"Our primary aim is to discover how some social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in nonconforming rather that conforming conduct. If we can locate groups peculiarly subject to such pressures, we should expect to find fairly high levels of deviant behaviour in these groups, not because the human beings comprising them are compounded of distinctive biological tendencies, but because they are responding to the social situation in which they find themselves"(Merton, 1957 p. 186).
American sociologist, Robert Merton has become one of the worlds most cited theorist in the study of deviance.
Born in 1910, in the slums of South Philadelphia, Merton received a scholarship attend Temple University, following his education at Temple, Merton won a graduate assistantship to Harvard, where he later went on to teach at the renowned University, (Lilly, 2002). In 1938, while teaching at Harvard, Merton published his book, "Social Structure and Anomie", at the age of twenty eight, (Lilly, 2002).
Working within the overall functionalist perspective- which puts a great deal of emphasis on the role of culture, Merton centred his research on the notion that deviance was a consequence of the cultural ideals imposed upon society, (www.home.comcast.net). He believed that deviance was, not by nature, inherent, but socially introduced, (Empey, 1978). Like the Chicago School of Thought, Merton located the roots of his research in the very fabric of American society, (Lilly, 2002).
By examining the foundations and ideas expressed in Merton's theory, we can discover whether is work holds any relevance to our understanding of crime today.
Robert Merton took Emile Durkhiem's theory of `Anomie', and adapted the term used to analyze situations in which culture created deviance and disunity, (shoemaker, 2000). Merton reworked the term `anomie' to refer to a situation where there is an apparent lack of fit between the cultures norms about what constitutes success in life (goals), and the culture's norms about the appropriate ways to achieve those goals (means), (Clubb, 2001).
With a country still experiencing an abundant of migrants to the USA and people leaving rural America, to go to the cities that the Chicago School documented in the 1920s (Hoffman, 2000), Merton noticed that in the1930s there weren't jobs available, as there had been the previous decade. As a result too many people were chasing too few employment opportunities, and in a time of great depression where there was no welfare state, many people dying on the street of hunger and malnutrition (www.home.comcast.net).
In contrast to the suggestion by the Chicago School, that the roots of crime were to be found in the city slums where people became criminals as a result of meaning different cultural values (Lilly, 2002), Merton suggested that conformity to conventional cultural values in itself can lead to high crime rates.