So we’ve all heard of The American Dream… perhaps it’s one of the reasons why you or your family might have moved to North America (yes, Canada can be included in the concept of the American dream as well), or maybe it is the factor that motivates you to work hard and push through the many obstacles that come your way. Basically the American Dream promotes the idea that anyone living in America can rise from “rags to riches” through hard work and dedication, even those who come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. There is no differentiation in who can become successful or wealthy other than the effort one puts into the journey. This is a powerful concept
that we have seen historically being manifested in the amount of immigrants who came to the country looking for a new beginning because their native countries did not offer such vast opportunities for them. For some, it has been described as the promised land because of the ambitious and limitless dream it promotes. Let’s take a moment to critically examine the American Dream by looking from the lens of Strain Theory and how it produces inequality rather than equality.
Robert Merton, a well known sociologist and economist of the 20th century, believed that conformity to conventional cultural values produces high levels of strain on individuals, which in turn produces high rates of crime and deviance. This is the basic premise of Strain Theory. Simply put, strain is structurally induced because a strong conflict exists between the culture of society and the limited means provided by the system.
So how does Strain Theory relate to the American Dream? When we examine the culture of America, it is obvious that there is a prominent focus on economic success. The problem rises in the social structure of America because even though the culture promotes economic success, the actual access to reach this goal through legitimate methods is limited. The individuals and families who are part of the lower class feel the highest level of strain because they are the ones who have the most limited access to higher education, corporate employment, and network connections. We can think of it this way: they start far behind in the race for success and must be exceptionally talented or fortunate to catch up with the rest of society.
Since the American Dream is embedded so deeply within the system and culture of America, everyone wants to conform to it and achieve these economic goals and status, including those who live in the inner-city. The means to achieve these goals (i.e. higher education, corporate employment, and network connections) will actually aid the individuals living in inner-city neighbourhoods to leave the slums, but because they are denied the opportunity to do so they are pushed to deviate from societal norms. Sadly, the research shows that in order to reach financial success/status and to live by conventional ways, individuals from slums look towards illegitimate means of gaining the success, which tends to involve an engagement in criminal activities.
Remembering the characteristics of collective disadvantage (click here to read the previous blog), families who do not have equal access to social institutions are more likely the ones who look towards crime and deviance in order to survive. Thus, according to Strain Theory, the American Dream is actually flawed because it promotes the image that everyone has equal opportunities to succeed. However, the result of such a cultural goal produces severe strain on disadvantaged people and can encourage some of them to deviate.
So the question is, why are we constantly running after material success and status? Understanding that the American Dream really does not make sense to pursue because it is an illusion and not every single person can gain the same riches and fame, we can ask ourselves what is that we really want? We’ve been trained to aim for success but why is that we have associated success with wealth? And why does that hold so much power? What’s the point, especially if such a lifestyle is harming targeted individuals and producing crime…?
Thinking globally: the American Dream is actually influencing the whole world because American culture has become the mainstream culture on an international level. We can see this in mainstream pop and hip-hop music as well. The lyrics, music videos, artists themselves, and the entire industry is promoting the idea of running towards fame and fortune. The music industry spreads its wings above and beyond America, onto the whole world and these material pursuits are pushed onto other countries as a result.
There must be more than just reaching fame and fortune, especially if it is a dead end for some…
I hope this blog post has encouraged you to re-evalute some of your goals and question what you give importance to. As humans, we are capable of so much and we should be aiming for a higher purpose than just material goals. Saying all this, I’d like to leave you with one of my favourite quotes by the infamous Rabindranath Tagore:
“We must know for certain that there is a future before us & that future is waiting for those who are rich in moral ideals & not in mere things. And it is the privilege of man to work for fruits that are beyond his immediate reach, & to adjust his life not in slavish conformity to the examples of some present success or even to his own prudent past, limited in its aspiration, but to an infinite future bearing in its heart the ideals of our highest expectations.”
As always, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Peace & Love ~