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Old 23-09-2008, 05:11 AM   #1
Strain Theory vs. Control Theory
Waqas Ahmed Waqas Ahmed is offline 23-09-2008, 05:11 AM
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Strain Theory vs. Control Theory

Sociologists have often wondered why people commit crime. The Strain and Control theories have both linked crime with conformism, however, in opposite ways. Strain theorists believe that crime occurs because of the American need to conform. Robert K.Merton, a member of the Chicago School, did not buy into the theory that crime only occurred in slums. He “outlined a very different social process- one that involved conformity to conventional cultural values- that he felt produced high rates of crime and deviance” (Lilly et. al 53). The Control theory contrasted Strain by saying that people committed crimes when they strayed from conformism. Albert J. Reiss, also of the Chicago school, said that “delinquency results when there is a relative absence of internalized norms and rules governing behavior in conformity with the norms of the social system to which legal penalties are attached, a breakdown in previously established controls, and/or a relative absence of or conflict in social rules or techniques for enforcing such behavior in the social groups or institutions of which the person is a member” (81). These theories both took into account the society within which the deviant/criminal lives, but Strain theory focused on the negative aspects of this influence.
Strain theory said that “all Americans have the same cultural goals linked to both material achievement and social status, but not all Americans have the equal means to achieve these goals” (notes). According to this theory, there are “institutional arrangements that provide for success”, and they include family, religion, economy, education and politics (notes). This theory viewed America as a highly competitive

society in which the less fortunate are left behind. Strain is felt because they lack equal opportunity and so they adapt to this reality in illegal ways, such as drug dealing, stealing and gangs. These individuals felt pressure from their society to conform to certain ideals and that is what drove them to become criminals. A big pressure discussed by the Strain theorists is the “American Dream”, and it is the cause of much stress in most people’s lives.
The “American Dream” is the universal goal of achievement and success among Americans. For the poor, it is rather like a nightmare, according to the Strain theory. “Poor people are not taught to be satisfied with their lot but rather are instructed to pursue the American dream; through hard work, it is said, even the lowliest among us can rise from rags to riches”. These ambitions have consequences for the poor because “the social structure limits access to the goal of success through legitimate means (e.g., college education, corporate employment, family connections)” (53). Therefore, crime is a way of life for many Americans because it helps them reach the American dream. They chase after a dream that seems impossible to attain. According to Merton, strained people adapt to their reality in 4 different ways: innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion.
Innovationists usually use legitimate ways to achieve success but resort to illegitimate means when they find their window of opportunity temporarily blocked for whatever reason. Ritualists follow the norms of society, but they scale down their
aspirations lower than the norms and avoid taking risks. Retreatists escape the norms of

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society through such means as drinking and drugs. Rebels reject the norms and set up their own rules of how to live (54-55).
Control theory believed that all of this deviation can be solved with a proper upbringing (notes). This theory was started in the 1950’s when the trend was a focus on the family and parenting. Reiss’ “push and pull” theory attempted to explain why people commit crime: “a variety of factors – including biophysical forces, psychological pressures, and social conditions such as poverty – might ‘push’ a person toward crime or delinquency, and other factors – such as illegitimate opportunities – may ‘pull’ one toward misbehavior” (85). Reiss also believed that a child’s family heavily determined whether or not the child would become a delinquent. He said, “there is social control over the child’s behavior when the family milieu is structured so that the child identifies with family members...and accepts the norms”(82). If the child does accept the norms of his family, it is feared that he might become a part of a delinquent group. “The delinquent peer group is here viewed as a functional consequence of the failure of personal and social controls” (82). A sub-theory of Control theory is the Self-Control theory, which focuses on restraint.
Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi developed Self-Control theory which said that in order to avoid criminality, an individual must maintain continuous bonds with “family, school, work, everyday activities, and beliefs” (102). Neglect in parenting will lead to the criminality of a child later in life because the child will turn to less conventional places to learn their values (103). Internal sanctionings including morals, values, conscience and respect must also be present within an individual in order to
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maintain the norms of society (notes). A lack of this regulation forces an individual to look to other means for gratification. “Crime provides short-term gratification, such as excitement, small amounts of money, and relief from situational aggravations” (102). In other words, people desire ways to pleasure themselves, and if they have not been taught how to find pleasure in conventional ways, they will find it through illegitimate means.
Intervention for this delinquency must be done on a community level through education and reintegration. Throwing minor offenders in jail does not solve anything. In fact, “labeling and treating lawbreakers as criminals have the unanticipated consequence of creating the very behavior they were meant to prevent”. A criminal must be forgiven and given a second chance or else they will feel trapped in a criminal way of life forever. “The degrading influences of prison life and contact with vulgar criminals…cause criminaloids who have committed their initial offenses with repugnances and hesitation, to develop later into habitual criminals” (115). A delinquent who is repeatedly told that he is worthless will start to believe it and then live up to that label. This is called the self-fulfilling prophecy, and it can be prevented if society develops programs to reintegrate former criminals into society (117).
The Strain and Control theories both developed ideas springing from conformism, but at either ends of the spectrum. Strain believes that conformism prevents people from having equal chances of success in life, while Control believes that conformism contains values that form a net that will save individuals from turning to illegitimate activities. People must walk a fine line when it comes to conformism because too much will result
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in a mass of robot-like people with no individualism, but too little will prevent communities from forming between people. It is important to learn from parents and teachers but it is also important to think for yourself, which means that people must be free to choose and be wrong sometimes. After all, mistakes are how people learn to be successful!


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