Section 6.2: Anomie and Strain Theories

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In the realm of criminology, understanding why crime occurs is as crucial as knowing how it happens. Two pivotal theories that shed light on this ‘why’ are Anomie and Strain Theories. Anomie Theory, introduced by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, revolves around the concept of ‘anomie’ or a state of normlessness. In simple terms, when societal norms break down or are unclear, it can lead to social instability and an increase in deviant behavior, including crime. This happens because individuals no longer have clear guidelines on what is acceptable behavior, leading to confusion and conflict.

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Strain Theory, developed by Robert K. Merton, builds upon Durkheim’s concept. Merton’s perspective was that society sets out certain goals (like wealth or success) but does not provide equal means for everyone to achieve these goals. This disparity creates a ‘strain’ or pressure on individuals, particularly those who lack the means to achieve societal goals through legitimate ways. As a result, some individuals may turn to crime as an alternative way to fulfill their aspirations.

Both Anomie and Strain Theories offer critical insights into the sociological aspects of criminal behavior, emphasizing the role of societal structure and pressures in influencing individual actions. They remind us that crime is not just an individual issue but one deeply rooted in the broader social context, highlighting the importance of examining societal norms and inequalities to understand criminal behavior fully.

Historical Background and Development

Understanding the historical context of Anomie and Strain Theories is key to grasping their relevance in criminology. The origins of Anomie Theory date back to the late 19th century, introduced by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim used the term ‘anomie’ to describe a state of societal normlessness, where there is a lack of clear guidelines for behavior or a mismatch between societal goals and the means to achieve them. He observed this condition in times of rapid social change or upheaval, noting that it led to a rise in deviance and criminal behavior. For Durkheim, anomie was not just a personal state but a symptom of a malfunctioning society.

Fast forward to the mid-20th century, American sociologist Robert K. Merton expanded on Durkheim’s concept to develop Strain Theory. Merton observed that in a society like the United States, there was a cultural emphasis on achieving success, primarily measured in material wealth. However, not everyone in society had equal access to the legitimate means (like education and employment opportunities) to achieve these goals. This discrepancy created a ‘strain’ between societal expectations and realistic opportunities, particularly affecting those in lower socio-economic strata.

Merton argued that this strain led individuals to adapt in various ways: conforming, innovating (often through criminal means), ritualizing, retreating, or rebelling. His adaptation of Durkheim’s concept of anomie to Strain Theory provided a framework to understand the relationship between societal structure, individual aspirations, and criminal behavior. It highlighted how societal pressures and inequalities play a crucial role in fostering criminal activity, a concept that continues to resonate in understanding contemporary crime.

This development from Durkheim’s Anomie to Merton’s Strain Theory underscores a significant evolution in sociological thought, emphasizing the impact of societal structure on individual behavior and laying a foundational premise for modern criminology.

Core Concepts of Anomie Theory

At the heart of Anomie Theory lies the concept of social norms and their breakdown. Social norms are like invisible rules that guide our behavior in society, telling us what is acceptable or unacceptable. Imagine a world where these rules suddenly disappear or become unclear. This is where ‘anomie’ steps in. Anomie occurs in situations where society fails to provide consistent guidance to individuals, leading to confusion, frustration, and a sense of disconnection. For example, during economic crises or rapid social changes, traditional norms and values may no longer hold, leaving people uncertain about how to behave.

Emile Durkheim, the architect of this theory, believed that anomie was more than just individual confusion; it was a symptom of a deeper problem within society. According to Durkheim, when societal norms weaken or change too rapidly without clear replacements, it creates a gap between expectations and reality. This gap can lead to a sense of aimlessness and moral uncertainty. Durkheim argued that such conditions are fertile ground for deviance and criminal behavior. Without the anchor of strong social norms, people may resort to crime as a response to the lack of direction and the frustration stemming from unmet expectations.

In Durkheim’s perspective, anomie is not just a personal issue but a societal one. It signifies a collective state where the social fabric is weakened, and the bond between individuals and society is strained, leading to an increase in crime and deviance. This theory helped shift the focus of criminology from individual pathologies to the role of societal structures in influencing criminal behavior.

Core Concepts of Strain Theory

Strain Theory, as redefined by Robert K. Merton, offers a nuanced perspective on how societal structures can influence individuals to engage in criminal behavior. Merton adapted Durkheim’s concept of anomie, placing it within the context of American society, characterized by the ‘American Dream’—a cultural belief in the possibility of success and prosperity through hard work. Merton observed that while this dream promoted ambitious goals, such as wealth and status, not everyone in society had equal opportunities to achieve these legally. This mismatch between culturally approved goals and accessible, legitimate means creates a ‘strain’ or pressure, leading some to resort to deviance and crime as alternative means to achieve these goals.

Merton identified five modes of individual adaptation to this strain:

Conformity: This is the most common response. Individuals who conform continue to strive for cultural goals using socially accepted means, even if their chances of success are slim. They follow the rules, believing in the system’s fairness.

