In 1940s Robert Merton, famous American sociologist, developed an anomie theory that was aimed at analyzing circumstances in which culture generates deviance and disunity. Merton borrows a concept of anomie from Emile Durkheim. However, when referring to Durkheim’s definition of the notion we talk about “a condition where social and/or moral norms are confused, unclear, or simply not present”, which eventually leads to deviant behavior (Dunman). For Merton, anomie is rather a lack of correspondence between cultural goals and the available legal means for achieving them. He applies the theory to the US society, American dream in particular, claiming that while significant emphasis is made here on the goals of success, mostly defined in monetary terms, there is a lack of equivalent emphasis on appropriate means of reaching those goals. This disjunction between accepted norms of success and accepted norms of legitimate means of achieving it, results into a substantial amount of deviant behavior.
According to Merton, anomie serves as the rationalization of high rates of deviance in the United States if judged against other societies, and also as an explanation for the unequal allocation of deviant behavior across groups identified by class, race, ethnicity, etc. Merton’s chief interest is not that much why a particular person deviates, but rather why the levels of deviant behavior vary so significantly in diverse societies and for dissimilar subgroups within a particular society. The major question is how people react to the discontinuity between goals and means. Trying to give proper characteristic to typical human responses, Merton produces a typology of adaptations, which classifies most common individual reactions into several modes of adaptation such as conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion. In the present paper, I am going to discuss only four of them, which are innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion.
Starting with innovation, it is necessary to first clearly define what Merton means when referring to this particular concept. He believes that both conformity and innovation are two major models of behavior in American society. Innovation implies achieving the socially accepted goals in the unaccepted ways. “Just as part of a river which suddenly finds itself blocked by obstacle may split and find a new way to the ocean, so too people who find their advancement blocked in society may find new paths to achieve their goal” (Hoffman). This path is exactly what Merton considers being innovation. When applied to American society it implies that what we achieve as a result of our manipulations is more important than submitting to the conventional rules that we are supposed to follow. Innovation most rationally follows from Merton’s general explanation of the relationship between culture and deviance particularly in relation to American society. The pressure toward “innovation” is the greatest one since even though it implies breaking the laws, it also means achieving the goals that are greatly promoted in society.
The most obvious example of innovative behavior that comes to my mind, when trying to apply Merton’s typology of adaptation to personal experience, is playing sports. The general rule that everyone accepts silently is that winning the game is much more important than competing according to the accepted rules. I remember myself cheating in the sports competition realizing that all I wanted was to win, and it didn’t really matter whether I do that fairly or not. I do not feel fine about that now, when analyzing the situation from the direction of the observer, but I also realize that if only I became a competitor again, I would repeat my little tricks in order to gain victory. With crowds of people watching you compete, shouting the name of either yours or your competitors’ team, you feel an extremely strong pressure on you, and you can do nothing but do anything to win. Principle of anomie as it is by Durkheim is well applied in this case since we observe potentially unlimited desire of success that is no more restricted by a social system.