Anomie and Crime Research Paper

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For over a century, anomie theory has had a profound impact on the direction of sociological criminology. Originally emerging in classical social thought as an analytical tool to study how broadly defined social conditions influence normative regulation and rates of deviant behavior, anomie theory has been applied and extended in different directions, guiding macrolevel research on societal crime rates as well as microlevel research on individual differences in crime. This research paper reviews the theoretical and empirical work on anomie and crime, starting with the classic theoretical propositions and then moving on to contemporary extensions and applications.

Classic Anomie Theory

Anomie is introduced as an analytical tool for studying the social causes of deviance in the writings of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Focusing on the structural bases for social organization, Durkheim ([1893] 1984) first uses the anomie concept in his classic work The Division of Labor in Society to refer to situations when society fails to provide the appropriate cultural regulatory codes – normative values and beliefs – that are necessary to regulate the cooperation of individuals in complex societies. “Equilibrium” between different parts of the social system, Durkheim (p. 301) writes, requires “predetermined rules of conduct” entailing “rights and duties” that are “obligatory” and applicable in “most common circumstances.” In a state of anomie, that is, when normative values are weak, irrelevant, or absent, cooperation becomes unstable and rife with conflict.

In Suicide, Durkheim ([1897] 1951) extends anomie theory to study the consequences of social disruption for well-being and deviant behavior. Emphasizing that human aspirations lack biological limits, Durkheim argues that normative values are necessary to define and restrain the desires of individuals so that they can become achievable by the means available to them. “A regulative force must play the same role for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs” (p. 248). Thus, Durkheim assumes that under “normal” conditions, social values are in place that convince most individuals that they are getting what they should and that they are not justified in wanting more. These include, for example, commonly accepted standards that members of different social classes can legitimately aspire to as well as rules specifying how they can legitimately attain their social positions (pp. 250–251). In a state of anomie, society fails to produce normative values to restrain the aspirations of many individuals who may experience limitless and unattainable aspirations, resulting in disappointment and frustration that increases suicide and deviant behavior (p. 293).

Durkheim goes on to discuss the social conditions causing anomie in modern society, all of which he regards as temporary by-products of modernization. First, the weakening of traditional institutions such as religion and marriage constitutes a fertile ground for anomie, since the main function of such institutions is to provide moral regulation of goals and behavior. Thus, for example, the institution of marriage regulates desire for love and sex, but a high divorce rate weakens this regulatory power, as it makes married individuals aware of other possibilities (Durkheim [1897] 1951, p. 271). Linked to the weakening of traditional institutions is the increasing dominance of the market economy in the society, which Durkheim sees as a major source of anomie. Increasingly unregulated by religion and other traditional institutions, the sphere of “trade and industry” promotes a cultural orientation of materialism that not only encourages overweening ambition but represents it “as a mark of moral distinction” (p. 257). For Durkheim, the disposition of excessive materialism and unlimited want emerging in the economic sphere extends to other parts of society, further undermining the moral authority of traditional institutions.

Second, Durkheim ([1893] 1984, pp. 310–322; [1897] 1951, pp. 250–251) provides a link between anomie and distributive justice, arguing that since unequal opportunity contradicts the cultural ideals justifying inequality in modern society, it may cause anomie. Again, cultural restraint on ambition is efficient insofar that it makes individuals believe that they are not justified in asking for more. Since equal opportunity is widely accepted as the just rule for the allocation of social status in modern society, social practices contradicting this principle – privilege, inheritance, and the like, which Durkheim views as remnants of traditional society – undermine people’s sense of distributive justice. Thus, when inequality is rooted in unequal opportunity, many individuals see their social positions as unjustly “forced” on them, and they thus think that they deserve something better – another case of society’s failure to place moral restraint on ambition.

