The Chicago school and beyond

Merton: the social environment creeps in

I always liked Merton's development of his theory for the devastating social commentary he makes on capitalist/consumer society. As an explanation of crime however I think it leaves to be desired.

Merton starts by getting rid of the endless dissertating about human nature and engages in a purely social explanation of deviance. In keeping with Durkheim's view, the mind is for Merton essentially "empty" at birth, or at least what it contains (i.e. "instincts" or whatever) is eventually so deeply buried under social products that it loses all perceptible effect on behaviour. The explanation of individual as well as collective behaviour is therefore obviously to be found in social forces.

The major difference with Durkheim is that Merton allows for differential environmental conditions to affect possible human courses of action. All this seems to make sense because intuitively deviance has to come from some kind of friction, i.e. (at least) two different elements have to exist and interact for a third element to be created. For control theory, it is propensities vs social norms; for classicists it is passions vs civil laws. For Merton, it is rules vs the physical possibilities to follow them.

Merton sees social rules as of essentially two kinds: rules about valuable goals, rules about acceptable means to meet them. If a particular culture values means-rules over goals-rules, it becomes sclerotic, ritualistic and stifles creativity. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if goals-rules dominate functional order is lost and society becomes chaotic (in Durkheimian language the word is anomic, "in the absence of rules"). Most societies can be found somewhere in between, with Western ones giving preponderance to goals over means: just think of our vocabulary of losers and winners, sports analogies in business, our respect of great wealth, etc. The problem with this, Merton says, is that because the environment in which we act is incapable of satisfying everyone's expectations - and at any rate we always want more once we meet our goals - some of us are bound to use unacceptable means to avoid being losers. This is called "strain" theory: our culture produces unrealistically high expectations and irretrievably unequal and generally insufficient opportunities to achieve them. We must then individually adapt to the strain either by transforming our goals into less concrete "dreams" or by finding alternative ways to get what we want.

Strain theory was meant to fill an apparent void in conventional Durkheimian sociology, as it seemed difficult to explain deviance with only rules to work with: doesn't materiality matter? On the other hand, one can easily imagine what Durkheim would have replied to such nonsense. He would first have noticed that one of Merton's modes of adaptation is conformity, and another is ritualism, which only mean obeying the rules no matter what; only the three remaining ones are truly deviant, which he already accounts for. Then he would have reminded Merton that society in fact does not make unreasonable demands on people; the most harshly enforced rules are pretty simple: do not kill, steal, etc. (and if you steal to feed your family in dire straits, it forgives you). Goals are vague (it is not required to become a second Bill Gates), there is no penalty for not meeting them (other than perhaps being called a loser), and if you don't meet them you find yourself in good company: by definition, most people fail to meet unrealistic goals. In this case, you can simply cross the "opportunities" out of the chart and all stands in perfect Durkheimian form, because deviant adaptations are only based on the idea of disproportionate "cultural goals" that is built on essentially anecdotal evidence and subjective evaluation, in other words there is simply no such thing as rules about goals. After all, there is no doubt that Durkheim was well aware of Marxian analyses of social structures and certainly aware that the rich had more opportunities than the poor; to him, that does not undermine the strength of the rules-only theory.

There is something truly existentialist in the image of the person feeling the strain of inadequate opportunities, forever incapable of meeting her goals. For Merton, there is no calculation of benefits or anything of the sort; people are well socialized and simply want to do the socially defined "right" thing. Does that mean that society can be functional and dysfunctional at the same time? On the one hand, it is coherent and "consensual" at the level of culture, since people know and believe in all the prescriptions about what to want and most agree on how to get it. On the other however this entire system can work in isolation from the set of real opportunities that forms the environment, which may invalidate all projects. How can this be? Is it possible that culture is produced in a vacuum? Would a reasonable culture not allow for environmental differences? If one is to circumvent the difficulty by saying that culture is a set of ideals, i.e. that they are known to be largely impossible, then strain loses quite a bit of its strength: everyone wants to win the lottery, but few feel frustrated or cheated when they do not.

Merton introduces the notion of rules about goals in order to fit in the rather new concept of opportunities. At last, it is recognized that society is more than a set of rules, which in my view was severely limiting its understanding. Unfortunately he integrated the problem of opportunities by simply adding an ad hoc element to "rule theory", i.e. the artificial and very clear separation of rules about means from rules about goals. Still there is a major problem with the hypothetical Durkheimian objection stated earlier. While it would undoubtedly be right about "rules about goals" being a very fuzzy, non-descript clip-on type of concept, it seems to imply that the fact that some people will always have more difficulty obeying the rules is unimportant in sociological terms. This cannot be solely a socialization problem; still, Merton's solution seems incomplete as "opportunities" seem entirely reducible to wealth. In other words, the means are the goals: one strives to gain more means. I think this circle comes from the fact that Merton's culture is too well integrated, too much in synch, so to speak. He says that in Western society wealth is valued over anything by everyone, to the point that when it is out of reach by acceptable means certain people will find other means of achieving it. In other words, they are so well socialized to the goals that they are willing to break the means rules to achieve them. When he got rid of the individual, while still not allowing for differential socialization, he essentially produced an army of robots facing a uniform task with unequally effective limbs, something of a cybernetic model of the social world.


Miller: conflict appears

Miller takes a completely different approach of the problem. Why do young people in bad neighbourhoods tend to become gang members? Because they are socialized in a way that makes that option acceptable. Again there is an (almost) exclusively social explanation for forms of deviance(1). Miller's logic allows for a number of "sub-cultures" that may have values (he calls them "focal concerns," and we will return to that later) that happen to clash with those of the group which decides on what is criminal. Interestingly, Miller has no way to fix the granularity of culture: why not individual cultures?

In a way, this is an obvious conclusion of what Merton was speaking about: if opportunities differ, why would culture not adapt? It solves the main difficulty of Merton, that somehow large portions of the population participated in elevating into rules things that they could not possibly attain. Now it was not clear in Miller's original work whether culture arises out of economic class structure, or the reverse; and in fact it does not matter. But this second possibility would be tantamount to claiming that people decide to be poor, which is a common point of view among certain circles but quite abhorrent to this writer.

What is the most important conclusion of this perspective is that no one is in fact ever deviant, except in the judgment of members of different cultural sub-groups; it is all a matter of meaning and interpretation. People are not unaware of the rules and focal concerns of other groups; they simply do not give them the same importance.

Still one can see that some important inconsistencies persist: (1) Miller says that the strength of social forces is dependant on the way they are felt by the actors -- but immediately goes on to say that some of those forces act unconsciously(2); this means that the idea of culture as an objective thing remains, i.e. people are agents of culture, that in knowing the rules one knows the person. In theory then I can predict your personality and behaviour on the basis of your social extraction. At the same time, as I have mentioned, culture becomes fragmented in parts too small to retain that objective status. It becomes personalized, and there goes your prediction. Or rather, you must now say, I can predict your personality and behaviour on the basis of the particular version of society that exists in your head. Not exactly what Durkheim had in mind. It's not that the "sociology of the mind" is a fruitless endeavour, on the contrary; but it wreaks havoc with the sociology of rules and social facts.

(2) Miller talks in terms of "focal concerns" instead of rules or norms. It is unnecessary to discuss the obviously stereotypical and naive content of those so-called focal concerns as stated by Miller but it is interesting to note that they in fact avoid the pitfalls of the concept of "rules." Miller, unlike Hirschi for instance, does not simply rename old Hobbesian concepts but actually -- in this instance at least -- comes up with something new. Unlike rules, "focal concerns" are not simple-mindedly prescriptive. They are not just rules describing and dictating a better way of being, but also a mode of symbolic exchange between members of the group. Miller is describing a worldview, an attitude towards perceived reality. This in fact does not fit any better with the objective conception of society that culture fragmentation did, but it seems like an important step in recognizing the richness of social life.

(3) This in turn leads to a world of judgments, where Reality is a social hypothesis. To illustrate, we can think of Miller's society as hockey game and its spectators. While people know they are going to see different things depending on their seats - and are in fact prepared to spend different amounts of their money for different views - they still assume that the final score was the same for everyone. They also assume that the fundamentals of the game were the same, but when looking closer and closer we know that the experience of the game was an individual one. If we were certain that everyone saw exactly the same thing, would we be discussing it over coffee afterwards? What about movies, where specific seats matter much less? Why is it that we think our opinion is worth expressing and interesting to others? I think what we are attempting to do is to reconstruct the game in a way that everyone will agree with. We want to make sure that what we witnessed is established reality (we can do this by imposing our views, by cooperating equally, etc. but that is another question). I want you to think about this: doesn't this mean, in fact, that what we do is make ourselves up with reality?

