Robert K Merton – Conformity and Deviance



Robert Merton in his theoretical analysis of ‘Social Structure and Anomie’ takes inspiration from Durkheim‘s work. It provided the intellectual foundation for Merton‘s attempt to develop a macro-level explanation of rates of norm violating behaviour in American society.

In contrast to Durkheim, Merton bases his theory on sociological assumptions about human nature. Merton replaces Durkheim‘s conception of limitless needs and appetites with the assumption that human needs and desires are primarily the product of a social process: i.e., cultural socialization. For instance, people raised in a society where cultural values emphasize material goals will learn to strive for economic success.

Anomie, for Durkheim, referred to the failure of society to regulate or constrain the ends or goals of human desire. Merton, on the other hand, is more concerned with social regulation of the means people use to obtain material goals.


Merton in his theory of deviance indicates that deviants are not a cub-cultural group. Rather people manifest deviant behaviour in different spheres of social life. A mismatch between cultural prescriptive means and socially prescriptive goals give way to deviant behaviour. He finds out that deviant behaviour persists in society because it has not outlived its function therefore sociology should not be concerned about deviance as a pathological problem rather one should study the latent and manifest orientations of deviance.

Merton considers that anomie is not a product of rapid social change. Rather it is a form of behaviour manifested by the people when they are suffering from social strain. Therefore anomie theory is also known as social strain theory. The strain is the product of mismatch between culturally prescriptive means and socially prescriptive goals. When people experience social strain, they channelize there strains in different ways in order to manifest different forms of anomic behaviour. At different points of time. These forms of deviant behaviours are functional, dysfunctional and non-functional.

This chronic discrepancy between cultural promises and structural realities not only undermines social support for institutional norms but also promotes violations of those norms. Just how do people adapt to these environmental pressures? Merton‘s answer to this question is perhaps his single most important contribution to the anomie tradition.

Merton presents an analytical typology, shown in the following table, of individual adaptations to the discrepancy between culture and social structure.


1. Conformity + +
2. Innovation + –
3. Ritualism – +
4. Retreatism – –
5. Rebellion +/- +/-

Note: (+) signifies acceptance; (–) signifies rejection; and (+/-) signifies rejection of prevailing goal or means and substitution of new goal or means.

These adaptations describe the kinds of social roles people adopt in response to cultural and structural pressures.

  • Conformity, is a non-deviant adaptation where people continue to engage in legitimate occupational or educational roles despite environmental pressures toward deviant behaviour. That is, the conformist accepts and strives for the cultural goal of material success (+) by following institutionalized means (+).
  • Innovation, on the other hand, involves acceptance of the cultural goal (+) but rejection of legitimate, institutionalized means (). This type of adaptation occurs when the individual has assimilated the cultural emphasis on the goal without equally internalizing the institutional norms.
  • Ritualism, represents quite a different sort of departure from cultural standards than does innovation. The ritualist is an over conformist. Here, the pursuit of the dominant cultural goal of economic success is rejected or abandoned () and compulsive conformity to institutional norms (+) becomes an end in itself.
  • Retreatism, is the rejection of both cultural goals () and institutionalized means (). Therefore, retreatism involves complete escape from the pressures and demands of organized society. Merton applies this adaptation to the deviant role ―activities of psychotics, outcasts, chronic drunkards, and drug addicts.
  • Rebellion, is indicated by different notation than the other adaptations. The two (+/-) signs show that the rebel not only rejects the goals and means of the established society but actively attempts to substitute new goals and means in their place. This adaptation refers, then, to the role behaviour of political deviants, who attempt to modify greatly the existing structure of society. In his later work, Merton uses the term nonconformity to contrast rebellion to other forms of deviant behaviour that are atypical. The nonconforming rebel is not secretive as are other, the rebel publicly acknowledges his or her intention to change those norms and the social structure that they support in the interests of building a better, more just society.

Having identified the modes of individual adaptations, Merton defines anomie as: “a breakdown in the cultural structure, occurring particularly when there is an n acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of members of the group to act in accordance with them.” In this conception cultural values may help to produce behaviour which is at odds with mandates of the values themselves.


Merton insists that anomie is essentially a sociological concept. Anomie refers to a “property of a social system, not to the state of mind of this or that individual within the system.” For example, the condition of anomie exits when there is a general loss of faith in the efficacy of the government, when contractual cooperation is characterised more by mistrust that trust, or when there is an uneasiness gripping the community because of alarming increase in crime rate.

Thus, the appeal of Merton‘s theory and a major reason for its far-reaching impact upon the field of deviance lies in his ability to derive explanations of a diverse assortment of deviant phenomena from a relatively simple analytical framework. This is precisely what a general theory of deviance must do.