Finally, Durkheim argues that abrupt changes may create a temporary state of anomie. Normative values change only slowly because they emerge only in repeated social interaction. Thus, slowly changing normative values will fail to limit aspirations if they do not correspond with a rapidly changing social reality. For example, in modern society, economic fluctuations routinely disrupt the connection between social reality and normative values. Thus, a sudden depression casts many individuals into worse conditions than they have internalized as just, while sudden growth raises prosperity so rapidly that existing standards can become irrelevant but “a new scale cannot be immediately improvised” ([1897] 1951, p. 253). In both cases, normative regulation of aspirations is temporarily weakened due to rapid change, resulting in widespread disappointment and frustration.

Merton’s Anomie Theory

Durkheim’s discussion of anomie has influenced criminological research, particularly through the extension of Robert K. Merton (1938). While Durkheim sees anomie as the consequence of social change, Merton uses the anomie concept to explain how stable features of contemporary societies influence criminal behavior. Merton focuses on a malintegration within and between two fundamental components of society: cultural structure and social structure. Cultural structure comprises two distinct sets of commonly held normative values governing the behavior of individuals: values regulating goals, and values regulating the means of achieving goals. Social structure by contrast refers to ongoing patterns of social relationships and positions. Merton assumes that in a well-integrated society, the cultural structure strikes a rough balance between its emphasis on goals and means, that is, various social mechanisms are in place that sanction individuals roughly equally for striving for normative goals and for using normative means to do so. Moreover, a well-integrated society comprises a social structure providing avenues for most individuals to achieve valued goals via normative means.

However, disjunctions can emerge among these elements: On the cultural level, a disjunction may emerge between the relative emphasis placed on goals versus means. Moreover, the social structure may not offer opportunities for many individuals to achieve normative goals using normative means. Merton focuses on the United States as a prime example of a society characterized by such disjunctions. On the one hand, its cultural structure overemphasizes goal achievement, placing a pressure on all individuals to strive for economic success but placing comparatively little pressure on individuals to use legitimate means to achieve such success. Thus, there are more social rewards for achieving economic success than for playing by the rules, creating an imbalance that often encourages individuals to bypass the legitimate means and “innovate,” that is, to use the most efficient means to achieve economic goals, including crime. Thus, support for the normative means is weak and only personal interest and fear of punishment are left to control behavior, which therefore increases crime and deviance.

For Merton, this cultural imbalance is manifested in the American Dream ideal that places an exaggerated value on the single goal of monetary success as a common goal for all citizens to strive for, regardless of their social background or position. The social rewards for economic success are high almost regardless of how it is attained, which leads to attenuation of the normative values regulating means, that is, to a situation of anomie, or normlessness.

On the other hand, Merton points out that the social structure of American society is characterized by economic and social inequality, and hence, the cultural mandate to strive for economic success creates strain for a large part of the population that in fact has limited access to legitimate means to achieve economic success. The reality of inequality thus creates a lack of legitimate avenues for many individuals to strive for the valued goals, creating a strain toward normlessness and crime. Individuals in the lower social strata have the most limited access to the legitimate means, and hence feel this strain most acutely. The commonly valued goal of economic success is most likely to undermine commitment to normative means among disadvantaged groups and individuals. But, in an open society, affluent members of the society provide an influential reference point for economic success, and thus, strain toward anomie and crime is also felt in the middle and even the upper middle classes where individuals may feel deprived relative to those who are more affluent than they are.

Contemporary Applications And Extensions

The statements of Durkheim and Merton have been applied and extended in several directions in crime causation research, both in macrolevel and microlevel research. First, theorists have elaborated and extended the propositions of Durkheim and Merton regarding the macrosocial conditions conducive to anomie, focusing in particular on inequality, materialism, and social change. Second, scholars have applied and revised anomie theory on the microlevel, focusing on the interrelations among socioeconomic status, goal-means disjunction, frustration, normlessness, and delinquency.

Macrolevel Applications


Based on anomie theory, particularly the extension of Blau and Blau (1982), macrolevel research has examined the association between inequality and crime, particularly violent crime. This work has interpreted anomie theory to imply that extensive economic and social inequality may increase crime in democratic societies. Again Merton emphasizes that economic inequality blocks access to legitimate opportunities for a large part of the population, producing strain as well as feelings of injustice. Moreover, extending Durkheim’s idea that unequal opportunity may lead to anomie, Blau and Blau (1982) argue that excessive inequality in democratic societies may produce widespread normlessness, resentment, and frustration, especially if it is rooted in unequal opportunity.

