Criminology | Section 6.2

Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.

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Anomie and Strain Theories

Anomie/strain theories stipulate that social order and stability lead to conformity, while disorder leads to a rift between valued ends within a particular culture and that culture’s idea of legitimate means to those ends.  That is, a state of social disorganization will lead to deviance.  The more disorganized (anomic) the society, the higher rates of crime and deviance.  Robert Merton hypothesized that anomie is extremely high in American society, being highest in the lower classes because those people are blocked from legitimate opportunities.  This can explain the high crime rates observed in particular ethnic groups in poor inner-city areas.  That is, a lack of money and education in particular groups limits people’s ability to achieve valued goals through legitimate means.  Thus, crime rates in those areas will be higher than in more affluent areas where goals are more easily met through legitimate means.  Other researchers, most notably Miller, Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin, modified Merton’s theory to explain delinquency among lower-class youth gangs.

Anomie is a concept closely associated with two prominent theorists: Emile Durkheim and Robert K.  Merton.  The term anomie was introduced in Durkheim’s 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society; he used it to describe a condition of “deregulation” occurring in society.

Deregulation:  By this, he meant that the general rules of society regarding how people ought to treat one another have broken down and people do not know what to expect from each other.  This deregulation (normlessness) leads to deviant behavior.

Anomy can also be thought of in terms of moral norms.  Either way, it is talking about a breakdown of normal societal conditions.  In this state of normlessness, traditional norms no longer control the activity of societal members.

Without clear rules to guide them, people cannot find their place in society and have difficulty adjusting to the changing conditions of life.  This, in turn, leads to dissatisfaction, frustration, conflict, and deviance.

Durkheim believed that most western societies had progressed so much that they were in a constant state of anomie.  He further believed that periodic disruptions, such as economic depressions, as making things worse and resulting in higher rates of suicide, deviance, and crime.


Merton borrowed Durkheim’s idea of anomie and changed it around to try to explain deviance in the United States.  Merton disagreed that changes and deregulation within society created anomie.  He believed that the critical component was the ability of the social system to exercise control in the form of social norms.

Merton divided social norms (values) into two types: Goals and Means.  He redefined anomie in terms of a split (disjunction) between these goals and means as a result of the way society is structured, such as with social classes.  Merton suggests that certain goals are strongly emphasized in society.  He most often cites financial success as an example.  Society also emphasizes certain legitimate means to reach those goals.  Common examples are hard work and education.  When these goals are too strongly stressed, the result is social disorganization (anomie).  Not everyone in society has equal access to legitimate success.  As a result, those people who do not have access to legitimate means may choose illegitimate means to succeed.

Merton notes that when inequality exists because of the way a society is structured, then the entire social structure is anomic.  He believed that this was the case in the United States.  That is, the U.S., as a society, is in a perpetual state of anomie because large segments of the population cannot reconcile their aspirations (goals) with their available opportunities (means).  He further hypothesized that as social conditions change, so too does the level of anomie within society.

It is important to note that particular means that have been legitimized by society may not be the most efficient way to achieve a particular goal.  Often other means may be both available and more efficient to the disadvantaged.

Merton developed five modes of adaptation to the strain caused by restricted access to socially legitimate means and goals.  The first occurs when an individual maintains both means and goals that are considered legitimate by society.  In this case, the individual remains conforming.  The remaining four modes of adaptation result in deviance by rejecting legitimate goals, legitimate means, or both.  Merton’s first deviant mode of adaptation happens when legitimate goals are maintained but deviant methods of achieving those goals are adopted.  Merton believed that this method, which he dubbed innovation, was the most common.  When the goals rather than the means to achieving those goals are rejected, the individual is said to be adapting to strain through ritualism.  Ritualism can be seen in individuals who take great pride in menial jobs even when they have lost sight of the success goal.  When both goals and means are rejected, the result is retreatism.  That is, these individuals simply quit trying to succeed.  This pattern is often seen in the homeless and chronic substance abusers.

Merton’s final adaptation is known as rebellion.  It differs from the others in that the rebel does not focus on legitimate goals or means, but rather substitutes new goals and means for socially accepted ones.  That is, they seek to change the prevailing social structure.

Accordingly, deviance can be explained as a symptom of a social structure within which “culturally defined aspirations and socially structured means” are separated from each other.  Simply put, deviance is caused by anomie.  It is Merton’s treatment of anomie that dealt with crime most closely, and for this reason, it is the most commonly discussed in criminology texts.  Merton’s anomie theory is essentially a theory of deviance.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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