Anomie and Strain Theory
Within the study of criminals, researchers have tried to explain the influences upon behavior that results in crime. A wide range of types of criminological theories, including biological, ecological, control, conflict and integrated theories, have been suggested and gained popularity. All these theories are distinct from one another, but not wholly unrelated to each other. Of importance for this endeavor are anomy and strain theories, which emphasize negative relationships between individuals that lead to crime. The historical roots of anomie theories in criminology trace originally to Durkheim and then Merton.
Durkheim and Anomie
Emile Durkheim was an important force in the development of a strain theory that explains the connection between societal change and crime. Writing in reaction to Lombroso and the classical school of thought, which argues that behavior is the result of biological factors, Durkheim suggested that behavior is the result of societal factors. He proposed that society regulates the “natural appetites of individuals” and at times these regulations breakdown (Void 135). Anomie, the condition of normlessness, is the consequence of a breakdown in the conventions that instract society how to behave. The socially accepted goals, and the means of achieving those goals, have been weakened or removed, creating crime (Void). This breakdown is the result of radical, quick changes in a society.
In Durkheim’s case the rapid social change was the French Revolution of 1789 and industrialization of France. At the time of writing this theory, Durkheim suggested that the traditional religious constraints in France had been deliberately destroyed and had almost lost its influence over society. He postulated that loosening these constraints resulted in an increase of suicide. This socially deviant activity extended to suggest that crime, another deviant activity, also increased (Void).
Durkheim addressed the issue of economic downturns as a form of strain, which could precipitate crime. He stated, “in the case of economic disasters, indeed, something like a declassification occurs which suddenly casts individuals into a lower state … they must reduce their requirements, restrain their needs, learn greater control…”(Void 108). Individuals are not adjusted to these conditions and societal rules weaken or break down. He goes on to argue that during times of economic expansion anomie would be worse because “prosperity stimulates the appetites just at the time when the restraints on those appetites have broken down”(Vold 109).
Durkheim refers to the consciences in humans, incorporating both the collective and the individual, and argues the conflict between them is the main cause of social change. The conflict between the two consciences is not a mode of psychological explanation. He insists that social evolution does not originate in the psychological constitution of the human. Instead, Durkheim emphasizes that “the determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social facts preceding it and not among the states of the individual consciousness” (1982:134). Hence, social phenomenon, such as crime, must be explained by the response of the human conscience to the social structure.
According to Durkheim, healthy societies set limits on the goals that individuals pursue. These limits are set so that individuals have a reasonable chance of achieving their goals. However, under certain conditions – such as during time of rapid social change – societies may lose their ability to regulate individuals’ goals. This occurs because individuals are inherently unable to set limits on their desires. People will restrain their desires only in response to a limit they recognize as just, which means that this limit must come from an authority that they respect (Durkheim). That authority is society or one of its organs, such as legal system or religion.
Durkheim argues that the pursuit of unlimited or unattainable goals is a source of “constantly renewed torture” (1979:247). It is for this reason that anomie may lead to suicide or violence. In particular, Durkheim insists that anomie may result in homicide or more violence if individuals blame others for their problems or if they are of low morality. Durkheim also argues that anomie is a pathology resulting from the transition between fully developed states of mechanical and organic solidarity (Void). Anomie occurs in the process of an evolution between two social species, and Durkheim indicates that it is harmful, rather than functional, for individual and social well-being.
While Durlcheim regards suicide as one form of deviant behavior, crime can also be regarded as deviance, and Durkheim’s approach for suicide has been widely applied as an explanation of criminal behavior. Several studies have tested the efficacy of Durlcheim’s anomie theory to explain crime. Durkheim attributed the high rates crime and deviance to anomie generated by radical social change, such as during the French and industrial revolutions. However, Lodhi and Tilly argue that the incidence of theft and robbery declined at the time. They show that violent crime remained stable over the same period. (Void)
Bennett questions Durkheim’s argument that crime is caused by rapid social change. According to Bennett, if Durkheim’s argument is true, (1) the rate of increase in crime would be directly related to the rate of growth in the society, and (2) the level of development itself should not affect crime rate as long as the country is not rapidly changing. He shows that the rate of growth does not significantly affect either theft or homicide, and that the level of development itself, regardless of the rate of growth, affects theft but not homicides.
Merton’s Strain Theory
Robert Merton’s strain theory places a different emphasis on anomie as presented by Emile Durkheim. Merton’s analytical model has two fundamental components: a cultural structure and a social structure (Messner). These concepts are formulated by Merton’s theory of the organization of social systems. According to Messner, Durkheim’s basic premise is that “a collectivity is well organized when social structural relationships enable members of that collectivity to realize culturally approved goals via normatively prescribed means.” (37) When social structure and cultural structure have a harmonious relationship, individuals receive satisfaction with conformity to cultural mandates either because they can obtain culturally defined success goals, or because they can use culturally accepted means to try to achieve goals.
