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The Theory Of Anomie

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            The theory of Anomie also referred to as strain theory or means-ends theory can be traced to the works of Durkheim in 1893.  In his publication ‘De-la division du ravail social’, translated into the ‘division of labour society’.  In this publication, Durkheim gives his prevailing notion of anomie.  Anomie refers to the lack of solidarity among society as a result of changing societal organizations and labor divisions (Durkheim    54).  Simply put, with rapid change, society is unable to sufficiently regulate the relations within itself.  This being the case, anomie thus leads to a discrepancy between conditions instigated by society and individual opportunities for growth, fulfillment and productivity within the society.  Durkheim therefore implies that there are societal goals that might not be achieved via legitimate societal means.  In turn, this leads to frustration and alienation. The inability for society to regulate such inconsistencies results to different forms of social ‘maladies’ (Vold et al    49).

            It is worth noting that Durkheim was relating his idea of anomie to economic conditions and not deviant behaviours or criminal activities.  He however introduced the theory of anomie as directly relating to deviance in his publication Le Suicide in 1987.  Here, suicide, a deviant behaviour is fostered through a state where norms rise above any legitimate means of procurement (Vold et al    51).

            Durkheim further demonstrated that human behaviour is dictated by social factors rather than biological or psychological means.  He further argued that humans have innate desires and needs, which forms the root of anomie (Curran and Renzetti     44).  This is where his theory becomes controversial because there cannot be overall control of human behaviour without translating into individual influences.  This is simply to say that individual interpretations to social influences and conditions are utilized in theories as they complete the understanding of behaviour theories (Shoemaker    33).

            As can now be seen, the reason behind the development of the theory of anomie by Durkheim was as an attempt to describe human behaviour as a result of social conditions and in the process, he ignored the idea of incorporating individual interpretations of social factors.  Moreso, he understood anomie to be a temporary state occurring during transition between economic states.  This theory is thus not effective in describing instigates to criminal justice systems.

            Another theorist Robert Merton uses Durkheim to make his contribution on how deviant behaviour is produced via social conditions.  He also focuses on the economic aspect of societal conditions with an alteration of the description of anomie.  For him, the needs and desires of wealth are not a human characteristic but rather originate in culture (Merton    99).  Vold et al (2002) describes this by the defined goal of wealth accumulation by western capitalist states.

            Merton also differs with Durkheim in the definition of anomie.  To him, anomie refers to the frustration experienced by one when a society’s culturally defined goals and the legitimate means of achieving those goals are in disequilibrium (Merton    54).  In other words, he refers to a situation in which there is a lack of fit between cultural norms about the goals of success and the appropriate means to achieve the success.

            Unlike Durkheim, Merton asserts that biology cannot account for variations from one society to the other one in the extent and nature of deviance.  It is then a continual phenomenon and not a temporary state as stipulated by Durkheim.  An explanation to this is simply that Merton (1957) roots his definition of anomie in culture with an understanding that culture specifies the accepted norms, institutionalized means and morals which are expected to be regarded by every member of the society in pursuit of his/her approved goals.  Anomie, he adds, will always take place as long as every society possesses shared norms stemming from culture.

            Merton’s discussion of strain theory also differs from Durkheim’s theory of anomie by giving an outline of the strains produced by anomie.  He describes four more reactions that lead to deviant behaviors; these are rebellion, ritualism, innovation and retreatism (Merton    87).   Merton however leaves us with a lingering question about individual interpretations of anomie.  His assertion that the answer lies in collectivities of individuals with varying anomie is unsatisfactory, as it does not explain why people commit crime while others in similar anomie states do not.  Secondly, although his theory can be applied to any type of social institution, he also focuses on some of the economic conditions, which present him with some of the challenges received by Durkheim.  Additionally, he uses this theory to explain only the lower class crimes without any effort to describe crime in all socio-economic statuses.

