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Applying Merton’s Strain Theory to Modern Dublin City in the Context of a Class-Based Society

This blog piece was written by Shane Conaty. Shane is currently working as a research assistant on Dr Etain Quigley’s IRC New Foundations project ‘Juvenile Sexual Offending: An EU Prevalence and Criminal Justice Response Study.’ Shane is also working with the ACJRD on their online presence in a post-Covid-19 world. Shane completed his MA in Comparative Criminology and Criminal Justice in the Department of Law, Maynooth University.

Twitter – @conaty95

Sociologist Robert Merton’s social strain theory is one of the most popular theories of Criminology, and although it was theorised in the context of the ‘American dream’ in the late 1930s to early 1940s, it can just as easily be applied to modern Irish society. Hemmens defines strain theory as what happens “when legitimate opportunities to attain success goals are blocked by structural obstacles” (2011: 127). Strain theory can generally be explained as the strain that occurs when individuals feel pressured by society to pursue culturally-accepted goals, though they do not have the means to legitimately achieve them. The class-division Ireland currently experiences, given the rising number of homeless people and poor-working-class families tethering just above the poverty line, means that strain theory can be applied as a possible explanation for the higher rates of crime in lower socio-economic areas. Dublin is a prime example of the theory in practice. McCarthaigh (2019) notes for example, that North Dublin’s crime rates from 2018 were five times above the national average. While this may be partially explained by the population of Dublin being higher than any other county, it is nonetheless a large jump in crime rate. North Dublin has higher numbers of homeless people and lower working-class families than many other parts of Ireland.

If we continue to use Dublin as an example, there exists a clear class-division within the city, when north and south of the River Liffey are compared in terms of income and living standards. And with the cost of living rising rapidly over the last decade, the gap between those lower socio-economic citizens and those better off, widens. (2020) found that Dublin was ranked one of the most expensive places to live in Europe this year, above cities such as Milan, Paris and Amsterdam; a statistic which is likely to warrant property and other monetary-related crime from those people who feel the strain and cannot achieve their goals in society via legitimate avenues. Baron (2006) finds that financial gain drives the majority of crime associated with strain theory, or at least that crime is driven by people frustrated by the monetary gain of others around them. The feeling of frustration that comes from finding it financially tough often leads to property and violent offences, as those responsible disassociate from societal norms and pursue goals via their own, illegitimate means. Similarly, Rice (2006: 39) finds that “failure to achieve monetary goals was a more significant predictor of crime than were educational expectations”.

The failure to achieve monetary goals aligns with the consequences of strain theory and the coping mechanism of those who experience it. One of the main coping mechanisms used to ease the societal strain is the consumption of drugs and alcohol. According to the Central Statistics Office (2019), the number of controlled drug offences rose by 17.3% last year to a total of 21,475 across the country. Meanwhile, Jordan (2020) notes in the Irish Mirror that the number of drug offences across Ireland more than doubled from 18,592 in 2003 to 42,950 in 2019. The frustration of missing out on legitimate financial gain not only explains the consumption of drugs to deal with the lack of opportunity but can also be linked to the high number of property-related offences, as a measure of illegitimate financial gain. Offences of damage to property and the environment also increased by 1.8%, while thefts were up from 66,920 to 68,414 (Central Statistics Office, 2019). There is little evidence that the harsh punishment of minor drug offences is of any major benefit, either to the offender or the state. Leonard and Windle (2020: 1) note that “criminal sanctions can be stigmatising and impede recovery and desistance”. Amid increased demand for reviews of legislation regarding Ireland’s drug policy, the country’s pilot Safe Injecting Facility (SIF) was backed by the government, despite initially being rejected by Dublin City Council, with planning permission being granted last December (ibid). To punish citizens for minor offences such as drug possession merely serves to punish them for the facilitation of strain theory by society, through the lack of monetary and cultural opportunity, and to punish citizens for their attempt to escape the consequences of social exclusion.

