Merton’s Modes of Individual Adaptation And Juvenile Delinquency

Merton’s Modes of Individual Adaptation

And Juvenile Delinquency

CRJ305 – Criminology

Colorado State University – Global

Juvenile delinquency is a problem that all societies deal with. In this regards, the phenomenon is present in every group, class, area, caste or religion. Juvenile delinquency is the violation of societal values and norms by young individuals who are under the age of eighteen years. Behaviors such as stealing, begging, truancy, kidnapping, gambling, drug abuse, and vagrancy are incorporated into the understanding of juvenile delinquency. It is common knowledge that the crimes committed by juvenile delinquents hurt themselves and society. Over time, the reactions of society towards the behavior of delinquency and the arguments that coincide them – what the manifestation of delinquency is attributed to – have changed. The manifestation of juvenile delinquency can be linked appropriately to Robert Merton’s modes of adaptation to give us a better understanding as to why children choose criminal behavior.


Robert Merton’s anomie theory suggests that social structures distribute access to legitimate means for attaining highly valued, mainly economic goals, differently (Rosenfeld & Messner, 2008). Crime tends to be higher in societies that place a strong emphasis on attaining material success, Rosenfeld and Messner (2009) state. In addition to placing value on material success, those societies economic structures only grant some access to paths of success. Because of this, Merton concluded that there are five main personality adaptations that individuals will turn to when faced with the strain of meeting societal goals: Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism and Rebellion (Hagan, 2017).

Merton’s theory is very applicable to youth delinquency. Children are subjected to the notions of material success equating to their own value to society at an early age. As society progresses and changes, it becomes more demanding of children to be successful early on.


Of the five responses to strain, conformity is the least likely to produce deviance. Conformity is the accepting and pursuing of cultural goals through socially approved means (Inderbitzen, Bates & Gainey, 2019). Most people follow conformity. They stick to school, get good grades, go to college, earn a degree, get married, buy a house, have children and pay their taxes. They are normal. They earn their success within the confines of the law. A vast majority of the population could be considered conformists. Children are encouraged to follow this conformist notion, especially by those who have been successful in this life style, usually their parents, teachers and other strong, morally confident influencers.


Innovation occurs when cultural goals are accepted, but the legitimate means to obtain those goals is rejected (Hagan, 2017). In layman terms, an individual is motivated to become wealthy but lacks the desire to become successful by following the normal paths to success. Juvenile delinquency is often the result of these desires. The American Dream is pushed on them early and at such a young age it can seem like achieving that goal will be impossible or at least very hard to do. Some youths come from families that may have tried to follow conformity but were not successful which has left them in a lower economic status, so they feel that if the conformist ways don’t work then maybe there is an alternate route. Crimes for profit, such as robbery, drug dealing, and prostitution, are the typical examples of innovation (Inderbitzen, Bates & Gainey, 2019). They take very little effort and the rewards allow them to appear successful. This can be very appealing to a juvenile who probably struggles with a hard home life or school life.


While conformity, as defined by Merton, will most likely not lead to delinquency in youths, it does not mean that all who follow it will become the most successful they can be. When those who follow conformity, but don’t become the pinnacle of societal success it is usually because they have forgone trying to achieve the cultural goal of success (Hagan, 2017). They do not seek out illegitimate means, they continue to work at making a living within the confines of the law. For a lot of individuals, this is not enough but they lack motivation or the constitution to defy those legitimate means in fear of the consequences. Juveniles, being inexperienced, kept distracted from legal matters or are so enveloped in legal matters (due to family or socio-economic status) usually don’t think or care what the consequences are or could be.


The exact opposite of the conformity response is the retreatism response. Retreatism, as explained by Inderbitzen, Bates & Gainey, (2019), is when an individual rejects both cultural goals and the legitimate means to achieve said goals. This is another response that juveniles are likely to fall into. The pressures of society can be so overwhelming that they completely reject the expectations placed on them. Those who are chronically homeless and addicted to drugs are likely to be considered retreatist by Merton. In the minds eye of a child, stepping away from everything that society expects of you, to fly under the radar as one may say, can appear far more ideal than trying to capture something out of their reach.


Rebellion is very similar to retreatism, but it takes it a few steps further. Often seen in those who have negative political goals, rebellion not only rejects cultural goals and the legitimate means to obtain them, but they replace those goals and means with their own personal desires to see the system changed (Inderbitzen, Bates & Gainey, 2019).


Since disparity between goals and means of accomplishing success is widespread in lower socio-economic classes, a higher rate of delinquency is typically observed in this group. For adolescents who come from these lower socio-economic classes it can be especially hard for them because a lot of their life looks its working against them. As a result, most juveniles choose illegitimate means of accomplishing their expectations, and this increases their vulnerability of being victims of criminal activities (Pennington 2). We all will face strain at many points in our lives. Understanding Merton’s Modes of Adaptation can help us better understand why juveniles will deviate to committing crime.


Banham Bridges, K. M. (1927). Factors Contributing to Juvenile Delinquency. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 7(4), 531–580. Retrieved from

Hagan, F. E. (2017). Introduction to criminology: theories, methods, and criminal behavior. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Inderbitzin, M. L., Bates, K. A., & Gainey, R. R. (2019). Perspectives on deviance and social control (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Rosenfeld, R., & Messner, S. F. (2008). Chapter 7: Self-Control, Anomie and Social Institutions. In Out of Control: Assessing the General Theory of Crime (pp. 90–101). Stanford University Press. Retrieved from

Pennington, C. (2013, May 7). Strain Theory and Juvenile Gangs. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from

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