward deviance. (2) Due to the pervasive influence of success ideology in American society, persons of the lower class, like those of the upper and middle classes (henceforth to be jointly referred to as higher classes ), tend to hold high aspirations for success but, unlike those of the higher classes, suffer from the socially structured lack of opportunity for realizing the aspirations. That is, lower-class persons tend to experience a greater aspiration-opportunity disjunction than do higher-class persons. (3) Therefore, lower- class persons are more likely to be pressured toward deviance
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  Pacific Sociological Association A Critical Look at Merton's Anomie TheoryAuthor(s): Alex ThioSource: The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 139-158Published by: University of California Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1388629 . Accessed: 04/10/2013 18:05 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.  . University of California Press  and Pacific Sociological Association  are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize,preserve and extend access to The Pacific Sociological Review. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from 129.8.242.67 on Fri, 4 Oct 2013 18:05:24 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  A CRITICAL LOOK AT MERTON'S ANOMIE THEORY ALEX THIO Ohio University For more han hirty ears Merton's nomie heory as been influential n American ociology n general nd the sociology of deviance in particular. Although t may appear in various guises Merton, 1968: 185-248; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960), the theory ppears to be based on the following yllogism. 1) The disjunction between aspirations nd the opportunity or real- izing aspirations roduces pressures oward deviance. 2) Due to the pervasive nfluence f success deology n American ociety, persons of the lower class, ike those of the upper and middle classes henceforth o be ointly referred o as higher lasses ), tend to hold high spirations or uccess but, unlike hose of the higher classes, suffer from the socially structured ack of opportunity or realizing the aspirations. That is, lower-class persons tend to experience a greater spiration-opportunity disjunction han do higher-class ersons. 3) Therefore, ower- class persons are more ikely o be pressured oward deviance. While regarding he first remise s tenable, this paper will review ome arguments nd data which uggest hat the second premise s based on questionable ssumptions nd that he facts employed o support he conclusion re also questionable. PACIFIC SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW, Vol. 18 No. 2, April 1975 @1975 Pacific Sociological Assn. [1391 This content downloaded from 129.8.242.67 on Fri, 4 Oct 2013 18:05:24 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  [140] PACIFIC SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW / APRIL 1975 One may, however, note that there have been a number f critiques on Merton's anomie theory. These critiques may be divided into three major types. The first s largely found n studies that fault the theory or not taking nto account other important ausal factors f deviance uch as social interaction and illegitimate pportunity or success (Cohen, 1965: 5-14; Cloward, 1959). In the main, they are nonetheless mere extensions, eformulations, r continuities f the theory ather than attempts t a critical xamination f its basic assumptions. The second type of critique is apparently not relevant to Merton's theory. The theory s plainly meant to explain the causation of one type of deviance only. This deviance s what Merton refers o as innovation, which subsumes the great majority f criminal nd delinquent ases. But the critics eem to have confused he theory with Merton's merely escriptive paradigm f various types of deviance such as innovations, ritualism, 'retreatism, nd rebellion. Thus they have unjustifiably riticized he paradigm or ts inability o system- atically explain why one type of deviance rather han another occurs (Cohen, 1966: 76-77; Lindesmith nd Gagnon, 1964; Dunham, 1964). And the third type of critique offers ata in order to disprove the conclusion which links social class to crime and delinquency Karacki and Toby, 1962; Reiss and Rhodes, 1961). Yet they fail to question he second premise f the theory which associates greater aspiration-opportunity disjunction with ower classes. SOCIAL CLASS AND ASPIRATION-OPPORTUNITY ISJUNCTION The above-stated econd premise f Merton's nomie theory suggests that due to the influence of success ideology in American ociety, ower-class ersons re ikely o suffer rom larger disjunction between aspirations for success and the opportunity o achieve success. This implies that the success ideology engenders bout the same level of aspirations mong both the lower and higher classes, but that the level of This content downloaded from 129.8.242.67 on Fri, 4 Oct 2013 18:05:24 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Thio / MERTON'S ANOMIE THEORY [141] opportunity, y the very definition f the social class system itself, is lower for the lower classes than for the higher classes-consequently, ower-class ersons are likely to suffer from larger spiration-opportunity isjunction. One might e tempted o argue, s Cloward 1959) does, that Merton's notion of success opportunity ails to take into account illegitimate uccess opportunity. Although this is a matter of interest n its own right, t is irrelevant or the purpose at hand because Merton's econd premise s stated here does not, as Cloward's emphasis n the concept of illegitimate opportunity oes, deal with deviant ehavior. herefore, or he present purpose of examining he second premise n Merton's theory alone, one should accept the treatment of opportunity as legitimate only. What I shall critically examine s the assumption f the premise hat American uccess ideology generates bout the same level of aspirations mong the ower nd higher lasses. When Hyman provides ome national urvey ata with which to challenge his assumption, Merton 1968: 228; italics n the srcinal) efends is position hus: The vailable hough till canty vidence, hen, onsistently xhibits differentials n the roportions f he everal ocial trata embracing high uccess oals). But what Hyman ails o note . is that rom the tandpoint f my) hypothesis, t s not he elative roportions of the everal ocial lasses dopting he ultural oal f uccess hat matter, ut their bsolute umbers. o say hat larger ercentage of the upper ocial nd conomic trata old ast o the ultural oal of success s not to say that arger umbers f them han f lower-class eople o so. Indeed, ince he number f people n the topmost tratum dentified n these tudies s substantially maller than he number n the owest tratum, t s sometimes he ase hat more ower-class han pper-class eople bide y his oal. Two related defects eem to inhere n this defense. 1) Note that Merton s here comparing pper-class gainst ower-class persons, hereby xcluding hose from he middle class. In his defense Merton mistakenly mplies that his theory does not apply to the middle class at all. But throughout he analysis f This content downloaded from 129.8.242.67 on Fri, 4 Oct 2013 18:05:24 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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