Robert Merton’s theory, also referred to as the strain theory, was developed by Robert Merton in1938 (Bernburg, 2019). The theory explains how society exerts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted objectives even when they lack proper means of achieving them. The pressure renders them engage in unacceptable behaviors such as drugs, prostitution, and other crimes to achieve financial security. Labeling theory was developed in the 60s; the theory asserts that individual behavior and self-identity may be influenced by how individuals are labeled (Buchanan & Krohn, 2020). The theory holds that negativity and deviance is not inherent behavior but arises from the tendency of the majority to negatively classify the minority or those observed as deviant according to societal and cultural norms. Strain and labeling theory have several similar and different characteristics.
Relationship with Deviance
Merton’s theory and labeling theory addresses societal issues relating to deviance. Society often has a set of standards that individuals ought to conform to so as to be accepted by the community members. Although there is no correct scale to measure or point out deviant behaviors, society believes that the behavior includes; immorality, homosexuality, drug abuse, prostitution, rape, and other negative behaviors (Bernburg, 2019). Merton’s theory, which is famously known as the strain theory, attempts to explain why the minority and poor people have the highest rates of deviance compared to the rich and the majority groups. Strain theory attributed the stress rate that the minority go through to achieve success through the desired means. For instance, in the American dream, Merton explains that Americans value success and have the approved standards of attaining economic success, which is working (Bernburg, 2019). However, he further asserts that the poor cannot achieve the desired success through conventional means, hence getting the pressure to indulge in deviant ways to be successful.
Labeling theory provides a sociological approach to the impacts of social labeling in the development of deviance (Buchanan & Krohn, 2020). The theory assumes that even though deviant behavior originates from a myriad of other social factors and conditions, individuals adopt the deviant self-concept when they are labeled as deviant. The theory argues that harmful stereotypes can create more problems for individuals, which causes their deviant behavior to be chronic or reinforces one to involve themselves in deviant activities (Bernburg, 2019). Moreover, the theory claims that when an individual is labeled deviant, it becomes difficult for them to avoid deviant behaviors because of their self-image created by others.
Social norms and cultural understanding
Both theories seek to understand social norms and cultures that lead individuals to react to situations they have little or no control over. Merton’s theory argues that strain does not only result from the weak and unregulated societal norms but the cultural objectives and the means to attain them (Merton, 2017). Anomie theory observes that cultural and social norms may vary depending on the emphasis exerted; however, the variation creates dis-appropriate or exclusive stress over time. Additionally, as the society undergoes some transitions and changes, normless becomes less effective since desired goals are rendered less clear hence aspirations developed go beyond expectation.
Labeling theory concerns issues that develop due to the social environment reaction. Social labeling primarily arises from individuals’ cultural structures to categorize their social world. The theory exists only because the social audience offers the responses and labeling of a given behavior (Merton, 2017). Labeling projects the relationship between a change in self-concept and shifts in social bonds. For instance, when there is weaker social control and minimal life probabilities of achieving the goals, individuals tend to join social groups that share the same. Furthermore, the theory argues that even if the individuals never commit the crime, they will suffer the consequences of the labels for some time.
Applicable in Criminology
The theories have been used to give insights and understanding on the rise and existence of criminal behavior. Many scholars in the recent past have witnessed an emerging politicization within the gang discourse. Some criminologists claim that gang groups are an open problem within society (Maitra, 2020). On the other hand, other criminologists argue that gang groups and talks arise when the gang status is readily associated with an individual. Merton’s theory has been applied from the criminological perspective that the development and creation of the street gang within the individuals existed historically because of the childhood experiences and conditions within the gang (Maitra, 2020). Children from economically deprived areas get pressured to attain economic success; hence as they grow, they join gang groups in achieving their desired success through criminal activities.
Other theorists who have adopted labeling theory in criminology argue that moral panic within the social and cultural structures has existed due to individuals’ law-breaking nature. The idea claims that individuals are collectively labeled as gangs because of the groups they associate with, which influences their behavior by imposing the self-image concept (Nguyen & Van Ngo, 2021). Additionally, other individuals may join the gang groups and indulge in criminal activities through labeling.
Assumptions and Criticisms
Several sociologists have criticized both theories. The theories also hold because of their underlying assumptions. Labeling theory assumes that there is no activity within the society that is intrinsically criminal instead, individuals in power define the issue of criminality through the creation and interpretation of laws. The theory argues that deviant behavior is not an element associated with individuals or groups but a result of social interaction between deviant and non-deviant individuals with which criminality is interpreted. Labeling theory has faced many criticisms because of its assumption from the conflict and positivists theorist. The criticism came about because the view ignored the existence of deviant concepts. The functionalists believed that deviance within individuals existed, and thus secondary crime and deviance is a useless concept created by the sociologists.
On the other hand, Merton’s theory assumes individuals are inherently good and will only indulge in deviant behavior because of stress and pressure from society. Merton argues that the existence of social gaps and inequality are inevitable and directly related to societal social norms. He also observed that the conventional social structure was designed so that some individuals are automatically restricted from attaining them, forcing them to criminality. The theory has faced several criticisms from other scholars; one of the critiques is that the theory relates to the emphasis of crime levels. The approach is applicable when the minority struggles to attain the desired goals. At the same time, deviance and street crimes are often termed as white-collar crimes affecting the majority who thrive economically. The theory has faced criticism because it ignores the intrapersonal and interpersonal elements. These are societal elements that can be examined through the symbolic interactionist concept. The concept critically analyzes the cultural and social aspects of individuals.
Functionalism versus Symbolic Interactionism theory
Merton’s theory is in support of functionalism theory. The theory stems from the belief that although society is complex, interconnected structures make it orderly and stable to meet individual, societal needs. Strain theory adheres to functionalism orientation and does not indulge in the necessities of changing the structural nature of society (Nguyen & Van Ngo, 2021). The theory accepts the existence of social conditions and divides within the community and argues that the divides are essential for the stability of the social and cultural structures. The theory claims that differences in class within the society create proper functioning and adaptation of individuals (Maitra, 2020). Moreover, the theory has not criticized social injustices by minority groups. Instead, it assumes that individual access to finances and material goods is highly dependent on their capacity to overlook experiences facing the different groups based on social categories.
On the other hand, labeling theory has been derived from Symbolic Interactionism theory. Symbolic Interactionism is an approach that has been used to analyze interactions of individuals through the focus of meanings that they assign to objects and other things around them (Buchanan & Krohn, 2020). The theory stems from understanding the effects of social interactions within society. It argues the significance of the social audience and the impacts on the actor’s self-image and subsequent behavior. Although, individuals often react and base their attitudes and conduct on the acts imposed by the surrounding environment. For instance, juveniles are likely to respond to conventional society, such as teachers, parents, and other reinforcement agents. Individuals also react to the social audience which they feel is more important than others. The theory also believes that differences such as the peer groups used to filter labels create patterns for individual self-concept (Buchanan & Krohn, 2020). In addition, in the perspective of social interaction, the theory claims that the individuals often view themselves as social objects subject to others to react to, through which they get their self-image and understanding.
Social gaps Versus Discrimination and Stigmatization
Merton’s theory results from social gaps, while labeling results from stigmatization and discrimination. Regarding the oppressive lanes, labeling theories have been claimed to reinforce societal distributive and cognitive injustices. Social justice includes equality in distributing and accessing tangible and intangible social goods. Two assumption principles govern the distribution of these resources; one assumes that individuals within the society have an equal right to the access and allocation of resources within a liberal community. Another principle holds that the governing authority guarantees that these rights are upheld and considers individual backgrounds and history to ensure equality and fairness in accessing resources (Bernburg, 2019). The theory ignores negative and unfair social structures surrounding labeled individuals who have limited access to different resources and support from the government and the community. Blocked chances reinforce stigmatization and increase discrimination; it also encourages recidivism because of the lack of the means to enhance their well-being.
On the other hand, Merton’s theory claims that the strain and pressure faced by individuals within the society stem from the existing gaps between societal goals and resources. Strain theory expanded its arguments from Durkheim’s observations on the effects of anomie (Nguyen & Van Ngo, 2021). Merton also examined the rationale involved significant social changes. The changes included; industrialization and urbanization within American society in the 20th century (Nguyen & Van Ngo, 2021). From the observation, he identified that a successful and affluent life was a goal and individual priority during the period. However, the gaps between the minority and the minority were high; therefore, the minority groups would do anything to cope with the existing gap, including deviant behaviors and crimes.
Responses versus labeling types
Merton’s theory offers five ways to respond to strain and pressure while Labelling theory gives two labeling categories (Burke et al., 2019). Strain theory argues that when an individual fails to achieve societal goals, the individual could be overwhelmed by the pressure and even get blocked or rejected from society. The theory offers five personality adaptations between the societal objectives and ways of achieving them. Merton referred to deviance caused by the societal strain as ‘innovation,’ conformity rebellion, ritualism, and retreatism. According to the theory, conformity refers to the individuals who pursue success through the ways accepted by society. Ritualism describes the individuals who develop more realistic objectives for themselves other than those of the society (Burke et al., 2019). Retreatism is the individuals who reject societal goals and fail to try attaining them. This group is greatly disinvested in the societal objectives that they completely withdraw from society. On the other hand, rebellion refers to the individuals who reject the societal and culturally valued norms and replace them.
Labeling theory describes two types of labeling when analyzing the significance of labeling; formal and informal. The theory refers to formal labels as those ascribed by an individual with formal rank and ability to distinguish a desired from a deviant behavior (Bernburg, 2019). For instance, when the police arrest and convict an individual of a crime, he is formally labeled a criminal. Informal labeling refers to labels from individuals who have no formal status and authority to label an individual. An example is when teachers or parents label students and kids as rude or troublemakers.
Robert Merton’s theory, also referred to as the strain theory, explains how society exerts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted objectives even when they lack proper means. On the other hand, labeling theory asserts that individual behavior and self-identity may be influenced by how individuals are labeled. The approaches have several similarities and differences in their application. Merton’s theory supports functionalism theory, while labeling has been derived from Symbolic Interactionism theory. Merton’s theory also offers five ways to respond to strain and pressure; innovation, conformity, rebellion, ritualism, and retreatism, while labeling theory gives two labeling categories. The theory refers to formal labels as those ascribed by an individual with formal rank and ability to distinguish a desired from deviant behavior. Labeling and Merton’s views are similar because both have been used to provide insights and understanding on the rise and existence of criminal behavior. The theories also seek to understand social norms and cultures that lead individuals to react to situations they have little or no control over. Although the theories are applicable in various social aspects, they still face numerous criticisms from other sociologists on their assumptions and applicability.
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Buchanan, M., & Krohn, M. D. (2020). Does it matter if those who matter don’t mind? Effects of gang versus delinquent peer group membership on labeling processes. Criminology, 58(2), 280-306.
Burke, A., Carter, D., Fedorek, B., Morey, T., Rutz-Burri, L., & Sanchez, S. (2019). introduction to the American criminal justice system.
Maitra, D. R. (2020). For Me, They Were the Good Old Days”: Retrospective narratives of childhood experiences in ‘the gang. Genealogy, 4(3), 71.
Merton, R. K. (2017). Social structure and anomie. Routledge.
Nguyen, Q. H., & Van Ngo, H. (2021). Strain theories and labeling theories: A critical examination through an anti-oppressive lens. Critical Social Work, 22(1).