(4) There remains the matter of discovering exactly how "dominant" norms, those that set the contents of the Criminal Code, for instance, are produced. Maybe there is a simple majority of individuals in the dominant group. Or deep down even the sub-cultural groups agree on the basis of what constitutes crime. Or perhaps some groups have disproportionate power in elevating their rules to universal laws. In the specific case studied by Miller, it is rather obvious that "lower" classes involve lower social (power) status from the start. Can "higher" classes also be deviant?


Becker: Outsiders

There are two ways to understand labelling theory: as a conventional investigation of the causes of crimes (let's call this one "etiological") or as a way to understand the nature of social reality ("ontological"). Labelling theory as etiological concludes that once someone has been identified as deviant, she is likely to behave as such, for a variety different reasons such as the consequent reduction of normal opportunities, their criminal record, their subjective conviction of being a criminal, etc. Tannenbaum used to describe this as a "self-fulfilling prophecy," caused by the "dramatization of evil." Labelling tends to create a circle of amplification of deviance, each new instance of labelling driving the point further in the mind of the deviant as well as for his social environment. I will not expand very much on this aspect, but it is interesting to notice that there is no logical reason no to claim that in fact everyone is labelled, and not just the deviants, and thus the definition of the self is largely -- if not entirely -- based on social interaction (it is dialogistic, which leads us to Goffman's work).

Labelling theory as an ontological exploration of deviance goes a little further. Not unlike the "maximum" interpretation of Miller above, it questions the existence of an outside objective social world. Where it differs however is in the introduction of a process of labelling: deviance is no longer an explicit quality of the act, to be simply measured against group criteria, but it has to be reacted to in a specific way by members of a group.

Becker arrives at this conclusion from a different angle of study. Instead of thinking about deviance and trying to explain it from the top down to reality, he starts closer to everyday life and works his way up. What interested him from the start is the mechanism of exclusion of members of a group as a political process.

The theory allows for multiple (sub-) cultures, made of rules but also of meanings and symbols, individual action based on differential relations to the world. It breaks the rules of universality and homogeneity that the previous theories were designed to respect (and so largely complicates predicting behaviour -- if it remains at all possible). The delinquent or deviant is no longer an example of a type of individual, but a fully constituted person with a mind of her own. Without the process of exclusion, the societal reaction of others, the deviant does not exist; she is simply a different member of the group, which allows for these differences. The questions become whether her actions harm others, who those others are, who the deviant is within the group, whether or not breaking the rule has further consequences down the line, and is open to the possibility of considering a practically infinite number of situational elements that may influence the process of exclusion/inclusion. Furthermore, the potential deviant herself participates in this process of negotiation of a definition by passing her own judgments on the others.

This still leaves the question of where the rules come from in the beginning. Becker introduces stratification of power relations in each group, where norms tend to be imposed from the top down. In fact the exercise of power consists essentially in imposing rules on others. In a maximum interpretation, it does not matter whether the rules are good or bad, in any sense of the word, since they simply are the expression of power -- and power does not exist outside of its expression. This imposition of rules soon leaves the group itself and is systematically attempted on other groups with which their can be interaction. This leads to a stratification of the whole of society (defined as the aggregate of all social units (groups and individuals) that are in position to interact with one another), with some select groups at the top. This hierarchy is however not immobile; it is highly dynamic and changes with time and also according to specific issues (e.g. religious issues) or situation (e.g. in war, the military has more influence).

For Becker, the rules do not make the group. The group adopts or rejects certain rules on the basis of its power base's preferences. In other words, widely different groups could happen to share exactly the same rules, except for the one stating whom one has to be to belong. They also do not make the group because scores of rule-breakers who have not been labelled as deviant are still included. In fact, ultimately, the differential application of the rules is only a second form (the first being to make them in the first place) of political dominance (some would say aggression).


1. I will not discuss here the value of Miller's specific explanation of gang delinquency, which I see as being essentially political. It is the logic that is interesting.

2. "Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency", in: Journal of Social Issues, XIV, 1958, p. 5.