Poorer citizens are often punished more harshly at court, based on their social profile, or even their gender in some cases. (2019) note that data recorded from 2017 shows that an incredible ninety-five percent of women in Irish prisons were sentenced on such petty offences as shoplifting or handling stolen goods. It is also noted that substance abuse and homelessness were some of the main causes for women who offended; as I’ve examined already, these are leading causes of crime in a society where people experience strain theory. The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) claim that “the relationship between social exclusion and crime is indisputable” (2012: 5) in examining the social profile of prisoners in Ireland. The argument is that the law is designed in such a way to punish those of a lower social class more harshly, and that this has always been the case, taking into account punishment of such offences from decades past as vagrancy, non-payment of fines and begging in a public place (later amended to the Criminal Justice [Public Order] Act 2011) (Irish Statute Book 2011). The IPRT’s argument of “evidence of over-policing in disadvantaged areas” therefore results in a greater number of arrests and sentences for those offenders, which is disproportionate to those small number of white collar criminals from more advantaged areas who are sentenced. According to (2019) women are also at a disadvantage when it comes to application of the law. I’ve mentioned that the vast majority of incarcerated women in Ireland are in prison for petty offences, however the percentage of men (79%) who were sentenced in the same year (2017) for petty crimes was also very high. That being said, Teresa Clarke, the regional manager of the Mountjoy Prison visitors’ centre, agrees that 95% of women being sentenced for petty offences is a sure sign that the system creates a cycle of crime, in a sense. According to Clarke, those women should either be in addiction or mental health services and “putting them into prison serves absolutely no purpose” ( 2019). For a long time, the IPRT have advocated for prison to be used only as a last resort to avoid unnecessary prison time and for increased community sanctions for minor offences, where the custodial sentence would be less than twelve months. It would appear from this evidence that their concerns are validated, particularly when it comes to those citizens from disadvantaged areas, who are punished disproportionately. For example, the IPRT (2020) note that sentences of less than three months increased from 1,070 to 1,552 in 2019.

Should the criminal justice system continue to operate this way, it arguably only serves to punish a larger, poorer cohort of offenders to a fuller extent of the law, while glossing over the societal issues which brought them before the courts to begin with. According to Social Justice Ireland’s (2020) research, before COVID-19 emerged, one in every seven Irish people survived on an income below the poverty line. That works out at approximately 680,000 people living on a socio-economic level which is evidently linked with crime causation and who are often punished unfairly on minor offences. As Wolnik claims in the Irish Examiner (2019), offenders are more likely to be found guilty if they are from a homeless or poor social background: “that is how the system works”. There is sufficient evidence to say that prison is not the answer when it comes to minor offences as it impedes desistance and recovery from addiction and is disproportionately applied in disadvantaged areas. Strain theory mainly captures those citizens of lower socio-economic groups, who often turn to drugs and alcohol or petty theft, merely as a means of escape from the lack of opportunity to pursue cultural goals, only for them to be disproportionately punished by the very system which created the issues they face every day.

Baron, S. (2006). Street youth, strain theory and crime. Journal of Criminal Justice [online], 34(2), pp.209-223. Available from:

Central Statistics Office. (2019). Crime incidents in fraud and drug offence categories rise in 2019 [online]. Available from: [accessed 21 September 2020].

Hemmens, C. (2011). There’s a darkness on the edge of town: Merton’s five modes of adaptation in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice [online], 23(1), pp. 127-136. Available from: [accessed 15 September 2020].

Irish Penal Reform Trust. (2012). The Vicious Circle of Social Exclusion and Crime: Ireland’s Disproportionate Punishment of the Poor [online]. Available from: [accessed 18 September 2020].

Irish Penal Reform Trust. (2020). Facts and Figures [online]. Available from: [accessed 5 October 2020].

Irish Statute Book. (2011). Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2011 [online]. Available from: [accessed 17 September 2020].

Jordan, A. (2020) ‘Most crime-ridden districts in Ireland unveiled as stats show worst-hit garda stations’, Irish Mirror, 27 April 2020. Available at: (Accessed 20 September 2020).

Leonard, J and Windle, J. (2020). ‘I could have went down a different path’: Talking to people who used drugs problematically and service providers about Irish drug policy alternatives. International Journal of Drug Policy [online], 84, pp. 1-8. Available from:

McCarthaigh, S. (2019) ‘Dublin’s north inner city has highest crime rate in the State’, Irish Times, 02 October. Available at:—in-the-state. (Accessed 18 September 2020).

Rice, S. (2006) General Strain Amid Restoration: An Examination of Instrumental and Expressive Offenses. Doctoral Thesis. University of Florida. Available at: (Accessed 19 September 2020).

Social Justice Ireland. (2020). Policy Issues Concerning Income Distribution and Poverty [online]. Available from: (2019). Almost all women in Irish prisons are there for committing petty crime [online]. Available from: [accessed 22 September 2020]. (2020). Dublin ranked as one of the most expensive places to live in Europe [online]. Available from: [accessed 22 September 2020].

Wolnik, J. (2019) ‘Homeless people are not criminals, poverty is not a crime’, Irish Examiner, 12 December 2019. Available at: