October 18, 2006


Caption: The little white hen goes to work every day but has given up on striking it rich. She's a ritualist.

This is the third post in a series about conformity, rebellion and "the American Dream." If this is your first visit to Goat Rope, please scroll down to the two earlier entries.

As noted in earlier posts, there is a pretty big disconnection between the popular American goal of wealth or material success and means for getting there.

According to the late great sociologist Robert Merton, people have different ways of dealing with the strain this situation creates. Here are five approaches he identified:

Conformity: People coping this way accept the goal of "success" and use legitimate means of trying to get there. To quote Dylan, they "Get dressed, get bless, try to be a success."

Innovation. This is a good example of jargon. What Merton calls innovation would be called crime by most people. It involves accepting the goal of getting rich but using illegitimate/illegal ways of going about it. This approach often occurs when legitimate ways of gaining success are not available.

Ritualism. This would describe people who have given up on the goal of "success" but keep going through the motions of conformity, showing up for work every day but seeking satisfaction in other aspects of life.

Retreatism. This approach rejects both the goals and the means for getting there and doesn't bother trying. In El Cabrero's beloved home town, these are the guys who sit on the old bank steps and drink Milwaukee's Best whenever they can get it. In Springsteen's words, "They don't work and they don't get paid."

Finally, and most rare these days, is the approach of rebellion, which, in Merton's words

leads people to envisage and seek to bring into being a new, that is to say, a greatly modified social structure. It presupposes alienation from reigning goals and standards...In our society, organized movements for rebellion aim to introduce a social structure in which the cultural standards of success would be sharply modified and provision would be made for a closer correspondence between merit, effort, and reward.

Here's the interesting thing. When I teach this theory in sociology classes, students have no trouble identifying people who use all but one of these strategies.

Next time: where have all the rebels gone?


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