            Using the US as his case study, as compared to other societies, Merton uses anomie to explain the high rates of deviant behavior and also the distribution of deviant behaviour across groups defined by ethnicity, class, race and the like.  He sees the US as a polar example of a society in which success goals, which are defined in monetary goals, are emphasized for everyone and those who scale their goals are labeled quitters.  Certainly hard work and ambition are the culturally approved means of success (Merton    65).There is also an admiration of the robber baron and a rogue who breaks the appropriate rules but finally achieves success by deviant means.  Success is therefore highly rated and valued than virtue.

            He further claims that with the existence of many minority groups in the US, with clearly limited access to success by conventional means.  Weather they overcome these obstacles and end up with good education, they will still not get access to a good job, as would a white person.

            Some societies put emphasis on assertive criteria in allocation of power and privilege setting a very different success standard.  He asserts that in the US, the same kind of success goals are held out to all thus making her high rates of crime and deviance understood as compared to other societies since in countries like India, a caste born person would not learn to aspire to the kind of success available to upper-case.

            As a result of emphasizing success goals to approved means of achieving them, and also emphasizing the same kind of success to everyone, even when the race, class, and ethnic stratification of the society limits the opportunities for the under privileged, the rates of deviance and crime will always be high and understood (Merton    88).

            He therefore creates a typology of adaptations as can be seen below.

  1. Conformity ++
  2. Innovation             +-

iii. Ritualism             -+

  1. Retreatism —
  2. Conformity xx

The first symbol shows people’s relationship about goals from norms while the second one shows their relationship to norms about the means of achieving goals.  A ‘+’ here means acceptance while a ‘-‘signifies rejection.  An ‘x’ on the other hand indicates the rejection of the prevailing values and substitution with new ones.

            The second mode of adaptation, innovation, logically follows from his earlier relationship between culture and deviance.  Innovators are those people who break the laws to achieve the societal’s highly promoted goals.  Quoting thortein veblein, Merton adds, “It is not easy…Indeed it is at times impossible until the courts have spoken….to say whether it is an instance of praise worthy salesmanship or a penitentiary offense.”

            The greatest pressures towards innovation operate at the lower levels of the stratification system and here, the incentives for success are established by cultural norms and values.  Also, the available avenues for moving towards this goal are limited by the structures of class to those of behaviours that are deviant.

            Merton’s typology as can be seen allows for variation at the individual level with a view that not every individual exposed to the same cultural conflict reacts the same way.  Its theory just like others has its own weaknesses also.  Firstly, it does not give a detailed treatment of the structural elements, which predispose towards one another rather than another of the responses that are alternative to individuals residing in ill-balanced social structures.  It has also largely neglected the social psychological process determining the specific incidence of these mentioned responses.  It has only made a brief consideration of the social function determined by deviant behaviour and touched on the rebellious behaviour seeking to refashion the social framework.

            As much as these theories are not fully satisfactory, they have been also used by others in the field including scholars like Robert Agnew, and Raskin White.

            Robert Agnew for instance, while not using the terminology of anomie in his discussion under the general strain theory, argues that there are three types of strain namely actual or anticipated failure to achieve positively valued goals (Agnew    51).  Actually, this is Merton’s theory of anomie that Agnew has used.  Agnew however gives an explanation why it has failed to understand deviant behaviors in the previous attempts.  To begin with, there is an argument that these past theories cannot explain any other deviancy that occurs in social classes apart from the lower class.  Secondly, they have neglected to discuss barriers other than social class in the achievement. And finally, Merton’s theory discusses individuals having a choice in how to react to strain; they do not offer any explanation over why some people commit deviancy while others do not (Agnew    53).

            As much as Agnew recognizes these shortcomings in these previous theories, he recognizes a major contribution in need of modification.  He identifies three sub types that likely to be encountered by an individual within this strain.  The first one results from the disjunction between one’s aspirations and achievements.  Aspirations, Agnew acknowledges, are higher than one may reasonably achieve and will therefore produce only a mild amount of strain (Curran & Renzetti    77).  He further adds that expectations are more likely to be considered realistic by an individual and therefore, more strain is likely to be produced if the individual fails to achieve them.

