Cooking Meth, Selling Weed, & Our Fascination with Innovators

What does a high-school chemistry teacher who begins manufacturing meth to pay for his cancer treatment, a widowed suburban housewife who begins dealing pot to save her family financially, and a CIA agent who allows her sister to secretly treat her for bi-polar in order to keep her job all have in common? Well, other than being main characters in popular American TV shows, they are all what Robert Merton would call “innovators”. In this post, Kim Cochran Kiesewetter explores our cultural fascination with deviance innovation through the lens of Merton’s strain theory.

Between MTV’s Cribs, My Super Sweet Sixteen, and the Real Housewives of various cities, is it safe to say that as a society we want to be financially successful? Would it be fair to assume that most people in the US admire the wealthy? While social movements like Occupy Wall Street have been critical of the super rich, the abundance of rich people in television suggests that many of us still want to live their lifestyle.

Now what would you think of me if I had a house nice enough to be on Cribs, spent more on lavish parties than most Americans make in a year, and never left the house except in designer clothing? Now what if I told you that I had earned my money by “cooking and slanging “crystal meth?

Before you answer, let me bring in some sociology that may help you. Robert Merton was interested in what motivates some people to break the mold or even the law. He argues that there is a difference between the goals in a culture and people’s ability to equally achieve them. That is, in our culture almost everyone wants to be financially successful. It’s the carrot that is dangled in front of us to motivate us through schooling, work, and life. However, not everyone has access to the same resources and opportunities required to achieve this goal.

Understanding Innovation

Merton argues that deviance in society is the result of unequal distribution of opportunities to reach cultural goals through conventional means. Merton’s theory offers four types of deviance, but today we’ll focus on the kind he calls “innovation”. Innovation occurs when an individual is committed to a cultural value (e.g. being a financial success), but is unable to obtain it through socially-acceptable ways (i.e. what Merton calls the conventional means). Put simply, innovators bend or break the rules to meet their goals.

Innovators may break societies laws/rules (e.g. a drug dealer, bank robber, or embezzler), but sometime they bend or break the rules without breaking the law (e.g. someone who skips college to start a successful business or invent a new product). Want more fantastic examples of innovation? Look no further than your living room couch.

Consider the plot lines of many popular TV shows: from a meth-manufacturing chemistry teacher on Breaking Bad, to a marijuana-growing suburban widow in Weeds, to a secretly bi-polar CIA agent on Homeland. The popularity of these shows helps us see the core premise of innovation which is that the lack of equal opportunity to achieve cultural goals creates a space for us to relate to the stories of individuals who dare to break the norm if, at the end of the day, it’s to achieve a culturally worthy goal we can identify with.

A number of cultural factors contribute to our attraction to innovators. Part of it is at the heart of Merton’s theory: inequality. For example, while we can recognize the “normal” or conventional means to financial success in American culture with ease (i.e., go to school and work hard). Similarly most people are able to quickly identify that getting an education, working hard, and finding a job doesn’t guarantee that you will ever be rich. Put in different terms, if life were a game of Monopoly, we don’t all begin the game at “Start” with $200; each of us is born into an ongoing game of Monopoly where some families won a long time ago and other families lost.

Another cultural factor surrounding our love for TV innovators is the fact that, as a culture, we actually value certain types of innovation. Not to mention, we are totally obsessed with technological and social progress; yesterday’s Apple iPad Mini Event says Hi. Here’s the thing about innovation though, if you don’t deviate from the norm you can’t innovate.

Change makers are often considered crazy or dangerous people, until they change the world and are embraced as innovators. It’s important to note that we publically celebrate only innovation that is deemed “positive” like, say, finding a cure for a disease or inventing new technologies. It’s the combination of these two factors – inequality and the value of innovation – that lays the foundation for us to appreciate innovative behavior most of us would like to believe we would never partake. It’s fun to watch a clever innovator break the rules, but most of us would not want to take on the risk or endure the social stigma and shame we place upon nonconventional behavior.

It’s a strange situation when our cultural ensures we value innovators, but reject their non-conformity, especially when it involves illegal actions. Publicly, we would not show deep admiration for a millionaire who earned her/his fortune manufacturing meth, however, our personal experiences with inequality pave the way for us to have a sense of appreciation for the creativity involved in reaching a socially acceptable goal in a deviantly innovative way.

Dig Deeper

  1. What is another example of popular media (e.g., movie, song, TV show, etc.) that depicts a character who is partaking in deviant innovation?
  2. In the popular media example you chose, what culturally acceptable goal is the innovator trying to reach through her/his actions?
  3. What are the conventional means for obtaining that goal in our culture? What unconventional means does the innovator in your example use to obtain the goal?
  4. This article further explores the idea in this post that American culture celebrates certain types of deviance, if it is framed as being “positive”. According to the article, how do we determine what types of deviance are legitimate and which are not?