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Durkheim’s idea of Anomie
Durkheim studied various components of society in order to understand how each part related to another. This was an attempt to look at society and establish how it works. A stable society operates smoothly with its functional, social arrangements.
Such a society reflects consensus, cohesion and cooperation. Conversely, if arrangements of a society threaten the social order, then a society is dysfunctional. For instance, a class-oriented community is always in conflict (Durkheim, 1982).
Durkheim developed a structural-functionalist perspective in order to understand abnormalities of society and crime. Durkheim believed that explanation for an individual’s misconduct does not lie with him or her, but with the group and social organisation a person belongs to in society.
In this regard, Durkheim introduced the idea of “anomie” i.e. “the breakdown of social order as a result of the loss of standards and values” (Durkheim, 1982).
Durkheim tries to analyse effects of social changes in society. As a simple society progresses into modernisation, relations required to maintain a common set of norms reduces.
Fragmentation of groups occurs, and when common rules are missing, expectations of different groups in society may differ with those of other people in another group. Behaviours become unpredictable, and systems gradually collapse creating a society in a state of anomie (Agnew, 1992).
People occupying disorganised inner-city feel isolated, frustrated, separated from the mainstream economy, despair and finally express annoyance. These feelings results into criminal activities.
According to strain theory scholars, crime results directly from hopeless and despair, and annoyance among the low-income members of the society (Akers, 2009).
This is because chances of achieving personal success depend on a stratified socioeconomic class. The upper class does not experience much strain because it has access to vocational and educational opportunities.
Societies with disorganised structures experience strain because all means of achieving success are not available, or blocked (Mueller and Grekul, 2008). Thus, in an attempt to relieve strain, people engage in deviant behaviours like criminal activities in order to achieve their goals and values.
On the other hand, others become aggressive and tough and reject socially recognised behaviours. In short, strain theory posits that a crime occurs because lower-class citizens cannot accept these conditions and choose alternative means of achieving success, which are criminal in nature. They can also choose to live as socially responsible persons by accepting strains in society (Henslin, 2010).
Merton’s Theory of Anomie
Merton used Durkheim anomie theory to develop his theory of strain. In this regard, Merton notes that a society with class orientations has unequal distribution of opportunities that enable individuals to get to the upper class.
Thus, a few members of the lower class hardly get there. This led Merton to focus on two crucial elements in society: culturally defined goals i.e. what individuals believe are worth striving and achieving, and socially approved means of obtaining them (Merton, 1968). These elements of society relate with each other resulting into anomic conditions in society (Siegel, 2011).
Any society should strive to achieve these two conditions. A society should create means by which individuals can achieve goals that are crucial to their success in society.
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However, when there is a gap between goals and means, then frustration occurs, which causes strain. Merton’s theory looks at “criminogenic, or crime-producing nature of the interaction between social structure and socialisation processes” (Merton, 1968).
For instance, any society emphasises the goals of achieving power, wealth and success. Socially acceptable ways of achieving these goals ranges from education, hard work and wise use of resources.
Merton observes that most societies have stratified means of achieving material success across status and class lines. Therefore, individuals with no or little formal education and economic resources find out that they are unable to acquire wealth legitimately.
If goals that societies view as mandatory are the same and their access depend on the status and classes, then the occurring strains create anomie among the lower classes who have no legitimate means of accessing success. This may result into development of delinquent behaviours or criminal solutions as means of attaining goals and values (Burke, 2009).
Some scholars use Merton’s theory to analyse crime in most cities. They observe that wide disparities in income level among different classes are responsible for increasing crime rates.
Studies have also indicated that such disparities exist. In addition, the rich classes continue to acquire more wealth than their poor counterparts. In fact, there is a negligible rise in status among the lower classes.
Evaluation of Anomie Theory
Anomie theory indicates that social differences lead to perceptions of anomie. In order to resolve elements of goals and means interaction in society, some individuals resort to deviant behaviours to relieve their sense of strain. These behaviours may involve theft, drug and alcohol abuse, joining religious cults, revolutionary groups and stealing.
Scholars note that Merton’s developed theory of anomie is one of the most influential and enduring sociological theory that attempts to explain causes of crimes.
Theory shows a link between criminal behaviours and success goals that have control over an individual’s behaviour. In this context, anomie theory tries to provide an explanation for conflict which results from an individual’s frustration and criminality.
Merton’s extension of anomie theory acknowledges that society does not legitimately distribute means of achieving success. Therefore, anomie theory provides an explanation for the existence of high-crime areas and clearly illustrates a predominance criminal and delinquent behaviour among the lower class (Cohen, 1965).
Merton insists that crimes occur as consequences of social conditions, and not as a result of personalities of individuals. Many organisations adopted Merton’s theory in their attempts to reduce crimes in 20th century.
However, Merton’s theory of anomie meets some criticism with regard to types of crimes individuals commit. For instance, some individuals decide to be thieves while others choose to join religious cults.
Merton’s theory may provide explanations for differences in crime rates among different social classes. However, it offers no explanations as to why an individual may stop criminal behaviours when he or she is an adult.
These observations have created opportunities for strain theorists to ask whether perceptions of anomie declines with age.
