Sampler Consensus Conflict Shauna

Robert Merton's Theory of Deviance


Mid-Century functionalist theorists viewed social problems as a necessary part of a functional society because they provided the opportunity for affirming values and norms as well as promoting unity. Deviance was also seen as dysfunctional in that it threatened order and uses a lot of resources.

Robert Merton studied Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie and found deviance to be more present in societies that lacked a clear acceptable path to achieve socially promoted goals. Merton believed that there were many contradictions involved in dysfunction, one being that what could be functional for one group could end up being dysfunctional for another. Overall he saw that when there was a disconnect between culture and structure, there existed the dysfunctional consequence of deviance.

A Brief Biography

Robert K. Merton July 4, 1910 - February 23, 2003

Robert Merton was born in 1910 in Philadelphia. He was a prominent American sociologist who spent most of his career at Columbia University. He is most well known for developing concepts such as “unintended consequences”, “role model” and “self fulfilling prophesy.” He is credited with developing the focus group research method.

His theories consisted of theories of the middle range. Most well known are “manifest and latent functions”, “theory of deviance” and theories about social roles and social groups.

Robert Merton studied at Temple University in Philadelphia from 1927-1931 where he was introduced to sociology by working as a research assistant for George E. Simpson. He was a research assistant at Harvard from 1931-1936, he then taught at Harvard until 1938 and Tulane University from 1938-1941. The rest of his career was spent at Columbia University where he retired in 1979.

Among many awards for his work in the field of social science he received over 20 honorary degrees from Universities around the world, and in 1994 he was the first sociologist awarded a US National Medal of Science.

What is deviance?

Deviance is the behavior of individuals that violate group norms. Deviance produces a negative response from the group. Without the negative reaction the behavior would not be considered deviant.

Social Structure and Anomie (1938)

Question: How do some social structures exert a definite pressure on certain people to engage in non-conforming rather than conforming conduct?

Earlier social theory had the tendency to blame faulty social structures on a lack of social control over man’s biological impulses, which needed full expression. Social order seeks to control this instinctual gratification, therefore nonconformity with social structure was man’s biologically rooted impulses breaking through the social control. Conformity on the other hand was seen as a result of social conditioning.

The modern view on deviance tones it down a little. Robert Merton asked why the frequency of deviant behavior varies within social structures and why they have different patterns. He saw two important elements of social and cultural structures: “things worth striving for” and acceptable modes of reaching the goals. Every social group has cultural objectives and regulations. Some of the regulations are not always the most efficient path to goal attainment.

The two polar types of societies according to Merton: the ones that focus on a specific goal but not the means to attain the goal, and those societies that conform to the goals and means without questioning. He focuses on American society where the emotional drive to reach culturally acclaimed goals does not match the emphasis on the means to reach the goals.

Merton's Theory of Deviance

“…Contemporary American culture continues to be characterized by a heavy emphasis on wealth as a basic symbol of success, without a corresponding emphasis upon the legitimate avenues on which to march toward this goal. How do individuals living within this cultural context respond?” (Lemert 235)

Type of Adaptation Cultural Goal Institutionalized Means
Conformity + -
Innovation + -
Ritualism - +
Retreatism - -
Rebellion x x

+ = acceptance of prevailing goals or means
- = rejection of prevailing goals or means
x = rejection of prevailing goals or means and substitution of new ones

Institutionalized Means
+ -
+ conformity ritualism
- innovation retreatism



Those who choose to accept both the goals promoted by society and the acceptable means to these goals are conformists. An example of conformity is in order to have a happy life by social standards, they will get a college education, work a 9 to 5 job, and eventually complete their goal of accumulating wealth.


People who break the rules, and sometimes the law, in order to achieve heavily promoted goals. Merton saw the greatest levels of innovation at the lower levels of the stratification system because they have a high incentive for success coupled with limited avenues available which leads to intense pressure for deviation from acceptable means.


The ritualist will reject the end goal but still go through the means of doing so. For example, they might go to college and get a 9 to 5 job, but not pursue any career advancements in the pursuit of wealth. Merton saw ritualists being in the lower middle class and having stable but low paying dead end jobs.


Retreatists will stop engaging in society. They might live in a commune or be a monk in order to not participate in the goals or the means.


Like retreatists, Rebels have rejected both the socially promoted goals and means. Instead of leaving society however, rebels will try to change it and promote an alternative structure.

“When rebellion is confined to a relatively small and relatively powerless elements in a community, it provides a potential for the formation of subgroups, alienated from the rest of the community but unified within themselves…when rebellion becomes endemic in a substantial part of society, it provides a potential for a revolution, which reshapes both the normative and the social structures.” (Lemert 241-242)

Consensus vs. Conflict in Midcentury Social Theory

Parsons, Talcott. 1961-71. "Action Systems and Social Systems" (301-303)
Parsons, Talcott. 1943. "Sex Roles in the American Kinship System" (304-307)
Merton, Robert K. 1949. "Manifest and Latent Functions" (308-312)
Zizek, Slavoj. 1989-2001 & after. "Cynicism as a Form of Ideology" (668-671)

Mills Library

See chapters 8, 9, 10 in Calhoun, Craig. 2007. Sociology in America : A History. University of Chicago Press. (Ebrary HM477.U6 — S63 2007eb)

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