However, often social structure and cultural structure are not congruent. For example, Merton argues that the American social system has pronounced disjuncture in two different spheres (Messner). At the level of the social system, there is divergence between social structural arrangements and cultural prescriptions. The cultural structure encourages common success goals, while the social structure limits access to normative means to reach these goals (Merton). As a result, this lack of integration between goals and means creates anomie. This situation is conducive to high rates of deviant behavior.
Anomie theory has focused on explaining why some societies have higher crime rate than others. Merton argues that the United States places a relatively strong emphasis on the goal of monetary success, but deemphasizes the use of legitimate means for achieving this goal. As a result, the goal-seeking behavior of individuals is subject to less regulation. Individuals are more likely to pursue monetary success using whatever means are necessary, and societies fail to adequately regulate goal-seeking behavior. These conditions of society are characterized by a state of ‘anomie.’
Merton’s another contribution is the description of various ways that an individual can respond to strain. He proposes five options available, which include conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion (Void). Conformity is the most common reaction type described by Merton, which encompasses acceptance of the cultural goals and the means to achieve those goals. The second reaction, innovation, entails maintaining the value of cultural goals, but changes the method by with to achieve those goals. The third variation of reaction is ritualism, which retains the institutional means of achieving societal goals, but at the same time rejects the possibility of actually achieving those goals. Retreatism “involves simply dropping out of the whole game” (Void 139). Members in this group include outcasts, vagrants, psychotics, and drug addicts. The last adaptation is labeled rebellion because the individual will replace the values of a society with new ones. This individual essentially “ceases to function as a member of the existing society and begins to live within an alternate culture” (Void 140).
Merton’s anomie theory does not relegate the explanation of deviant behavior in modern societies to either structural or cultural factors. Instead, Merton argues that the structure of society and the culture enmeshing its citizens operate jointly in determining whether individuals are pressured to conform or to deviate from societal norms. Specifically, Merton asserts that poverty alone does not produce delinquency or criminality and, as a result, purely structural explanations of delinquency prove to be inadequate.
It is only when the experience of poverty is combined with universally accepted goals of material success that the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are conducive to deviant behavior. Anomie, according to Merton’s theory, can be described as the disjunction or gap between the cultural goals of material success that “transcend class lines” and the ability of social groups or classes to achieve those goals through legitimate channels (Merton 680).
Although Merton’s theory has been subject to critique, the particular emphasis is put on Merton’s failure to thoroughly describe why, given an anomic society, only some individuals adopt deviant modes of adaptation. In other words, Merton did not adequately specify the processes determining why individuals adopt certain adaptations, but not others (Messner). For example, both ritualists and retreatists have rejected the accepted norms of society, yet ritualists generally pursue conventional activities, whereas retreatists withdraw from society. Merton states that the choice of deviant adaptation will depend upon “the particular personality, and thus, the particular cultural background, involved” (678), yet he goes no further in describing background characteristics that influence these decisions. As Agnew makes clear, however, “if strain theory is to have any value, it must be able to explain the selection of delinquent versus nondelinquent adaptations” (50).
Among the many theories that attempt to explain crime causation, anomie theory may offer one of the best explanations of increasing crime tendency. The meaning of ‘anomie’ differs between Durkheim’s and Merton’s work. To Durkheim, anomie refers to characteristics of entire social groups or individuals during societal transition when there are no norms to govern their behavior. Under the condition of normlessness, Durkheim assumed that human beings would be unable to regulate their desires, thus creating deviant behavior.
According to Durkheim, this normlessness occurs during periods of rapid social change, when traditional norms are upset or called into question and new norms have not yet been established. For Merton, on the other hand, anomie is not a temporary state, but is instead a chronic characteristic of some societies. Unlike Durkheim’s concern with the absence or disruption of norms, Merton is concerned with cultural and social malintegration. He emphasizes values and goals and means of reaching them, arguing that in some societies the means and goals that are stressed are inconsistent. That is, the values and goals are incongruent with the distribution of legitimate means to reach those goals.
Agnew, R. The nature and determinants of strain: Another look at Durkheim and Merton. In N. Passas & R. Agnew (Eds.), The future of anomie theory (pp. 27-51). Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, (1997)
Bennett, R. R. Development and crime. Sociological Quarterly, 32, (1991): 343-363.
Durkheim, E. The rules of sociological methods. New York: Free Press, 1895/1982.
Durkheim, E. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: Free Press, 1897/1979.
Merton, R. K. Social theory and social structure. New York: Free Press, 1968.
Messner, S. F. Merton’s “Social structure and anomie”: The road not taken. Deviant Behavior, 9, (1988): 33-53.
Void, George B, et.al, Theoretical Criminology. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.