II. Types of Strain Most Conducive to Crime
A. Inability to Achieve Monetary Success
Merton (1938) developed the first major strain theory of crime in the 1930s. This theory was developed in the midst of the Great Depression, so it is not surprising that it focused on that type of strain involving the inability to achieve monetary success. According to Merton, everyone in the United Stated—regardless of class position—is encouraged to strive for monetary success. At the same time, lower-class individuals are frequently prevented from achieving such success through legal channels. In particular, the parents of lower-class children often do not equip them with the skills and attitudes necessary to do well in school. Lower-class individuals often attend inferior schools, and they often lack the funds to obtain college educations or start their own businesses. As a consequence, they more often find themselves unable to achieve their monetary goals through legal channels.
This goal blockage creates much frustration, and individuals may cope by engaging in crime, including income-generating crimes such as theft, drug selling, and prostitution. Merton (1938), however, emphasized that most individuals do not cope with this strain through crime. Some individuals simply endure this strain, others lower their desire for money, and still others turn to the pursuit of other goals. Merton provided some guidance as to why some individuals cope with crime and others do not. One key factor, for example, is whether individuals blame their inability to achieve monetary success on themselves or on others. Crime is more likely when the blame is placed on others.
Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) have applied Merton’s (1938) theory to the explanation of juvenile gangs. Like Merton, they said that the major type of strain in the United States is the inability to achieve monetary success or, in the case of Cohen, the somewhat broader goal of middleclass status. However, they went on to state that juveniles sometimes cope with this strain by forming or joining delinquent groups, such as gangs. Strained juveniles may form gangs in order to better pursue illicit money-making opportunities, such as drug selling. They may form gangs in an effort to achieve the status or respect they desire. In particular, juveniles sometimes join gangs in an effort to feel important.