Thus, anomie theory implies that the effect of economic inequality on crime should be more pronounced in cultures emphasizing economic goals and equal opportunity. In such contexts, excessive inequality is most likely to create normlessness and resentment, due to widespread upward social comparison and relative deprivation (Stack 1984). Few studies have tested this proposition, with the exception of Krahn et al. (1986) who finds support for a more pronounced effect of inequality on homicide rates in more democratic nations, and Stack (1984) who does not find support for such a pattern in his cross-national study of property crime. More research is needed to examine how democratization contextualizes the impact of inequality on crime rates.

Research has examined whether inequality rooted in unequal opportunity increases violent crime. Again, as Durkheim implies, social practices inconsistent with equal opportunity may create a sense of distributive injustice, hence undermining normative regulation and creating widespread resentment, frustration, and conflict in the society (Blau and Blau 1982; see Messner 1989). Blau and Blau (1982, p. 119) examined metropolitan areas in the United States and separated the statistical effects of economic inequality and black-white inequality on violent crime rates. Blau and Blau argued that while economic inequality should generally increase normlessness and frustration, racially based inequality should do so in particular, as socioeconomic inequalities associated with ascribed positions are condemned as illegitimate in democratic societies. In support, the study found that economic inequality and black-white inequality both influence violent crime rates. Messner (1989) has provided cross-national evidence on this point, showing that nations with a high level of economic discrimination against social groups (e.g., ethnic minorities) have higher homicide rates, net of economic inequality. Finally, Chamlin and Cochran (2006) studied homicide rates among 33 nations and found that a measure of citizens’ perception of the illegitimacy of social stratification has a positive effect on the homicide rate, but the effect held only for highly modernized societies.

Materialism And Social Institutions

Messner and Rosenfeld’s (2007) institutional anomie theory elaborates and extends the classic idea that excessive materialism breeds anomie. Institutional anomie theory situates anomie in the context of the broad institutional framework of society, seeing it resulting from (as well as exacerbating) an imbalance among the major social institutions: economy, polity, education, and family. These major social institutions entail different orientations and sometimes competing claims. The key argument is that when the institutional balance of power is tilted toward the economy, that is, when the values of the economy are given higher priority than noneconomic values, crime rates increase (American society is discussed as a case in point).

The reason is that the dominance of economic values undermines normative regulation (that is, increases anomie) as well as informal social control. First, the cultural dominance of the value-orientations of the market economy, namely, pursuit of self-interest, attraction to monetary rewards, and competition, breeds the type of cultural disjuncture that Merton sees in the American Dream, namely, the cultural overemphasis on economic goals coupled with relatively weak emphasis on normative means. Second, the dominance of the economy weakens the moral authority of noneconomic institutions. For example, individuals receive more social rewards, such as prestige, for performing economic roles than noneconomic roles, and they frequently feel a pressure to give priority to economic roles (e.g., to skip family dinner so that they can work overtime). The regulatory functions of noneconomic institutions are thus weakened, reducing their crucial function in providing informal social control through socialization and social sanctions.

In recent years, institutional anomie theory has inspired macrolevel research on whether crime rates are influenced by the relative strength of economic and noneconomic institutions. The theory has been tested in cross-national research by treating low welfare state spending as an indicator of economic dominance in the society. Consistent with the theory, such research finds that welfare state spending is associated with less violent crime (Messner and Rosenfeld 1997), and it reduces the positive effect of economic inequality on violent crime (Savolainen 2000).

Most tests of institutional anomie theory have examined crime rates across states and counties within a single society, mostly within the United States. Measuring the strength of noneconomic institutions with data on divorce, voter turnout, civic engagement, educational and welfare expenditure, and the like, this research generally finds lower crime rates in places characterized by stronger noneconomic institutions (Maume and Lee 2003). Moreover, strong noneconomic institutions appear to decrease the crime-enhancing effects of poverty (Chamlin and Cochran 1995).

