Friday, August 16, 2013

A Song For Thinking About Robert Merton's "Strain Theory"

I spend some part of every day thinking about Robert Merton's "strain theory." I think a lot about the cultural goals--those "things worth striving for," as Merton described them. What do we aspire to? What do we seek to attain? Those questions never go out of style. They will always be relevant.

One of my favorite songs from the past few years is "Beach Comber" by Real Estate. It's an all around nice tune with lyrics that bring Merton to mind. The first line is a beauty: "What you want is just outside your reach, you keep on searching." There's always a risk to interpreting song lyrics. This song could be about anything--a lost love, for instance--but I'm brought back to the cultural goals with the lines "until you find your Rolex in the sand, you won't be stopping. Until that solid gold is in your hand, you won't be happy." There's a chance I've got the lyrics wrong, too. No matter how many times I listen to the song, I don't always hear each word exactly the same way. But even leaving room for error, the song gives us a chance to think about how we pursue the things we think will make us happy. But as the song suggests, what we think will make us happy isn't necessarily what will make us happy.

As I've written before, when we teach strain theory I think the main objective is to get students to think critically about the disjunction between cultural goals and the approved means for obtaining those goals. I love thinking about the cultural goals and talking with students about what those goals supposedly are. My students give a variety of answers when I ask questions like "How important is making money in this culture?" and "How important is it to you to make money in your life?" Questions like these get us engaged in the topic and lead us to the various deviant responses that Merton delineated: innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.


6 comments:

  1. Thanks! I'll use this in my Social Theory course today, and I'll be back to report what happened.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you had a good class today!

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  2. It went well, thanks! I played the song right at the outset of class with the lyrics on screen. Without saying why, I asked the class to turn to the page with Merton's typologies of deviance (the one in the Punnett square format). I asked, "what do you think is the reason I played this song," and the first student to answer made the clear connection to cultural goals. Other students said that they first thought the lyrics were about a person finding their lost watch, but then reconsidered after thinking about strain theory. Starting with a discussion of cultural goals was such a great suggestion, especially because we had just been covering Parsons and social integration into the cultural system. Nice work!

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    1. Thanks so much for following up. Glad to hear your class went well!

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  3. I just used in class this as well. It went really well. Thanks so much for the great idea, Todd.

    I had them reflect on the two questions you suggested and then added a third: "There is no right or wrong way to earn money, only hard or easy ways. Agree or disagree? Why?" This question generated a lot of partial defenses of 'innovation', which sparked some great discussion and some natural inroads for me to get Merton's ideas across.

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    1. Great to hear. Sounds like a solid discussion. Send me an e-mail sometime, wonder who this is! (tas@niagara.edu)

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