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How useful is Robert Merton’s anomie theory for understanding the causes of crime in contemporary society?

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How useful is Robert Merton’s anomie theory for understanding the causes of crime in contemporary society?

Crime in the society is one of the most abhorred values. Criminal activities have so much invaded the society into its core, resulting in a society that has too much insecurity and fraud[1]. It is for this reason that the study of criminology is very important. So what is the origin of crime in our society? What caused man to change so much from how he was created as to engage in crime?  These are the questions that Robert Merton answers in his theory of anomie. Robert Merton’s anomie theory is also referred to as the strain theory or sometimes as means-ends theory[2].  Robert K. Merton was a respectable American sociologist who throughout his career developed several social theories. Most of these theories were mainly influenced by his childhood experiences, hence the basis of the theories.

One of the most common theories of Robert Merton is the theory of anomie. In this theory, he starts by stating that, though science has an explanation for why various factors and habits are the way they are, biological reasons do not clearly account for the wide variations in the nature of the society. He focuses on explaining why the variations are so diverse between different societies and the subsequent subgroups within the society. He does not set his interest on expounding the variations in behaviors of the persons as individuals.

Anomie is a situation whereby the normal cultural rules, believes and activities break. The break in these cultural norms is caused mainly by a rapid change from the normal. The break of the societal norms leads to breaking of bonds and total disintegration of the society. It is a natured condition that develops over time and later becomes part of the society. Anomie was made popular by Emile Durkheim, who was a French sociologist. Robert Merton concentrates in general on functionalist view of the society, which puts prominence on the task of culture, particularly in its uniting aspects. Merton in his anomie theory borrows from Durkheim to investigate situations whereby culture causes disunity and deviance in the society.

Merton uses anomie to explain the very soaring rates of deviant manners in the United States of America with comparison to other world societies. For example, in one of his articles, theorist Shaw and McKay stated that the urban slum dwellings promote criminal behavior via the generation of nonstandard cultural morals. Therefore the social structure disorganization theories presume that the denunciation of conservative middle class principles result in towering rates of crime in the slum societies[3]. Morton on the contrary argued that it was the stiff obedience to those conventional values that result in high crime rates and deviance.

He also focuses on explaining the wide distribution of the deviant characters across various groups defined by race, ethnicity and class. In the U.S, where people are defined mainly by what goals they have achieved; usually in terms of money, people are looked down upon and criticized as failures if they do not meet the standards set by the society[4]. Anomie thus has so much been given acceptance so as to create an alternative for meeting those standards.

On the contrary, culture is indecisive in its norms over the appropriate ways of being successful. Usually, working hard and having ambition are the culturally accepted means of achievement in school and other places. However, there is the aspect of admiration for the thief and rogue who breaks the set of laws of what is the appropriate ways but achieves set objectives by deviant means. And this creates an environment for advancement and encroachment of criminal behavior into the society. Especially due to the fear of the individuals to fail and the criticism associated with failure, more individuals seek alternate means of achieving the success goals hence designing illegal means. With time the behavior takes over the individuals and manifests in the society hence a break from the norms creeps into the society.

Robert Merton thus went through in his writing to explain the various ways through which people respond to this break of the norms. He creates a typical topology of the adaption process. These modes are conformity, which commands a significant acceptance by the society. This mode, the likelihood of engaging in criminology is minimal since the individuals see the set goals and the means available to achieve them as being legally binding[5]. They thus accept them without questioning and endeavor for achievement through the already socially approved avenues of educational and occupational progression.

The second is innovation, which is general acceptance by most of the people or groups in the society. The innovator is the most susceptible to engaging in criminal behavior. This is because the innovators are the individuals who break the laws and proceed to achieve goals that are later promoted greatly by the society. They acknowledge the already recognized goals but seek to find alternate means to achieve the goals. The various means the innovators take on may consist of robbery, fraud and or other criminal act.

The third mode is ritualism which signifies that more people reject the goals set and the means available and devote themselves to their existing lifestyles. They reduce their own objectives and aspirations to levels that are practically attainable. Ritualists avoid the risks. The fourth is called retreatism, which shows that the change from the norms and the means brought about are totally rejected. The individuals give up on the objectives and means available. They turn and engage themselves in drugs and alcoholism[6]. The last is rebellion, in which the society after totally rejecting the new means and ways, goes ahead and substitutes them with other new ones.