Social Change

Durkheim’s idea that social change can cause anomie has prompted cross-national research to examine the association between modernization, social change, and crime. For example, researchers have recently used the opportunity to test anomie theory by focusing on the crime-enhancing effect of the social transition from communism to capitalism in Russia (Pridemore et al. 2007), Eastern Europe (Zhao and Cao 2010), and China (Liu 2005).

For example, Pridemore et al. (2007) examined changes in crime rates in transitional Russia, noting that Russia in the 1990s and 2000s provides a unique large-scale natural experiment to test Durkheim’s thesis. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the beginning of the 1990s, the society was suddenly converted from communism into a market society, celebrating ideals of open competition and individual achievement. The sudden political and economic changes were not accompanied by comparable institutional changes, thus the “legal, political, regulatory, and social institutions necessary for a properly functioning market economy were and continue to be underdeveloped in the country” (p. 275). As Durkheim’s theory would predict, Pridemore et al. find huge increases in rates of crime, suicide, and alcoholrelated deaths in Russia during this period.

The Missing Element Of Social Values

An important limitation associated with macrolevel research on anomie theory is the common failure to include direct measures of normative values. None of the aforementioned studies directly show that the effects of structural factors (inequality, economic dominance, social change) on crime are actually mediated by normative deregulation. One way to overcome this problem is to combine the use of survey data and official statistics, but such research has been rare. Baumer and Gustafson (2007) examined county-level crime rates in the United States, using aggregated survey responses to examine normative values in combination with social structural factors. Supporting anomie theory, the study found higher crime rates in counties characterized by the particular cultural disjuncture discussed by Merton, namely, strong average commitment to economic success and weak average commitment to legitimate means. Moreover, consistent with Messner and Rosenfeld, the tendency for goals-means disjuncture to increase crime was less pronounced in counties characterized by more family socializing and more welfare assistance. Finally, consistent with Merton, commitment to economic goals had a more pronounced effect on crime in counties where legitimate means are more limited and unequal (indicated by low levels of educational and economic attainment and high levels of inequality).

Multilevel Approaches

Baumer (2007) has argued that since anomie theory implies links among sociocultural elements, individual attitudes and experiences, and criminal behavior, a comprehensive test of it requires a multilevel research strategy connecting grouplevel and individual-level data. Multilevel tests of anomie theory have been rare, however, with the exception of a few recent studies. Zhao and Cao (2010) combined survey data and official data and examined the effect of national residence on the experience of normlessness. Normlessness was measured with survey items asking respondents what they felt about the legitimacy of several instrumental crime-related scenarios. The study found citizens of Eastern European countries, which at the time were undergoing rapid democratic transition, to exhibit more normlessness than citizens of other countries (also, see Bjarnason 2009). Finally, a multilevel study by Cao et al. (2009) found more normlessness in countries with the most rapid population growth in recent decades, again supporting the idea that swift social change is conducive to anomie.

Microlevel Applications

Although classic anomie theory defines anomie as a societal-level condition and emphasizes the effects of macrosocial conditions on crime rates, it has implications for microlevel research on individual engagement in crime. Merton’s discussion of how a cultural emphasis on economic goals creates strain for individuals has been applied, extended, and revised as microlevel strain theory. Also, anomie theory has guided research on the role of value commitments (and lack thereof) in crime and delinquency.

Classic Strain And Subculture Formation

Early extensions of classic strain theory attempted to integrate it with subculture theories. Cohen (1955) argued that the emergence of delinquent subcultures among low class youths can be seen as a collective response, a type of subcultural adaptation, to structural strain. That is, strained youths collectively adapt to the perception of blocked opportunities for conventional success by developing an alternative status system revolving around the subversion of conventional norms. Cohen’s idea of subcultural adaptation to strain is not easily studied with quantitative data, but the notion that youths adapt to blocked opportunities by collectively creating a status system that defies common norms is consistent with qualitative studies on troubled working class kids (Willis 1977).

