Street Gangs

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Street gangs are very prevalent in urban cities today, these gangs cause a state of panic in any society. From Robert Merton’s strain theory these street gangs are striving to achieve goals which are stipulated by the society. The same society has stipulated legitimate ways which are legal and moral means to achieve these goals. In an ideal society these goals  contributes success  which is  denoted by respect, wealth, a good job and a family and the means to achieve  these goals are available through  hard work and patience  in  education and employment.. Merton calls these two the legitimate means to success. However, this is not always the case since these two opportunities or goals are not equally distributed in the society. This creates tension in the society which in return causes a ‘strain’. Instead of joining hands to confront these inequalities, Merton argues that people respond through four ways in order to adapt to these denied opportunities. (Merton 229-241)

According to Merton, the most common  way is  conformity where  people  will do the best  with what is available  and remain positive that  eventually they will meet the societies goals regardless of  whether they achieve them or not. This response is what he calls conformity. Another way of adopting is through innovation .In both ways individuals remains committed to achieving their goals but use different means to achieve that.

Merton argues  that  some  individuals  however resign to the fact that they will never achieve these goals  Merton theorizes that these individuals eventually reject  societies goals  in two ways they may resign to the fact that they may never achieve the  societies prescribed goals but still choose to  commit to the societies s institutions of achievements Alternatively,  there are those who after realizing they may never  achieve societies set goals , become deviants by rejecting society’s institutions all together . Merton  refers to this   response as retreatism   i.e. people who reject both the  means and goals advanced by society .This group  eventually drops out of the society and just like  in innovation they  can choose  deviant  but legal means  like gambling or criminal activities and this is where criminal gangs  who ate very prevalent today are formed.   Since most of these success ideals are very common In urban areas where people are more educated and working in formal employment, its easy to explain why these gangs are more prevalent in urban areas. These gangs are therefore trying to find deferent ways to advance in a society where opportunities are blocked. They adopt a different method in order to achieve their goals and crime happens to be this new path which enables them to pursue these goals. They therefore form their own values and behave as if this is the norm.

To Durkheim deviant behavior such as that observed from street gangs is cased by a state of normlessness.To Durkheim, this occurs when the general rules governing a society break down and thereby people no longer know how to behave with each other. This state of having no norms lead to deviant behavior this is what Durkheim calls anomie. (Durkheim 58)


According to Durkheim, society evolves from a simple, non-specialized form, which he refers to as mechanical, toward a highly complex, specialized form, which he refers to as organic.   In the simple  society individuals think and behave the same have the same goals and perform the same work tasks When societies become more complex,  the everything becomes complex, people are no longer close to each other  and also adopt impersonalized social bonds . This leads to a state of anomie whereby norms no longer control the members activities in the society without  roles  the society gets disorganized .Due to the changing conditions in society as  well as adjustment  to the new developments in life  there  to dissatisfaction, conflict, and  eventually this also leads to deviance. Increased levels of anomie lead to crime and it’s this way that the prevalent of criminal gangs can be said to come up. Due to the complex urban life compared to that found in rural areas there are many loop holes that enable gangs to operate.

Functionalist theorists Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton argues that crime plays a very important function n in every society.   In most societies members live individual lives are different from each other join together to condemn and even fight crime which is perceived as a common enemy. This coming together in return allows these people to see that  they have  something in common and in return this brings social; cohesion in the society. Merton observes that crime is important if the society has to progress socially. He argues that the society should not inhibit criminal behavior.The society must be free and allow criminals to act in their hurting behavior and in return, this allows the wise to act in defense of the society. This way the wise will device ways of countering the criminals behavior and which are new and progressive and this saves the society from being stagnant.

According to Merton, crime is a normal aspect of any society, however he does not suggest that crime is necessary in order for a society to progress. However he argues that due to the social structure which is riddled with inequalities when it comes to wealth distribution and available opportunities, crime is required in order to maintain stability due an un equal social structure.

The strain theory has been criticized in that not every member as a criminal gang struggles with life goals. There are instances where rebellious children from well up families who can afford a good education and employment also join these gangs. Durkheim, theory of anomie ignores the fact that crime does not necessarily exist in complex settings. Crime is evident even in the simplest of the societies.