Innovation: Innovators also pursue societal goals but use illegitimate means when they cannot access legitimate pathways. This mode is closely associated with criminal behavior, like theft or fraud, to achieve financial success.

Ritualism: Ritualists abandon the societal goals but rigidly adhere to the socially approved means. They might stick to a mundane job with no hope of advancement, clinging to routines and rules as a way of life.

Retreatism: Retreatists reject both societal goals and the means to achieve them. They often retreat into a world of escapism, potentially through substance abuse or vagrancy, withdrawing from society’s race for success.

Rebellion: Rebels reject both the established goals and means, seeking to replace them with new ones. They often aim for a drastic change in society, sometimes through revolutionary actions or by creating countercultures.

Each of these adaptations represents a different response to the strain caused by societal pressures and the lack of legitimate opportunities. Merton’s Strain Theory underscores that not just personal choices but also the social and economic structure profoundly influence people’s paths, including their potential turn towards crime.

Modern Applications and Examples

Anomie and Strain Theories remain highly relevant in analyzing contemporary societal issues, particularly in understanding how economic disparity and the digital divide contribute to crime and deviance. These theories help explain the motivations behind certain criminal behaviors in today’s rapidly changing world.

Economic Disparity: Economic inequality is a prime example of how Strain Theory applies in modern society. When wealth and success are highly valued, but the opportunity to achieve them is unequally distributed, it creates strain for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. For instance, individuals in impoverished neighborhoods might turn to illegal activities like drug trafficking or theft as a way to achieve financial success, a path influenced by limited legitimate opportunities. This reflects Merton’s concept of ‘innovation’, where societal goals are pursued through illegitimate means due to obstructed access to conventional paths.

The Digital Divide: The rise of the digital age has created a new form of disparity—the digital divide. This term refers to the gap between those who have access to digital and information technology and those who do not. Strain Theory can be applied here, where individuals lacking digital access might engage in cybercrime as a means to overcome their disadvantage or achieve certain goals, like financial gain or social status. For example, someone might engage in hacking or online fraud as a means to gain quick wealth, especially when they feel excluded from the benefits of the digital economy.

These examples demonstrate how Anomie and Strain Theories can be used to understand contemporary issues beyond traditional economic contexts. They illustrate the ongoing importance of these theories in explaining the relationship between societal structures, individual aspirations, and criminal behavior, making them vital tools in the field of modern criminology.

Critiques and Limitations

While Anomie and Strain Theories have significantly contributed to the understanding of criminal behavior, they are not without critiques and limitations. One of the main criticisms of both theories is their potential oversimplification of criminal behavior.

Oversimplification of Criminal Behavior: Critics argue that these theories may oversimplify the complex nature of criminal behavior by primarily attributing it to societal pressures and economic disparities. This perspective can overlook other critical factors, such as individual psychological traits, family background, and personal choice. For example, not all individuals under economic strain resort to crime, and not all criminals come from strained socioeconomic backgrounds. This suggests that additional factors play a role in the decision to engage in criminal behavior, which these theories might not fully account for.

Limitations in Application: Another significant limitation is the challenge of applying these theories universally across different social and cultural contexts. Anomie and Strain Theories were primarily developed based on Western, particularly American, societal structures. However, societal norms, values, and definitions of success can vary greatly across different cultures and societies. For instance, the concept of success and the means of achieving it might be vastly different in a collectivist society compared to a capitalist one. Therefore, the application of these theories might not be as relevant or accurate in non-Western societies.

Furthermore, these theories primarily focus on economic factors and may not adequately address other types of crimes, such as those motivated by passion, hate, or psychological disorders. This limitation highlights the need for a more holistic approach that incorporates various dimensions, including economic, social, psychological, and cultural factors, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of criminal behavior.

In conclusion, while Anomie and Strain Theories provide valuable insights into the relationship between societal structure and crime, they are not all-encompassing. Acknowledging their critiques and limitations is crucial for a more nuanced and inclusive approach to studying criminal behavior.


In exploring Anomie and Strain Theories, we have delved into the sociological perspectives that view crime and deviance as products of societal structures and pressures. Anomie Theory, introduced by Emile Durkheim, highlights the chaos and normlessness that can ensue from rapid societal changes or the breakdown of social norms. Robert K. Merton’s Strain Theory builds on this by emphasizing the tension between societal goals and the means available to achieve them. Merton’s theory, particularly relevant in the context of the American Dream, illustrates how individuals adapt to this strain in various ways, ranging from conformity to innovation and rebellion.

These theories collectively offer a lens through which to view crime not just as an individual failing but as a reflection of broader societal dynamics. They underscore the importance of understanding the societal context in which criminal behavior occurs, particularly the roles of economic disparity and the digital divide in modern society.

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Last Modified:  01/29/2024

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