Cloward (1959) provides a different link between anomie and subculture theory by emphasizing that access to illegitimate opportunities is unevenly distributed in the society just like access to legitimate opportunities. Criminal behavior often requires and is greatly enhanced by illegitimate opportunities, that is, exposure to criminal networks and groups that entail social learning mechanisms (techniques, attitudes, etc.) as well as access to social networks that allow individuals to profit from crime. Association with criminal groups may thus explain why some individuals adapt to structural strain by engaging in crime. In subsequent work, Cloward and Ohlin (1964) argued that low class youths are differently exposed to criminal opportunity structures in their neighborhoods, and hence adapt differently to strain. Some low class youths are raised in neighborhoods characterized by a well-developed illegitimate opportunity structure, a tradition of criminal behavior that integrates criminal activity and conventional business activity. These youths are exposed to opportunities to learn and use illegal means for their advantage, and hence are more likely to adapt to strain with utilitarian criminal behavior. Conversely, low class youths in neighborhoods with no legitimate or illegitimate opportunities tend to adapt to strain by forming subcultures of violence and vandalism.

Limited research has examined how illegitimate opportunities may specify the effect of strain on crime. Hoffman and Ireland (2004) examined whether the influence of strain on adolescent delinquency was contingent on school-level opportunity structure (as indicated by the school-levels of delinquency, delinquent values, school problems, and school quality). The study found that classic strain (measured as the disjunction between personal economic goals and perceived educational opportunities) was positively associated with delinquency, but it did not support Cloward and Ohlin as the effect of strain was not contingent on school-level opportunity structure.

Classic Strain And Individual Criminal Behavior

Most research on strain theory has focused more narrowly on the individual-level effect of strain on criminal behavior, usually examining juvenile delinquency. The research literature is characterized by different methods of operationalizing classic strain. A common strategy has been to assume that individuals are differently committed to the goal of economic success, and will therefore respond differently to blocked opportunities for success. Thus, having high success aspirations and low expectations for success should increase engagement in crime and delinquency more than, say, having low aspirations and low expectations. But, support for this hypothesis is weak and appears to depend on the way in which aspirations and expectations are operationalized. Thus, studies have found little support for the hypothesis that juveniles with high educational aspirations but low educational expectations are more delinquent than others (Liska 1971). But, as Farnworth and Leiber (1989) argue, examining the dysjunction between economic aspirations and educational expectations may be more consistent with Merton’s emphasis on the strain stemming from the cultural emphasis on economic success. Their study and others (Hoffman and Ireland 2004) find that having both high economic goals and low educational expectations is associated with increased adolescent delinquency.

Other studies have operationalized classic strain by focusing on expectations of success, assuming that most individuals value the goal of economic success. This work generally finds a positive effect of low expectations on delinquency (Menard 1995), but the association may be spurious due to missing variables from social control and social learning theories (Burton et al. 1994).

Agnew et al. (1996) propose a different approach to test classic strain theory. Instead of focusing only on aspirations and expectations, Agnew et al. argue that classic strain may be directly operationalized by measuring the individual’s subjective dissatisfaction with his or her monetary status. Agnew et al. found that low socioeconomic status is in fact positively associated with dissatisfaction with monetary status. Furthermore, net of socioeconomic status, both high economic goals and low expectations about future economic success, was positively associated with monetary dissatisfaction, net of socioeconomic status. In turn, dissatisfaction with monetary status was associated with income-generating crime and drug use. Finally, the effect of dissatisfaction on crime was stronger among those having criminal friends and those having beliefs conducive to crime, lending support for the role of illegitimate opportunity in enhancing the effect of classic strain on delinquency.

Menard (1995) has tested classic strain theory by including a measure of normlessness, or “anomia,” which is measured with questions about the individual’s expectancy that socially unapproved behaviors are necessary to achieve one’s goals. Among other findings, Menard found low socioeconomic status to positively influence adolescent anomia, in part through the negative effects of socioeconomic status on educational performance and expectations of success. In turn, anomia was associated with delinquency. Menard’s findings support classic strain theory, indicating that limited access to legitimate means is conducive to anomia and involvement in crime.

Finally, researchers have operationalized classic strain by focusing on relative deprivation as a key social-psychological mechanism through which the cultural-structural discrepancies, described by Merton, produce anger, normlessness, and crime. As Passas (1997) has argued, in societies characterized by egalitarianism and economic materialism, reference group comparisons tend to be focused upward, with many individuals in the lower and middle classes experiencing anger and injustice due to unfavorable comparisons to more affluent members of the society. Guided by this view, researchers have found that measures of subjective relative deprivation, that is, the individual’s frustration about other people being more economically successful than they are, positively influences delinquency, regardless of socioeconomic position (Agnew et al. 1996; Baron 2004; Stiles et al. 2000). In a multilevel study of adolescents, Bernburg et al. (2009) argued that economic deprivation should have a more pronounced positive effect on adolescent anger, normlessness, delinquency, and violent behavior in affluent neighborhoods (where comparisons of poor youths to other residents are highly unfavorable) than in impoverished affluent neighborhoods (where comparisons of poor youths to other residents are more favorable). The study found evidence of such a pattern, thus supporting the criminogenic role of relative deprivation.

General Strain Theory

In recent years, the revisionary work of Robert Agnew has led research on the strain-crime link to move away from anomie/classic strain theory to focusing more generally on the criminogenic effects of all categories of social strain. Agnew’s (1992) general strain theory broadens the focus of strain theory at the social-psychological level and attempts to incorporate all major types of potentially criminogenic social strains. Specifically, the theory focuses on three major categories of social strain. First, building on classic strain theory, it emphasizes that strain may stem from actual or anticipated failure to achieve positively valued goals. This type of strain includes the failure to achieve culturally valued economic goals (classic strain), but it also includes strain stemming from a failure to achieve various other valued goals, such as being popular or getting good grades. Second, actual or anticipated removal of positively valued stimuli may cause strain, for example, loss of a parent or a friend. The third type of strain is the presence of noxious stimuli, such as being the victim of violence or sexual abuse.

Each of these strains may trigger negative emotions, including disappointment, fear, and anger. The theory focuses on anger in particular. Anger presumably increases the individual’s level of felt injury, creates a desire for retaliation, energizes the individual for action, and lowers inhibitions, and hence increases the likelihood of delinquent behavior. In short, the theory argues that the three major types of social strains increase the likelihood of delinquency because strain often triggers anger and frustration. Finally, the theory argues that various social and personal factors are likely to determine whether strain leads individuals to engage in delinquency, for example, value commitments, social bonding, and involvement in delinquent associations or networks.

Due to the social-psychological focus of general strain theory, research on it rarely attempts to link strain with macrosociological issues, but its broader view of social strain has added to our understanding of the role of social strain in delinquency. Studies show that various types of social strain increase juvenile delinquency, including negative life events, conflict with parents, parental fighting, and that such effects are conditioned by factors such as association with delinquent peers and having values that are conducive to delinquency (Baron 2004; Brezina 1996).


While classic anomie theory implies that strain and frustration plays a role in crime and delinquency, it also implicates personal commitment (or lack of commitment) to social values as an important factor in deviance (see Bernard 1987). Again anomie refers to situations where social values do not provide sufficient control of the thoughts and behaviors of individuals. Nevertheless, microlevel applications and extensions of anomie theory have not focused much on commitment to social values (Bernard 1987).

But there are noteworthy exceptions. Hagan et al. (1998) argue that the core values of the market economy, namely, the emphasis on competition and individual achievement, can promote an excessive emphasis on individual self-interest that in turn is conducive to anomic amorality (lack of personal commitment to normative means) and delinquency. Building on this idea, Konty (2005) has termed the concept of “microanomie.” Konty argues that individuals may be imbalanced in terms of their commitment to values that promote socialinterest (self-transcendent values) and values that promote self-interest (self-enhancing values). When individuals are more strongly committed to self-enhancing values than to self-transcending values, they are in a state of microanomie. Microanomie is criminogenic in that it encourages individuals to pursue self-interested goals by using any means necessary. Konty implies that microanomie should be more prevalent in societies characterized by the dominance of the economy in the institutional balance of power, as Messner and Rosenfeld’s institutional anomie theory suggests. Although providing no evidence for this macro– micro link, Konty’s study confirms a positive association between microanomie and delinquency.

