Structural Strain Theory and the Baltimore Riots

Why do people riot? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how Robert Merton’s structural strain theory can shed some light on the Baltimore riots. 

Over the last few weeks, thousands of people took to the streets in Baltimore, Maryland and cities around the country to protest the killing of Freddie Gray and the violent mistreatment of African Americans across this country by law enforcement. Last Monday, a small sub-set of the protestors in Baltimore rioted, looting and burning multiple business. Both the mainstream news media and many people on social media immediately started asking, why are these people rioting? Why would anyone riot in city they live in? While the answers to those questions would take for more time than I have hear, part of their answers lie in the strain theory of deviance.

Structural Strain Theory

The sociologist Robert Merton argued that deviance (i.e. people breaking social norms/rules) is produced by how that society distributed the means to achieve cultural goals. According to his structural strain theory (or anomie strain theory), deviance is a result of a mismatch between cultural goals and the institutionalized means of reaching those goals.

Cultural goals refer to legitimate aims. In the United States, we might refer to the cultural goal as the American Dream. In general, the American Dream includes economic success, home-ownership, and a family. A person achieves the American Dream through hard work and education (i.e., a college degree). Education is an institutionalized means of achieving the cultural goal. Military service might also be considered an institutionalized means.

Merton argued that a mismatch between the cultural goals and the institutionalized means can lead to deviance. What he meant is that while nearly all of us are socialized to aspire to the American Dream, we do not all have equal access to the institutionalized means of achieving the American Dream. Merton identifies five modes of adaptation to the cultural goals and institutionalized means: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.

A person conforms when they accept the cultural goals and the institutionalized means of achieving the goals. This is the classic story of making it in America: go to school, work hard, and achieve the American Dream.

A person who accepts the cultural goals, but rejects the institutionalized means adapts through innovation. An innovator may engage in illegal activities in order to achieve the cultural goals, such as through white-collar crime. The person may also engage in legal, yet somewhat deviant behavior, such as by dropping out of Harvard University as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates did. Both have achieved the American Dream despite ultimately rejecting the institutionalized means (i.e., college) to reach it.

Other people become ritualists. The ritualist accepts the institutionalized means, but gives up or rejects the cultural goals. Michael Bolton and Samir Nagheenanajar from the 1999 film Office Space come to mind: these two men were desperate to keep their job despite their jobs leading to nowhere, while their co-worker/friend Peter Gibbons encouraged them to become innovators and engage in a little white-collar crime.

Retreatists reject both the cultural goals and the institutionalized means of reaching them. A person who is homeless or a drug addict might best fit here.

Finally, Robert Merton had a fifth mode of adaptation: rebellion. Rebels want to change something about society. They reject and work to replace the cultural goals and the institutionalized means of reaching them. Rioters and vandals are examples of rebels. And this is what leads us to Baltimore.

Stain Theory & The Black Lives Matter Protests

Merton’s structural strain theory suggests that politically-motivated riots are more likely to happen in communities with limited access to the institutionalized means of achieving cultural goals. In short, the cultural goals are held out as achievable, but the institutionalized means are either inaccessible or of inferior quality.

In Baltimore (and Ferguson, MO in 2014 and Los Angeles in 1992, and so on), residents are standing up against police brutality by peacefully protesting and rioting;both of which are forms of rebellion using Merton’s terms. Police brutality, however, is only one symptom of a much bigger problem: continued oppression of African Americans in the United States. For example, in The New York Times, Michael Eric Dyson writes that “[t]he unemployment rate in the community where Mr. [Freddie] Gray lived is over 50 percent; the high school student absence rate hovers at 49.3 percent; and life expectancy tops out at 68.8 years, according to analysis by prison reform nonprofits.”

According to American mythology, one only needs to work hard, get educated, and then a person will be able to achieve the American Dream. If the unemployment rate in my community is over 50 percent, what motivation do I have to continue pursuing my education? In this case, the cultural goal (the American Dream) is still something I am taught to aspire to, but the institutionalized means (i.e., employment and school) do not provide me with a realistic shot at achieving that cultural goal.

Regardless of whether I am working or my level of education, as an American, I have the right to engage in the democratic process by voting. Voting could be considered another example of an institutionalized means.

Maryland does allow convicted felons to vote after serving all sentences. Voting, however, is restricted to people in prison, on probation, or on parole. According to The Sentencing Project, across the nation, “1 of every 13 African Americans unable to vote” due to felony disenfranchisement. It is unclear what the rate of disenfranchisement is in Maryland or Baltimore, but it is clear that voting as an institutionalized means of achieving cultural goals is not an option  for a large number of people.

From a structural strain theory perspective, politically-motivated riots are more likely to happen when a group has no reliable means to achieve cultural goals. In communities like Baltimore where poverty is high, jobs are scarce, the education system is inadequate, and voting rights are restricted pressure will build and occasionally boil over. In 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr, said, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” When people do not have the ability to have their grievances heard or the institutional means to address them, we can anticipate that some residents will turn to means that our institutions do not sanction.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Explain structural strain theory. List and define the five modes of adaptation. Give an example of each that is not mentioned in this post.
  2. The author identifies voting as an institutionalized means of reaching cultural goals. Do you agree with the author that voting is an institutionalized mean? Why or why not?
  3. What other sociological theory (or theories) can help us better understand why politically-motivated riots happen? Pick at least one sociological theory that you have learned about this semester and describe how it would interpret politically-motivated riots.
  4. Visit The Sentencing Project. Click on the “Felony Disenfranchisement” tab. What voting restrictions exist in your state? Do further research to find out how many people are disenfranchised in your state.