Modes of Adaptation
Not every individual who has no means to access society’s goals and values becomes a criminal or deviant. Thus, Merton developed fives ways in which individuals try to cope with the goals and means of society.
He notes that “individuals’ modes of adaptations or responses depend on their attitudes towards cultural goals and institutional means of achieving goals” (Merton, 1968). Modes of adaptation include rebellion, conformity, retreatism, innovation, and ritualism.
These modes of adaptations do not explain why individuals choose different crimes, but they explain why crimes are higher in some groups than in others (Mueller and Grekul, 2008).
Conformity among people is the most common mode of adaptation in relations to goals and means. Mueller and Grekul observe that “individuals conform to both the culturally defined and prescribed means for achieving goals in society” (Mueller and Grekul, 2008).
For instance, in India people have conformed to the requirements of their caste systems. Consequently, individuals attend schools, work, save and follow the legitimate means of acquiring wealth.
However, not all people who conform to the requirements of society will achieve their goals. Some will excel whereas others will achieve reasonable success as others probably will not.
Innovation characters will accept the adaptation of innovation. However, they have few legitimate means of achieving their goals. Consequently, they come up with their own methods of climbing the social ladder. This category engages in criminal activities such as robbery, burglary, embezzlement, or other possible criminal activities.
Youths who have no forms of any parental restrictions are prone to deviant behaviours. These youths have no encouragement to attend school, and no means of achieving success. In turn, such youngsters turn to streets to achieve recognition.
It is crucial to note that illegitimate innovations do not only occur among the lower class but upper class too. Upper class attempts crimes related to embezzlement, manipulation of figures, evading tax payments, or sales defective materials, among other forms of crimes.
Some individuals adapt by ritualism. They abandon their earlier goals and aspirations and resign themselves to their ordinary lifestyle. This category has learnt to follow rules of society, do their middle-level jobs, or follow safe routines of achieving their present status.
This is where many workers belong. For instance, people who do a given job for more than 20 years every day, and have forgotten why they work, but except to earn a living. This group only finds relief in their vacations and holidays.
Retreatism individuals have given up all the goals and the means of achieving success. These individuals believe that they cannot make it and hence, not need to try. These people end up in drugs, alcohol, and other forms of abuses.
These people have internalised and mastered the value system and are under internal forces not to innovate. Retreatism provides an escape window for this category of individuals into non-productive and non-striving lifestyle where drugs and fate take control.
For instance, when individuals find pressure in society, they may opt out because there no acceptable opportunities. Thus, they turn to drugs and alcohol, or occult religions.
Rebellion is another mode of adaptation among members of a group. This group rejects both the cultural goals and legitimate means of achieving success.
Majorities develop their own goals by abandoning society’s established goals as well as means through protests (Cohen, 1965). This group develops their ill-defined alternative schemes and new social structures.
This is where most militia groups belong. This group has lost faith in legitimate systems of society and are trying to make their quasi-systems to define goals and means for society. This has become a leading cause of conflicts in most countries.
Tests of Merton’s Theory
Merton’s theory has provided challenges to social researchers for several decades. Merton has argued that society will find most crimes and criminals among the lower class masses because they have few opportunities of achieving their goals legitimately.
Most researchers focus on various propositions of strain theory in attempts to explain the relations between delinquent behaviours and social class. There are mixed results.
Some studies indicate string inverse association i.e. as class goes up crime rates reduce. Some scholars find no relations between these two elements of study.
Social class and crime relationships generate controversy when researchers begin using self-report questionnaires. These researchers find serious, and frequent crimes among the lower-class youths than among the upper-classes.
Other scholars note that class has no relations to crime. In addition, others clarified that class differences contributed little in explaining variation in self-reports of common, deviant behaviours.
These scholars argue that society and agents of the crime controls are likely to report crimes of lower-classes such as mugging, prostitution, drug trafficking, and assaults, among others.
On the other hand, the upper-class individuals commit white-collar crimes behind the closed doors. No one is likely to detect such crimes and report them to the police.
Hence, they are not a part of statistics police officers have that explain crime prone areas and incidences between difference classes. For instance, the police is likely to arrest a street drug peddler or a prostitute that a fellow manipulating stock figures or embezzling company’s resources behind a closed door in his or her office (Braithwaite, 1991).
Some scholars argue that connection between lower class and crime will only lead to additional questions. For instance, if disparities in social classes create crimes, then how come not every person in the lower class drop out to join militia groups, drugs and alcohol and other forms of crimes.
It is obvious not all persons in lower class engage in criminal activities. Therefore, these scholars conclude that Merton’s theory has limitations in explaining the casual relationship between crime and social class.
Agnew, R 1992, ‘Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency’, Criminology, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 47-87.
Akers, R L 2009, Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ.
Braithwaite, J 1991, ‘Poverty, Power, White-Collar Crime and the Paradoxes of Criminological Theory’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 40-58.
Burke, R H 2009, An Introduction to Criminological Theory, 3rd ed, Willan Publishing, Cullompton, Devon.
Cohen, A 1965, ‘The Sociology of the Deviant Act: A nomie Theory and Beyond’, American Sociological Review, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 5–14.
Durkheim, E 1982, Rules of the Sociological Method, Free Press, New York.
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