Get Complete Information on Anomie Theory of Crime


Information about Anomie Theory of Crime

In 1893, Durkheim proposed that deviant behaviour was a normal adaptation to living within a society, which was structured by a high division of labour and was based on values of competitive individualism. He said that a society without deviance was impossible because it was inconceivable that no person would deviate from the norm or ideal.

Moreover, deviance was not only inevitable but also necessary for the progress of any society. The deviant behaviour became a new approach to problem and without the introduction of new approaches to problem solving, society would remain static.


The causes of individual deviation were thus related to the degree of integration and cohesiveness by which society was governed at a particular time. But Durkheim focused only on one type of deviant behaviour, viz., and suicide.

In 1938, Merton used the concept of anomie beyond suicide to all forms of deviance. While Durkheim believed that aspirations were limitless, Merton argued that they were socially produced and thus regulated to some extent, but they could exceed what was obtainable through available opportunities.

While Durkheim claimed that anomie resulted from a social failure to control and regulate individual behaviour, Merton proposed that anomie resulted from ‘strains’ in the social structure that pressurised individuals and encouraged the development of unrealistic aspirations.

Anomie was thus dependent on the interaction between cultural goals aims that define success and status in society and institutionalised means acceptable methods of achieving such goals.


Merton, reacting against the biological and psychiatric theories (that crime is the result of inherited traits), first attempted to explain deviant behaviour in 1938 in a paper published in the American Sociological Review.

He further elaborated his thesis in 1949 and 1957 and distinguished between social and cultural structures (see, Merton Robert, Social Theory and Social Structure, enl. edn, 1968). Cultural structure, according to him, refers to goals and interests men pursue, while social structure refers to means or approved methods which regulate and control the pursuit of goals and interests.

The cultural system of society enjoins upon all men to strive for goals by means of normatively regulated or approved forms of behaviour. However, opportunities to reach these goals through socially approved means are unequally distributed.

Deviant behaviour ensues when social structure restricts or completely closes a person’s access to the approved modes of reaching these goals.


In other words, the disjunction between goals and means causes strains which in turn leads to a weakening of men’s commitment to the culturally prescribed goals or institutionalised means, that is, to a state of anomie. Thus, Merton’s thesis is that certain social structures exert pressure on some persons to engage in non-conformist rather than conformist conduct.

The focus in Merton’s theory is not at all on the individual (criminal) or the act (of crime), but on the ‘tensions’ which lie not within the individual but between culture and structure. These tensions are experienced not so much by isolated individuals as by whole groups of individuals in certain structural positions. It is here that strain theory introduces the concept of subculture.

Sub cultural responses are jointly elaborated solutions to collectively experienced problems. Groups of people have both collective goals and legitimate means fixed for them by the determining agency of society. In their positions as housewives or teenagers or executives of clerks or employees or workers, they evolve subcultures specialised parts of the general culture suitable for their needs.

Often these are non-deviant, but where there are significant discrepancies between aspiration and opportunity, deviant subcultures occur. Deviant behaviour is then viewed as being a meaningful attempt at solving the problems faced by groups of individuals, in particular structural positions.


Merton (Social Theory and Social Structure, 1968) has identified five modes of adaptation available to those who react to the goals and means of society: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion. Conformity describes acceptance of the prevailing state of affairs, i.e., accepting both goals and means of society.

Innovation represents acceptance of the goals but rejection of the means for obtaining these goals and substituting alternatives in their place. For example, a student accepts the goal of passing an examination and obtaining a degree but uses unfair means to pass.

Merton says that the social class structure which imposes goals also prevents some people from attaining them by the socially approved means. Low status and low income of lower class people and the basic occupational opportunities open to them do not permit them to achieve high status in terms of power and income; they, therefore, often turn to deviant behaviour.

The social structural pressure to attain goals, along with social structural limitations of legitimate means, produces pressure toward deviant behaviour. The cause of widespread deviant behaviour is that social structure proclaims that all should achieve these goals but blocks legitimate efforts of large numbers of persons to do so.


This situation helps to explain high rates of crime in poverty areas. Merton further points out that poverty does not cause crime, but, when poverty is linked to cultural emphasis on monetary success as a dominant goal, and, a poor individual cannot compete because of his poverty for the culture values, criminal behaviour is the normal outcome.

Ritualism, according to Merton, is rejection of the goals but acceptance of the means. For example, a student goes to college but doesn’t attend classes and spends time in college canteen. Merton says that while innovation as a mode of adaptation is more characteristic of the lower class, ritualism is more characteristic of the lower-middle class.

The middle class places greater emphasis on the socially approved means of obtaining goals. Is this form of adaptation really deviant behaviour? Merton thinks so because “it clearly represents a departure from the cultural mode in which men are obliged to strive actively to move onward and upward in the social hierarchy.”

Retreatism involves rejection of both culturally supported goals and institutionalised means. Merton suggests that this occurs after a person has accepted both goals and means of society but has repeatedly failed to achieve goals by legitimate means.

At the same time, because of prior socialisation and internalised values, individual is not able to adopt illegitimate means. Thus, he is cut off from both legitimate and illegitimate methods of obtaining goals.

He, therefore, rejects both goals and means and takes to drinking or becomes a drug-addict or a vagabond. Rebellion is characterised by rejection of goals and means and substitution of new goals and means, i.e., establishing a new social order or changing the social structure. The individual not only himself adopts new goals and means but also attempts to institutionalise these new goals and means for the rest of society.

While Merton considers the last four modes of adaptation as deviance, he offers his category of ‘innovation’ in support of the link between anomie and crime. The innovator, in rejecting institutionalised means and substituting alternatives, is likely to find that the ‘new’ means are illegal ones and his actions crimes.

Merton thus uses ‘innovation’ to explain the high crime rates among the lower-class or the poor segments of population. Their disadvantaged status, coupled with high cultural priority given to pecuniary success as a dominant goal for all, make high rates of crime a ‘normal outcome’ for those (poor) segments of population.

Merton’s theory has been criticised by Albert Cohen, Marshall Clinard, Lemert, and a few others. Their main arguments are:

(1) Merton’s theory is incomplete because he has not explained who will reject the goals and who will reject the means;

(2) Only structure has been given importance; an individual’s personality has been ignored;

(3) Strains do not necessarily lead to deviant behaviour;

(4) The theory neglects the important role of social control;

(5) Merton’s assumption that deviant behaviour is disproportionately more common in lower classes is not correct;

(6) Anomie may be the cause rather than the effect of circumscribed life chances;

(7) Merton has not explained what the determinants which determine the mode of adaptation of an individual are;

(8) Merton has failed to account for ‘non-utilitarian’ crime and juvenile delinquency in which people engage only for fun and not to meet specific goals of society; for example, vandalism, car-theft for joy-ride, etc.;

(9) The theory does not take into account social-psychological variables or social structural elements which might explain adoption of one adaptation over the other by individuals; and finally,

(10) The theory has not been empirically tested.

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