It may be noted that research based on social control theories has also attempted to measure individual normlessness. But in contrast to anomie/strain theory that sees normlessness resulting from blocked goals, social control theory argues that weak social bonds undermine commitment to normative values because they constitute channels for communicating and reinforcing normative values as well as entailing social sanctions for norm violations (Bernburg and Thorlindsson 2007). Research has underscored the role of weak social bonds and neighborhood networks in adolescent normlessness and delinquency (Bernburg and Thorlindsson 2007). Also, neighborhood research has relied on the normlessness concept arguing that the concentration of disadvantage in the neighborhood can lead to the “attenuation” of normative values. As Warner (2003, p. 76) has argued, disadvantaged residents are less likely to “live out and thereby reinforce within their communities many of society’s common values,” rendering cultural values less present in their everyday lives. Attenuation of culture decreases residents’ willingness to exert informal control of places and property, due to mistrust stemming from the perception of low normative commitment of others.

White-Collar And Business Crime

Criminologists have yet to make full use of anomie theory in studying white-collar and business crime, but this perspective appears to be well suited for studying these topics. Building on Durkheim’s idea that modern economic life promotes an exaggerated materialism leading to limitless monetary aspirations that breed anomie, anomie scholars have emphasized that strain toward anomie and crime exists in all social strata (Passas 1990, 1997). Passas (1990) has argued that in capitalist societies, egalitarian values and materialism jointly promote upward social comparisons and feelings of relative deprivation in all social classes: “the meaning and content of success goals vary from one part of the social structure to another, similar difficulties in attaining diversely defined goals may be faced by people in the upper social reaches too; they are, therefore, far from immune to pressures toward deviance” (p. 159). Indeed, the cultural emphasis on economic success is particularly salient in the corporate world. Scholars have suggested that the overemphasis on economic goals may have important effects on the ethical climate within business organizations, for example, by promoting organizational cultures that rationalize and neutralize crime and unethical conduct.

There is limited research that has directly applied anomie theory to white-collar, corporate, and business crime, but noteworthy exceptions (e.g., Vaughan 1997) indicate the usefulness of this approach. Criminological research needs to move beyond its usual focus on delinquency and street crime in order to examine the full range of the explanatory power of anomie theory. Perhaps events such as the global financial crisis of 2008 will prompt criminologists to devote more attention to developing research strategies to study these issues.


Anomie theory brings attention to the ways in which macrosocial forces influence the power of social values and norms in constraining the behavior of individuals, thus highlighting macrolevel as well as microlevel mechanisms in criminal behavior. Consistent with anomie theory, macrolevel research finds support for the role of social and economic inequality, economic dominance, and abrupt social change in societal crime rates. However, this research is limited in that it has usually failed to examine the role of social values (or lack of values) in mediating the effects of these features on crime rates. Recent attempts to use survey data to measure social values are promising, and will hopefully prompt future macrolevel research on anomie and crime to incorporate measures of social values.

Anomie theory has inspired different methodological and theoretical strategies to capture the individual-level manifestation of anomie. Scholars have focused on the role of opportunities and subculture in specifying how individuals adapt to blocked opportunities, and they have argued that anomie results in individual strain that can be measured by focusing on goals-means dysjunction, perception of limited life chances, relative deprivation, and subjective dissatisfaction with monetary status. Finally, researchers have examined how lacking normative restraint – anomia, normlessness, microanomie – influences criminal behavior. The variety of approaches at the individual-level bears witness to the fact that the broad social forces emphasized by anomie theory can be thought to impact crime through different social and psychological mechanisms. As each of these methods provides at least some support for the validity of these mechanisms, strain and anomie theories will continue to guide research on individual differences in crime. More research is needed on how broad social forces influence these microlevel mechanisms. Multilevel research linking the macro- and microlevels is likely to be especially valuable in providing full tests of anomie theory.


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