As is the case with many theories of crime by various sociologists, Robert Merton’s anomie theory has made a great advancement after the works of Emile Durkheim. Since Merton suggests that anomie has a similar meaning to that of strain, it then follows that it is a situation whereby society brings pressure on individuals leading to them breaking rules. This strain is usually as a result of cultural discrepancies on the set objectives and the means available to meet them.

Merton also focused on the distribution of the means available to recognize the success objectives. He stated that differences in the race, ethnicity and social class may also trigger the break of laws in the society, advancing crime. These disjunctions may result in internal conflicts within the society.

For instance, in the early 21ST century, the race biasness that existed in the United States of America resulted in a large population of the black American youths being associated with crime and drugs. It was also hard for the blacks to access education and jobs. And even when a black person had same qualifications as the whites, it was still hard for them to get a job. This lack of means for achieving the objectives and success goals led to many young black Americans turning into crime.

Another good illustration is of the difference in the social status of the people in the societies. Those from the wealthy homes have ability to access better education, healthcare and other facilities as compared to those of low-class earners. The probability of those in the lower socio-economic ladder to attain economic achievement is inferior due to the disadvantaged starting position in the pursuit toward prosperity[7]. This structural barrier restricts individual capacity to access legal avenues to achieve the preferred goal. This creates disjunction in the society since many individuals seek alternative means of achieving the same goals set by the society just as the wealthy do. However the ones who cannot afford the available means to achieve the set goals hence they may turn into crime hence advancing criminal acts.

Though Merton’s theory explains clearly the causes of the criminal acts such as fraud and theft on the foundation of innovation in the society, it also has a few critiques. The social theorization of crime does not entirely explain the causes of crime. Some of these critiques are that there is no justification for youth crimes associated with social standings rather than material gaining. The anomie theory is also not capable to elucidate the phenomena of white collar jobs. Another shortcoming of the theory is that it focuses on deviance of the society or group as a whole and is hence structural. However Robert Agnew asserted that strain should focus on the individual and emotional aspect, concentrating on the surrounding social environment. In addition, other sociologist, Messner and Rosenfeld, partly agreed with Merton’s theory.  They argued that Merton’s theory of anomie did not give explanation how the American dream supports and sustains an institutional configuration in which the institution and the economy, has power and dominates over all others[8]. Therefore this apparent imbalance in the society as an institutional organization cuts short the capability of social institutions such as political systems and families to protect the members of society from criminogenic strains of the American dream and to impose control on their behavior.

Merton’s theory of anomie has been very widely accepted however. This is because of the fact that it relies on very simple framework in its explanations. This framework, though simple clearly brings out the role of Roberts theory in explaining the advancement of crime in the contemporary society. The society has imposed so much emphasis on the significance and the need to prosper in economic and academic sectors. This is quite demeaning for most of the individuals in the American society. Thus as a result most people engage in activities that lead them to diverge from the normal, hence engaging in crime [9]. Therefore Robert Merton’s theory of anemoi is very useful in understanding the causes of crime in the society.



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[1] D. Matza, Delinquency and drift, New Brunswick, Transaction, 1990, p. 11

[2] F. Adler, and W.S. Laufer, The Legacy of Anomie Theory, New York, Transaction Publishers, 1995, p.7


[3] F. Adler, and W.S. Laufer, The Legacy of Anomie Theory, New York, Transaction Publishers, 1995, p.7

[4] D. Matza, Delinquency and drift, New Brunswick, Transaction, 1990, p. 11


[5] E. Durkheim, & G. Simpson, Suicide: A study in sociology. London, Routledge, 2002, p. 17


[6] L.J. Siegel, Criminology: Theories, patterns, and typologies. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2013, p. 25


[7] S. Walklate,Understanding criminology: Current theoretical debates. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, 2007, p. 12



[8] S. Walklate,Understanding criminology: Current theoretical debates. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, 2007, p. 12



[9] S. Walklate,Understanding criminology: Current theoretical debates. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, 2007, p. 12