            Lastly, a sense of strain in an individual’s perception of fairness compared to actual outcomes exists (Agnew    101).  This indicates that fairness exists in all areas of life not necessarily in economic deprivation and strain thus exists and extends to these same arenas (Agnew & Passas    126).

            The next two concepts of strain as discussed by Agnew discuss it as a result of interaction with the environment.  The second form of strain is addressed as the actual or anticipated loss of positively valued stimuli from the individual (Agnew    102) while the third type refers to the actual or anticipated of noxious stimuli (Agnew    102).  In this, the idea of negative emotions is presented with the key idea that the individual is confronted with unwanted and inescapable stimuli (Vold et al    100).  In turn, a reaction such as deviancy is created.  There is also an argument here that such strains do not necessarily lead to criminal acts and that deviancy is one of the many ways a person might deal with such strain.

            Moreover, there are certain conditioning factors such as temperament, intelligence and conventional social support that help guide an individual to choose how to react to strain.  It is thus clear that Agnew has devised a general crime theory that encompasses multiple life arenas instead of limiting to an economic function.  The theory thus accomplishes what Durkheim and Merton failed to do by establishing how strain can cause behaviours.  It has also described why people choose deviant acts others do not.  The theory is therefore important as a basis for asserting a certain similar strain process for those who commit adult crime.

            Another scholar, Raskin White tests Agnew’s argument that strain is not only provided by the inability to achieve valued goals through legitimate goals but also via the presence of negative stimuli or vice versa.  He confirms that deviancy is indeed negatively related to parental attachment factors (Agnew    94).  Broidy (2001) also concluded that strain significantly increases the likelihood of illegitimate outcomes.

            Also, Paternoster and Mazerolle    (204) conform to the notion and add that juveniles who have poor relations with adults, including bad relations with their parents commit more acts of deviancy. They however argue that Agnew does not argue that deviancy is the reaction to strain but one possible response.

            Hirsch also builds on anomie and strain theory to come up with the social control theory. While anomie struggles to find the causes of deviance, Hirsch asks why people conform.  For him, deviance is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  He states that we are all animals and thus naturally capable of committing criminal acts.  The social control theory thus asserts that the church, family, peers and other social institutions are also factors (Shoemaker    104).  It argues that the social bond an individual develops to society via these institutions ensure conformity to societal norms.  It is thus either through a weak bond or a strong bond that deviant acts occur.  Simply put individuals with inadequate investments into a social institution or have been separated from one another lack connection to societal norms.  This lack of bonds is then what we refer to as deviant behaviour.  Hirsch also outlines four basic elements necessary for the establishment of a strong family bond.  These are involvement, commitment, belief and attachment (Vold et al    103).


            It is therefore evident that the two types of anomie as presented by Merton and Durkheim differ with Merton working on the overall functionalist perspective with an interest as to why the different rates of deviance differ in different societies while Durkheim refers to it as a situation where cultural norms break down as a result of rapid change.

            However, it is worth noting that these two types have formed the basis upon which other theorists have built their works and they thus provide excellent explanations that can be applied in the criminal justice system.

Work cited

Agnew, Robert. Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency. 1992 .  pp 51-103

Agnew, Robert, and Nikos Passas. The Future of Anomie Theory. Northeastern

University Press. 1997. pp 122-127

Broidy, Lisa. A Test of General Strain Theory. Criminology. 2001. pp 9-31.

Curran, Daniel, and Claire Renzetti. Theories of Crime. Allyn and Bacon. . 2001. pp 68-79

Durkheim, Emile. The Division of Labor. The Free Press. [1893] 1964 pp 54-94

Merton, Robert. Social Theory and Structure, revised and enlarged edition. The Free

Press of Glencoe. . 1957. pp 54-99

Paternoster, Raymond, and Paul Mazerolle. General Strain Theory and Delinquency: a

Replication and Extension. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

Shoemaker, Donald Theories of Delinquency: An Examination of Explanations of

Delinquent Behavior. Oxford University Press.  2005. pp 33-97

Vold, George, Thomas Bernard, and Jeffrey Snipes. Theoretical Criminology. Oxford

University Press. 2002. pp12-103

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